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Remembering George Wein, Founder Of The Newport Jazz Festival


Concert promoter George Wein has died. He was 95. If you don't know the name, you may know his work. He founded the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival. Then he launched hundreds of other music festivals around the world. And those festivals modeled the shape of live music to come.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHANG: Bassist Christian McBride is a friend of this show, host of Jazz Night In America and current artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival. Welcome.

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE: Thank you for having me, Ailsa.

CHANG: Thank you for being with us. So tell us more about who George Wein was. Like, what was he like to work with?

MCBRIDE: He loved nothing more than the musicians and the music that we all make. He was deeply in love with jazz music, with all of African American culture. But not only was he a connoisseur of jazz, but he was also a connoisseur of art.

CHANG: And I understand that those first few Newport Jazz Festivals that he put on, they already were featuring some of the all-time greats of the day, like Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington. Did he ever talk to you about what it was like at the beginning?

MCBRIDE: Sure. The jazz festival - or not even just the jazz festival, the live music festival did not exist in America before the Newport Jazz Festival. So George really was literally creating a new platform. So the only reason it broke even its first couple of years is because he had to waves his fee, his producer's fee, you know? So when you think about people like Miles and Thelonious Monk and the Modern Jazz Quartet and Billie Holiday and all of these great artists, there's this narrative that even they had trouble selling tickets and getting a festival to, like, really go into the black (laughter).

CHANG: What do you think was key to his events being so successful? What makes a George Wein event quintessentially Wein?

MCBRIDE: George - he started booking people outside of the jazz world. You know, he booked people like Chuck Berry and Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown and Led Zeppelin. You know, he made it very clear that he did that because he wanted to stay relevant with a younger generation. He knew that the jazz audience tended to be on the mature side. He was willing to be flexible and evolve like that.

CHANG: You know, you speak so movingly about George Wein's desire to expand appreciation for African American art, African American music. Did he ever bump up against pushback to those efforts, people who didn't want him to try to expand appreciation for those things?

MCBRIDE: Oh, absolutely. It's always been a very sensitive and touchy area when a non-African American is championing Black art because there's a gray area between supporting it and exploiting it. And I know that at various points in his career, George had been accused of exploiting Black art and Black musicians. But I think history has shown that all he ever wanted was for these Black artists to be appreciated on a much grander scale and to pay them as much money as they possibly could be paid.

CHANG: Christian McBride, host of the public radio program Jazz Night In America from NPR, WBGO and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Thank you so much for joining us.

MCBRIDE: What a pleasure to speak with you.


Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.