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Interviews

George Wein: Dinosaur Walks the Earth

By Published: February 11, 2004

Well, historically, I go back so far. Duke and I were very close. I was his international impresario for many years. And I was Miles? international impresario. And [Thelonious] Monk. I loved Monk very much. I was very close to Monk.

George Wein is in his 47th year of producing jazz festivals. He invented them, going back to the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. Now they take place all around the globe. He's 75 in October, but still going strong. How much longer will be the most famous jazz impresario? Even he doesn't know. So cherish him while he's still out there. He is a hall-of-famer for sure. Probably the most important non-player (though he does play decent jazz piano) in jazz history.

In a recent talk with AAJ, Wein referred to people like himself as 'dinosaurs ... but we're still roaming the earth.' Certainly he is conservative, though very open minded. While many welcome the expansion of jazz and merging with other forms, Wein speaks of 'the tradition' and says he narrows his view of what 'jazz' is, not broadening it, as do many others. Nonetheless, he's a walking, breathing piece of jazz history. From the first concert in 1954 (emceed by Stan Kenton with material written by Nat Hentoff), Wein has made the Newport Jazz Festival part of the American lexicon ' even though it's now a small event while, since 1972, the main event is focused in New York City. He's a tireless worker, getting gigs for jazzmakers even through the most bleak times.

The fact that he adds pop to his festivals (dig what he calls the low point of his career... it may surprise) it's all with the intent of helping the American art form survive. And he's survived along with it.

George Wein is intelligent, eloquent and energetic. His autobiography (in progress) should be a great read. Any conversation with him is a great conversation.

All About Jazz: Growing up, did you want to be a musician? I know you like to play. Were you headed in that direction?

George Wein: I don't know whether I wanted to be a musician, but I always was a musician. It's one of those things. During high school and then while I was in the Army I played the piano and it helped me a lot. And when I went to college I played, sometimes seven nights and then Sunday afternoon while I was studying. You know, I was working with Max Kaminsky and Pee Wee Russell. I was working full time quite a bit of the time while I was in college. But whether I ever thought I would be a musician or a full-time musician, I don't know. I don't think so.

AAJ: How did you go from that background to Storyville [the jazz club Wein bought in 1950] and being a promoter?

GW: Well I was playing when I got out of college and I didn't know what to do so I took jobs in clubs in Boston, you know. And I was building a little reputation for what I was doing. I produced one concert back in 1949 and it got a little notice, while I was still in college. Somebody said to me in 1950 to open up my own club, You just didn't open a club. You had to have money, but I didn't have any money. I had $5,000 that hadn't been used for my college education, because the GI Bill paid for my college. So I leased a room from the hotel, and so I was in business for $5,000.

AAJ: Eventually it grew to the festivals. How did that come about?

GW: Well, we had many people come into the club. People would come in and have ideas: 'Can you bring jazz up here? Can you bring jazz there?' I didn't pay too much attention, because unless they followed it up the next night or called you the next day, you'd know they just had a few drinks and were having fun that night. But the Lorillards came back Louie and Elaine Lorillard. Elaine Lorillard came back one night with her husband. They wanted to do something in Newport [RI]. I came up with the idea of the festival and the structure of it and the next thing we know we were doing the Newport Jazz Festival.

AAJ: Was the first one in 1954 the first outdoor festival for jazz?

GW: It was the first outdoor festival for jazz in America. I don't know whether anything Europe ' there was supposed to be something in Nice [France] in 1949, but that was a one-shot deal. But that was the first ongoing festival in jazz. We called it the 'first annual' even though it was the first year. I said 'Well, if you're going to do it one year, you gotta follow it up the next year.'

AAJ: So the Lorillards...

GW: They made it possible for me to do it. It never could have been done without the Lorillards.

AAJ: Did you know it would work. Were you uneasy in that beginning period?

GW: I more or less knew it would work. There are several reasons why I knew it would work. Newport itself was the town that I always wanted to go to. I'd never been there. I heard about it because of the mansions and everything. But more than that, I knew every jazz fan in New England from my club. I'd been in business four years. I knew what did business and what didn't do business, and what artists there were. So I put together the right artists. And they came. We sold out both nights, five thousand seats.

AAJ: The Lorillards saw jazz as art?

GW: Well, they wanted, really, to liven up the summer. They didn't know much about jazz. They just knew they liked the music. They wanted ' Newport was a dull place in the summer. The year before they had part of a group that brought in the New York Philharmonic which died. They lost a lot of money. The investment people backed out of doing something again but Louie Lorillard wanted to stay with it. They brought in jazz. I was introduced to them by a professor from Boston University who was a regular at my club.

AAJ: Is that how you got the title 'impresario?' I've never heard it used with anybody else.

