Octojazzarian profile: george wein

For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their eighth decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.

Our subject this month is pianist and impresario George Wein.

By arnold jay smith

                     George Wein by Suzanne Cerny

The pianist and impresario George Wein (b. 1925) founded the concept of the alfresco jazz festival. "I'm sure my father would have preferred me being a medical man like him," he often said. "But both my parents were very supportive when I opened my first nightclub, Storyville, in Boston in 1950." Medicine's loss was jazz's gain. Although we'd palavered many times prior, we recently sat down for a pair of formal interviews. Our first occurred last fall in Wein's art-filled New York apartment. We talked about everything, from his career in music to his love of fine art and great wines—all the while trying to avoid going over the same ground covered in his book Myself Among Others (Da Capo). The second came this spring over the phone, when breaking news regarding the coming summer festival season demanded a followup.

The latter developments prove more pressing, for they directly pertain to the survival of Wein's babies—the summer jazz festivals he founded more than a half-century ago. Those festivals were jeopardized when he sold his Festival Productions to a group calling itself Festival Network, which subsequently ran into steep financial difficulties.

"They just ran out of money. They couldn't pay their bills, mine included," said Wein, alluding to the swirl of controversy which surrounded Festival Network's inability to pay not only his advisory fee, but the city of Newport's park fees, and any other payments needed to keep the storied Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals alive in '09. When all seemed lost, Wein stepped in. There will be festivals this summer at Ft. Adams in Newport, RI, but since the names "Newport Jazz" and "Newport Folk" were sold outright to FN, they'll be called "George Wein's Jazz Festival 55 at Newport" (see schedule and lineup here) and "George Wein's Folk Festival 50 at Newport," to honor their respective anniversaries.

"Everything you've read in the press is true," Wein lamented. He seemed saddened that the FN relationship had come to such a crashing end via the press. "The press has been good to us for all these years, in Newport and when we came to New York City in 1972. New York was a jazz desert in the '70s. Carnegie and Avery Fisher [nee Philharmonic] Halls were shuttered for the summer. Radio City offered us midnight concerts for a $10 ticket which wouldn't cover stage hands today. The Staten Island Ferry, the Apollo—at reduced prices—opened their doors and gangplank to us." Over the years other, shall we call them mini-festivals—grass-roots things—sprung up: the Greenwich Village Jazz Festival, Bell Atlantic Festival, Vision Festival, and others, each taking a page from the Wein playbook.

Now the Apple will be without a big summer festival for the first time in 37 years. JVC—the main sponsor for NYC, Newport and a host of other near-jazz festivals—has pulled back due to the faltering economy. GM has done the same in Canada. [Why are my taxes paying to name the Mets new stadium after a nearly dead bank, while the Mets raise ticket prices through the roof? But I digress.] Corporate sponsorship of festivals was another Wein initiative. Some of his former affiliations have included American Airlines, Schaefer Beer, and Kool cigarettes. [Factoid: The name "Newport" was dropped from the original "Kool/Newport Jazz Festivals" because Newport was a rival killer product.]

"You can't blame JVC for pulling out. If business is bad you have to cut back," Wein said almost apologetically. "I bear them no ill will, nor do I carry a grudge towards Festival Network." This last part bothers me. I'll carry that grudge for him, for what has and what almost happened. The demise of a large NYC Jazz Fest is blunted by the fact that, as Wein stated, New York is a jazz festival all year long. Ok, we dodged a bullet on that one. If truth be told, as Wein said "without the big names we lose money." Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and other pop, blues and R&B artists close to but not really jazz filled past JVC/NYC Festivals purses. There was precedent for that booking policy which began in Newport. The fans of a rock band stormed the Newport stage. Even Bob Dylan went electric for the first time at a Newport Folk Festival. [Wein assured me that Pete Seeger was not backstage with an ax poised to cut the cables. Nice folk tale, though.]

