Interview: George Wein and Jay Sweet On Newport Festivals Then And Now

As producer of the first Newport Jazz Festival (1954), the first Newport Folk Festival (1959), and the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (1970), along with countless other multiperformer events, George Wein virtually invented the modern music festival as we know it. So give it up, Coachella, and let's hear an amen, Bonnaroo.

Equally impressive is that the 84-year-old impresario is still going strong. George Wein's Newport Folk Festival takes place July 30 through August 1 in Newport, Rhode Island, and the CareFusion Jazz Festival Newport takes over from August 6 to 8. (Wein, a respected jazz pianist himself, also continues to gig a couple of dozen times a year.) He doesn't do it all alone, of course. For the past three years, for example, writer-producer-manager Jay Sweet has been co-producing the Newport Folk Festival. And this year's lineup – featuring the Avett Brothers, Yim Yames, Steve Martin (whose complex tour rider leaked recently), Calexico, Levon Helm, Andrew Bird, the Punch Brothers, Sharon Jones, y mucho mas – looks fairly spectacular.

But it all began with Wein, who has chronicled his long and storied life in Myself Among Others. It's a terrific book and you should check it out. Until then, enjoy our recent chat with Wein and Sweet, which took place in Wein's spacious Manhattan office.

HeadCount: Has there ever been a political component to your festivals? Have you ever done political fund raisers?

George Wein: I don’t think we ever did any fund raising for politicians. But we were very political with Pete Seeger and the Newport Folk Festival. During the early '60s we had SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] and all of the people in the civil rights movement come to the festival. And Pete Seeger introduced "We Shall Overcome" in 1963 [while clasping hands with Bob Dylan, Odetta, Joan Baez, and Mavis Staples], which became the festival's theme song. We raised funds. It was a nonprofit festival, but the money we spent was directed toward the folk world.

Did you get any blowback for your civil rights work?

Wein: Yes and no. There were always people in the city both for and against the festivals. When Richard Nixon ran for reelection in 1968, the city council decided to put a nonbinding referendum about the festival on the ballot. Everybody thought the jazz festival was set but that the folk festival would have a problem because of the political situation. They were right. The jazz festival got about 75% acceptance on the referendum while the folk festival got about 68%. That reflected the community, which was very pro-festival. It kept the festival's enemies festival quiet for a while until we had the incident in ‘71 when the kids tore the fences down.

Why do you think the rock scene was so wild back then compared to now, relatively speaking?

Wein: The rock scene is different from the music scenes I'm interested in. Back then, the closest thing you had to a rock audience was a folk festival. When I see the movie Festival! [filmed during the 1963-65 Newport folk festivals], the audience members all look like they came out of Harvard Square, as opposed to pictures of Woodstock. I always like to produce events that appeal to everybody. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is the closest thing to that sort of event. We draw older people, younger people, black, white. Last year’s folk festival drew that kind of a crowd, too. You go to a rock festival, though, and those kids want to roll around in the mud, they want to have a good time, they want an experience. It’s an experience more than a musical thing. It’s an event in their lives. I think it’s great so long as it doesn’t disrupt society in any way. Back in the '60s the kids were disruptive. The producers, towns, and police didn’t know how to handle them. Now when you go into a community you work with the town, the police, and you have a festival that’s controlled and everybody has a good time. When you have people, you have to have control. If you’ve got anarchy you’ve got nothing.

But it wasn't just the fans. You had some famous run-ins with Sly Stone and Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant during the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival, too.

Wein: That was not their fault as individuals. That was the first time we ever encountered such large crowds, and lack of control of the crowds. Peter Grant was a very difficult man, but there was no problem until I told him I wasn’t going to let the group play. It was a like a tinderbox out there, but it wasn’t the band's fault. I just told Jimmy Page, “I learned something from Duke Ellington: When you finish your big number and you’ve got people cheering, go into a slow blues and you'll bring the crowd right down.” He thought I was crazy but he did it, and the crowd didn’t rush the fence. They all went home very peacefully and it was fine. With Sly and the Family Stone, he was supposed to play for me later in Detroit and I told his agent I didn’t want him [after Sly whipped the Newport crowd into a dangerous frenzy at the same festival]. I said, "I’ll pay him but I don’t want him. I'm not interested in that kind of thing." His manager said, "You've got to do it." I said, "I'll speak to Sly." His manager said, "Nobody speaks to Sly." I said, "I'll speak to Sly." So I get Sly on the phone and I say, "I'll let you play if you give me your word man to man that you’ll do one thing: When I tell you to cut, you cut. If you do that, I’ll let you close the show in Detroit." And he did. He closed the show and we had no problems. His father said to me, "I wish more people talked to Sly like you talk to Sly."

Did you ever envision music festivals becoming such an important aspect of the music industry? Festivals are the only musical events that seem to be making money these days, at least if you do them right.

Wein: I never imagined a lot of things. I never imagined I'd be producing a jazz festival in the first place. I never had the motivation. I just did them, and when anything went wrong, I was always thinking of something else to do. I did call it the "first annual" Newport Jazz Festival, and I did take my inspiration from the classical music festivals that lasted for so many years. So maybe I did have longevity in the back of my mind. But I never thought there'd be festivals everywhere like today.

