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George Wein: A Life and Legend in Jazz

Doug Hall By

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Last summer, in June of 2017, I had the privilege and opportunity to interview George Wein, founder and producer of the seminal Newport Jazz Festival. At 91, he was just in the process of supporting and transitioning the new artistic director Christian McBride into this demanding and critical role for the future of the Newport Jazz Festival, to ensure the continuation of the legacy. The impact of this festival has been historically felt by the jazz community for its breadth of performers, promotion of the genre, artistic opportunity and cutting-edge choices of un-discovered talent. Once again, in his own words, George Wein says it best.

This is a highlighted selection of questions and answers during that interview.

All About Jazz: Looking at your wide career in jazz, and particularly the Newport Jazz Festival—What keeps your drive and passion going at 91?

George Wein: That's a strange question now. A couple of years ago I might have answered it a little differently, but as my hearing gets worse and my mobility gets worse, the same thing I had, which was the driving passion for the music itself, is not the same—because when I went non profit 6-7 yrs ago I really got involved with the current music scene and I was out 2 to 3 nights a week. I was out meeting with musicians and having them over for lunch and I'm still in a sense still doing that. I had Jon Batiste over for lunch the other day, I had other guests for dinner earlier in the week and I was out to here with activity. I'm still doing it, but the drive is not the same. The drive is literally just to stay alive and keep working with Christian to help him, to see that this festival continues. So I can't say I'm as totally involved in music because I simply can't hear it as well. But I'm still doing it. I'm going out to hear a singer tonight that I think is going to be a great star—Rhiannon Giddens—playing twice at the Newport Jazz Festival this year (2017). And it was just marvelous, but I couldn't fully appreciate it because I couldn't hear the clarity, but her performance was beyond category as Duke Ellington would say. So, I still get joy but it's not the same—so it's a problem.

AAJ: After a lifetime of listening and evaluating musicians—what do you look for beyond talent?

GW: Talent in itself is not enough. Anybody who can play music is talented but they're not all artists. Artistry is what adds a uniqueness to what they are doing. And I have an expression, and you can use this for this interview. When I hear a singer, I ask myself, "do they have their shit together"—which means- -are they just up there singing a song or do they know what they're doing and how they are projecting to an audience. That is what you look for. For instance, I'm going out to hear a girl—Wednesday night—she won the Monk Award last year—and I heard her two years ago—and her first number was great and after that—she lost me—but people tell me that she's much better now so I want to hear her again. So I want to hear her to see if we can put her on the stage at the Newport Jazz Festival, where she can make it.

AAJ: How did your booking choices for the Newport Jazz Festival evolve with changing tastes in music?

GW: In the beginning it was easy—we had Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald—like a kid in a candy factory—you just picked which one you wanted. Now you have to dig. You have to get out there and read articles from writers like you, get out in the world—picking your thoughts as a writer, and from the jazz magazines, the recordings that are sent to you from musicians who tell you about other musicians—and that's why Christian McBride (artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival) is so important to me, and so important to the future of the festival. As Christian is one of the hardest working musicians in the industry. He works every festival all over the world and he's hearing music every day that I don't get a chance to hear or that very few people get a chance to hear. Most people here in New York City get a chance to hear what's coming to the different clubs in New York City—that's not enough. In addition to Christian, I have all my friends in the other festivals around the world. I'm a member of several international jazz festival organizations and other jazz organizations—and all those associates, friends—we tell each other who's interesting—and they are the trained ears and have been doing their work for years. So I mean for example—right now—I have to get with Christian to decide what to do next year because my mind is a blank, at the moment. But that's again why I'm going to hear this singer this week—so that's what I keep doing.

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