George Wein: Back to Doing His Thing

R.J. DeLuke By

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Not many people stand in shoes similar to the ones in which jazz impresario George Wein now finds himself. Having invented the jazz festival more than half a century ago, his name is synonymous with the Newport Jazz Festival, his first and most well-known child of that genus. He led a company that expanded on the flagship festival in the Rhode Island resort city and produced a number of festivals at one time, including those in New Orleans, Saratoga Springs (NY), Chicago, and the two-week extravaganza in New York City each summer.

In 2007, he announced the sale of Festival Productions, which then became the Festival Network. He was no longer at the helm, but remained associated with it, though not in any controlling way. Late last year, he had to witness the financial faltering of the company. Despite the companies claims to the contrary early this year, it would have resulted in no Newport festival this year. The two-week jazz festival in New York City that Wein's company started in 1972 went dormant this past June.

So at age 83, Wein jumped back into the fray.

This is a man who started his festival odyssey when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House (10 presidents ago) and established himself as an impresario all over the globe thereafter. The octogenarian rolled up his sleeves, reassembled some staff and worked hard to revive both his jazz and folk festivals for 2009 that had their homes in Newport. Next year, the New York City event will return.

He remarks casually: "I'm glad I did. It gave me a new start in life."

Not many people say they are getting a new start at the age of 83. Those are the shoes Wein is wearing and he wears them well.

After the failures of the Festival Network—they owed money to Newport and other entities—things were bleak on the festival front. When Wein first announced early this year that he would come back, there was uncertainty about how it would all come together. But he has always been a man that got things done. Many times under duress.

Wein put out a formal public request for sponsorships, but went ahead and forged a very strong lineup for his new enterprise, at first calling it George Wein's Jazz Festival 55, as this year marks the 55th anniversary of the festival in Newport. In early July, it was announced that CareFusion would come aboard as the main title corporate sponsor. The formal name is now George Wein's CareFusion Jazz Festival 55, scheduled for August 7-9 at Fort Adams State Park in Newport.

The lineup is rich, including Roy Haynes, Dave Brubeck, Tony Bennett, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis, Esperanza Spalding, Christian McBride and many more.

CareFusion, a global provider of product and services aimed at improving the productivity and safety of health care, will also be sponsoring other jazz festivals, including the one Wein plans for New York City in 2010.

The George Wein's Folk Festival 50 will be held August 1 and 2 and includes Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, among others.

The Newport Jazz Festival legacy has always been important to Wein. It's foremost in his motivations for getting involved yet again. The official name changed over the years, with varying corporate sponsorships—Kool cigarettes, Schlitz beer, JVC, to name some. But the Newport name has lived on, even though the festival was transplanted to New York City in 1972 and didn't return until 1981.

"It's just a little more direct than what I wanted to," says Wein of his current involvement. But asked if he's glad to be back, he exclaims, "Oh, man! Are you kidding? I'm enjoying it. I think it's a great festival I have this year. I've got a few veterans. I've got a lot of young people. Exciting music. It's going to be a great festival, I think."

After he sold Festival Productions, "I was still working. I had a three-year contract with them. I was still at the festivals and giving input. But I didn't have control. They stopped paying me after a year and 11 months. They stopped paying everybody. They had no money."

"When they broke everything, they broke everything," he laments. "The problem is they ran out of money. They did not know what budgets were. They were dealing with investors' money. They had an aim to try and do something that would be much bigger than is possible. We (prior to his sale) stayed in business because we learned if you spend $10, you've got to take in $11. They weren't thinking that philosophy. They were saying, spend $1,000 and maybe someone will come along and give you $100,000. It doesn't work that way."

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