Most JVC/NYC jazz concerts, while artistically masterful, were undersold. Experiments like 2008's New York Ethical Culture Society chamber series were financial disasters, if the empty seats were any judge. But that's what George Wein is all about, bringing jazz to venues in cities where you would least expect, including college auditoriums and post-concert nightclub two-fers. "I need a mission, a message to bring to my audiences. If I'm not enjoying them, how can I expect the listeners to enjoy them? Just in case we get a sponsor, I have booked four concerts in New York for summer '09: Diana Krall for two, Jamie Cullum, and Joăo Gilberto." [N.B.: The Gilberto has been postponed.]

George Wein is more than an impresario who brought us jazz festivals; he's also an accomplished pianist who introduces young or underexposed talent via his Newport All Stars touring band. Recently he was in Europe with bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding and multi reed player Anat Cohen, and brought them to the Newport stage. And in the finale of a three concert piano series at New York's Zankel Hall in the spring of 2009, Wein presented no fewer than 15 performers, ranging from his contemporaries Dick Hyman and Bucky Pizzarelli, to Cohen and Howard Alden.

The series was dedicated to his late wife, confidant, and business partner, Joyce. "I miss her, so I thought I'd play tunes with that feeling in mind," Wein said. "The first was an old Tin Pan Alley tune, which I love called 'I'm Stepping Out With a Memory Tonight.'" I told him that I had never heard it, so he sang it for me. I looked it up and came up with Allie Wrubel, music, and Herb Magidson, lyrics. Never heard of them? Together and with others they composed tunes for the movies and elsewhere such as "The Continental," "Gone With the Wind," "I'll Dance at Your Wedding," "Enjoy Yourself," "The Lady In Red," "The Masquerade Is Over," and one of my favorites, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." His second selection was also by Wrubel and Magidson, "Music, Maestro, Please." Wein's final selection was dedicated to all those who are involved in the Wall Street debacle: "If you can't find a job," he quipped, "you can always be 'Just a Gigolo.'"

Getting back to economics and declining housing values, Wein noted that the headquarters for his Festival Productions was located in one of those designer architect brownstones on the Upper Westside. "We sold it just at the right time," George said. "[To purchase the house in the early '80s] we had to borrow $50,000, which was half of what it cost at the time." Imagine that. $100K for a building that even now is worth millions? "I couldn't get a mortgage and I didn't have $100,000 cash, but I borrowed and paid it off." I expect that some of the proceeds went to CPR for Newport. "The house was then sold to the Festival Productions corporation, so whatever repairs, and there were very few, were tax deductible. "The entire house was offices; I didn't even have a bed in there." His was the only business on the otherwise non-business-zoned residential block, "but the neighbors didn't care because it wasn't a walk-in business." Getting a mortgage has historically been difficult for jazz people, but one neighbor who evidently knew better said it was ok, "so long as it wasn't a message parlor, or something," he remarked.

Speaking of people who know … After reading a New York Times article about George's extensive wine collection, my doctor, knowing that I write about jazz, asked me if knew him (mispronouncing his name to rhyme with the grape product in question). Of course, I expounded on our relationship. It seems that my doctor and his wife and George and Joyce were in the same club which seeks out and encourages African-American artists, much the same as Bill & Camille Cosby. Later that year at a JVC/NYC announcement party, I mentioned my doctor to George, who tugged my sleeve and said, "It's always good to have something personal with your doctor." I took his advice seriously and now I will not do business with any professional who does not know something about jazz (or baseball). If they don't know about jazz then they can't understand my needs.

Jazz isn't George Wein's only interest. He is a multifarious, dare I say Renaissance, human. His art collection is extensive and museum-like in its eclectic tastes. "I have a Chagall, a Renoir, a Dubuffet, all of which I bought years ago before prices went crazy." I mentioned that there was precedent for jazz people to collect fine art, namely Norman Granz who used Dubuffet prints in the original boxed set of Ella Sings Gershwin. "Granz had a tremendous art collection," Wein said. "He became friends with Picasso." Granz named his last record label, Pablo, after him; the logo is a Picasso drawing. "Picasso dedicated a painting to his friend Norman Granz," Wein said. "I once saw it come up for auction. The dedication was right there on the painting," he remembered. "Norman used to show me a coin on which Picasso engraved his name. His widow sold some of the art at auction and, from what I hear, did very well." Wein said that Granz was a very smart man with lots of chutzpah. He was among the first people in jazz I had heard of who moved to Switzerland to protect his wealth. "He became a Swiss citizen to avoid American taxes," Wein continued. "He owed a fortune in taxes. He probably had to pay some of it even after he left this country."

