If ever a New Englander earned a good old-fashioned New Orleans send-off, it’s George Wein.
Wein, the musical impresario who died Monday at 95, gifted the city and who-knows-how-many visitors with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which along with his earlier ventures in Newport, Rhode Island, created a template for blissful warm weather celebrations. His influence spans the globe but is particularly palpable here, where the festival he founded more than a half-century ago perfectly channels the state’s diverse bounty of music, food, and culture, as well as its laid-back, welcoming vibe.
Raised and educated in Massachusetts, Wein, a jazz pianist, showed an early appreciation for New Orleans’ role as the genre’s birthplace. His first foray into the business was a club in Boston named Storyville, after the city’s old red light district; among the legends who performed there were Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.
After Wein founded the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival in the 1950s, New Orleans officials courted him to launch a similar musical showcase here. At first, things didn’t go smoothly.
For everything about New Orleans that was worth celebrating, Wein ran up against the South’s ugly side, the Jim Crow laws that at the time still kept hotels, bandstands and audiences segregated. City leaders approached him again once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, but continued discrimination against Black football players in town for an American Football League all-star game showed New Orleans wasn’t ready to host all comers. Yet another attempt failed when Wein’s own interracial marriage became an issue.
But he and his local allies persisted as attitudes evolved in a more equitable direction. In 1970 Wein staged the first Jazz Fest, which showcased the likes of Mahalia Jackson and Pete Fountain. It lost money but got people’s attention. He brought in talented locals such as Quint Davis, who has been the face of the fest for many years now, and Allison Miner, who did much to shape it before her death in 1995. Years later, he played a key role in creating a second major event on the city’s annual calendar, Essence Fest, over July Fourth week.
In 2014, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit that owns Jazz Fest, honored Wein and his late wife by opening the George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center, an education and community facility in Tremé.
Four years later, Wein took a moment to reflect on what he’d created.
“When I first came down here, people asked me to come, they wanted to do a festival like Newport,” he said. “I said ‘no, no, no, man.’ I said New Orleans is something very, very special. There’s no city in the world like New Orleans. From the jazz to the blues to the funk ... we just put it all together with the food and the culture, and we created the greatest festival in the world.”
We can’t argue that with.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fair Grounds has been quiet since the fest marked its 50th birthday in 2019. When the music plays again — this coming spring, we ardently hope — Jazz Fest should do one of the things it does best: Celebrate one of its most venerated ancestors in style.
It should be a party worthy of the man whose legacy will continue to bring joy to the city, and the world, for many years to come.