George Wein (1925-2021)

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George Wein, who launched the outdoor pop-music festival business in 1954 and helped transform jazz from adult music heard in smokey, subterranean clubs to high art staged under the sun and stars for people of all ages on par with classical music, died on Sept. 13. He was 95.

Though George considered himself a pragmatic, regular guy, everything that came out of his mouth was intelligent, thought through and kind. His passion for jazz artists and his ability to reason without bias or malice made him a highly regarded and calming figure for those who prized honesty and integrity. George was known for being reasonable and caring—two characteristics that had been anathema to jazz and club owners. His sole mission was to give audiences the same thrill he received from the music. If he turned a profit, so be it.

Over the years, I've interviewed George at length for JazzWax and my books several times. My next book, Rock Concert (Grove Press), due Nov. 9, features George at length in several sections on the rise of the Newport Jazz Festival Newport Folk Festival, and their impact on the rock festivals that followed in the 1960s and beyond. I conducted the interview at his apartment in 2017. Though his body was starting to fail him, his mind was sharp as a tack.

In tribute to George, jazz's Status of Liberty, below is my entire five-part interview with him:

JazzWax: How many jazz club owners can say they played with Bobby Hackett?

George Wein:

[Laughs] We played together several times. Cornetist Bobby Hackett was a good friend. He meant a great deal to me. When Bobby was alive, I utilized him a lot. Whenever I had jam sessions, Bobby was in charge of them. When he died in 1976, I said to Dizzy, another dear friend who worked often for me, “You're going to have to be my Bobby Hackett."

JW: What did Dizzy say?

GW:

Dizzy said, “Um, Bobby Hackett, yeah, um, yeah, OK." [Laughs]

JW: What was Bobby like?

GW:

He was the nicest guy. In the early days of his career, when he was drinking, I didn't know him. When I knew him, in the last 20-odd years of his life, Bobby was one of the sweetest guys I worked with. Never a problem.

JW: Who came up with the name for your Boston club, Storyville?

GW:

Nat Hentoff. We were sitting around talking before I opened in 1950, and he came up with it. But then he took the name back, saying it wasn't that good. I said, “No no, it is the name. We don't have to go any further." I wanted a name that eliminated the word “the," which only loaded down the sound. This way, people would say, “Let's go to Storyville."

JW: Storyville moved a few times during its history, yes?

GW:

We first opened downstairs in the Copley Square Hotel in 1950, closed six months later, moved to the Hotel Buckminster in Kenmore Square in February 1951, and moved back to the Copley Square Hotel in 1953, where we went into prestigious street-level space. We re-opened there with Charlie Parker. At the very end, in 1959, we did a year at the Bradford Hotel on Tremont St. I was going to close the club, but the Bradford wanted to keep it open for a year. By then, organizing and promoting the Newport Jazz Festival was a full-time enterprise.

JW: How did you pull off the Copley Square Hotel deal?

GW:

People in hotels have space. If the space isn't earning them money, they want to do things with it. In Boston in the '50s, hotels had space that wasn't necessarily producing income. I went to the Copley with the idea, and they said, “OK, let's do it." That's basically what it was. Everything in life is being in the right place at the right time. If I went to a hotel now that's busy, they'd say they don't lease out space, that they're making money with what they're doing with it.

JW: Was the Copley Square Hotel the first place you went to?

GW:

Yes. Things were easy back then in one respect: There wasn't much business in Boston. Boston wasn't completely dead, and Saturday nights business was OK. But during the week, no one was around. You have to understand, Boston is a much busier town now. Today the Copley Square area is packed. I go up there and I can't believe it. The area was very different in the 1950s. It was like a town. Our move to Kenmore Square and then back to Copley Square had to do with costs.

JW: Who did you attract to Storyville if Boston was dead during the week?

