NEW YORK – George Wayne, an impresario of 20th-century music who helped found Newport jazz and folk festivals and designed the blueprints for gatherings everywhere from Woodstock to the south of France, died on Monday.
Family spokeswoman Carolyn McClure said Wayne, 95, died “sleeping peacefully” in a New York City apartment.
A former jazz club owner and aspiring pianist, Wayne started the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 with a lineup for Under the Rain and Heaven – Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and Lester Young. The following year Louis Armstrong was there and Duke Ellington made history in 1956, with his band’s set featuring an extraordinary, 27-chorus solo by saxophonist Paul Gonsalves that almost single-handedly revived middle-aged Ellington’s career.
Wayne led the festival for more than 50 years, and performers would include nearly every major jazz star, from Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk to Charles Mingus and Vinton Marsalis. In just 1965, the bill included Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Ellington, Gillespie, Davis, and Monk.
The success of Newport inspired a wave of jazz festivals in America, and Wayne repeated his success around the world, with his other projects including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice, France. His multiday, all-star ceremony was also a model for rock festivals, whether Woodstock in 1969 or the Lollapalooza tour of recent years.
Critic Jean Santoro observed in 2003 that without Wayne, “everything from Woodstock to jazz at Lincoln Center would have happened differently – if it had happened at all.”
Santoro wrote, Wayne “can claim to have invented, developed and codified contemporary popular music.”
The idea for Newport came from locals Louis and Elaine Laurrillard, who urged Wayne to organize a jazz festival in their resort community in Rhode Island. A socialite, Elaine Lorillard, complained that the summer scene was “too boring”. Her tobacco-heavy husband supported her with a donation of $20,000.
Wayne never knew about a large-scale jazz festival, so, in the spirit of the music, he improvised – attempting to combine the energy and musicality of the Harlem Jazz Club with the atmosphere of a summer classical concert at Tanglewood.
“What was a festival for me?” Wayne said later. “I had no rule book to go with. I knew it had to be something unique that no jazz fan had ever been exposed to.”
In 1959, Wayne joined with Pete Seeger and began a fellow folk festival that would include early performances by Joan Baez and Jose Feliciano among others and track Bob Dylan’s evolution from earnest crisis to rule-breaking rock star. will do.
Dylan’s show in 1963 helped establish him as the so-called “voice of his generation”, but by 1965 he felt limited by the folk community and switched to Newport with an electric band. The response was mostly positive, but there was enough enthusiasm from the backstage crowd and clashes – Wayne debunked the legend that Seeger tried to cut electrical wires to Dylan’s amps – to mark Dylan’s presence in rock and folk history. To make a milestone.
In his memoir, “Myself Among Others”, Wayne recalls confronting Dylan as he left the stage and insisting that he return to play some acoustics. Years later, Wayne was struck by memories of hearing Dylan sing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, a farewell ballad in more ways than one.
“It was a farewell to the idealism and sanctity of the Folk Resurrection,” Wayne wrote. “There’s no looking back—not for Dylan, not for anybody.”
The Newport festivals have spawned several film and concert albums, most notably Murray Lerner’s Oscar-nominated 1967 documentary “Festival!” With Dylan, Johnny Cash and Howlin’ Wolf among the cast. Wayne would later bring in Led Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown and other rock and rhythm and blues acts. In 2020, when Newport went virtual due to the pandemic, Wayne introduced Mavis Staples from his home in Manhattan.
Wayne himself was a pianist since childhood and maintained an active music career, releasing albums such as “Wayne, Women and Songs,” “Swing That Music” and many more, and performing annually at the Newport Festival with his Newport All-Stars band . He was named a “Jazz Master” in 2005 by the National Endowment for the Arts and received an honorary Grammy in 2014. Years ago, President Bill Clinton brought his saxophone to the White House stage in celebration of the Newport Jazz Festival.
The Newport festival went on despite ongoing conflicts, whether from local objections in Newport, the declining appeal of jazz, or the demands and outrage of musicians.
In the mid-1970s, he was struggling financially and became one of the first popular music promoters to work with corporate sponsors, most notably the makers of Cool Cigarettes.
In 2005, he founded his company, Festival Productions Inc. was sold to Festival Network LLC and played a more limited role in Newport. Six years later, he founded the non-profit Newport Festival Foundation to oversee the summer events.
“I want the festival to last forever,” Wayne told the Associated Press at the time. “It’s not a business thing with me. It’s my life.”