May 2001

George Wein

Jazz festival posters from around the world adorn the long corridor leading to the high-rise Manhattan apartment of George Wein and his wife of 40 years, Joyce. Upon entering the apartment, though, a different George Wein emerges, from creator of the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals, the New Orleans Jazz Festival and hundreds of others, to serious art collector, with paintings by Chagall and Renoir hanging on the walls. The foyer, and even the bathroom, display paintings by celebrated African-American painters like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. Even with his deep love of art, music is still Wein’s primary passion.

“Music is my raison d’être, my life,” he says. “I started as a pianist and I am still a pianist at heart in spite of everything else I have become. But I knew from the start that I’d never be Art Tatum. I also realized that I had certain managerial talents and that became my way of fulfilling the love I had for jazz.”

Wein began his long career in concert promotion when he was working in Boston’s Savoy club after college. “I was known around town as the local piano player. A lawyer I knew said, ‘Why don’t you open your own club?’ I had a few dollars that I wasn’t spending on my education because I was going to school on the G.I. Bill. So I started Storyville. I bought second-hand chairs for $10 and tables for $15. A beer was 65 cents and six musicians, with Bob Wilber as leader and the great Sid Catlett on drums, were getting $800 a week.”

Wein closed the club during the summer and spent the season in Gloucester, where “there were no jazz festivals. There was a classical music festival at Tanglewood in the Berkshires. So when the Lorillards from Newport wished to do something with jazz to liven up the summer months, we started the Newport Jazz Festival together. The first year [1954] we broke even, although I didn’t take my $5,000 promised salary. The rest is history.”

Since Newport, Wein’s jazz festivals have sprung up in every corner of the globe. “I am gratified by the proliferation of my festivals because they have become an important source of income for thousands of jazz musicians at a time when the club scene is dying.”

Now 75 years old, Wein’s main concern now is to preserve his Festival Productions and his legacy as a pioneer in the field. “Jazz has become a part of the mainstream of American culture, along with ballet, opera and symphonic music. Jazz has become accepted by cultural institutions, as demonstrated by the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and Lincoln Center Jazz Program. It’s easier now because public money is available. But as jazz festivals turn more toward ‘music’ festivals, I want to make sure that jazz will remain an important part of that musical scene. And I want to make sure that young people, families, continue to enjoy jazz as part of their musical experience.”

The Personal Files

Favorite wine?: The unique taste that only a vintage Bordeaux of great age can give you, e.g., Pichon Lalande, 1928.

Favorite food?: Ice cream.

Last movie you saw?: Calle 54. It gave me an idea for a concert.

Where do you vacation?: My wife and I go to our house in Vence on the Cote d’Azur.

Three desert island picks?: Wine, Billie Holiday-Teddy Wilson records and I’ll leave the third to your imagination.

Favorite painting?: All the paintings that Joyce and I have in our collection. If I have to choose one beyond our reach, I would be [Jean] Dubuffet’s “Four Musicians,” which hangs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Audio system?: JVC system. I don’t know all the technical details.

Favorite possessions?: A good appetite and all my close friends.

Do you play any sports?: Yes. Solitaire.

How do you keep physically fit?: I pray.

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