GW: I don't know. I don't know how I got the title 'impresario' unless I gave it to myself.

AAJ: It seems like it was coined for you. [laughter]

GW: I don't know [laughter]

AAJ: How about playing? Do you still play?

GW: I still play once in while. Not too much. I sat in the other night in a thing, you know. I'm amazed at the way I play because I don't spend full time at it, so I get up and play and I sound OK, so... I've never been a great musician, but I've always had a certain professional quality in my playing that allowed me to not mess up with the musicians I was with. I always played with good musicians.

AAJ: I was reading an account of that first year and you were quoted as saying it would probably cost $40,000 for that first weekend in 1954.

GW: Well we do two days in Newport now, and the budget for the two days ' and we don't have as great a lineup of talent as we had in those days, because most of them are dead ' costs over $500,000.

AAJ: What's the toughest thing about perpetuating the jazz festival? Not just in Newport, but in New York etc.?

GW: The perpetuation of jazz. That's the toughest thing about perpetuating a jazz festival. Because jazz has taken so many turns, and nobody really knows what's going to happen with jazz in the future. We think about that all the time. Will we be able to resurrect and build a public for the more traditional jazz. Someone like myself has come from that era. At 75 years old I started in the swing era. You still love Duke Ellington and Louie Armstrong and Basie and Billie and Ella and all those people. Because they're part of my life's blood. But will they come back? I don't know, other than in a historic sense, the way it's done now, where you do tributes to them. Will other people play and will it be vital music? Or are we going in a way out direction that will be commercial. Right now most way-out directions aren't commercial, but that doesn't mean they can't become commercial. And is it jazz as we know it? I mean, all these questions have yet to be answered. We know there's a whole thing for young people, that they like certain types of things, but I'm not sure they even know what they're listening to.

AAJ: From your seat, you have kind of seen it all over the years in general, in jazz terms. Are you encouraged by what you see?

GW: I don't know whether I'm encouraged by what I see because there's a certain basic thing that, in my mind, is jazz. And just playing a horn and improvising doesn't make it jazz, per se. That's only one element of jazz. To me, there's a certain feeling that all great jazz had. If it doesn't have that feeling, swing, that pulsation. You know, everybody uses World Music, backbeats, all sorts of different kinds of rhythms, which presents a very interesting music. But then the question is: How far do we carry the term 'jazz' and how narrow is the term 'jazz?' And as I get older I open my ears to more music and I narrow my terminology, my definition of jazz. So I open my ears to all these kinds of music and my festivals reflect that. But then I narrow the actual term of what I call the purity of jazz that was produced in the 20th century.

AAJ: We've all seen them leave one by one ' Dizzy, Miles, Sarah ' how does that make you feel? It seems like they're being replaced by very schooled musicians, but are they as colorful?

GW: Well, you summed it up in that one word. We have a lot of schooled musicians that play wonderful music, but whether they have the freshness and the ability to create styles, create imagery that a jazz musician needs ' that's difficult. A lot of people are confused by the material; playing their own music. Every musician wants to play his own music, but there aren't that many people who are great composers. Usually, you can do better by playing a great song and showing how your personality reflects that song rather than playing your own music and not having a stepping stone for people to lean upon, to get something out of.

AAJ: Is there anybody that jumps out, off the top of your head?

GW: There are so many good musicians around. I went down to hear Dave Douglas one night. Dave Douglas is the musician of the year [Downbeat critic's poll, 1999]. I'm doing a concert with Dave Douglas up at Symphony Space [Broadway, NYC, 6/18] and I can't seem to sell any tickets to it.

AAJ: He seems to be getting a lot of the critical ink lately.

GW: He's getting a lot of critical acclaim and he did a very big week at the [New York City's Village] Vanguard. Business was sensational. And yet, I don't know where he's going. I think he got the big week at the Vanguard because of all the talk about him and people would come to see him who never saw him before. And now some of them have seen him and I don't know what's happening. I think he's a wonderful player. These are the people ' they've been around. They're not kids. They've been around a while. John Zorn has made a mark, to a degree, but he's been around that I know of nearly 20 years. And so, they're not kids. Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman are still icons, in people's minds. I don't know that the public has ever really picked up on Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman. I don't know what their records sell. I know it's risky to try to do concerts with them and try to make money, because you won't. So you don't know. And yet, that music doesn't go away. It hasn't been replaced. That's post-Coltrane music, you see.

AAJ: Most players I hear seem to prefer Coltrane, or come out of Coltrane, more than, say, Lester Young.

