He Made Festivals Happen

I first met George Wein in 1949, when he was a pianist working with the renowned Edmond Hall at the Savoy Café, Boston’s “Home of Hot Rhythm.” In 2005, the National Endowment for the Arts designated Wein a Jazz Master (Jazz Advocate Division) “for dedication to the advancement (and perpetuation) of jazz,” adding that “Wein has had a mighty hand in shaping the course of jazz both on and off the bandstand.”

The citation omitted a most valuable achievement by this impresario: He has provided more jazz musicians with jobs than anyone so far in the history of the music. In addition to running far-flung festivals in this country and abroad, Wein began the “jazz festival era” in 1954 in Newport-the first jazz festival in the United States. At George’s request, I wrote what turned out to be a wooden history of the music for, as I remember, Stan Kenton to deliver to start off that event. Fortunately, it was immediately submerged in the exhilaration of the music. On recordings and in memories, the following Newport years included the regeneration of the careers of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington amid an actual living history of the music.

Also, some of the panel discussions presaged the current growing focus on jazz education. At jazz historian Marshall Stearn’s invitation, for example, folklorist Willis James illustrated the pre-blues field hollers and the pre-gospel music at the roots of jazz.

When the New York Times reported on Jan. 25 that George had sold his Festival Productions company to the Festival Network, I recalled many of those summer afternoons, and realized that for all my occasional criticism of George’s programming over the years, he has indeed been a vital force in “shaping the course of jazz.”

It is not in his nature to retire, however. George will have a direct role in the festivals he already produces, and will be consulted about the new ones in the now continuing, expanded international network. As for his merger with the Festival Network, George told me, “If I don’t like something they’re doing, they’ll hear from me-fast!”

Characteristically, George insisted that as a condition of the sale, the jobs of his longtime colleagues would be protected for at least three years. And if anything goes wrong with that agreement, George adds, “I will protect them. They’re my family.” Among those remaining is publicity director Charles Bourgeois, whom I’ve known as a source and a friend for more than half a century. I see Charles as a kind of Fred Astaire of jazz promotion-his wit, graciousness, and steel-like integrity. With all the stories he can tell of his years in jazz, I keep hoping that Charles will write a memoir.

The truly inside story of the Newport jazz festivals, under their various names-and of George’s long-term relationships with many of the entries in the Encyclopedia of Jazz-is his unusually candid book, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, still available in paperback. Written with Nate Chinen, a chronicler of jazz for the New York Times as well as the magazine you’re reading now, it’s published by Da Capo Press.

This book-an essential source for future historians, not only of the music but of its times-reflects a continual refrain by Bill Cosby in his foreword: “George ain’t afraid.”

He is also more than an international impresario. He has devoted his life to this music and the family of jazz has included him. George started out as a player (he still works gigs as a pianist) and his life would have been barren without the music, particularly without his having known-off the stand as well as on-so many of its creators.

Toward the end of his book, he writes of players who were sidemen during much of their careers. “What set them apart,” George writes, “was their humanity-which went even beyond that of an artist playing from his heart. In some musicians the feeling for communication transcends the music itself and becomes part of their personal life.

“Buck [Clayton] and Buddy [Tate] and Sweets [Edison] and Clark [Terry] and a number of others like Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith-all had something very, very special as human beings; they were strong people, and had tremendous pride in what they could do. But if you showed them respect, their egos would not come into play…

“This was a rare and special characteristic among these musicians, almost as special as the music that flowed through their bodies … They might not have been the geniuses [of the music], but they were the troops. They made jazz happen, and we owe them an unfathomable debt.”

When I was interviewed recently by Loren Schoenberg for the Smithsonian Jazz Masters Oral History Collection, it was that passage in Myself Among Others that came back to me deeply. George and I have known many of the same musicians-starting at the Savoy and then at Storyville, the jazz room he created. During the oral history interviews, as I went back to the sidemen and the leaders, I realized with particular acuteness how impoverished, how diminished, my life would have been if-starting in my early 20s-it had not been continually regenerated by the conversations and the storytelling of these “very special human beings.”

They were so singularly special that they could have been in classic novels-the ones that George names and also Frankie Newton, Herbie Nichols, Rex Stewart, Paul Desmond, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Jim Hall, Al Morgan, Marian McPartland, Pee Wee Russell, Mary Lou Williams and many, many more-including George Wein.