Sweet: We used to own New England. Now there are 14 other folk festivals.

Why do you think they've caught on so strongly?

Sweet: George and I call it the “shuffle world.” It’s so much easier to be a musical omnivore today than ever before. The music you listened to used to define you as a person – you were either a jazz guy, or a classical person, etcetera. But the Newport Folk Festival wasn't just people with acoustic guitars singing protest songs. It was gospel music, Cajun music, and people singing the blues. It was all kinds of great music. So I think festivals blew up because people walk around the street with iPods containing 10,000 songs on shuffle. And if they can go someplace for a weekend and see ten of their favorite bands from ten different genres (although I hate that word), that's easier than seeing ten bands at ten different venues. We live in a shuffle world.

Wein: To answer your question on a broader level, there are basically three reasons why festivals have grown. First is the incredible visibility of the Newport, Monterey Jazz, and Monterey Pop festivals even before Woodstock, which was when magazine started writing them up. The next thing is that towns allow festivals because it's good for business and tourism. But the third, and really most important, reason for their proliferation is probably because of the rock-festival era. It’s the demand for them. A lot of city officials are from the rock generation. It was their life. So their kids say, "Why can’t we have a festival?" When it started, people didn’t know what festivals were; they were afraid of them. As people grew up and generations changed, everybody you talked to went to a festival sometime.

Jay, how are you trying to build on George’s legacy at the Newport Folk Festival?

Sweet: Honestly, I thought I knew a lot when I started working for George. But after all of 20 minutes with him you realize you really don’t know that much. I'm not doing anything different than Pete Seeger, Bob Jones, and George Wein did. I'm just going back to the original blueprint from when these guys started out. And I'm trying to replicate it because I think there’s a longing for some sort of lineage. It's like a bucket list thing for artists now, and we’ve always drawn from many diverse kinds of music. I would never claim to be reinventing the festival. It’s amazing to me how many people between the ages of 30 and 40 think there's something revolutionary and new happening when they see our lineups now. But it's the same as back then, when Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, and Janice Joplin played the festival, too. I don’t think they were perfect folkies themselves.

Wein: Jay knows what he’s doing. I’ve learned a lot from him. Listening to young people like him is what keeps me alive. They’ve got ears I don’t have.

Sweet: As festivalgoers, we take for granted things like the photo pit, which was George's idea originally. It allows photographers to take good shots, which leads to free marketing for the festival. It also helped us become iconic, because there’s this legacy that goes all the way back to the '50s. I think people are longing for something that connects them to something bigger than them.

George, do you feel like jazz and folk giants – of the same stature as the people who first turned you on – still walk the earth today?

Wein: No, I don’t think so. The problem is economics. Today we measure stature by how many people they’re bringing out. John Coltrane had huge stature but he wasn’t a household name, while Duke Ellington was a household name in his community. In folk you had Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Dylan. Now, unfortunately, greatness relates to drawing hundreds and thousands of people like Bono and Bruce Springsteen do. Would they be considered as great as they are if they didn’t draw that many people? We had people like Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, who everyone knew. I saw someone imitating Jimmy Stewart on Jimmy Fallon's show the other night. But you'll never see anyone imitating Brad Pitt [laughs].

How about in your personal pantheon of great artists?

Wein: No. You see, what’s happened is that today there's a wealth of talent, and the talent is extraordinary. But there’s no leader. There's no Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, or Miles Davis. The closest thing to a leader is Wynton Marsalis. He's got his own school but a lot of musicians don't follow him. But what’s happening now in the folk world is fantastic, because although there’s no definition of what folk music is, all these groups want to be involved in folk music. So all these folk festivals are emerging. Now it’s folk-inspired music, which is a little different and very important. It’s a musical direction that's an alternative to rock and jazz. It’s a unique thing, with all these talented people out there, searching.

Which of the Newport Folk Festival acts do you think HeadCount readers might enjoy the most, Jay?

Sweet: There’s one in particular. This will be the third folk festival I've programmed, and the Avett Brothers have played all three. The first time we booked them to open the Harbor Stage. However, after seeing them three times during the summer, I realized anyone who played after them was going to get crushed. So they ended up closing the festival against another big famous artist who sings about a fictional town that serves drinks. People were blown away by them. What we really like is when people call and say, "Can we come back" or "We’d really like to play this year." Another is Jim James – or Yim Yames. We had him two years ago and he’s really branched out since them. He's played with Andrew Bird, John Prine, Calexico, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Ben Sollee, and Daniel Martin Moore – all of whom have played our festival.

Wein: That's important. Jim James is like Pete Seeger.

Sweet: Exactly. He gets involved in lots of different bands and turns people onto them. Say there's a band that wants people to stop blowing the tops off of mountains in Kentucky for coal. How does he get the word out about that without sounding preachy? He helps out a band that's singing about it and lends his name to their cause. Which is how he got together with Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore. So while we might not have the political message of a civil rights movement, I think Newport in the last couple of years has become a place where artists are comfortable taking chances they wouldn't necessarily take at other festivals. We don’t have a huge headlining artist. What we have at the end of the night instead is the opportunity for all the artists to come together and sing as one. And I think that’s bigger than any headliner you could book.