GW: Well Coltrane seems to have replaced Charlie Parker as the contemporary jazz icon. For while it was 'Bird Lives,' but now it seems to be 'Coltrane Lives.' For the moment Armstrong and Ellington are coming back, more than even Bird. But they'll get to Bird in a couple of years. What Lincoln Center is doing is very important. And the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band is beginning to make its mark. And of course our festivals continue. We still are the biggest producers of festivals in the world. I produce the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Playboy Jazz Festival, JVC in Newport, JVC in New York. We do JVC in Paris. We produce festivals in Japan. Our festivals still reach more people than any other jazz promoter or jazz impresario or any other organization that produces jazz festivals. Saratoga is still going strong and still successful. We still draw our 10,000 people every night, year in and year out, and it's a wonderful festival.

AAJ: How about highlights over the years of the festival in general. In 1978 you were at he Whitehouse. Does anything stand out in your mind?

GW: A lot of things stand out in my mind, but to recall them. I'm in the process of writing my own book right now, It keeps me pretty busy.

AAJ: Yeah. I understand the autobiography is in progress.

GW: I've got to think of a title for it.

AAJ: Is that something you had in the back of your mind for awhile?

GW: You know, it's an ego trip to write your autobiography. For years I rejected it, but after several hundred people said to me 'you should write a book,' finally you realize maybe you should write a book. I don't know whether those several hundred people will buy it or I'll give them presents of it, I don't know.

AAJ: How about low points? The riots maybe in 1971 [the last year of the original Newport festival]?

GW: I always felt that the low point in my life as a producer would have been a high point for other people: in 1969 when I put all the rock groups on in Newport. I had Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull and Mothers of invention , Jeff Beck, Ten Years After, Blood Sweat and Tears, Sly and the Family Stone. The underground press was talking about how jazz was dead and Newport, from 1954 up to the mid-60s, had been the news in the music world, you know, in the non-pop music world. All of a sudden we were buried in that avalanche of pop music and rock music. So I said 'maybe I have to get up to date' and I put all these groups together, did a lot of business, and I realized at that point that I had no control of my festivals. They weren't what I wanted. Some people would have thought it was the greatest thing. Jimi Hendrix called me up and said 'Can I be on your festival?' I said 'I don't have any room for you.'

After that I said 'I'll never use rock again. Well, I did use rock again. It killed me in '71. I just didn't realize I was doing it when I had the Allman Brothers in '71 where there was a last-second riot at Newport. I thought I was booking a young blues group that was unknown. I asked [producer] Ahmet Ertegun to recommend a young white blues group for a blues program I was doing. And they jumped out to be the No. 1 group in the country by the time I got them. So they were the ones that brought all the kids that caused the problem up there.

AAJ: You still mix in rock, and some pop.

GW: Well more and more we do that now as long as we don't let it override the festival, particularly in New Orleans. So we'll have one rock group . Over a period of 10 days we'll have two or three rock groups. But we'll have thousands of musicians, so it's not a rock festival. But we had Lenny Kravitz this year, who was sensational down there, and Sting.

AAJ: Is that a necessary thing now, for the booking and the ticket sales?

GW: If we didn't have world music or Brazilian music or soul music ' like, we have Patti Labelle, we have Aretha, Joao Gilberto ' they're the ones selling out the most tickets at my festivals. The jazz program: there are no big names in jazz that have instant sales. Diana Krall came along, and she is box office. But she's the only one that's come along in what, more or less, is the pure jazz vein in the traditional sense. And she's a vocalist. But there are no Miles out there, there's nobody that really has it ... Keith Jarrett's still there, but he won't play festivals. Sonny Rollins once in a while is a good attraction, but you have to be careful with Sonny as far as where you play him and how you play him. But it's very, very difficult.

We have a great festival. I'm doing these theme concerts this year. You know, this recreation of the spirituals, the swing. I'm doing a program with Michel Camillo and Chuchao Valdez and Tomatito, a wonderful flamenco guitarist. I'm doing a program of 'Tango and Passion' [6/17 Carnegie Hall] which features Joe Lovano and Gary Burton and some tango dancers. If these programs do business, that's a help. I'm doing a recreation of with Jon Faddis and Maria Schneider, the first time they've ever been together, of 'Porgy and Bess' and Sketches of Spain' [6/18, Carnegie Hall] and they're selling a little bit. They're not selling as fast as I wanted them to sell. I need to be able to sell tickets to programs like that in order to overcome the fact of getting on crossover artists or World Music or big names that'll sell tickets.

The fastest selling artist in my festival this year is Joao Gilberto. [6/16 Carnegia Hall] He'll be totally sold out. It'll be like a church there in Carnegie Hall. With Cassandra Wilson I put her togther with Cesaria Evora. Now if you know Cesaria Evora, she is a beautiful singer. She's from Cape Verdi islands. Jazz? No, she's not a jazz singer, but she has a sweet feeling to the music and jazz people would like her.

