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George Wein, Who Brought Jazz Festivals to Newport, Dies at 95

George Wein, the creator of the Newport Jazz Festival who gave the genre a wider following by luring music legends from small clubs to perform outdoors for larger and younger audiences, has died. He was 95.

He died Monday at his home in Manhattan, according to the New York Times, citing spokesperson Carolyn McClair. No cause was given.

Artists such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis played the annual festival, held at a coastal resort community in Rhode Island, starting in 1954. The Newport Jazz Festival grew in popularity by including stars such as Frank Sinatra, James Brown and Nina Simone. Five years later, Wein, with the financial backing of local residents Elaine Lorillard and Louis Lorillard, began producing the Newport Folk Festival, which drew Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters and other top performers.

The promoter expanded his events through the 1960s and ’70s with the Boston Globe Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles. He created the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice, France, in 1974, leading to dozens of similar outdoor music concerts throughout the country. A Japanese version of the festival began in 1981.

“Jazz has become a world art form, and producers and artists everywhere realize that no one is more responsible for this than George Wein,” Nick Catalano, a professor of literature and music at Pace University, wrote in “New York Nights: Writing, Producing and Performing in Gotham.”

Wein was also credited with introducing the concept of corporate sponsorship to the concert business. Originally organized by a nonprofit group, the Newport Jazz Festival was run by Wein’s private business, Festival Productions Inc. and was financially viable. Sponsors have included companies such as JVC, now JVCKenwood Corp., a Japan-based consumer electronics maker, and Ben & Jerry’s, a unit of Unilever NV.

“Although it never made a lot of money, the Newport festival did finish in the black many times,” Wein said in a 2003 interview with the Jerry Jazz Musician website.

Jazz is “a true expression of the musical and cultural background of Louisiana, and what eventually became America, in general,” he said.

Wein was born in Boston on Oct. 3, 1925. His father, Barney Wein, was a doctor and his mother, Ruth Wein, looked after the home while encouraging her youngest son to sing along to her piano accompaniment. His older brother, Larry, was an avid music fan who inspired his early interest in Louis Armstrong.

Wein attended Northeastern University in Boston until he was drafted in 1944, serving in France until the end of World War II. In 1950, he graduated from Boston University.

“I loved playing the piano, and music was a crucial part of my being,” he wrote in his 2003 autobiography “Myself Among Others: A Life in Music.” “But I had neither the confidence nor the desire to devote my life to being a professional musician.”

He opened the Boston jazz club Storyville — where Holiday, Armstrong, Brubeck and Charlie Parker played — and started a record company with the same name. One night at the venue, he met the Lorillards, who offered him a credit line of $20,000 to organize a festival in Newport, where they lived. He accepted their proposal.

The festival moved to New York City in 1972, then returned to Newport in 1981. It is held over three days each August in Fort Adams State Park, a seaside venue with multiple stages.

In addition to the festivals he created, Wein toured the world with his band, the Newport All-Stars, in which he played piano. He was often joined on stage by the greats of jazz.

In 2005, the National Endowment of the Arts recognized his advocacy role and named him as a Jazz Master, and he was awarded France’s Legion of Honor for his contributions to music. He was also a lifetime honorary trustee of Carnegie Hall.

Wein and his wife Joyce were married for more than four decades.

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