George Wein: Dinosaur Walks the Earth

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.
George Wein is in his 47th year of producing jazz festivals. He invented them, going back to the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. Now they take place all around the globe. He's 75 in October, but still going strong. How much longer will be the most famous jazz impresario? Even he doesn't know. So cherish him while he's still out there. He is a hall-of-famer for sure. Probably the most important non-player (though he does play decent jazz piano) in jazz history.

In a recent talk with AAJ, Wein referred to people like himself as 'dinosaurs ... but we're still roaming the earth.' Certainly he is conservative, though very open minded. While many welcome the expansion of jazz and merging with other forms, Wein speaks of 'the tradition' and says he narrows his view of what 'jazz' is, not broadening it, as do many others. Nonetheless, he's a walking, breathing piece of jazz history. From the first concert in 1954 (emceed by Stan Kenton with material written by Nat Hentoff), Wein has made the Newport Jazz Festival part of the American lexicon ' even though it's now a small event while, since 1972, the main event is focused in New York City. He's a tireless worker, getting gigs for jazzmakers even through the most bleak times.

The fact that he adds pop to his festivals (dig what he calls the low point of his career... it may surprise) it's all with the intent of helping the American art form survive. And he's survived along with it.

George Wein is intelligent, eloquent and energetic. His autobiography (in progress) should be a great read. Any conversation with him is a great conversation.

All About Jazz: Growing up, did you want to be a musician? I know you like to play. Were you headed in that direction?

George Wein: I don't know whether I wanted to be a musician, but I always was a musician. It's one of those things. During high school and then while I was in the Army I played the piano and it helped me a lot. And when I went to college I played, sometimes seven nights and then Sunday afternoon while I was studying. You know, I was working with Max Kaminsky and Pee Wee Russell. I was working full time quite a bit of the time while I was in college. But whether I ever thought I would be a musician or a full-time musician, I don't know. I don't think so.

AAJ: How did you go from that background to Storyville [the jazz club Wein bought in 1950] and being a promoter?

GW: Well I was playing when I got out of college and I didn't know what to do so I took jobs in clubs in Boston, you know. And I was building a little reputation for what I was doing. I produced one concert back in 1949 and it got a little notice, while I was still in college. Somebody said to me in 1950 to open up my own club, You just didn't open a club. You had to have money, but I didn't have any money. I had $5,000 that hadn't been used for my college education, because the GI Bill paid for my college. So I leased a room from the hotel, and so I was in business for $5,000.

AAJ: Eventually it grew to the festivals. How did that come about?

GW: Well, we had many people come into the club. People would come in and have ideas: 'Can you bring jazz up here? Can you bring jazz there?' I didn't pay too much attention, because unless they followed it up the next night or called you the next day, you'd know they just had a few drinks and were having fun that night. But the Lorillards came back Louie and Elaine Lorillard. Elaine Lorillard came back one night with her husband. They wanted to do something in Newport [RI]. I came up with the idea of the festival and the structure of it and the next thing we know we were doing the Newport Jazz Festival.

AAJ: Was the first one in 1954 the first outdoor festival for jazz?

GW: It was the first outdoor festival for jazz in America. I don't know whether anything Europe ' there was supposed to be something in Nice [France] in 1949, but that was a one-shot deal. But that was the first ongoing festival in jazz. We called it the 'first annual' even though it was the first year. I said 'Well, if you're going to do it one year, you gotta follow it up the next year.'

AAJ: So the Lorillards...

GW: They made it possible for me to do it. It never could have been done without the Lorillards.

AAJ: Did you know it would work. Were you uneasy in that beginning period?

GW: I more or less knew it would work. There are several reasons why I knew it would work. Newport itself was the town that I always wanted to go to. I'd never been there. I heard about it because of the mansions and everything. But more than that, I knew every jazz fan in New England from my club. I'd been in business four years. I knew what did business and what didn't do business, and what artists there were. So I put together the right artists. And they came. We sold out both nights, five thousand seats.

AAJ: The Lorillards saw jazz as art?

GW: Well, they wanted, really, to liven up the summer. They didn't know much about jazz. They just knew they liked the music. They wanted ' Newport was a dull place in the summer. The year before they had part of a group that brought in the New York Philharmonic which died. They lost a lot of money. The investment people backed out of doing something again but Louie Lorillard wanted to stay with it. They brought in jazz. I was introduced to them by a professor from Boston University who was a regular at my club.

