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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.

AAJ: Looking at the horizon of your career with the Newport Jazz Festival, how difficult was the decision to pass the reigns on to a successor?

GW: I'd like to go on and on, but you can't and you have to realize you can't, and when you come to that realization, it makes it a little easier. Doesn't make it more pleasant, but it makes it easier. I was doing two things—being both the executive director and the artistic director. Now it's split—Christian McBride is the artistic director and Jay Sweet is the executive director and we have a board of directors and an executive committee. So it's a little different now and everybody has to work together—and at this piont in my life, I have to try and step back and observe what is happening. If I have something to contribute—I contribute—but I have to let the ball roll. I can't control the rolling of the ball unless something happens where I have to say "hey—why are we doing this?" It's still a fascinating part of life.

AAJ: It's been about 10 to 12 years since the publication of your biography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, how do you reflect upon it now?

GW: I published that in what 2004—now I've lived a whole other life—a whole lot of chapters, an addendum. The book had its purpose— people like you , writers, et cetera read my book and I'm glad for that. But, every book that comes out about jazz has some reference to my book. Anybody who's writing biographies about the great musicians, make reference to mine, so I'm proud of that. I didn't expect to write a bestseller, but I've sold enough copies, so I'm happy.

AAJ: How has the music industry and performance venues changed to what they are today?

GW: When I started back in the 1950's, the clubs were the thing, in other words, there were good clubs in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, New York and in several other places in the country—Detroit Cleveland and Toronto—and there was a circuit. For instance, I remember Dave Brubeck got on the circuit. I read about him. The price was next to nothing, about 800 dollars a week for a quartet, which was money in those days. And I played Dave Brubeck and he became—put it this way—Monday night nobody knew him but by the end of the week the place was full. Because we used to play them(jazz bands) seven days and so that's how people got to know them. But now there's no club scene(currently). We've got clubs in New York City but they don't get one group going across the country, where an agent's booking them 6 weeks in 6 different cities. Occasionally now there's clubs that book an act for two nights maybe three, the musician fills a room and calls his friends too. But in the old days everybody had fixed group dates, like Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis -and that same group played across the country. Now it's festivals -and I'm very proud of that.

AAJ: Can you talk about your festival concept and your Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement?

GW: I received my Grammy(Grammy Special Merit Award, 2015) for creating the first outdoor annual festival event(1954). I just took my ideas from the medieval days of festivals and classical music festivals-but apparently mine was the first popular outdoor annual event. So when they presented me the award, they said even the big rock festivals that came after were an outgrowth of the Newport Jazz Festival concept. Even my New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was a major influence—and that came with my experience from the jazz and folk festivals created in Newport(R.I.). I put it together in New Orleans based on other festival experiences in Newport, and that's what the festivals are now around the world. So, festivals are where you can get -in the summer-you can work it out to play at eight or ten festivals, if you have a new group that you want to have heard and if you have a good agent in countries all over the world. Clubs you know—there's just no circuit anymore.

AAJ: At the Newport Jazz Festival you've featured several jazz conductors and their orchestras (particularly Darcy James Argue and Maria Schneider). What are the challenges and future of Jazz-based orchestras?

GW: Darcy James Argue is one of the young geniuses that I know, but he is having a career problem. He cannot hold that band together because there's no steady work for him, but he writes every note for that orchestra. Maria Schneider—same challenging circumstance. These people are so dedicated—and without them there'd be a tremendous void in jazz music and they fight to keep their orchestras together. They are both geniuses—as they have the strength and ability to create their music and have other people play it for them and they control the performance. It's incredibly complicated and fascinating.

AAJ: As your sincerity, respect and love for jazz musicians has spanned a lifetime, can you talk a bit about your relationships with these musicians ?

GW: Well you have to remember that when you're young and you're following your star, you're a fan of the individuals you work with. It's a privilege to have worked with Duke Ellington—to know Louis Armstrong -who you worship, and you are now presenting them. I mean my gosh that is quite an exciting time. Now, I'm not a fan of the individual necessarily. I'm a fan of his or her music. So, the fact that I know all these young musicians, they're looking-up to me with respect for what I've done. I'm looking-up to them with respect for their artistry and what they've done. But I didn't grow-up a fan of their music when I was say 12 or 13 years old, by listening to their records. So you see it's a turnaround—and in turn they show me tremendous respect—and it's a very beautiful thing—and I love them and my heart goes out to the jazz musician who just wants the world to accept his or her music on the terms that he or she is presenting it. The jazz musician isn't trying to write a formula that he or she knows will sell like popular music does—and that's the difference between a jazz musician and a pop musician. It isn't that pop musicians aren't good musicians—many are fantastic musicians—but they're looking for a formula to sell records. Jazz musicians want to sell records, but they also want to sell their music—the way it is. And that's the difference between the jazz musician and the pop musician.
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