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Interviews

George Wein: A Life in Music

By Published: March 28, 2006

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.

AAJ: Yeah, I love when you say that, about when you hit that B flat, that note, whatever it was?

GW: And he says, "bravo .

AAJ: He says, "bravo, that's a great story.

GW: Absolutely.

AAJ: Thinking of some of the people you've played with from the early years of jazz, you know, you're now one of those who went through that transition from swing to bop. There are not too many of you guys around anymore; I'm talking to you now as a player.

GW: I still don't play bop, but I can play with the boppers if I have to. I don't play bop myself, but you know, I can rhythmically and harmonically stay with them, which I couldn't do a few years ago. It's just that I love music and I listen for artistry in musicians and I don't care about styles. I mean if a man is an artist, he conveys it through his playing. Unfortunately, so many of the kids playing today are not artists, they are students, and they come out of music school and hey, it sounds like they come out of music schools and it's very difficult because nobody plays with that wonderful, that subtle swing—that swing that Duke and the great bands had.

AAJ: Do you think it's disappeared completely or?

GW: I think it's more or less disappeared except with people playing revival music, you know. And the young players do not know how to swing. They don't feel the music that way and when I say swing, I put that in quotes, because they swing in their own way.

AAJ: Yeah, right.

GW: 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, it's disappeared.

AAJ: Yes, except like you say for revivalists or repertory jazz orchestras.

GW: Yeah, Wynton Marsalis is trying to keep it alive over there, but his young players, they do it, but they are not comfortable with it. When they go to a jam session, they don't play that way.

AAJ: But, there are guys like [tenor saxophonist] Harry Allen and guitarist Joe Cohn who have a group that swings, in your sense of the word.

GW: Oh, it's a wonderful swinging group. Harry Allen is great. He is a very underrated tenor saxophone.

AAJ: Who else do you think is underrated these days among younger players you've heard?

GW: I always thought Warren Vaché was a great, underappreciated talent. And [trumpeter/composer] Randy Sandke is becoming a force in the music world, you know. A lot of the modernists are picking up on Randy because he's working both ends of the street, and he is reaching out to a lot of people.

AAJ: There are quite a few players like that out there, like Greg Cohen on bass.

GW: Oh, he is wonderful, he plays with you know ....

AAJ: He plays with everybody from John Zorn and Ornette Coleman to Kenny Davern and Tom Waits, and all the trad jazz and swinging guys too.

GW: And Greg agreed to play with me at Feinstein's, he said it's an honor, but he can't, he is going to Japan with Ornette. So Jay Leonhart is doing the gig.

AAJ: Well, Greg is the kind of guy who does it all. Another one that I like in that same way is [multi-reed and brass player] Scott Robinson.

GW: Scott is brilliant, he is just brilliant. He plays with everybody and he also plays everything. Greg and Scott, and Randy, they are steeped in the total music, the ecology of the music. They are steeped in the traditions and learning all the time, new things, you know. But the best young player, relatively young, who can go both ways, is [trumpeter] Nicholas Payton. He is powerful. He has got the power of the old musicians and can play Armstrong feelings and play and improvise naturally in an Armstrong mode and then, go and play with Elvin Jones, it makes no difference.

AAJ: Yeah, he even does some things where he works in the hip-hop format.

GW: Well, that's very sad, I'm sorry.

AAJ: Roy Hargrove has done a couple of those things too, has his own hip-hop, funk band, RH Factor. I think of Roy the same way you think of Nicholas Payton, the guy that can really play it all, go both ways.

GW: He is a beautiful musician, Roy Hargrove. He plays ballads beautifully and he has got sensitivity towards playing. These kids are good. They just don't always know what to play. They went into music to make a living and they are trying different things to make a living. And I hope something works for them. They are all doing fairly well, you know.

AAJ: What about younger piano players? Who do you like?

GW: There are so many good young piano players out there. I mean you've got people like Bill Charlap and Brad Mehldau who are fantastic players. And you've got Jason Moran and you've got Ethan Iverson with The Bad Plus. You have got a Cyrus Chestnut I mean we can go on and on and on about the piano players, you know, Eric Reed, I mean they all can play.

AAJ: Right. So, you know, you were talking about swing and so on. I know that over the years, some of the things that I've enjoyed most at the New York (JVC) Jazz Festival were the big jam sessions that you used to have. There don't seem to be too many of those anymore.

GW: Well, that's because the musicians don't think the same way. The young ones, you could have a session, yeah. But, you wouldn't have Gerry Mulligan playing with Clark Terry, and back then, they were great names, they used to give up their own groups to play in the jams.

AAJ: Yeah, I remember especially a couple of years when you had those late night jam sessions at Radio City...

GW: You remember those?

AAJ: Oh, yeah, I will never forget those, they were fabulous.

GW: We shook up New York a little bit.

AAJ: I remember [bassist] Charles Mingus was on one of those midnight Radio City jams.

GW: Yeah, I played with him; I played with Mingus that night. And we played "Sunny Side of the Street, but I was improvising. And he played it perfectly and then, he said "what is the song that you just played?

AAJ: Is that the kind of song you'll be playing and singing at Feinstein's?

GW: The songs I'm going to be singing are nearly as old as I am. They are all Tin Pan Alley—I am not singing Gershwin or Porter, I'm singing Tin Pan Alley songs from the 30's, songs that—some of them haven't been heard in years you know.

AAJ: Ones that are not considered standard you mean?

GW: They are not jazz standards, but people might remember the songs.

AAJ: Like for instance?

GW: Well, "I'm Stepping Out With A Memory Tonight, "Darkness on the Delta, which Cassandra Wilson has recorded, but hadn't been recorded in years. But, I've been singing it for fifteen years, one of my favorite songs and a lot of songs like that, you know.

AAJ: About the festival this year, do you have any special plans for New York?

GW: I would like to say we've some special plans, I'm not sure. It's very, very difficult you know. I mean there are very few attractions that can sell Carnegie Hall; you've to cross over into different forms of music every so often. And there are only a few jazz players that can fill the big halls. It's very difficult and so, I really don't know what we are going to finally end up with. But the Newport Festival will be mostly pure jazz and we live and die with it up there.

AAJ: And what about New Orleans? Are you planning anything for New Orleans this year?

GW: We're working very hard on it. This year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival will be the first major tourist event to bring people back to New Orleans. It will let people know that New Orleans lives. The difference in the festival will be that there will be an amazing list of talent, who are part of the energy out there that really wants to bring New Orleans back.


Selected Discography:

George Wein, George Wein's Newport All-Stars (Atlantic/Collectibles, 1969
George Wein, Wein, Women& Song (Atlantic/Collectibles, 1955

Related Articles:
George Wein: Dinosaur Walks the Earth (Interview, 2004)
A Fireside Chat with George Wein (Interview, 2003)

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Festival Productions, Inc.



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