The news came just as we were closing the issue, too late to change any pages other than this one: George Wein, a man who belongs on the short list of jazz history’s most important figures, the man who created the modern music festival as we know it, passed away in his sleep on Monday, September 13, in his Manhattan home. He was 95.
By the time you read this, you’ll probably have already seen numerous obituaries and tributes to George, full of telling details and amusing anecdotes. I can’t compete with any of them. I never even met the man. And yet I feel as though I knew him well. In many ways, he could have been my father.
Hear me out on this. George was born and raised in Massachusetts and talked like it. Same for my dad. They were born less than a year apart. George played the piano and loved jazz. So did my dad. George served in World War II and then went to Boston University, as my dad did. In his later years, George liked to wear an Irish plaid cap; my dad had remarkably similar taste in haberdashery.
When George moved his Storyville club to Boston’s Kenmore Square in 1950, my dad became a regular patron. Like George, he’d hung out on 52nd Street in New York after the war, and he was thrilled that he could find a similar ambience right down the street from Fenway Park on the ground floor of the Hotel Buckminster. In 1954, George put on a jazz festival in Newport, Rhode Island, and my dad was there too. In my youth I heard many a story of Newport in the ’50s: Brubeck and Mulligan, Monk and Miles, and Paul Gonsalves’ 27 choruses on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.”
At this point, the paths diverged. My dad became a newspaperman, while George’s career as an impresario gradually took on the weight of legend. Even in a much-diminished role, he continued to pursue his Newport dream well into the 21st century. Dad wasn’t watching anymore; he passed away in March 2004.
I’ve previously noted that, given where and how I grew up, it was strange that I never went to the Newport Jazz Festival until I was in my forties and editor of this magazine. But today, in the wake of George’s passing, I can’t help noting that my first time at Newport was his last. Was it luck or fate or mere coincidence? All I know is that I watched him give his final public performance as a pianist, with Christian McBride and Jon Faddis providing loving support, that I saw him whizzing around Fort Adams in the golf cart labeled “The Wein Machine,” that I noted that familiar-looking cap on his head, and that I felt I was back among family.
On behalf of myself and my father and every person who has benefited from George Wein’s invaluable contributions to the world, all I can say now is: Thank you.