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George Wein: Back to Doing His Thing


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Not many people stand in shoes similar to the ones in which jazz impresario George Wein now finds himself. Having invented the jazz festival more than half a century ago, his name is synonymous with the Newport Jazz Festival, his first and most well-known child of that genus. He led a company that expanded on the flagship festival in the Rhode Island resort city and produced a number of festivals at one time, including those in New Orleans, Saratoga Springs (NY), Chicago, and the two-week extravaganza in New York City each summer.

In 2007, he announced the sale of Festival Productions, which then became the Festival Network. He was no longer at the helm, but remained associated with it, though not in any controlling way. Late last year, he had to witness the financial faltering of the company. Despite the companies claims to the contrary early this year, it would have resulted in no Newport festival this year. The two-week jazz festival in New York City that Wein's company started in 1972 went dormant this past June.

So at age 83, Wein jumped back into the fray.

This is a man who started his festival odyssey when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House (10 presidents ago) and established himself as an impresario all over the globe thereafter. The octogenarian rolled up his sleeves, reassembled some staff and worked hard to revive both his jazz and folk festivals for 2009 that had their homes in Newport. Next year, the New York City event will return.

He remarks casually: "I'm glad I did. It gave me a new start in life."

Not many people say they are getting a new start at the age of 83. Those are the shoes Wein is wearing and he wears them well.

After the failures of the Festival Network—they owed money to Newport and other entities—things were bleak on the festival front. When Wein first announced early this year that he would come back, there was uncertainty about how it would all come together. But he has always been a man that got things done. Many times under duress.

Wein put out a formal public request for sponsorships, but went ahead and forged a very strong lineup for his new enterprise, at first calling it George Wein's Jazz Festival 55, as this year marks the 55th anniversary of the festival in Newport. In early July, it was announced that CareFusion would come aboard as the main title corporate sponsor. The formal name is now George Wein's CareFusion Jazz Festival 55, scheduled for August 7-9 at Fort Adams State Park in Newport.

The lineup is rich, including Roy Haynes, Dave Brubeck, Tony Bennett, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis, Esperanza Spalding, Christian McBride and many more.

CareFusion, a global provider of product and services aimed at improving the productivity and safety of health care, will also be sponsoring other jazz festivals, including the one Wein plans for New York City in 2010.

The George Wein's Folk Festival 50 will be held August 1 and 2 and includes Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, among others.

The Newport Jazz Festival legacy has always been important to Wein. It's foremost in his motivations for getting involved yet again. The official name changed over the years, with varying corporate sponsorships—Kool cigarettes, Schlitz beer, JVC, to name some. But the Newport name has lived on, even though the festival was transplanted to New York City in 1972 and didn't return until 1981.

"It's just a little more direct than what I wanted to," says Wein of his current involvement. But asked if he's glad to be back, he exclaims, "Oh, man! Are you kidding? I'm enjoying it. I think it's a great festival I have this year. I've got a few veterans. I've got a lot of young people. Exciting music. It's going to be a great festival, I think."

After he sold Festival Productions, "I was still working. I had a three-year contract with them. I was still at the festivals and giving input. But I didn't have control. They stopped paying me after a year and 11 months. They stopped paying everybody. They had no money."

"When they broke everything, they broke everything," he laments. "The problem is they ran out of money. They did not know what budgets were. They were dealing with investors' money. They had an aim to try and do something that would be much bigger than is possible. We (prior to his sale) stayed in business because we learned if you spend $10, you've got to take in $11. They weren't thinking that philosophy. They were saying, spend $1,000 and maybe someone will come along and give you $100,000. It doesn't work that way."

It was in late December that Wein decided he had to make a move to save the festival. "I had to work all of January and most of February to get the license. We put together two great festivals (jazz and folk) in literally three or four months. But my key people all came back with me, so we had people to work with. Dedicated people who love what they're doing. They aren't getting paid the way they used to get paid, but they still want to do it."

The struggles involved with starting from scratch don't seemed to have phased the veteran producer, who in June received the "Events Producer of the Year" award from the Jazz Journalists Association.

"It's just work. How many years have I been doing festivals? Fifty-five I guess. In those 55 years, I must have done close to 1,000 festivals. I don't know. I've done so many different things all over the world," says Wein with an air of contentment and not conceit.

"Doing a festival is work. It's not easy. It's not calling an agent up and getting some talent and putting a stage up in a field. That's only the surface part of doing a festival. There has to be a meaning, a mission, a dedication, a concept of promotion. It's 24-7."

Though he didn't have time to save the New York City event. With its many venues and acts over two weeks, Wein did warm up his producer chops with two shows at New York City's Carnegie Hall in June. Diana Krall did two nights and young singer Jamie Cullum also did a night.

All three did great. Diana Krall sold out completely in two shows. The only difference was, it was a late buy. It didn't sell out immediately. And Jamie Cullum did a tremendous gate, 2,300-2,400 people, which was tremendous. The economy hasn't hurt us yet. We'll see what happens at the festival. Ticket advance is slower than usual, but it will pick, I hope."

