By: Justin Kenny
Sat Aug 7, 2004 07:12 AM ET
NEW YORK (Reuters) - George Wein, the 78-year-old founder of the now legendary Newport Jazz Festival, can boast a half century of success in drawing big audiences to hear jazz, but he worries about the future of the quintessentially American musical genre.
The event, now called JVC Jazz Festival Newport, turns 50 years old next week and has long been a magnet for jazz's top talent including Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck.
This year's festival, which opens on Wednesday for a five-day run, is seeing the strongest ticket sales in five years and is attracting some of the biggest names in jazz today.
Despite his feelings of pride and nostalgia, Wein is worried about what will happen to the festival after he's gone.
"The problem with jazz is that the legends are gone .... We have many, many wonderful young musicians but they haven't the following that say a Miles Davis had," said Wein.
This year's festival line-up includes Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Harry Connick Jr., Ornette Coleman and the man who has played more Newport festivals than any other artist, 83-year-old Dave Brubeck.
But Wein said he has an uphill battle when he's selling jazz. Most years at Newport, Wein supplements a jazz lineup with rhythm and blues and world music artists to appeal to a wider audience.
"I am very unhappy in what is happening, in not just jazz, but in show business in general because the only thing people are interested in is celebrity nowadays. That's the only thing that really sells tickets," said Wein.
"The concept of creating a great cultural event -- it doesn't have the meaning it had before. This is a world of celebrity. You put one name on there that has what you call celebrity and it sells more tickets in one hour than you can sell in 6 months to a great festival," said Wein.
"I worry about that because there's not that much celebrity involved in jazz at the moment. It's just great music."
FIRST OUTDOOR POP FESTIVAL
Wein is arguably one of the most influential men in American jazz. In 1954, the short Jewish kid from the Boston suburbs made musical history when he launched the first major outdoor popular music festival in the United States at Newport.
Wein used the event as a springboard and created and produced hundreds of festivals (not just jazz) around the world including the Newport Folk Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Wein still has the ability to draw crowds. Tens of thousands flock to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival to hear a blend of rock, funk, jazz, blues, cajun, zydeco and world music every spring.
The lessons of marketing to today's celebrity-oriented audience has been a difficult one for the jazz ambassador who has seen his festival propel and reignite some of the great giants of jazz.
"A number of musicians became influential and successful through appearances at Newport," according to columnist and jazz historian Stanley Crouch.
"Miles Davis made his comeback at Newport so did Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington was kind of at the bottom of the business and then he played a concert there in 1956 and this blonde got carried away and started dancing in front of the band, then the whole audience started dancing and they went crazy. So, Duke Ellington went all they way up from the bottom right back up to the top," said Crouch.
While much of the festival's glory lies in the past, Wein is hoping to create a few legendary moments at this year's birthday celebration. Some of the planned highlights include a tribute to John Coltrane featuring the late musician's son Ravi and Michael Brecker on saxophone, bassist Christian McBride and Coltrane contemporaries pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Roy Haynes.
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