Newport Folk and Jazz Executive Producer Jay Sweet on Pete Seeger’s Handbook, George Wein’s Legacy and Creating a Safe Space for Artists

Dean Budnick on July 21, 2021
Newport Folk and Jazz Executive Producer Jay Sweet on Pete Seeger’s Handbook, George Wein’s Legacy and Creating a Safe Space for Artists

“It’s going to be a family reunion,” Jay Sweet, Newport Folk Festival’s executive producer, says. “This isn’t going to be the Newport Folk Festival, that’s going to be next year. This is going to be Folk On. If anybody wants to know what to expect, we basically invited anybody who’s ever played the festival to come back. We’re not just going for the big Dolly Parton or Roger Waters or Jack White-type surprises. Instead, we’re going to dust off the strings and see if we can do this.”

After canceling the 2020 festival due to COVID, this year Newport will operate at half-capacity over six days (July 23-28) rather than the standard three. Sweet—who began his current role in 2008 after working as an editor at Paste magazine and a music consultant for TV and film—acknowledges that pulling it all together given the shifting sands of the state’s various COVID protocols “has been the most difficult challenge of my professional career.”

Sweet also admits that some of his internal pressures originate from a sense of responsibility to perpetuate a storied legacy. He notes, “Each year, we’re adding another chapter to the longest book in music history. If you step back and think about it, George Wein and Pete Seeger created the word ‘festival’ the way that we’re using it. Before that there were just wine and opera festivals in Europe. The movie Festival! is about Newport because, for 10 years before Woodstock, in this country the word ‘festival’ meant ‘Newport.’ Literally, the words were synonymous with each other.”

Of course, there are two major festivals at Fort Adams State Park each summer—and the Newport Jazz Festival will return at a reduced capacity from July 30-August 1. Sweet has an intimate connection with this event as well, having taken on the role of executive producer a decade after starting with Folk. Beyond all that, he serves as executive director of the Newport Festivals Foundation, which remained active during the pandemic, distributing over 450 grants to artists in crisis.

Can you share some insight into what it’s been like working on Newport Folk and making so many decisions with everything seemingly still in flux due to COVID?

It’s been unnerving, not only because of the personal and professional difficulties we’ve all faced, but also because of the moving targets. We’ve been jumping through various hoops, with the protocols and precautions and limitations and rules and regulations. But then, with a month left, we were told we could actually do whatever we wanted. That put us in a difficult position because it’s possible that the people who originally agreed to come to the event were doing so because of the 50-percent capacity rule. That’s why they felt good about it. But then you think, “What about the other 50 percent who don’t get to come?” You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But, ultimately, if I were to try to expand the capacity, a lot of the people who have stepped up and engaged with us would be upset.

It’s easy to play a game when you know the rules, but what happens when the rules keep changing in the middle of the game? Not only that, but what happens when it becomes a totally new game? And then at the last minute we’re told we can go back to the original game?

However, the narrative that really should take center stage is that America’s first music festival is going to be the first music festival of any note to come back. By that I mean that it is the first festival with a pedigree and a heritage like Newport that is coming back. For a while, I was on the phone with the people who run the biggest festivals in the world, and they were all asking me: “Hey, will you go out there?” We never changed our date. It was fascinating just how much support I received from other promoters because no one wanted to be the first to announce. Then, once we announced that we were doing it, everybody started announcing. Other promoters had been actively checking the discussion boards to see how people felt about Newport before making a decision about their events that are 10 times our size. So it’s been an unnerving experience to be supported, but still be the canary in the coal mine of festivals.

One of the challenges that you must face as an independent entity is competing for talent with Live Nation and AEG, which control much of the festival market. How has that impacted you this year?

It’s been incalculably harder, particularly because you are trying to invite artists who haven’t been able to make a living. Those two companies run 90 percent of the live music industry. It’s really tough to operate within that paradigm during a normal year. So how do you try to operate outside that duopoly when you have no money because you gave all your money away during the pandemic to people in need? That’s what we did. We didn’t close up shop. We paid our staff. And not only that, but we also spent the year as a non-profit. We supported a hundred different music organizations, and we also ran the Newport Festivals Musician Relief Fund that’s already given out 450 grants to artists.

I describe it as a watermelon and a raisin. We’re the raisin, but we’re equally as sweet as the watermelon, which is anything that AEG or Live Nation produces.

