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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 890

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This is the grave of Joyce Alexander Wein and the future grave of George Wein.

Born in 1928 in Boston, Joyce Alexander was not that far removed from slavery, as two of her mother’s older siblings were born into the servitude. But Joyce got a good education, attending Boston Latin and then on to Simmons College. She majored in chemistry and graduated in 1948, even though she was only 19 at the time. She became a biochemist, first working at Massachusetts General Hospital and then at Columbia Medical School. I don’t know how many Black women were working in these fields in the late 40s and early 50s, but the numbers could not have been very high.

In 1959, Alexander married George Wein. He was born in 1925 in Boston. A skilled pianist, he graduated from Boston University in 1950, after having taken time off to fight in World War II. A jazz fanatic, the year he graduated, he opened the Storyville jazz club in Boston and started the Storyville label. He became known as one of the best jazz scholars in the United States and BU hired him to teach courses on the subject. In 1954, a pair of jazz-loving socialites named Elaine and Louis Lorillard, who lived in the elite city of Newport, Rhode Island invited Wein to start a jazz festival there. The Lorillards were a big enough deal that the 1956 film High Society, with Grace Kelly, was based on their relationship and even partially filmed at their house. Not sure there was a sequel about their 1962 divorce, but I digress.

Anyway, Wein was all-in for the idea of a jazz festival. So was Columbia Records and leading jazz producers such as John Hammond. So the Newport Jazz Festival started in 1954. Wein became the head of it. It was not uncontroversial. Local Newport residents, concerned that this was music played by those people, protested and did not like the young hipsters descending on their elite town and camping out wherever. Wein responded in part by making the festival super white and musically conservative. That led, in 1960, to Charles Mingus and Max Roach hosting an alternative festival at the same time in a different part of Newport that focused more on innovative music and had more Black performers. Newport Jazz has always been a too conservative institution musically in my opinion and remains so today. Looking at the performers this year, it’s just not very interesting.

Wein would go on to help found other jazz festivals across the country, including New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He recorded a few albums of his too. When George and Joyce married in 1959, she dropped out of her job as a biochemist and worked with him on the festivals. They had met all the way back in 1947 at a Sidney Bechet concert in Boston. Her family were huge jazz fans as well, so it’s not too surprising they would meet, even if it took awhile for the flame to ignite. Part of the reason for the long period of time before they married was discomfort with the interracial relationship from both families, though evidently Joyce’s mother was more concerned that a jazz pianist was a poor marriage choice. His father said to go ahead and live with her, but not marry her, evidently hoping he would change his mind. Well, that didn’t happen. They finally married (George’s father refused to speak to him for 7 months after this) and became one of the most important couples in American music. Joyce was critical to the founding of the Newport Folk Festival, the year they married. In this, they worked with another interrracial couple–Pete and Yoshi Seeger. The initial festival included Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Odetta, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and, unfortunately, the Kingston Trio (spit). In 1962, they founded Festival Productions, with George as CEO and Joyce as VP. Both Newport festivals were deactivated–after a rather interesting 1969 folk festival where Johnny Cash invited Kris Kristofferson on stage to launch his solo career and the first big James Taylor performance but where the community was simply not supportive of these weirdos showing up and then after a 1971 jazz festival where there was a riot of some kind. Newport Jazz came back in 1981 and Newport Folk in 1985.

Joyce also was critical to founding the Hampton Jazz Festival at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, at this historically Black institution. Being jazz and folk people, they had to spend a lot of time dealing with crazy people. One story is that when George was shepherding Thelonious Monk on a European tour, he didn’t want to go. He was in bed claiming his hands hurt. She sat on the bed and started kissing his hands and telling him, as you would a small child, “I’ll kiss it and make it better.” So when she did this, he said it was better and then he went on the tour. The Weins also became huge collectors of Black art and they donated much of it to leading art institutions. The funny part about this is how they got the money for this. For awhile, Kool Cigarettes became the sponsor of Newport Jazz. But Newport was also the name of a cancer stick brand. So they paid the Weins a bunch of money to take “Newport” out of the title. They spent that money on art. She spent a great deal of time in philanthropic organizations designed to help other Black women. She was co-founder of the New York Coalition of 100 Black Women. Joyce died in 2005, at the age of 76 after a battle with cancer. George remains alive today. He is 95 years old.

Joyce Alexander Wein is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York. If you are wondering why New York when they are Boston people, that’s because after Ellington was buried there and then Miles wanted to be buried next to him, that section of that cemetery because the hip place for jazz people to end up. The Weins decided to join their friends.

If you would like this series to visit musicians involved in the first Newport Jazz Festival, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Stan Kenton is in Los Angeles and Billie Holiday is in The Bronx, but not Woodlawn. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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