George Wein a Life in, and for, Jazz

I dropped out of Harvard’s graduate-school program in American studies because Sidney Bechet was playing at the Savoy, a jazz club at the edge of the black section of Boston. I looked at the research I was doing at Widener Library and decided I wanted another kind of life.

For years, my university was the Savoy, where my professors, on and off the stand, were Herbie Nichols, Red Allen, Jo Jones, Rex Stewart and Edmond Hall, who played clarinet with a passion I’d never become part of in any other school. The house pianist at the Savoy for one of Edmond’s gigs had already been playing around town with Pee Wee Russell and Max Kaminsky, as well as a premier soloist at a Chinese restaurant-an initial engagement for a number of musicians then.

His name was George Wein. He’d studied with Teddy Wilson, and he played with an infectious enthusiasm, particularly when he sang, “Oh, Looka There, Ain’t She Pretty!,” which became sort of his signature. He knew how to listen, so was an attentive accompanist, and he surely could swing.

I got to know him better when he opened his own club, Storyville, in Boston. I did radio remotes from Storyville, and that club, along with the Savoy, was where my postgraduate work began. George booked Billie Holiday; the Billy Taylor trio with an astonishing young bassist, Charles Mingus; Lester Young; and others of the pantheon.

He didn’t realize it then, but those years were George’s apprenticeship for his true vocation as a worldwide jazz impresario, starting with the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. Newport had an important impact on the careers of many musicians. There, in 1956, Duke Ellington, as he once said, was born again. So was Miles Davis. But as the festival began to include Eartha Kitt, the Kingston Trio and other “names” to attract a wider audience, my friendship with George became considerably strained. I called the Newport Festival in print, “a money-grubbing enterprise of the same category as any giant midway staffed with shell games and taffy candy.” That was more than a little hyperbolic. After all, George was still giving work to a lot of musicians, as he has for so long, and that should count.

The strain got worse when I cheered the Newport Rebels-Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Eric Dolphy, Coleman Hawkins, et al.,-who put on a counter-festival in 1960 at Newport, with Jo Jones saying: “The big festival forgot about music, but these little kiddies”-pointing to Eric Dolphy and others on the stand-“have got to have a chance to be heard. That’s one reason we did this.”

But the Newport decline was an aberration for George. Since Newport, he has expanded the audience for jazz more than any other promoter in the music’s history. And at 75, his enthusiasm for the music-however tempered by occasional clinkers-is as strong as when he was a kid, visiting New York to discover the Camelot of jazz, 52nd Street.

As he says in Ken Burns’ Jazz: “It was the most beautiful thing, so exciting. There was Red Allen and Higginbotham at Kelly’s Stables, Art Tatum at the Three Deuces, Count Basie at the Famous Door. It was like being in a candied heaven. My brother and I would take 10 or 15 dollars that my father had given us to go out and we’d go to five clubs. It was just the greatest feeling one could have and you never forgot that feeling…You felt that the musicians were playing for you.”

And in more ways than one, through the years, most of them have played for George. I’m not surprised that, as he told Billboard, he does not want to retire: “I love the business with its inevitable problems and challenges that loom every year, getting to know the younger musicians, and wondering where the hell jazz is going.”

Decorated with France’s Legion d’Honneur for his expansion of the concept of jazz festivals, he has also been appointed by the French government as Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. I expect it was the first time both honors were given to someone whose first renown came with his singing of “Oh, Looka There, Ain’t She Pretty!”

George still plays piano, including at occasional concerts. And, as he said in Billboard, “I played a club in Switzerland for a few days, two years ago with Warren Vaché-just for kicks, and not for the money, that’s for sure!”

George is now writing a memoir. He has known more musicians-some very well indeed-than any writer on jazz, and he certainly knows the business end. It should be an illuminating journey over so many years and continents since that debut, playing piano in a Chinese restaurant in Boston. And later, as Dave Brubeck remembers, when George set up tours in Maine and Vermont for him, “drove the car, set up the microphones and even set up chairs in the auditorium.”