The 57th Newport Jazz Festival kicks off Friday in Newport, Rhode Island. The thousands of attendees grooving out to jazz may not be able to hear it, but festival's founder, George Wein, has taken both the Newport Jazz and Newport Folk festivals in a new direction this year.
Before Wein ever thought about promoting jazz musicians, he wanted to be one. He still plays piano in clubs, but at 85, his fingers aren't as dexterous as they once were. Wein says he gave up on his own career to promote other musicians too early. But he secured his legacy as an important figure in the jazz world when he launched the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. It's now the nation's longest-running jazz festival. Wein went on to start festivals in Saratoga, New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans. His work has earned him the title, "The Father of Jazz Festivals."
"I don't know why 'The Father.' They usually call me the granddaddy," Wein jokes. "I just assume I'll be a great granddaddy if I can live another ten or fifteen years, but being 85, you don't plan too much, you know."
But Wein is planning on the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals sticking around for many more years. The festivals have had a rocky past. Wein sold them in 2007 but had to rescue them two years later when the company he sold them to ran into financial trouble. So this year he established the non-profit Newport Festivals Foundation to keep the historic festivals running.
"I think the only chance we have of keeping the festival alive after I'm gone is to have a foundation and people that want to keep it alive," Wein explains. "I want to have success. There's a difference between profit and success, and success will bring the permanence that we want."
Wein insists that economics had little to do with his decision to convert his operations from a for-profit corporation to a non-profit foundation. Even as a for-profit operation, they were a labor of love. Wein says the Newport festivals cost about $3 million to produce and he usually wraps them up a million in the hole.
This year's Folk Festival sold out for the first time, thanks to headliners Elvis Costello and the Decemberists, leaving Wein a small and unexpected budget surplus. Historically, the Jazz Festival hasn't performed as well. This year, Wein is experimenting with the Jazz line-up by mixing big names with up-and-coming musicians he finds by combing the New York clubs.
Wein says he isn't worried about the future of his festivals. He believes the thrill of seeing a live show will keep fans coming. Gary Bongiovanni, editor and chief of Pollstar Magazine, which tracks the live entertainment industry, says that the Newport Festivals are an iconic name in the festival circuit. Bongiovanni doesn't think that operating as a non-profit will change the festivals significantly, since it comes with the many of the same challenges as for-profit festival organizing.
"The only difference is the need to make a profit on the event is no longer paramount. But you still have to break even with a non-profit and that's tough enough in itself. You have to remember also that we're dealing generally with outdoor events and you're at the mercy of the weather," he says.
Tim Jackson, director of the long-running Monterey Jazz Festival, says that he has always run the festival as a non-profit, and believes it's nearly impossible to survive presenting jazz concerts in the for-profit world.
"Most of the serious jazz presenting is being done under the umbrella of a non-profit 501c3 whether it be Monterey Jazz Festival, which has been doing it for 54 years, or Jazz at Lincoln Center," he explains.
Running the Newport festivals on a non-profit basis won't be easy. In addition to the tax-deductible donations that all non-profits count on, the Newport Festivals still need sponsors. The Jazz Festival started this year without any, until a Rhode Island jewelry company and a Massachusetts financial firm stepped up. Wein says the bad economy has hurt donations more than ticket sales. And even though he's been chairman of his board for less than a year, he's already talking like a veteran of the non-profit world.
"I hate asking for money," he says. "I hate that. I hate being in the fund-raising situation."
Yet that's exactly what Wein is going to need to do to help his festivals carry on his vision.
"I just don't want them to become an insignificant show biz experience," he says. "I want them to have some meaning to the art form itself and to the younger musicians so that they want to be at Newport, not just because it pays well, but because it's important to their music."