The founder of the celebrated Newport jazz and folk festivals is taking them nonprofit in an effort to make sure the events he’s been producing for six decades live on after he is gone.
George Wein, 85, said Tuesday he has established a new nonprofit group, the Newport Festivals Foundation, an umbrella organization that will oversee the summertime events.
“I want the festivals to go on forever,” Wein told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “With me it’s not a matter of business. This is my life.”
Wein sold the festivals in 2007, but stepped back in to run them in 2009 after the company that bought them ran into financial troubles. In recent years, amid the economic downturn, they have had trouble attracting sponsors.
Wein said the festivals’ conversion under a nonprofit group probably won’t make a difference attracting corporate sponsors, although those who give could gain tax benefits, and he sees challenges in raising money for a nonprofit. But he said the change means foundations and music lovers can now make tax-deductible contributions, just as they would to any other cultural or arts organization.
“That is the way culture in America survives. Without that, there’d be a wasteland,” he said.
Other major music festivals are already nonprofit, including Tanglewood, the Monterey Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which Wein also founded.
The Newport Jazz Festival began in 1954, after socialite Elaine Lorillard hired Wein to put together a series of performances to spice up the summertime social scene in Newport. It was the world’s first outdoor jazz festival, and included performances by Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie, among others.
Wein followed up by founding the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, that year featuring a little-known teenage singer-songwriter: Joan Baez. Six years later, Bob Dylan famously went electric on the festival’s stage.
Both festivals began as nonprofits, but Wein in 1962 made them into for-profit ventures after the board quit following a 1960 riot during the jazz festival that nearly ended both events.
Over the years, every major jazz and folk musician has played in Newport, and in recent years, the festivals have brought in musicians from other genres to share the stage with established acts. Last year’s folk festival, for example, included rock artist Andrew Bird and R&B act Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.
This year’s Newport Folk Festival is scheduled for July 29 through 31, while the Newport Jazz Festival is August 5 to 7. The lineups have not yet been announced.
William Vareika, an art dealer and preservationist from Newport and a member of the new foundation’s board, said he believes that many people will see the move to a nonprofit as he does – a chance for historic and cultural preservation of two institutions that are important to Newport, Rhode Island and the United States.
“This has a wonderful appeal to so many lovers of jazz and folk,” Vareika said. “I do think it will be supported overwhelmingly, both here in Rhode Island and throughout the country.”
A gala fundraiser for the foundation, hosted by Bill Cosby, is scheduled for Aug. 4 at Rosecliff, one of Newport’s Gilded Age summer “cottages.”
The foundation also plans to establish music education programs about jazz and folk for young people, something Wein said is of particular importance.
Wein, a jazz pianist, still performs every year in Newport and elsewhere as part of his Newport All-Stars, which features a rotating cast of artists. He is not paid to run the festivals, and said he plans to stay with them this year and next, and then decide what to do after that.
“I won’t be around forever,” he said.