Newport Jazz Festival gets new leader, $10M promise

AP News
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Posted: Mar 10, 2016 8:38 PM
Newport Jazz Festival gets new leader, $10M promise

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Jazz impresario George Wein took another step to secure the future of his 62-year-old Newport Jazz Festival on Thursday, as the nonprofit foundation that runs it named Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride as artistic director.

Wein, who is 90, also told The Associated Press that he planned to donate the bulk of his estate, around $10 million, to the foundation upon his death so that the jazz festival and its sister Newport Folk Festival can continue for years to come. Wein produced this year's festival completely, but recognizes he's old and his hearing and health have started to diminish even as he remains mentally sharp.

"Not many people can engineer their own demise," Wein said. "I've been working on this a few months with Christian. Nobody knew about it. I wanted to make sure Christian was the right person."

McBride will work side-by-side with Wein and take the reins for the 2017 festival. From then on, McBride will choose who plays at the festival and have final say on festival programming, Wein said.

"He will be as creative as he chooses to be. It's an opportunity for him to make his mark that will last forever," Wein said, adding that he may "stick my nose in" from time to time.

McBride is a bassist, composer and educator. The Philadelphia native attended Juilliard and has performed on recordings with musicians including Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Wynton Marsalis, Sting, The Roots and Paul McCartney. He has won five Grammys. He also hosts and produces radio shows on SiriusXM and NPR. He has played regularly at Newport since 1991.

McBride, speaking via Skype following a performance in Oslo, Norway, on Thursday, said he was humbled to be appointed to lead the "granddaddy of all music festivals" and excited to learn at Wein's elbow as an understudy.

Wein swore him to secrecy when they began discussions in October and told him he would never want McBride to stop being a musician to sit behind a desk to run the festival. He told McBride he chose him because of his credibility as a musician and curator. McBride has served as artistic director and adviser for several other groups.

McBride said Newport is deeply rooted in jazz yet dedicated to musically diverse styles and artists, and that's what makes the festival so special. He recalled when Mos Def performed at the festival, backed by a New Orleans jazz band.

"You saw this cross-cultural thing with hip-hop and New Orleans jazz. It was absolutely brilliant," he said.

The Newport Jazz Festival was the first outdoor jazz festival and is among the most respected, having hosted some of the most famous acts and memorable performances in jazz. Wein, a jazz pianist, came up with the idea after Newport socialite Elaine Lorillard asked him to bring jazz to the seaside resort town to liven things up. He later founded the folk festival.

Wein sold the festivals in 2007 and they almost went under. He reassumed control in 2009 and named Jay Sweet to produce the folk festival, then established the foundation in 2010. Sweet was promoted last year to executive producer of the foundation. Also getting a promotion Thursday is Danny Melnick, associate producer of the jazz festival who will now be producer and will run the business end of the jazz festival.

Wein said McBride is well-liked and relates both personally and musically to many different kinds of musicians, from John Zorn to traditional players. And he's now comfortable that the foundation will have the money and leadership it needs to remain a viable, contemporary festival after he's gone.

"I never worry about legacy. People forget. I know so many musicians that I worshipped, nobody knows now. I know it will be the same thing with me," Wein said. "But the Newport festivals will go on. Maybe somebody will remember I created it."