The whole festival paradigm was created by George Wein and Pete Seeger. Festivals are the artists’ payday for eight to nine weeks, and then hard-ticket club shows are kind of the tick on the back of the rhino. And then there’s us. We’re kind of like the sucker fish on the shark because, without Live Nation, these artists can’t afford to go play our event because we can’t afford to pay these artists on a similar scale. That allows us to raise money for people in need and spotlight new talent.

Technically, we don’t even make offers. We send out invitations with stipends. I know it’s phraseology, but the reality is: People get invited and they either say yes or no. Then we figure out how to pay for it, so they don’t lose money. You have to get invited to Newport. It’s an invitation-only event.

In a normal year, people say, “Hey, Jay, we’re going to do it because we’re back from a European tour and we’ve got these seven huge festivals that we’re doing.” So they decide to take a three-day respite, a paid vacation so to speak, in the middle of that, come to Newport and hang out for three days.

But when we are the payday, we don’t have the financial wherewithal to compete. So when you have these artists who haven’t had a job in 18 months getting offers that are 10 times what I’m offering, they have to take the other gigs because they haven’t had a paycheck in so long.

I understand all that. But, at the same time, the people who did agree to play did so because of the familial aspects. When you get invited to a family reunion, you try your hardest to show up.

How have other festivals’ radius clauses impacted your lineup over the past few years? Since you sell out so quickly without announcing any artists, does that still come into play? [Ed. Note: A radius clause is a provision of a performance contract by which a festival blocks an artist from appearing and/or announcing other gigs within a proscribed number of miles for a specified period of time.]

That’s another example of where we’ve had to make lemonade out of lemons because every single music festival, no matter how new, has had the juice to demand that certain artists do not play Newport. In fact, we have seen actual contracts that don’t put it in a radius clause. Instead, they actually say, “By agreeing to play this event, you agree to not play the Newport Folk Festival.”

Like you said, that’s interesting because all the tickets are still sold out in minutes before we announce a single artist. Even if someone found out that an artist was playing Newport, they couldn’t get a ticket, so it shouldn’t have a negative impact on any other festival.

While that has been frustrating, the way that we originally combatted it was that we just said, “OK, we won’t announce a lineup,” which has become part of what makes Newport pretty unique. In any given year, 25-50 percent of the lineup is never even released. I always say, “If you want to know who played Newport, then ask me the Monday after it’s over.” I don’t know if Roger Waters is going to sing a song with John Prine. I mean, I hope he will, but I don’t really know if he will until it happens. I don’t know if Chris Thile is going to get on a helicopter and fly up from New York at the last minute to play “My Oh My” with Jon Batiste during the “A Change is Gonna Come” set. I have a pretty good handle on it, but I don’t know.

I invite a lot of people the same way that you invite people to a party. And while it might look like you’re going to have a hundred people, when you have the party 140 people might actually show up. That’s Newport because everyone’s like, “Hey, I saw so-and-so. I thought I’d bring them.”

It’s a bold move to go on sale without an artist announcement. Can you recall what was going through your head the first time you did so?

It’s exhilarating and terrifying to know that the tickets are going to be gone within minutes, before anybody even knows who’s playing. I remember that first year, right after we’d sold out, I went out and tried to go get Beck. People were asking me: “What are you doing? You’re sold out. Why are you adding more artists?” And I was like, “Well, I gotta make good on the people who trusted us.” I ended up spending more money in a year when we sold out well in advance, without people knowing who was actually playing, because there’s a sense of trust there. There is a bond.

At this point, our only benchmark is ourselves, but I take it extremely personally. After the first time that it happened, my thought was, “OK, here’s where we stop comparing ourselves to anybody. The only thing we compare ourselves to is our own chapters that have come before. That’s it.”

I’ve already lost so much hair, and some of my health, frantically trying to enhance the experience for the people who have trusted us. I’ve become near manic. And to be brutally honest with you, it’s caused postpartum depression. That’s about as honest and transparent as I can be.

I go through a massive depression after the event. What gets me back is that energy reserve from the fans and the artists. That’s what makes me want to go do it again.

We run a year-round music foundation. The crazy thing is that people know my team’s work for six days—it’s nine this year—but all the other days, we’re kind of doing the more important stuff. We’re donating instruments to Puerto Rico after a hurricane or to Houston after a flood. We’re just trying to get some normalcy back into some kids’ lives when their world gets turned upside down by giving them music as an outlet to express themselves despite the fear and craziness. That’s the stuff that takes an emotional toll.