GW:

Once we caught on, our audience was mostly made up of professors from the different local colleges. We didn't draw many kids because they didn't drink and most were under 21, the legal age limit then. If Boston had allowed drinking starting at age 18, I might still be in business up there [laughs]. The club attracted Blacks when I had certain artists booked, but for the most part the audience was white and middle class.

JW: How did you like growing up in the Boston area?

GW:

Well, I had a rather a nice time. My father was a doctor, and we lived in Newton, a Boston suburb. We weren't rich by any means, but I never lacked for anything. My father always made a living. I enjoyed Boston and Newton High School very much. But I missed a lot of years that would have been important when I went into to the Army at age 18. Between age 18 and 21, those are your growing-up years, as a young man. I was growing up much faster in the Army. By the time I attended Boston University, from 1946 to 1950, I wasn't a kid going to college. I was a man getting my degree on the GI Bill.

JW: Did you have brothers and sisters?

GW:

I had one brother. We got along very well. He was a little older. He introduced me to jazz when I was 11 years old. He brought home a record player with 13 free records that came with it. I remember hearing Louis Armstrong's When the Saints Go Marching In; Benny Goodman and Sing, Sing, Sing; and Jimmie Lunceford's White Heat. I loved what I heard. Slowly but surely I got involved with jazz.

JW: Where did you learn to play piano?

GW:

I was playing classical music on the piano when I was 7 or 8 years old. I switched to popular music because I used to sing as a kid and wanted to accompany myself. When I heard jazz and improvisation on my brother's records, I said to myself, “This is interesting, I have to get into this." Next thing I knew I was playing jazz.

JW: With whom did you study?

GW:

I studied classical music with Madame Chaloff, whO was baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff's mother. Serge and I were friends as kids. She taught me how to play the piano. At age 14, I switched to Sam Saxe, a jazz pianist. He taught me about chording and improvisation and playing on changes and things like that. I was with him for about 2 1/2 years. I played and sang at school events and eventually wanted to become a jazz musician.

JW: When did you start playing professionally?

GW:

In college. I was studying pre-med and history, but in my spare time I played regularly with groups like the Edmond Hall Quartet. Edmond played clarinet, and our group played Dixieland jazz. We performed regularly at the Savoy Club on Massachusetts Ave. in Boston.

JW: At what point did you develop a head for business?

GW:

I never was, quote, business minded. But I could always add and subtract [laughs]. And I found I was a pretty good organizer. I had always been an organizer when I was growing up. If I wanted to play baseball, I'd call all the other kids and we'd start a team. If it was football, I'd call the kids and we'd get uniforms and start a team. I was always organizing. When I played the Savoy with Edmond Hall, he'd say, “Would you please go speak to the boss to see if we can get a raise?" Everyone turned to me to keep things together. I finally said to Edmond, “Let's do our own concert." So we got a Saturday night offer, I rented a hall and that was my first concert. The next thing I knew I was a producer and then a club owner.

JW: Storyville opened in September 1950. Who was the first group booked?

GW:

Bob Wilber, who played soprano sax at the time. His original group was a pure Jelly Roll Morton band. He had played the Savoy when I was there with Edmond Hall. He was the other band. I knew that Bob had a following in Boston. But he changed his style at Storyville when he added drummer Big Sid Catlett. Bob wanted to get more into swing. I was all for that, and Bob having Big Sid was very important. Big Sid was an extraordinary swing drummer. That's how we opened the club. It was very exciting.

JW: Do you think your ability to play jazz helped you as a club owner?

GW:

Well, it certainly helped me enjoy life [laughs]. I listen to music from a different point of view than most people. Being a musician myself, I have different feelings. I'm either more tolerant or more intolerant, depending on how you look at it. A guy may not play the way I like, but if he can play, I relate to it. Or he may play music that I like but if he doesn't play well, then I'm not a good critic for him. It has nothing to do with style. It has to do with artistry. I respect artistry because I know how hard it is to be a good musician. So when I booked musicians into Storyville, it was always about the artistry, whether I liked the music or not. Looking back, my musical ability certainly influenced my taste and choices.