When Wein spoke to All About Jazz, it was 11 days before the announcement of CareFusion as a major sponsor. He said he was hoping to bring back the New York event in 2010, "now that we've gotten over the big hump of getting my festival at Newport back. Even though I had to change the name. I sold them the name, but the festival itself is owned by the site (Fort Adams State Park) and by the state (Rhode Island). They wanted me back. So we went ahead."

Lack of a festival created a void for jazz in the Big Apple. While the city has several clubs, the festival gives high-profile stages to the artists, and higher paying gigs. Wein thinks the event may have gotten taken for granted over the years by some people, not getting a lot of credit until it was lost. Some critics took it to task in its later years, claiming it was too mainstream with its lineup and not giving cutting-edge groups exposure.

"It was strange," he says with a soft chuckle. "I got more publicity for not doing a festival than for doing the festival. I thought for the last few years they took our festival for granted. Not realizing it was such an important thing to do... The city and the state, and the newspapers. They took it for granted—it was just another event. So there was no urgency on my part this year to try to save it. But then I saw the reaction, all of a sudden. People writing big stories: No Festival This Year.

"Maybe next year we'll come back and get a little more acceptance than we had. We used to be the biggest thing (in NYC) in the summer. In 1972 we started in New York. It was unbelievable."

In 2000, Wein spoke with AAJ about his career festival producer extraordinaire. He spoke about the jazz artists of yore and their importance to his work, as well as their drawing power. With the passing of most of those giants, he said, there weren't many left who were automatic box office attraction. In a conversation last month, he looked back again.

"There are still some good names in jazz, but they aren't the icons that Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. These people are in the Valhalla. They made the music. They created the music. People now are playing the music and they're very good. But they're not the creators. They're not the originators. There are a few left. Dave Brubeck is still there. Sonny Rollins is one of the originals. There aren't too many others. They're all good. You've got Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

"I think you have to have faith in the music. That's the dedication and new direction I'm going in. I have to make the public realize that when I do groups like Esperanza Spalding, Miguel Zenon, Michel Camilo, Vijay Iyer, the The Bad Plus, Rudresh Mahanthappa. All these people are outstanding. Roy Haynes is still out there. William Parker with his Vision group. Joe Lovano... I heard Jacky Terrasson last night at the Iridium (NYC). He was absolutely marvelous. There's so much good music out there. It's a matter of not just thinking about the big names. If jazz doesn't sell itself when it's great, it has to overcome those problems. I think we can do it. That's why I think it's a great festival.

"All these people are playing great music and you want people to hear them. Put a headliner on there like Tony Bennett and maybe you'll draw some people. And maybe you won't. We'll see. I'll let you know in August."

So its onward and upward for Wein, who as a young man opened a small jazz club in 1950, Storyville, in Boston after getting out of college. That business led to his association with the Lorillards of Newport and the establishment of the first festival. He also played jazz piano back then, something he has maintained, when possible, over all these years. He's good enough to sit in with some of his own idols, and occasionally get gigs for groups of his own.

In 2008, he performed at the JVC Jazz festival in Newport on the main stage. He presented a fine set of music backed by drummer Jimmy Cobb, guitarist Howard Alden, Anat Cohen on reeds and Spalding on bass. Recently, he was in Montreal with Lew Tabackin, Alden, Randy Sandke, Lewis Nash and Peter Washington. He's got a couple other gigs later this year.

"I have to get up a lot of energy to play with these people. They're great players. I don't play that much, so for me to play with them I've got to go that extra mile. It's a little tough sometimes at my age," he says.

He's acknowledged over the years that playing piano has been his great love.

"Oh, man. When we get a good feeling in a night at a club, or a good feeling at a concert, there's nothing like it. That's why I went into the business in the first place was the love of the music," says Wein. "I found out I had a better head for organizing than for playing. I was always calling up everybody to form a band or play ball. I was always the organizer."

Self-effacing about his piano playing, his career path as a producer has led to great gains for the music and musicians for more than half a century. It's been a long and colorful path, far from smooth sailing. Thankfully, he chronicled most of it with author Nate Chinen in 2003's Myself Among Others (DaCapo Press).

Now there's his "new start in life," and if it only leads to new life for jazz music at Newport, then that's fair enough. Wein eventually has to leave things to others. We just don't know when and we probably don't want to know.

"We all have regrets about certain things, but they usually end up where you could have made some money and you didn't do it, or you lost money. My overall career? No regrets at all. I've had nothing but joy about what I've done in my life. I've always done what I've wanted. I've survived my critics and I've made most people my friends, which is the name of the game," says Wein.

He adds with sincerity, "Friendship, to me, is very important. I have tremendous respect for people and friendship. You don't have to be a big shot. Do your thing and that's all."

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