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George Wein: Dinosaur Walks the Earth

By Published: February 11, 2004
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.

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