JW: Where was Storyville exactly during this period?

GW:

Storyville, in its heyday, from 1953 to 1959, was on the street level of the Copley Square Hotel, on the corner of Exeter St. and Huntington Ave.

JW: How much did it cost to open the club in 1950?

GW:

When I opened Storyville, I had $5,000. I bought 40 to 50 tables at $10 a table and 200 chairs at $3 a chair. I bought a sound system for $600 that consisted of a little amplifier with two speakers that I hung next to the bandstand. I bought a cash register for $300, spent $700 to have the club painted, and hired a kid to put a mural on the wall. And I was in business. You can’t do that now. You can’t walk across the street for $5,000.

JW: Did you get pressure from mobsters on which acts to book?

GW:

No never. I never had that. The pressure I faced was having to get a different attraction every week. That was very tough. There just weren’t that many great groups. Remember, I needed 40 different attractions because we were open 40 weeks a year. We were closed in the summer. If I was lucky, I could get 15 or 20 good attractions. The rest were great musicians who played wonderful music, but they wouldn't sell tickets. They weren't as popular with fans.

JW: What was your original goal with the club?

GW:

I was interested in playing as many of the jazz greats as possible. I didn’t look at the box office results, really. When I played George Shearing early on, the place was full. I said to myself, “Boy this is going to be great." Going forward, I said, I only want to play Art Tatum, Billie Holiday and all the people I loved. But while all the people I loved were great musicians, some had small publics and didn’t have hit recordings.

JW: What did hit records have to do with it?

GW:

Plenty. I didn’t realize at the time that hit records were the things that sold tickets. I thought that reputations and what other musicians thought of artists sold ticks. Then I learned that if a radio station played a record people liked, people came to hear the music played by the artist. But booking artists with hit records wasn't the basis of what Storyville was. I had a love for what I was doing. I wanted to do things that people would be proud of. I didn’t want a joint. I wanted them to have a nice place to play and hear jazz.

JW: How many times did Charlie Parker play Storyville?

GW:

Two or three times. He never played the Newport Jazz Festival.

JW: Was he invited to the first festival?

GW:

No. I was planning on having him up to the second one in 1955, but, of course, he died in March of that year.

JW: Did Parker ever try to con you as a club owner?

GW:

No. He was always very professional. He never missed a set. He didn’t have his own working band, so I had to hire local musicians. He was supposed to play for me the week he died. He didn’t show up, so we figured Bird goofed, which he never did when he played for me. Then we found out what happened in the newspapers.

JW: How did Bird sound?

GW:

He played beautifully. I got his message. I was not a big Charlie Parker fan. But when he played the club, and I heard him every night, I understood why he was the daddy of all the contemporary players.

JW: Did you play with him?

GW:

Yes. When he came up to Boston, we'd have jam sessions on Sunday afternoons. After 1953, I had a second club downstairs in the Copley Square Hotel called Mahogany Hall. It featured mostly traditional jazz. I had Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson and me downstairs along with the other Mahogany Hall All Stars while Bird was playing upstairs with his quartet. I asked Bird to play with us, he said sure, so we came up and played Royal Garden Blues with him.

JW: What was that like?

GW:

When he played his blues chorus, our jaws dropped open. The strength of what he could do and the strength of his playing was just amazing. Playing behind him wasn't a problem, since we were playing what we had always played but with his bop style. Bebop is really swing with a little inflection in the beat. Bebop wasn't the first real departure in jazz. The first real departure came with John Coltrane. Up until then, most everything had some type of 32-bar format.

JW: Did Mahogany Hall eat into Storyville's business?