While based in Europe, Granz began a new series called "Jazz at The Philharmonic in Europe." Wein continued to wax on about his friend. "Norman had already sold Verve to MGM and formed Pablo. He was losing a lot of money when Ken Glancy of RCA stepped in and bailed him out." Wein sort of laughed and said, "I wouldn't want to leave this country. I pay my taxes and enjoy my life in New York."

Wein no longer owns property in France, Connecticut, or New York City, save the current flat ("which could flatten the Taj Mahal": Nicely Nicely Johnson). "When my wife died, I just sold everything. I have enough money to give away and live on for the rest of my life."

As we danced from topic-to-topic (avoiding his book), we lighted on George Wein, oenophile. "When I moved from France I gave away a lot of wine and shipped some home." The stateside stash was stored in a "walk-in closet" in the W. 74th St. headquarters. Walk-in closet does not cover the topic. Larger than my first apartment in the Village, the room housed an imposing collection which is now stored "somewhere in Yonkers. I have about 2000 bottles left. A lot of them are getting old." That's not as contradictory as it sounds. "Some wines don't wear as well as others, so I give them away to charities such as the Harlem Childrens Zone." The money the organizations get for a dinner where they serve the rare vintages George donates goes directly to them. "We've been doing this for the past 12 years, and we've raised over $600,000."

He hasn't seriously bought wines in some time. He's not into collecting anything anymore. "I'm enjoying life. I miss Joyce terribly. [They were married for 46 years.] I have a lot of friends; I take a lot of trips. I like ships. I volunteer to play on them and the other passengers love it because they're all my age and I really know how to reach 'em." [He smiled at the thought.] The last ship trip was a short one from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg, Russia, through the breathtaking Swedish Archipelago, about 200 people. "I did 45 minutes one night, and when I walked into the dining room it was like I was a diva: they all stood up and cheered." The sublime look on his face made me feel that he was reliving that moment.

George is playing more: Newport, Dizzy's Club Coca Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Zankel. "I'm playing better than ever in my life because," he said good-naturedly, "I don't give a damn what you critics say or think. I used to worry because they used to say that I had no right to play at my own festivals. I was intimidated and consequently didn't play as much as I should have. But when I went back to Dizzy's last year I enjoyed it so I thought I'd do more." He'll be at the '09 Festival International de Jazz de Montreal to play and receive an award. Then he'll do Europe such as Holland to receive their Charlie Parker Award. "Hey, I'm the grand daddy of all those festivals."

While on the subject of European tours, I asked George how his accompanying musicians in Berne came to include two the young women, Spalding and Cohen. He had heard them during the preceding year (2006), especially Spalding, as a bassist and not a singer. He asked if they would come along and they acceded. The rest of the band was Randy Brecker (61), Howard Alden (41), Jimmy Cobb (78), Spalding (23), Cohen (22) and Wein (82). "And we played together as if we'd been doing it all our lives. My instructions were to play like you're having fun. They did."

The group was introduced to the '08 Newport Jazz Festival audiences, with the addition of Esperanza vocalizing on "Midnight Sun" to loud cheers. "With the right direction she'll go to the moon," Wein boasted. "She plays and sings so many Brazilian tunes that you'd think she was a native. She's from Jersey! She's brilliant, speaks many languages and was the youngest professor at Berkley in its history."

Education has always been important to Wein. "I gave the first lectures on jazz history for credit at Boston University some 40 years ago. For two years I was an instructor on the history and evolution of jazz. They paid me $750/semester. I wrote a syllabus, gave exams and grades and the students got three credits. Now jazz is part of the curriculum of every major school in the country." Let's hope it stays that way.