AAJ: Is that how you got the title 'impresario?' I've never heard it used with anybody else.

GW: I don't know. I don't know how I got the title 'impresario' unless I gave it to myself.

AAJ: It seems like it was coined for you. [laughter]

GW: I don't know [laughter]

AAJ: How about playing? Do you still play?

GW: I still play once in while. Not too much. I sat in the other night in a thing, you know. I'm amazed at the way I play because I don't spend full time at it, so I get up and play and I sound OK, so... I've never been a great musician, but I've always had a certain professional quality in my playing that allowed me to not mess up with the musicians I was with. I always played with good musicians.

AAJ: I was reading an account of that first year and you were quoted as saying it would probably cost $40,000 for that first weekend in 1954.

GW: Well we do two days in Newport now, and the budget for the two days ' and we don't have as great a lineup of talent as we had in those days, because most of them are dead ' costs over $500,000.

AAJ: What's the toughest thing about perpetuating the jazz festival? Not just in Newport, but in New York etc.?

GW: The perpetuation of jazz. That's the toughest thing about perpetuating a jazz festival. Because jazz has taken so many turns, and nobody really knows what's going to happen with jazz in the future. We think about that all the time. Will we be able to resurrect and build a public for the more traditional jazz. Someone like myself has come from that era. At 75 years old I started in the swing era. You still love Duke Ellington and Louie Armstrong and Basie and Billie and Ella and all those people. Because they're part of my life's blood. But will they come back? I don't know, other than in a historic sense, the way it's done now, where you do tributes to them. Will other people play and will it be vital music? Or are we going in a way out direction that will be commercial. Right now most way-out directions aren't commercial, but that doesn't mean they can't become commercial. And is it jazz as we know it? I mean, all these questions have yet to be answered. We know there's a whole thing for young people, that they like certain types of things, but I'm not sure they even know what they're listening to.

AAJ: From your seat, you have kind of seen it all over the years in general, in jazz terms. Are you encouraged by what you see?

GW: I don't know whether I'm encouraged by what I see because there's a certain basic thing that, in my mind, is jazz. And just playing a horn and improvising doesn't make it jazz, per se. That's only one element of jazz. To me, there's a certain feeling that all great jazz had. If it doesn't have that feeling, swing, that pulsation. You know, everybody uses World Music, backbeats, all sorts of different kinds of rhythms, which presents a very interesting music. But then the question is: How far do we carry the term 'jazz' and how narrow is the term 'jazz?' And as I get older I open my ears to more music and I narrow my terminology, my definition of jazz. So I open my ears to all these kinds of music and my festivals reflect that. But then I narrow the actual term of what I call the purity of jazz that was produced in the 20th century.

AAJ: We've all seen them leave one by one ' Dizzy, Miles, Sarah ' how does that make you feel? It seems like they're being replaced by very schooled musicians, but are they as colorful?

GW: Well, you summed it up in that one word. We have a lot of schooled musicians that play wonderful music, but whether they have the freshness and the ability to create styles, create imagery that a jazz musician needs ' that's difficult. A lot of people are confused by the material; playing their own music. Every musician wants to play his own music, but there aren't that many people who are great composers. Usually, you can do better by playing a great song and showing how your personality reflects that song rather than playing your own music and not having a stepping stone for people to lean upon, to get something out of.

AAJ: Is there anybody that jumps out, off the top of your head?

GW: There are so many good musicians around. I went down to hear Dave Douglas one night. Dave Douglas is the musician of the year [Downbeat critic's poll, 1999]. I'm doing a concert with Dave Douglas up at Symphony Space [Broadway, NYC, 6/18] and I can't seem to sell any tickets to it.

AAJ: He seems to be getting a lot of the critical ink lately.

GW: He's getting a lot of critical acclaim and he did a very big week at the [New York City's Village] Vanguard. Business was sensational. And yet, I don't know where he's going. I think he got the big week at the Vanguard because of all the talk about him and people would come to see him who never saw him before. And now some of them have seen him and I don't know what's happening. I think he's a wonderful player. These are the people ' they've been around. They're not kids. They've been around a while. John Zorn has made a mark, to a degree, but he's been around that I know of nearly 20 years. And so, they're not kids. Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman are still icons, in people's minds. I don't know that the public has ever really picked up on Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman. I don't know what their records sell. I know it's risky to try to do concerts with them and try to make money, because you won't. So you don't know. And yet, that music doesn't go away. It hasn't been replaced. That's post-Coltrane music, you see.
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