The music man

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 5, 2009

In 1960, thousands of drunken, young fans rioted outside the festival gates, putting Wein out of business for a year. And the promoter struggled to break even when he returned to form.

"I never made any money," he said. "People don't understand how you stay in business without making money."

Wein borrowed and cajoled. But he also decided early on that he would have to include popular musicians, outside the realm of folk and jazz, if he were to stay afloat. And by 1958, Chuck Berry was on the jazz bill. Not an easy sight for a die-hard jazz fan who grew up playing "Tuxedo Junction" in the basement.

"When [Berry] went into his duckwalk during 'School Days,' I literally cringed," Wein wrote. But the crowd loved it.

Subsequent experiments with popular music were not so successful, though.

A 1969 lineup that included Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin inspired overflow crowds and fence-crashing. Two years later, young people demanding free music stormed the stage as Dionne Warwick sang, "What the world needs now is love, sweet love."

"I still remember how shaken George was the day after that," said Morgenstern, the jazz historian. "That was the one time I thought he would throw in the towel. But he didn't."

Instead, Wein took the festival to New York. Started building the sort of corporate sponsorships that would become commonplace at festivals like the Warped Tour. And by the time he revived the Newport iteration in 1981, he had built a festival empire that stretched from New Orleans to Nice and served as the world's biggest employer of jazz musicians.

The Wein festivals that emerged from the trouble of the late '60s and early '70s steered clear of acts like Led Zeppelin. "Jazz — the music I loved — was being poisoned and stamped out," Wein wrote, "and I had served as an unwitting, but willing accomplice in the murder."

The new productions, though, were hardly an ode to the cutting edge. The impresario continued to rely on pop music and aging, big-name jazz artists to fill the seats in Newport and beyond. And that tendency drew a steady stream of criticism.

Indeed, there had been resistance to Wein's popular impulse from the start: as early as 1960, Charles Mingus, Jo Jones, and Ornette Coleman were staging a counter-festival in Newport to protest Wein's apparent embargo on the avant-garde.

And a quarter-century later, critic Jon Pareles was lamenting the promoter's "museum mentality" in the New York Times.

It was a common complaint: Wein was relying too heavily on a jazz gone by. Leaning too much on tributes to long-gone superstars. And his caution was preventing newer acts from emerging.

But Wein never seemed all that troubled by the critique. He had a loyalty to the old guard born of late nights at Storyville and the early days of the Newport jazz festival. A loyalty that persists to today. "I'll never give up on them," he said, in a recent interview. "They're the people who made the music."

And just as important, in a jazz world that has failed to replicate the genius of a Davis or a John Coltrane, the old guard remains the biggest draw.


wein baez main
Wein kisses Joan Baez at an early Folk Festival.


ART AND COMMERCE

The tension between art and commerce that took shape in the early days of the Newport jazz and folk festivals has remained a source of anxiety for the music festival writ large.

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