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Jazz impresario George Wein loves BU, but his undergraduate experience was a little bit out of tune.
“I am closer to Boston University now than when I was actually going to school there, and that means a lot to me,” says the 89-year-old Grammy Award–winning promoter and musician, who will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at BU’s 142nd Commencement on Sunday.
An accomplished jazz pianist, Wein (CAS’50) founded the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, the Newport Folk Festival five years later, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970, as well as many others. In so doing, he changed the way music is presented in America and expanded audiences for jazz, folk, blues, and other roots music forms. Along the way he has befriended many of the most famous names in jazz—some of whom have played with him in his band, the Newport All-Stars. He is credited with boosting the careers of many musicians.
But when Wein first came to BU, after World War II, he had a hard time finding his place.
“My college years, from 18 to 21, were spent in the Army,” he says. “I did not have the campus life, so to speak. When I went to BU, I was already playing piano. I was already an adult. I lived in Boston—I didn’t live in the dorms.”
Wein enrolled in premed courses to please his physician father, Barnet Wein (MED’20), a decision he says “was a mistake.” The work was grueling, and his real passion was performing. He wound up graduating with a degree in history, although he can’t recall what his major was, he says now with a chuckle. But he later briefly taught a course in jazz history at BU.
And some of the things he learned at BU stuck with him. “I had a course in the theory of aesthetics that has helped me all my life,” he says. “It just caused me to think about what the standards are for beauty and for love, on a very aesthetic level, and as I’ve traveled around the world, looking at museums, looking at architecture, that course gave me more enjoyment of life.”
In September 1950, just a few months after graduating, Wein opened a jazz club, George Wein’s Storyville, in the Copley Square Hotel, at Exeter Street and Huntington Avenue. The opening act was the Bob Wilber Sextet, and the club was an immediate success—even more so when, after a concert at Symphony Hall, Louis Armstrong and members of his band dropped by a couple of weeks later to sit in. The club quickly became a regular Boston haunt for the biggest names in jazz, and that lasted until it closed in 1960.
Jazz fan Donald Born, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English, was a Storyville regular, and although Wein hadn’t taken a course with him, they became great friends. Wein’s career as a music-festival organizer had its origins at the club one night in 1953, when Born brought wealthy Newport socialite Elaine Lorillard there. Lorillard, who had been auditing one of Born’s classes, was looking for ways to liven up Newport’s boring summers with some jazz. Born thought Wein might be able to help. The rest is music history.
Lorillard and her husband, Louis, financed the first festival and asked Wein to organize the event. Now in its 61st year, the Newport Jazz Festival attracts more than 13,000 visitors each year, and among this year’s performers are Chris Botti, Arturo Sandoval, and Cassandra Wilson.
In addition to his music career, Wein has also been a noted philanthropist. In 1959, he married Joyce Alexander, and together they donated $1 million to establish the Joyce and George Wein Chair in African American Studies at BU in 2002. They also established the Alexander Family Endowed Scholarship Fund at Simmons College, Joyce Wein’s alma mater. And following her death in 2005, Wein endowed an annual artist prize in her name awarded through the Studio Museum in Harlem.
“African American culture is part of my life; in fact, it is my life,” Wein says. “With jazz, and so many of my friends, and my personal life with my wife, whom I loved and with whom I had such a great 46 years. My wife and I felt that African American studies at BU was very important.”
As for the future of jazz, Wein says he still goes out and listens to new music all the time. “There’s so much new music, but what we lack are the leaders. There’s no Charlie Parker, no Dizzy Gillespie, no Miles Davis, no John Coltrane. People are all searching in their own way, and that’s why it’s so fascinating to go out and hear all these young musicians who all have an education in jazz.
“You’ll find some genius coming. I predict a good future for jazz,” he says. “I’m very proud of what we’re doing at Newport. We’ve got a board of directors, we’re a nonprofit, and people are supporting what we’re doing. I want the festivals to exist after I’m gone, and that’s what I’m devoting my life to right now, building up an endowment. But it all goes back to my own personal education, a lot of which I got at Boston University.”
Wein says that receiving an honorary degree from BU is “a tremendous compliment. When President Brown called me to tell me, I went back to that familiar refrain, ‘I wish my mother and father were here to see this.’ I haven’t said that for years. To receive this honorary degree at Commencement is important to me—I just want you to know that.”
This year’s other BU honorary degree recipients are journalist and TV host Meredith Vieira, who will give the Commencement address, Doctor of Humane Letters; Cornell Brooks (STH’87), president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who will be the Baccalaureate speaker, Doctor of Laws; and trustee Allen Questrom (Questrom’64) and his wife, Kelli Questrom, whose record $50 million gift to BU this spring will expand the Questrom School of Business, Doctor of Humane Letters.
More information about Commencement can be found here.