Wein says his own book, written with Nate Chinen, is not a textbook. It was written from the inside. "I knew everyone from about 1948-9. You have to know something about jazz to read my book. I didn't tell the significance of this one or that one, or discussed the various styles. I talked only about personal experiences. I talked about [Thelonious] Monk, [Duke] Ellington, Miles [Davis], [Charles] Mingus and the others only from my personal dealings with them, the incidents, anecdotes. No hearsay." He did use one third party story from Eliot Hoffman, his lawyer who was John Coltrane's road manager for a tour. "Eliot told me of waking up one morning to music coming from Trane's room. It was Trane playing the violin! But that was personal hearsay."

He has asked his other road warriors on staff to put their recollections on tape and he would do another book and call it "Road Stories." "These writers who maybe interview artists once then write a book with insights into them, that's not the way," Wein said. "Or the writers who collect their interviews into a book. Don't misunderstand me; it's great to gain different perspectives. But I enjoyed doing my book because it brought back a lot of memories."

In 1956, the world woke up to the Newport Jazz Festival with Duke Ellington's performance. Much has been written about the actual concert, the LP which came from it (or did it?), the CD which came from that, who did what, post-production-wise, and even about the tall willowy blond who broke up the crowd. So controversial and important was that event that a book has been written about the circumstances surrounding Ellington at Newport 1956 [Backstory in Blue: Ellington at Newport '56 by John Fass Morton (Rutgers University Press)]. "It took a vast amount of research to write that," Wein noted. "I read that book and it's like I'm there with him all over again. He did a masterful job of recreating what happened that night including interviewing the family of that blond, Elaine Anderson. She was from a rich family from Fall River with Boston real estate connections."

Word on the street was that Wein wanted Duke to make a statement and not just a set of his hits. And that others played light and loose in the editing studio. "There was lots of innuendo on 'Diminuendo,''' he began. "I don't know what happened in New York. I heard that [George] Avakian did some things.

I got a call from Duke while I was in the Lorrilards' house in Newport [the tobacco heirs and the original sponsors of the NJF]. I don't know how he got that number, but he did. He asked, 'What's happening up in Newport.' I replied that the whole world is coming to hear him. I asked what he was planning for the program. He said that he would do a couple of things, then a medley. I said, 'Edward. I am working my fingers to the bones to preserve the genius that is Ellington. I'm not getting any help from you; you'd better come in here swinging.'" Original works were never a topic during that call. Wein's best guess is that Ellington was already writing the Newport Festival Suite, which was supposed to be the climax of the set. "He wasn't going to tell me that until the day of," Wein surmised and gave an ironic laugh.

Surprise! The Suite, not the best example of extended Ellingtonia, paled next to the other musical fireworks: Louie Bellson's "Skin Deep" and "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." The latter was not originally penned with the "wailing interval," but at Newport that year it was Paul Gonsalves and history. "I know that they went into a studio on Friday and came up on Saturday. I wanted him to cut the program." Wein's voice is heard on the re-released CD urging Ellington to conclude. It was the first time that that much enthusiasm was heard at a jazz concert and it frightened him. "I learned something from that night. Whenever a crowd gets that excited you play a slow blues. Duke called out Johnny Hodges who played 'Jeep's Blues.' The crowd calmed down right away." "Jeep's" was followed by "All of Me," another Hodges staple.

Newport was lily white. On the lawn of the town's Tennis Hall of Fame museum, men played wearing white uniforms with other strict dress codes. I Wein asked if race was a problem. "Race problems were everywhere at that time (1954)," he said. "You had trouble getting a hotel room in Boston if you were black with or without a reservation. Musicians never stayed in downtown hotels; they stayed in bed and breakfasts on Columbus Ave. Most of the racism in Newport came from the naval base, and the kids going to school there. We cleaned that up after the first year. They were just doing was what the accepted norm everyplace else. They changed that for fear of bad publicity.

