Nonprofit executive transition is happening. It's truly a fact as many of those who might have retired back 10-15 years ago when everyone predicted, actually are retiring. One case in point: George Wein, the Artistic Director of the Newport Jazz Festival. And, yes, as is often the case with the arts and health care and even in some environmental organizations, there are really two execs (aka co-directors): one focused on content and the other focused on finance, management and operations.
The Wall Street Journal article on this subject addresses some of the challenges faced when a long-term executive deems it time to retire after, in this case, 60 years. Challenges for the board include keeping mission-focused and addressing the financial bottom line. And, for the transitioning executive, knowing how to fully turn-over the reigns.
But while on the subject of transition, and this may be more peculiar to the arts than most nonprofits, what about this executive term of sixty years? Is this a really sustainable concept? George Wein IS the institutional history and memory of the Festival presuming that there has been some turnover. At the very minimum, I'm thinking that Mr. Wein has certainly outlived some of those he first recruited to the board. But should a nonprofit board not consider setting some parameters around just how many years makes sense to keep an organization healthy, thriving and adapting to the world. Can one person's vision really serve like the Duracell bunny - just keep going? Or shall we trust that a board will know when it's time to make a change?
Here's the WSJ article.
Newport Jazz Leader Passes the Baton
George Wein, the festival’s artistic director for six decades, will be succeeded by Christian McBride. Mr. Wein has held the position since the festival’s founding in 1954.
July 24, 2016 6:51 p.m. ET
George Wein, one of the most important figures in jazz history, is preparing to step away from his life’s work.
The co-founder of the Newport Jazz Festival will hand over the annual three-day showcase to bassist, band leader and multiple Grammy Award winner Christian McBride when this year’s festival ends on July 31. That transition will mark the first time since the festival began in 1954 that someone other than Mr. Wein is artistic director of Newport, the world’s oldest jazz festival—and one that set the template for modern, multiday music extravaganzas such as Coachella and Bonnaroo.
Now 90 years old, Mr. Wein will be stepping back from an endeavor that allowed him to shape America’s musical tastes and made his reputation as one of the most influential impresarios of the 20th century. He won a lifetime-achievement Grammy Trustees Award in 2015 for his work.
“It’s our job to create a stage for the musicians who deserve to be on that stage,” said Mr. Wein during an interview at his expansive Upper East Side apartment, filled with African and African-American art. “You have to treat that privilege very carefully.”
Mr. McBride, an accomplished bassist who just finished a European tour with pianist Chick Corea, calls Newport one of the touchstones of American culture.
Who’s Thinking About Retirement? (July 30, 2014)
Newport Jazz Festival Immortalized (July 1, 2013)
Jazz Man Honors His Friends (Nov. 30, 2012)
Weekend Conversations: Jazz Legend Chick Corea (Nov. 6, 2011)
Just Asking…Christian McBride (June 20, 2009)
“To follow the history of the Newport jazz festival, is to follow a definitive history of jazz,” he said.
During its heyday, Newport Jazz was a glamorous showcase. It was the site of the renewal of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington’s careers. The festival helped introduce gospel music and singer Mahalia Jackson to white audiences in the U.S. Frank Sinatra once emerged from a helicopter flown onto the festival grounds before performing with the Count Basie Orchestra. In his biography, Mr. Wein called the singer “a god stepping out of the machine.”
Today, Newport Jazz struggles to make money. Its losses are balanced out by the still-profitable Newport Folk Festival, which Mr. Wein co-founded with Pete Seeger in 1959. Both events have been under the same umbrella nonprofit since 2010.
Mr. Wein said his aim this year, as always, is to produce a great festival. This year’s performers include Mr. Corea’s trio with Mr. McBride and Brian Blade on drums. Much-heralded West Coast saxophonist Kamasi Washington plays two out of the three nights, and Norah Jones headlines on Saturday. That night will probably sell out, the first time in a long time that has happened, said Mr. Wein. The folk festival, by contrast, tends to sell out every night in advance.
Jazz traditionalists argue the music lost popular appeal by swinging too far toward a self-indulgent avant-garde. Others say that traditionalists have held the music back, and kept it from evolving with the times.
The festival, during this moment of transition, seems to embody that debate.
John Hailer, chief executive officer for the Americas and Asia of financial firm Natixis Global Asset Management and a member of the Newport Festivals Foundation board, said if the festival is going to thrive, the board and Mr. McBride are going to have to keep it “pure jazz.”
But he struggles to define what exactly that means. “I’m not exactly sure of that; no one is,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it.”
It’s Mr. McBride’s job to distill that idea, he added.
Mr. McBride, who first played Newport in 1991 when he was 19 years old, said the diagnosis isn’t complicated. “Jazz has always had this reputation, for better or worse, for being stuffy, a bit on the conservative side.” He said getting young up-and-coming players onto the stage could help attune new ears to the music.
“Groups with young blood—that’s what you need at a festival,” he said.
Mr. Wein doesn’t seem to hold any fixed notion of purity. A businessman as much as a music lover and performer—he’s a pianist in his own right—he has willingly moved with his audience’s tastes. The 1969 festival, for example, included performances not only by jazz greats Miles Davis and Buddy Rich, but by funk-soul stars James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, and British blues-rockers Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin.
This year, he programmed Mr. Washington on two nights, hoping to put people in the seats who are intrigued by the saxophonist’s background playing with hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar.
“I have an obligation,” said Mr. Wein. “The festival is part of the world. You have to pay attention to what the world says.”
Soon after this festival ends, Mr. Wein said he will be meeting with Mr. McBride and other administrators to start work on next year’s program. It will the first time he won’t be at the center of those discussions.
It won’t be easy, he said: “I will have to just sit back and listen. I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it for the whole meeting.”
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