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Harlem Speaks
George Wein, Jazz Festival Impresario
June 12, 2008

George Wein is the man who is arguably the father of the jazz festivals movement. Though he is known first and foremost for his long career as a jazz producer and impresario, George Wein is also a jazz musician. Though his far-flung activities have not afforded him a full-fledged career as a performer and recording artist, he has long been an active pianist in a swing/proto-bebop mode, making tours with his own all star bands. But it is as festival pioneer, producer, and all-around impresario that George Wein has made his principle mark. His company, Festival Productions Inc., has produced jazz festivals and concerts around the globe.

Wein first studied music with the noted Margaret Chaloff in Boston, later falling under the tutelage of Teddy Wilson at Juilliard. Besides prepping as a pianist, George Wein had other ideas. He opened his first jazz club, Storyville, in Boston in 1950. One night he was approached by some wealthy residents of the resort town of Newport, R.I., who had eyes to fill what they saw as a cultural void during the summer months in their adopted community. Wein was keenly interested in the possibilities and was engaged as the producer of the first Newport Jazz Festival, established in 1954. The idea of staging a major jazz event with multiple acts on consecutive days had never quite coalesced the way the Newport Jazz Festival did it, and Wein was off and running.

Places as unlikely as a small town Indiana eventually sought Wein's skills at putting together these festivals, and overseas opportunities beckoned as well. Later the Newport Jazz Festival gave birth to the Newport Folk Festival, and Wein had established a cottage industry. He also produced jazz concerts at major events including the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. In 1960, Wein established Festival Productions Inc. and went on to produce the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival in Cincinnati, the Boston Globe Jazz Festival, the Hampton Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice, France, and the Playboy Jazz Festival, first in Chicago and later in L.A., where it continues.

In 1971, unruly crowds and the subsequent police action forced Wein to temporarily abandon Newport, R.I. and move his festival to New York. There he pioneered the concept of corporate underwriting of jazz festivals, first with the Kool Jazz Festival series, more recently with his JVC Jazz Festival series. As a record producer he helmed the George Wein Collection of recordings for the Concord label in 1983. His festival production enterprise has topped out at nearly 30 events, in the U.S., Europe and Japan.

Among George Wein's honors are two separate White House anniversary celebrations of his Newport Jazz Festival, during the Carter and Clinton administrations. He has received numerous honorary degrees and awards and the DownBeat Lifetime Achievement Award.

Though he sold his Festival Productions company, Geroge Wein remains active. He also serves on the executive boards of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Apollo Theatre Foundation and Carnegie Hall. In addition to carrying on this work, he is an author, whose autobiography Myself Among Others was recognized by the Jazz Journalists Association as 2004's best book about jazz, and continues to perform as a pianist, touring the United States, Europe and Japan with his group, the Newport All-Stars.

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