It’s always a pleasure to devote a NoiseTrade One-on-One interview to a behind-the-scenes industry player and this time we’re talking to George Wein, the long-time producer/founder of the legendary Newport Jazz Festival. During our chat, Wein provides a bit of a Newport Jazz primer, recalls some of the more memorable performances from the festival’s half-century-plus history, and gives a preview of his personal favorites from this year’s stellar batch of artists.
NoiseTrade: First off, tell us a little about the storied history behind The Newport Jazz Festival. How did the festival first get started and how has it evolved over the decades?
George Wein: Elaine and Louis Lorillard from Newport came in and were introduced to me. They wanted to brighten up the summer in Newport and a professor from Boston University suggested they see what I had in mind. Next thing you know I had come up with the idea for the Newport Jazz Festival. Elaine and Louis Lorillard were the original founders. Louis gave me a credit of $20,000 at the bank – I’d never seen $20k before. I knew which artists to put on the festival because of my club. I knew the artists who could draw people and I knew people in New England would drive to Newport, because you couldn’t take a train or a plane then. And it worked.
NT: What are some of the unique ways that Newport Jazz Festival stands out amongst its fellow summer festival peers? What are some of the experiences you get at Newport that you don’t get at other festivals?
Wein: You get the experience of Newport itself and Narragansett Bay, because the festival is on a peninsula that juts out into the bay. You have a feeling of complete freedom. It’s the most beautiful festival site in the world. With four stages, people walking around, and top-grade musicians onstage at all times, it’s like no other festival.
NT: Countless jazz legends have turned in impressively jaw-dropping performances at Newport, with many of them even releasing celebrated live albums of their sets like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk’s 1964 Miles & Monk at Newport album and Verve Records 12-album set of the 1957 festival. Do you have a few standout performances that you’d recommend listeners track down and check out?
Wein: The most famous of course is the Duke Ellingston Orchestra’s performance in 1956, when tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves ended up playing 27 choruses on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” It was a happening at the festival. People got out of their seats to dance and it became the best-selling album Duke had had in years. After that performance, Duke always said that he was born again at Newport. It’s a classic everyone should hear.
NT: Do you have a favorite Newport Jazz moment that you’ve experienced yourself that really encapsulates the magic of the festival?
Wein: I think Ellington at Newport is that, but there are so many moments. Mahalia singing at midnight – the first time a gospel performer ever sang on the mainstage. It was just magic. A beautiful, beautiful moment. When you’re dealing with the giants we were dealing with, everything was a “moment.” The history of jazz was at Newport. We presented every style of music that jazz represented – and still do.
NT: In regards to this year’s set of performers, who are you most interested to see play, both for the first time and also for a repeat viewing of an artist you’ve previously seen?
Wein: I want to see Rhiannon Giddens because I think she is a star. I’ve never seen The Roots live and I’m very interested in them. Of course, I’ve seen Christian McBride many times, but I’ve never seen him with a big band at Newport and I want to see the reaction. And always, the Maria Schneider Orchestra.