The 'Father' Of Jazz Festivals Takes Newport Nonprofit : The Record Founder George Wein is converting to a nonprofit model to keep the historic festivals alive.
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The 'Father' Of Jazz Festivals Takes Newport Nonprofit

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The 'Father' Of Jazz Festivals Takes Newport Nonprofit

The 'Father' Of Jazz Festivals Takes Newport Nonprofit

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The 57th Newport Jazz Festival kicks off tomorrow in Newport, Rhode Island. The city held its annual folk festival last weekend. And this year, festival founder George Wein has taken both in a new direction. Catherine Welch from member station WRNI has the story.

CATHERINE WELCH: Before George Wein ever thought about promoting jazz musicians, he wanted to be one.


WELCH: At his home high above New York's Upper East Side, Wein warms up.


WELCH: He still plays in clubs, but at 85, he has trouble moving some of his fingers.


WELCH: Wein says he gave up too early on his own career to promote other musicians. But he secured his legacy as one of the most important nonmusicians in jazz when he launched the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. He 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.

GEORGE WEIN: I don't know why they call me The Father. They usually call me the granddaddy.

WELCH: And you're OK with being a granddaddy?

WEIN: I have no choice. I mean, I just assume I'll be a great-granddaddy if I can live another 10 or 15 years.


WEIN: But being 85, you don't plan too much, you know?

WELCH: One thing Wein is planning for is the future of his Newport jazz and folk festivals.

WEIN: 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.

WELCH: 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 nonprofit Newport Festivals Foundation to keep them out of trouble.

WEIN: I want to have success. There's a difference between business and profit and success, and success will bring the permanence that we want.

WELCH: He insists that economics had little to do with his decision to convert his operations from a for-profit corporation to a nonprofit foundation. He says the folk and jazz festivals cost $3 million to produce, and he usually wraps them up a million in the hole. Although thanks to headliners Elvis Costello and the Decemberists, this year's folk festival sold out for the first time, he says, leaving him with the expectations of a small budget surplus. The jazz fest isn't performing as well. So he's experimenting by mixing big names with up-and-coming musicians he finds by combing New York clubs a few nights a week.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Welcome to jazz standards.

WELCH: Sitting at a back table, munching on fried chicken and a biscuit, Wein waits for a young trio to take the stage.

WEIN: And I don't know this musician. I want to see if he's - he must mean something if he's in this club on a three-night basis. (Unintelligible) if he's got an originality to what he's doing.

WELCH: Wein eventually decided not to book the group, but he says the thrill of seeing a live show is why he doesn't worry about the future of his music festivals. And Gary Bongiovanni, editor and chief of Pollstar Magazine, which tracks the live entertainment industry, says Wein doesn't have to worry because the Newport festivals are iconic, and he doesn't think there will be much difference operating as nonprofit.

GARY BONGIOVANNI: The only difference is the need to make a profit on the event is no longer paramount. But you still have to break even in nonprofit, and that's tough enough in itself.

WELCH: Newport is the country's longest-running jazz festival. Right behind is Monterey, which has always been under a nonprofit umbrella, says artistic director Tim Jackson. He says it's nearly impossible to survive presenting jazz concerts in the for-profit world.

TIM JACKSON: Most of the serious jazz presenting in this country is being done somehow under the umbrella of a nonprofit, of a 501(c)(3), whether it be Monterey Jazz Festival, which has been doing it for 54 years, to Jazz at Lincoln Center.

WELCH: In addition to the tax-deductible donations that all nonprofits count on, a festival like Newport still need sponsors, and 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 nonprofit world.

WEIN: I hate asking for money. I hate that. I hate being in the fundraising situation.

WELCH: Yet that's exactly what George Wein is going to need to do to help his festivals carry on his vision. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch.


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