"I married an African-American woman in 1959 [prior to any civil rights legislation]. I never had a problem. We'd have been put in jail in 25% of the states [due to miscegenation laws]. Whatever success I've had in life has been because of friends, white and black, who believed in me and Joyce. We went south and I was given keys to cities. I knew there was this good strain in the American psyche."

The topic brought us inevitably to President Obama. "I saw grown people, white people, crying [real tears] that at last America has woken up," Wein noted. "In retrospect it doesn't surprise me. Going into it, it surprised me." In the spirit of full disclosure, Wein was a contributor to the campaign to the maximum allowed. He has been generous to journalistic causes as well, notably the Jazz Journalists Association. "I feel sorry for jazz journalists. You are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to earning a living. You probably get paid less than anyone else writing on a continual basis. As a professional form I think it is quite stifled. You deserve better."

Wein was very close to Duke Ellington "right up until his death. He trusted me from the time he played at the first Storyville in the Copley Square Hotel. I'd go up to his room, bring him ice cream while he'd be on the phone with Billy Strayhorn." [If they were writing, just think of the hotel telephone bill!] "Somewhere along the way, he realized I wasn't just a businessman, that I wasn't in it to make a buck, and that I loved him and his music." Wein wanted to be Ellington's manager. "I needed a gig and Duke happily knew I wasn't what he wanted as management material."

Wein had managerial experience: Jackie & Roy, Teddi King, Jackie Paris, Lee Konitz. He was conflicted between booking artists on his festival and producing the festival itself. "I knew that the talent was very good, but they weren't Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan," Wein explained. "It wasn't a matter of comparing them but rather their place in the [jazz] spectrum. The way I was building Newport in those days I was trying to incorporate as much as I could and with the greatest names." Remember all the great jazz innovators were still alive and all played Newport no matter what their musical genre. Wein had his pick of the best. "[With fewer marquee names] now it's very difficult."

Wein's is the paradigm of the festival format—in the U.S., Europe and Scandinavia, for jazz, R&B and rock. It's hard not to follow as successful a format as Newport's. About Woodstock, he said that he had no input. "Except that some of my people were involved: sound, lighting, crowd control. They were not fulltime employees but had some years of experience with me at Newport." Although some would disagree, he takes no credit for the Woodstock event. With a very little prodding I got him to lose some of the humility. "Look," he said. "Monterey Jazz came out because of Newport. Monterey Pop followed. In that case, sure, we had an influence. Before that it was all classical: the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia, the Boston Pops at Charles River. There had been some ballpark events, charities. But everything else happened [and we hope continues to happen] because of Newport."

There was a Randall's Island Jazz Festival on that East River Island where Lollapalooza has been presented. Cirque du Soleil pitches its tent nearby. Without George Wein, summer events like those would have never happened. "As a result, there was a spate of jazz club openings," Wein noted. "Festivals involving clubs [begun in Scandinavia] were started here by us." Later the idea was picked up in Greenwich Village and elsewhere. Credit Wein with bringing back an Apple as the symbol of New York City. Food festivals with music were called "A Bite of the Apple" with a bitten- into delicious in the form of the skyline as its logo. "The New York concert halls now stay open throughout the summer thanks to our initiative," Wein pointed out. Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors is another resultant series, as are so many municipal music events throughout the country.

There were other George Wein concepts which are often overlooked. Some were financially successful, others weren't. All were musically important. "The New York Jazz Repertory Co." was a series of thematic all-star assemblages held at Carnegie Hall. "That was a very simple thing in my estimation," he said. "Why should the music of a great jazz musician have to die when he or she dies?" he asked rhetorically. His answer came without as breath. "We have to record it." That's what he did. In the beginning, the concept was to have current musicians play the music of the masters as they wrote it. Then something changed. At Wein's urging the NYJRC incorporated arrangers. "Dick Hyman did some re-arranging for us such as the Louis Armstrong Hot Five recordings written for three trumpets; he re-wrote Jelly Roll Morton for big band, and in one of the greatest concerts in history he took Erroll Garner piano solos and wrote them as big band arrangements with the Garner steady staccato left hand played by the saxophones. There was no piano involved at all."