What we remind ourselves in the office is that the weekends are supposed to be a celebration of all the work we do year-round. But it’s sure-as-shit exhausting planning that celebration.

Have you been able to apply what you learned on the Folk side to Jazz? How compatible have you found the two events?

First off, let me say that I stole Pete Seeger’s handbook and that, whenever I come to a quandary, I say, “What would Pete do?” Pete Seeger inspired the Beat Generation, which inspired the hippies and on and on. Pete would hitchhike around the country and hang out with Woody Guthrie. Pete Seeger introduced Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.

When I interviewed Robert Hunter, he said that if it wasn’t for Pete Seeger, then he would have never met Jerry Garcia. They met trying to figure out a Pete Seeger song. Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter once wrote a letter to Pete Seeger, and Pete wrote them back. When I asked Hunter if he still had that letter, he told me: “If my house were to go up in flames, I would grab the photo album and the letter that Pete Seeger wrote to Jerry Garcia and me.” Hunter also said that he and Garcia would reference that letter throughout their entire relationship.

Of course, Pete Seeger’s best friend was George Wein and there wouldn’t be a festival without George, who did whatever was needed to keep it active and vital, with all the right ideals, for so many years.

Having said all that, when it comes to the Jazz artists, I have yet to be accepted in the same way that I have been accepted by the Folk artists. But I recognize that it takes time. It’s taken me a decade-plus to get Folk to a place where I feel that it’s getting closer to my ideal of what it should be. Meanwhile, I have been an advocate for these folk artists, even the ones that don’t play my event. That has taken a lot of focus and energy.

When it comes to Jazz, I know the history and I believe in the mission but I’m still learning so much. If you were to say that my family of folk artists is a tight-knit group, then you’d be right. But the jazz artists might comprise the most collaborative and competitive community that still considers themselves family. Everyone is trying to outdo each other, but they’re still family. If they get threatened from the outside, they band together. It’s such a unique dynamic, and I’m very fortunate that I have some amazing people like Christian McBride, Kamasi Washington, Nate Smith and Robert Glasper, who have basically held my hand and said, “Come in the door with us. Because if you come in the door with us, the record won’t skip and everybody won’t turn around and be like, ‘Who’s this cat?’”

One of the things that I hope I’ve learned from Folk, that can translate to Jazz, is the ability to create a safe space for artists to be able to take chances. I only get my talons out when someone threatens the safety of the stage. And what I mean by that is that I want my artists to have the ability to speak their mind. I don’t have to agree with what they are saying, but no one gets to say what an artist can or can’t do on that stage. So I truly hope that, as the jazz community opens its doors a bit, these artists will feel like they’re in a safe and trusted space. And I hope that they will take some chances and collaborate.

Quite frankly, I’ve found that the idea of improvisation and taking chances is not as prevalent in the performing of gigs as you’d imagine. It’s interesting because I’ll see three artists at the festival that have done an album together in the last five years and they’ll only give each other nods. One might assume that these artists would definitely drop in on each other’s sets because they just did an album together. But if an artist is there with a specific project, then that’s the focus. They are not as open to bringing up special guests and just kind of winging it and possibly screwing up.

There’s a certain looseness to the Folk side; I’ve seen more people get standing ovations for fucking up than for nailing it. And they’ll get that standing ovation because they were trying to do something new—“Hey, I’ve never played this song live but I’m trying.” Someone will get up and sing with Kris Kristofferson and only know every other word but they’ll try it. And that’s what’s encouraged. The audience embraces that because they didn’t even know who was playing when they bought the ticket; they bought the ticket to witness this real, in-the-moment thing that can’t be duplicated. That’s what they’re there for.

They want to go see James Taylor sing with Sheryl Crow and try to pick up the chords as they’re going along. That’s cooler than, “James, let’s rehearse this seven more times because we’ve really gotta nail it when we get out there on the Newport stage.” People would rather see him come directly off his boat—wearing his boat shoes—walk across the lawn, right through the middle of the audience and get onstage. Then somebody hands him a guitar and he’s trying to figure out the chords while he’s playing. And that’s awesome. I think Jazz is heading in the right direction, though.

There’s a great, new generation of people that you’re focusing on in Relix. I think this generation is very much in tune with what I’m laying down when it comes to that. So I think Jazz will get there.