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George Wein: Dinosaur Walks the Earth

By Published: February 11, 2004
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.

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