There were concerts revolving around the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis with Gil Evans. My personal recollection was of the Thelonious Monk night. Monk was ill and at curtain time he was not there. Wein was prepared with a couple of other pianists: Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris. Just as Harris was set to take the stage, who appears in the wings? Monk. He played the entire concert, never said a word, and walked off.

"The concept of playing the music as they [the originators] played it by musicians who don't understand the feeling …" he trailed off. "For example, when Baby Dodds played the drums for Louis, he played as only he knew how. I have this fight with Wynton [Marsalis] all the time. If you're going to play that kind of music it's gotta swing. You can't ask your drummer to play drums the way he doesn't know how. You gotta know what you're doing; you've gotta live it. It's like American musicians trying to play Latin rhythms. They can only approximate it."

A later Wein incarnation, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, was formed to these ears almost as a response to Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The latter was a strictly repertoire aggregation, while the former swung harder and utilized newer arrangements. Sometimes they even played the same tunes, the one perfectly mimicking the original while the other shortened intervals, juxtaposed harmonies, and took the piece someplace else than what was intended. Wein: "I would sit down with Jon Faddis [CHJB's leader] and say let's not play so-and-so's music as it was written. Let's play it some other way. Let's get some of the new arrangers to rewrite it in a more contemporary style." Carnegie ran out of support money, and CHJB folded.

While he tried valiantly to not quote from his book, Wein could not resist a Louis vignette. "I once asked him why it is that no one played the way you do. Everyone was on top of the beat; you are behind it. In other words, where did that swing feeling come from? Where did you learn that? He replied that he just played the way he sang. I didn't ask him why he sang that way.

"Some players can swing without ever hitting on the after beat, without that traditional 'swing.' Danilo Perez is that way. He teaches you that you can swing without [he demonstrates with finger-snapping accenting 2 & 4]. I once played with Elvin Jones and I told him that I could even find [his] 'one.' Elvin laughed."

Will there be a Wein Newport Jazz 56 and a Wein Newport Folk 51? "Let's bring this one off first."

REGRETS: "One of the things I should have done when I was touring Europe with all these guys who were already stars or soon to become stars. I should have made 200 albums. There are records out which were made from my tours. I did some, but not enough. But that's minor. I have no real regrets."

Missed opportunities? "I missed Bing Crosby; I would have liked to present him with the likes of Red Norvo, Pee Wee Russell, the guys he liked. I wanted Lena Horne and I got her with others for a tribute to Billy Strayhorn."

But you didn't miss Sinatra, I added. "No, I didn't miss Sinatra."

CODA: Esperanza Spalding – "As most people already know George Wein is a legend in the music world and a most successful pioneer for the exposition of jazz. He represents all those things to me too, but I also consider him a dear friend, mentor, and fellow musician. Whether he is working to expose new music (including booking my band at one of his many festivals!), or smiling at me from behind the piano as we play "Johnny Come Lately" on a gig with the Newport All Stars, or simply grabbing a coffee to talk about life, music and work, Mr. Wein brings such an enthusiasm, positivity, and sincerity, that those around him wind up inspired and wanting to do whatever we can to keep the music pushing forward!"


April 28, 2009 · 2 comments

  • 1 M.MALLOY // Apr 28, 2009 at 06:59 PM
  • 2 Johnny Orozco // Apr 28, 2009 at 10:06 PM
    Thanks God I'm earing about Mr. G. Wein... we The New Orleans Jazz Band (Argentina) He went to Jimmy Ryan's Club 54 st. 'n we shake hands 'n we joing his Newport Jazz Fest 77... I would like to send an e-mail to him. Now we are Hot 4 Violin, Bb clarinet for one hand (an accident not left one) Double Bass 'n me, scat 'n rhythm guitar. Our best regards. Johnny the tenor rhythm banjo player.