The music man

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 5, 2009

In 1970, organizers of the Isle of Wight rock festival in England inspired an ugly confrontation between concertgoers and police when they put up a fence for the first time and began charging admission.

And when Häagen-Dazs paid $1 million to be the official ice cream of a Woodstock revival in 1994, well, the stories practically wrote themselves.

Wein has avoided the whiff of naked profiteer. He is a fan. A musician. That rare promoter who has a reputation for treating the talent well. "I have a slogan," he said. "Commercialism with credibility."

But festivals, in the end, do not survive without a sturdy financial footing: a reality that came into sharp relief this year when money trouble at v, the company that bought out Wein in 2007, threatened to kill the Newport jazz and folk festivals.

Wein, 83, was in a sort of semi-retirement. His wife had died a few years previous. He'd sold the house in Connecticut and another in the south of France. Shipped part of his African-American art collection to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Jazz had made Wein rich. He did not need to get back in business. But he gathered some old staff, tapped decades worth of contacts, and got the festivals going again on his own.

"It's my life," he said, in a recent interview. "It's my legacy."

Last weekend, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez returned to Newport. In the coming days, Tony Bennett, Brubeck, and Joshua Redman will be among the headliners at George Wein's Jazz Festival 55.

And Wein, after a lifetime of hustle, has his eye on one last grand scheme: a non-profit entity that will sustain the Newport festivals after he is gone. A monument to the man who spawned Monterey and Lollapalooza and a raucous bit of rebellion on a sprawling dairy farm in upstate New York 40 years ago.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at dscharfenberg@phx.com.

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