AAJ: Would you say that the future of festivals like yours is strong? Is it sort of a question every year?

GW: No, people like to go to festivals. The festival in New York [city] is a difficult one because it's really a series of concerts. But Newport and Saratoga and Playboy and New Orleans, they'll continue because it's a happening. People like to go to them and they get a lot for their money. They make a day's outing of it. They sit out there in the sun or whatever. They bring their picnic, bring their food. Those things will last.

AAJ: That's the way the original Newport was, outdoors.

GW: It was. It was that way. Except the people had more knowledge of what they were coming to see. They knew the performers. A lot of the people come to Newport, they don't really know. They might have one or two groups they like, but they don't know the other three groups. The people that came to [early] Newport knew every group. There was not that much conflict in music. There only was jazz and pop. The pop was Patti Page and Frank Sinatra and the jazz was jazz. It was swing or bebop. Now, there's so many different kinds of music. World music represents 50 different kinds of music in itself.

AAJ: Looking back, it's probably a long list, but anybody jump to your mind you loved working with. Duke, or Louis or...

GW: Well, historically, I go back so far. Duke and I were very close. I was his international impresario for many years. And I was Miles' international impresario. And [Thelonious] Monk. I loved Monk very much. I was very close to Monk. Mingus I worked with. I go back to little musicians like Pee Wee Russell. Vic Dickenson was very important in my life. Buck Clayton. Then there was another younger school, Ruby Braff. Later on I worked with Scott Hamilton and Warren Vache. There was Slam Stewart who was very important in my life. All these people were important to me. Whether they were the big ones or the little ones. They had a tremendous impact on my life. Basie was very important. And Sarah Vaughan, I was her international impresario for four years. Billie Holiday worked for me on several occasions. Art Tatum I used to hang out with in New York. These people, they're irreplaceable human beings. Nobody's come along to take their place.

AAJ: Anybody who was tough to deal with? They say Miles could be touchy or Mingus?

GW: Well, they were all tough to deal with until you gained their confidence and their trust. And once you gained their trust they were not difficult to deal with. Sometimes it took years to gain their trust. But once you gained they're trust then that was the thing that I'm proudest of most. I gained the trust of these people. When we discussed business, they accepted what I said because they knew that that was the best that I could do for them. They didn't think I had ulterior motives in what I was doing. But it takes years to get to that point.

AAJ: How long do you think you can do what you're doing? At one point BET [Black Entertainment Television] was going to come in financially. I don't know if you were going to give up any of the control reigns. They didn't come in, but you know, you're 75.

GW: It's a serious question, naturally. I'll go along as long as I can, because, what else am I gonna do? I've always traveled. I've always eaten in good restaurants. I've always had a good life for many years. If I retire, that's what I'll do so there's no point. I can still do that while I'm working. But what I'm going to do with my company? That's a good question. I really have three companies. I have Festival Productions in New Orleans, I have Festival Marketing Inc.

AAJ: You have a ton of other festivals, including folk music.

GW: Yes, the Newport Folk Festival. Who knows what the future holds. As long as my health continues and I have a good company and they still respect me ' they don't tell the old man to stay home. The minute they tell me to stay home, I'll stay home.

AAJ: You don't mind the criticism that's sometimes leveled: You're too commercial. Not enough jazz.

GW: You know, we've lived with criticism for so many years. But the name of the game is survival. And without survival ' if you don't survive, they don't criticize you. You don't have any problem. If you don't want any criticism, don't survive, you know? So I don't worry about that. We've survived most of the critics who've criticized me. [chuckle] And most of them are my friends. They've become my friends as the years go on. It's tough when you get older and people think because you're old, they say you're a dinosaur. I say 'I well, I may be a dinosaur, but we're still roaming the earth,' you know what I mean? So watch out, because we're still here.

AAJ: So you will be remembered as the impresario, regardless of what else you might ever do. Is that something you're comfortable with?

GW: You always wonder whether you'll be remembered. That's one of the reasons I'm writing my book. Because believe it or not, memories are very short. And I see people doing things now, that I did years ago, as if I never did them. I started New York Jazz Repertory Company years ago. Lincoln Center's a total reflection of what I was doing. I had a little support from Carnegie Hall, but nothing like the support Lincoln Center has. And I think Lincoln Center does a tremendous job. Everything I did, I see coming back to me. A lot of the promoting I did in jazz and the thousands of concerts I produced, people use it as a source for inspiration for concerts that they're doing.

AAJ: Everything old is new again.

GW: Yeah. Everything old is new again. But they sometimes forget where they saw it the first time.

Photo Credit

Ken Franckling



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