GW:

Not at all. Mahogany Hall featured more traditional jazz. It was a completely different audience. We had some classic jam sessions down there. One afternoon I had Art Tatum playing with Sidney Bechet. That was incredible. What the two clubs did have in common is that both were losing money [laughs]. But it didn't matter. People always wonder how you manage to stay in business so many years when you lose money. I don’t know how but somehow or other you do. I was earning money outside the clubs, you know, with the Newport Jazz Festival and tours and things like that. Everything I earned went back into the club. But in the mid-1950s, losing money was different than today. Maybe you lost $10,000 at the end of the year. It wasn’t a big financial thing. Today, when you lose money, you’re losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

JW: Some great jazz performances were recorded at Storyville. 

GW:

Most were recorded by radio stations, which broadcast from the club.

JW: Did you ever want to install recording equipment at Storyville?

GW:

No. We could have if we asked permission of the musicians and paid them. It was too expensive and wasn’t part of our budget. Nowadays kids have TVs in their clubs or whatever. It’s a different world.

JW: Tell me about the Stan Getz Quintet at Storyville in 1951.

GW:

That year Stan led one of the greatest bands he ever had. He had Al Haig on piano, Jimmy Raney on guitar, Teddy Kotick on bass and Tiny Kahn on drums. That was an exciting band. I loved Stan's music and always had. But as an individual, that was a different matter. In 1951, I hadn’t yet encountered too much of his idiocies. That would come later.

JW: What do you mean?

GW:

You couldn’t predict what Stan was going to do. From my perspective, it wasn’t that he was nasty. He might not show up or might not care. I remember I had him in Europe once. We had a date in Belfast, Ireland. He got on a plane and flew to Belfast. When he got there, he got on another plane and flew to London and never played the job. He was unpredictable like that.

JW: Do you think he knew what he was doing when he did that stuff?

GW:

He didn’t have it together. He didn’t know what he was doing.

JW: Gerry Mulligan at Storyville in 1956 also gave a legendary performance.

GW:

There always was an excitement about Gerry. That group he had was terrific: Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone, Bill Crow on bass and Dave Bailey on drums. Gerry was a big part of the jazz explosion of the 1950s. In those days you had so many great players and groups. When I did a festival, I had Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, the Modern Jazz Quartet. Never mind veteran artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. It went on and on and on with the different groups making records and each artist establishing an identity. It was an extraordinary time.

JW: Did Mulligan have a different temperament than Getz?

GW:

Gerry off stage was the sweetest guy you’d want to meet. But when you had to deal with him on business, he was so concerned with excellence that he could be a pain in the neck. He was so worried about every little thing as a performer. Then you’d have him over the house for dinner and he’d be the greatest person you’d ever meet socially.

JW: What was he a pain in the neck about?

GW:

Sound, position on show, length of set, every little detail. He never ran out of things.

JW: Lee Konitz in 1954 also delivered a great Storyville performance that was captured on record.

GW:

Lee and I became very close. I had a little record company then. At the time, Paul Desmond was so popular. We felt Lee could have been another Paul. So I recorded him and Ronnie Ball on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Al Levitt on drums. At the time, his modern jazz records didn't sell well. Now, of course, Lee is as popular as ever and, it turns out, historically a more important alto saxophonist.

JW: Were you filling the club with Lee's music back

then?

GW:

No

JW: Did Boston club-goers get what Lee was trying to do?

GW:

No.

JW: Did you get it?

GW:

I got it. I made two of the records in the studio myself. If you listen to the music a lot, you get it.

JW: Billie’s last performance was at Storyville in April 1959...

GW:

It wasn’t Billie’s last performance. It was her last good performance. She sang at the Blue Moon Café in Lowell, Mass., a short time later. I wanted to go up and see her. Father [Norman] O'Connor, who was a big jazz fan and on my Newport Jazz Festival board, said, “George, don’t go up there, you’ll be devastated, don’t do it." So I didn't. Billie died that July.

JW: Do you remember her run at your club that week in April?

