American jazz impresario George Wein turned 80 years old this month, but age isn't slowing down this globe-trotting music promoter. His pioneering series of jazz festivals, which started with private and public events in the 1950s in Newport, Rhode Island, and continue with this week's (Oct 28-30) Warsaw Jazz Festival in Poland -- are credited with bringing the music festival concept to popular music. Year after year, they've also been showcasing the world's best jazz musicians, who readily praise Mr. Wein for his contributions to jazz.
Saxophonist Josh Redman, a featured performer at this year's Newport Festival, describes Wein in almost reverential tones. "George Wein is one of the most important people in the jazz community, in the history of jazz," says Mr. Redman. "He's a great musician himself and a great lover of the music, a great supporter of the music. He's provided countless opportunities to jazz musicians to have their music heard. He's a wonderful man."
Virtuoso vibraphonist Gary Burton, who has also taught a younger generation of musicians at the famed Berklee School of Music in Boston, recalls how George Wein helped launch his career. "George Wein heard me play in Nashville, Tennessee, in a jazz club," Mr. Burton recalls. "Based on that, he invited us to come to Newport in 1960; I was 17 years old. After that, he helped me with starting my own band. He was my unofficial manager for a couple of years and put me on most of his festivals in Europe and around the world. He played a major part in getting my own group launched successfully. [And] he's done fantastic things for jazz in his career."
Jazz guitarist Larry Coryell, known for his experimental approach to music, recalled a humorous meeting with Mr. Wein after a European tour. "In 1967 when we 'avant-garded' our way across Europe on a George Wein tour," says Mr. Coryell, "we ended up in Paris where we tore the stage down and burned our instruments as our finale at a jazz concert. The audience rioted. After it was all over, I was wearing a hippie outfit. George, who was wearing a pin-stripe suit, said, 'You see this suit? It's going to stay the same. Remember that.'"
George Wein was inspired to create an outdoor jazz festival, with thousands of fans casually listening to music, by the summer music festival for classical music called Tanglewood that takes place in Massachusetts. In 1954, Boston-native George Wein got some wealthy friends together in the resort town of Newport, Rhode Island, and invited such jazz legends as Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson to perform. Following its success, the next year's festival opened to a much wider audience, as Mr. Wein recalled in an interview on public television. "Festivals are medieval," he said. "Jazz had never had that kind of gathering. When we put on all these groups at Newport, everyone from the industry came, every record company, critic. The next thing we knew, the Voice of America was broadcasting it all over the world."
And jazz festivals, many also organized by George Wein's company, Festival Productions, sprouted up in Europe and Japan. From Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, the Newport Festival has been a must date for jazz musicians. And all of them have their favorite memories of the festival. For guitarist Larry Coryell, it's the setting at Newport's historic Fort Adams. "Big, huge sailboats gliding past, the pewter grey sky and the water, the waves, the breeze," Mr. Coryell describes, as he looks around the open backstage area. "There's even a bat in the cave-like area over there, where the food is served -- sitting up there listening to the music. Very content."
Gary Burton says during his first visit to Newport in 1960, there was a disturbance and the festival closed before he even had a chance to perform. "The next time I came I was with [saxophonist] Stan Getz at a very memorable experience," Mr. Burton recalls, "playing for a very big audience in the mid-1960s here in Newport. In the late-1960s I had formed my own band and was back here on my own. Newport was a major part of all my early years. Every time I come back, even now 40 years later, it's a great memory for me."
And it's all because of producer George Wein's idea to create jazz festivals, which have since spread around the world. Saxophonist Josh Redman sums up the legendary music man, "He really cares about the music. It's amazing he's been able to build such a successful empire in the jazz business and at the same time, hold true to his musical values, keep his integrity and maintain his love for the music."
After celebrating his 80th birthday, producer George Wein and his staff at Festival Productions in New York City are already busy scheduling next year's festivals around the world.