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George Wein: A Life in Music

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Everybody can swing; rock 'n' roll swings, you know. Fusion jazz swings, but I'm talking about that subtle swing that defines the so called swing era, its disappeared.
No matter what you think of the jazz festival, you can't think of it without thinking of George Wein. In 1954 he presented the first Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, and it became the template for the modern jazz festival. Wein went on to bring the jazz festival concept to New York, where it has been an annual event since 1972, as well as to many other cities across the country and in foreign lands. His Festival Productions Inc. presents hundreds of jazz festivals, concerts and other events each year, making Wein jazz's greatest impresario. Wein, who turned eighty last October, brought out his autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (Da Capo Press), written with Nate Chinen, in 2003. In late November, 2005, Syncopated Rhythms: 20th Century African American Art from the George & Joyce Wein Collection, opened at the Boston University Art Gallery. It was dedicated to his wife and companion of over half a century, Joyce Alexander Wein, who passed away August 15, 2005.

All About Jazz: I was a little surprised when reading your autobiography. I think I've known you for a long time, but I didn't realize that you were so involved in playing the music up until 1960 at least; you know, playing regular gigs all the time.

George Wein: Well, playing is my raison d'être for being in the business. And I enjoyed playing very much, but I knew I wasn't going to be Art Tatum, and found out I had a good head for organizing. So, the next thing I knew, I was a producer, but I still play.

AAJ: Yes, you got to play with some incredibly historical people.

GW: I recorded twice in Brussels with [soprano sax pioneer] Sidney Bechet, I played a week with [tenor saxophonist] Lester Young in Boston at a club and I played with [trumpeter] Buck Clayton and [clarinetist] Pee Wee Russell, [tenor saxophonist] Bud Freeman and so many different people.

AAJ: What are your top playing experiences with jazz greats?

GW: Oh, that's tough to say. I mean I had great bands of my own with [trumpeter] Shorty Baker, [trombonist] Laurence Brown and Pee Wee Russell at the Embassy. And in that band Shorty and Laurence knew all the Ellington harmony and Pee Wee would just sit in on top with whatever he felt like playing—that band had a tremendous sound.

Another time with [trumpeter] Warren Vachè and [saxophonist] Lew Tabackin, we played at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic and we played after a meringue band. My little swing band went on to play and we were scared to death, with 3000 people sitting there. I had a number I play unaccompanied, a blues just with a sort of an inflection of the beats. The next thing I know, all 3000 people were clapping and so I had a 3000 person rhythm section, it was like—one of the thrills of my life.

Playing with all those people, I had Buck Clayton, [tenor saxophonist] Buddy Tate, [trumpeter] Ruby Braff—they were all greats. I was very fortunate in that I could hire the musicians I wanted to play with and I got—I get a lot of gigs, because people like the idea [of The Newport All Stars] it was a good selling name.

AAJ: Do you still take that band out?

GW: No, not very much. I could tour Europe, if I wanted to, everybody wants me to do it, but the travel is too much for me. But, this thing at Michael Feinstein's on March 20 came up purely by some serendipity you know. They had had a tribute to Bobby Short, and they asked a whole bunch of singers to each sing one song and I was already busy that night. I was over at the Lincoln Center Jazz Gala and I ran over there—my driver took me over there, I was there for 20 minutes—sang one song and got into my car, went back to Lincoln Center. The next day Steven Holden in his New York Times review wrote that I was one of the highlights of the evening. So, then the next day, I got a call, would you like to do a Monday night? So with me, I like to sing, I'm not a singer, I like to play piano, I'm not a pianist. I've got a lot of guts and at my age, I'm just going to have some fun.

AAJ: Yes, I really enjoyed that story in your autobiography about [opera tenor singer] Pavarotti, giving you a little bravo. Can you talk a little about that?

GW: Well, I fell in love with Pavarotti in Nice one day. There was a little opera house there and somebody said let's go see La Boheme with my wife and a friend. So we went and we had to pay a little extra for Luciano Pavarotti. I thought "Who is this Luciano? who I've never heard of—and this big guy comes out on the stage and starts singing "Que Gelida Manina, a famous aria. And suddenly, I had tears in my eyes. He reminded me of Louis Armstrong, believe it or not.

It was just the same warmth, the same ability to convey his personality and after that, we followed him—Joyce and I followed him around to many different cities in Europe He played in Washington, and so we had the opportunity at one time to book him in Cincinnati. My partner in Cincinnati at that time, Dino Sant Angelo, got a date on Pavarotti, so I got to know him. And then, at a party one night, his manager, who lives in my same building with me, said, "I've got you, now, you'll have to sing for Luciano. So, that's how that happened. Great moments in history.


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