GW:

I had been away most of the week and came back on Sunday. I sat through all her afternoon and evening shows that day. At the end of the night, I went up to her and said, “Billie, what is it with you? You sound fantastic. You sound as great as ever." Billie said, “I'm straight now, George, you gotta help me, I’m straight.” I said, “Great, I’ll call [manager] Joe Glaser, and we'll set up a date for you at Newport.” Then she took my hand and put it on her heart so I could feel her heart bumping up and down. After she did that I cried. It was so tragic.

JW: When you launched the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, did it do what you wanted it to do instantly?

GW:

Immediately. Because I knew two things: I knew what artists would sell tickets based on how they did at Storyville, and I knew going in what I wanted to do with the festival. I saw it as an opportunity to promote jazz on a large scale and expose people of all ages to this great music. For the first time, people who didn't go to clubs or couldn't get in because they were too young now could see and hear the music and musicians live, outside, in a relaxed, laid-back setting.

JW: What was the secret ingredient to the festival's success?

GW:

The most important thing about the first Newport Jazz Festival and probably one of my greatest contributions, was not sticking with one kind of jazz. I had Eddie Condon there and Lennie Tristano in between Billie Holiday and Lester Young on the same program. Whether it was traditional jazz with Bobby Hackett and Wild Bill Davison, or swing with Lester and Billie and Teddy Wilson, or bebop with Dizzy Gillespie, or modern jazz with Tristano and Lee Konitz—everyone's taste was covered. And you could see whether jazz you had not heard before or didn't care too much for initially appealed to you in our setting. We put musicians together who played very different types of jazz. This had never been done before.

JW: Would you say the height of the festival was in 1958?

GW:

The highpoint? Who knows? Miles Davis in 1955 was remarkable, Duke in 1956—I mean there are so many high points as you go along.

JW: One would think that as a musician with a heart, you might have been too sympathetic to succeed as a businessman and festival promoter.

GW:

Well, first of all, I don’t think I am a good businessman. I had a feeling in those days for the public. I still have a slight feeling for the public but it’s a little different now. The music I love no longer sells tickets. What sells tickets now is contemporary rock and things like that. Today, jazz festivals have to feature crossover music. If you feature just pure jazz, you’ll only have a few people in the seats. Economics has to come first today. Back then, love could play a role.

JW: You sound like a pretty good businessman to me.

GW:

When I said I could only add and subtract, I was talking at a level where I could have success as an individual and the reputation that goes with it. But I never knew how to take business to another level. The next level is using other people’s money and getting investors and coming up with ideas that might have made me a very rich man.

JW: How so?

GW:

I stayed in business for as long as I did because I knew that if I spent $10, I had to take in $11. But that’s not how you get rich in business. If you spend $10, you may take in only $8. But if you get people thinking that next year there's a good chance you'll take in $20, then you’ll get them to invest with you. When they do, you wind up building a bigger company. I never could think like that. I thought purely on what I was doing. I still think like that.

JW: What do you think when you see the film, Jazz on a Summer's Day, which documented the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival?

GW:

I think it was a rather great festival. I always get a little upset when my name isn’t mentioned in the film as the festival's creator. But that's life. You learn your lessons. If you want your name protected, you had better protect it yourself. No one’s going to protect it for you.

JW: Of all the artists you’ve known, who did you bond with most?

GW:

I got very close with Duke [Ellington]. I think Duke realized two things: That I was a businessman to a degree and could help his career, and that I really loved his music and loved him. He respected both of those qualities. There were a lot of people who loved Duke who weren’t contributing to his career so much. But I was giving Duke as much work as I could.

JW: Did he appreciate what you did?

GW:

Yes, and he appreciated the success he had at Newport. Whenever he introduced me afterward to musicians and friends, he'd say, “My career began at Newport in 1956.” Then he’d introduce me and give me the biggest plug. That felt so good, coming from Duke. He felt I was a major part of his success during that period in the 1950s and beyond. The festival gave many musicians a huge popular platform they never had before. Even when jazz artists were popular on the radio and on records, and even with Jazz at the Philharmonic, it was still considered nighttime music. Newport changed all that. Newport brought jazz into the daylight, made it family music, and put it on par with classical music. After Duke's performances there, whenever I’d call him, he'd get me whatever I needed for concerts and events. There was never any hesitation or a problem on his part.

