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George Wein: Dinosaur Walks the Earth

By Published: February 11, 2004
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.

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