JW: What was it about Duke you admired so much?

GW:

His generous spirit. And that he was very protective of his music. He wanted to make sure his acknowledgments were there. When we did his Sacred Concerts, he wanted to make sure everything was the way he wanted it. And we did that for him. Whatever Duke asked us for, we saw that it was done.

JW: What about on a personal level?

GW:

I could hang out with Duke, have ice cream with him, for example, while he was writing with Billy Strayhorn on the phone.

JW: What were they writing?

GW:

Some of their larger works. He would say, “Billy, I have the first movement, you get the second movement and we’ll discuss that third movement later.” Stuff like that.

JW: Lester Young played at Newport, but did he ever play Storyville?

GW:

Yes. Back in 1953, he played a swing date with a local rhythm section I put together. On the first night, before the first set, Pres asked me who would be playing with him that week. I told him Buck Clayton was coming up from New York and that I had a great local bassist and drummer. He asked who was playing piano. I told him I was. He gave me that look, but I told him I knew all his songs.

JW: What did he say?

GW:

He said, “OK, if you say so, Pres." Lester called the person in charge “Pres," and at the club, that was me. He also let me call the first tune—Pennies from Heaven. So when it was time for us to start, he told me to go up and take the first chorus. So I went up with the bassist and drummer. But after the first chorus, Pres still hadn't come up on stage. When I looked at him, he waved me on to take another. And another. Not until the end of the fourth chorus did he come up to play.

JW: Was he happy with you?

GW:

Just before he put his horn in his mouth, he said, “You and me are going to be all right, Pres." That felt great. We had a ball the whole week. Lester was so happy playing swing. I think he was tired of playing bebop. When I put Buck Clayton with him, that sort of brought him back to his greatest days.

JW: When you look back on your career, are you satisfied?

GW:

Oh, I wouldn’t change a thing. It has been a great adventure. I'm only sorry that my wife, Joyce, died too young in 2005 at age 76.

JW: Anything you would have done differently?

GW:

My only regret is not making more records. I should have scraped together more money on my tours and recorded my sidemen. You could record very cheaply in those days. I recorded the Giants of Jazz in Switzerland and live concerts in London. But that was toward the very end. All the years before that I could have made 100 albums. That was the only thing I would have done differently.

JW: What about with the festival?

GW:

I wouldn't change a thing. Look, I could have been the biggest rock producer in New England. In 1969, I had all the rock groups at Newport. At the time there was no Don Law, the big rock concert promoter up there now. All the agents were selling me their rock groups. After the festival, I said to myself, “This isn't the life I want." I was too proud of my jazz festivals. And I had no control over the rock concerts. I couldn’t program them. I couldn’t use my own creative talents, whatever they were.

JW: Why not?

GW:

With rock, you had no control. Your taste and mix meant little. You put a group on, and they owned the festival. No one else could be playing someplace else on the festival grounds. A rock group's popularity was so great that the audience resisted any deviation. See, I liked to put on different groups on different stages at the same time. That was the beauty of the festival. Rock audiences were different. They were uni-dimensional and uni-directional. Young people didn't want anything other than the main attraction. I didn’t want that. I wanted a range of groups that someone age 16 and 60 could go to see and enjoy.

JW: Looking back, were the 1950s as romantic a time as they seem?

GW:

Oh yeah. It was that good. I mean there were problems, always. Some clubs did more business, some jazz groups were more popular than others. Even the good ones faced constant challenges from rivals. Then a Dave Brubeck would come along, for example, and completely change the scene. But even when someone had a hot album, it helped all of jazz.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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