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Randy Brecker Remembers George Wein

The trumpeter honors the pianist and founder of the Newport Jazz Festival with a Farewell tribute (10/3/25 – 9/13/21)

George Wein (photo: Alan Nahigian)
George Wein (photo: Alan Nahigian)

When I was in Europe last September my phone buzzed, and onscreen appeared the name of my longtime friend Darlene Chan—who I’m always happy to hear from, but this time I had a feeling of dread and trepidation, which was well-founded. “George died,” she simply said. George Wein had left the bandstand, only three weeks shy of his 96th birthday, and I closed my eyes and my mind went a million different places in a split second. Truly his loss was the end of an era, and it was an era that he himself created: the era of the great jazz festival. Open-air, featuring many jazz stars and groups following each other on stage, with a tight schedule, on successive days—what a concept, all his own! He held his very first festival presenting this new construct, at great personal risk, in the town of Newport, Rhode Island. 

The Newport Jazz Festival was born in 1954, which in turn spawned all the multitudes of other festivals that followed. Many were products of George’s soon-to be-organized worldwide Festival Productions: the Nice Jazz Fest, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest, Saratoga Jazz Fest, Playboy Jazz Fest, just to name a few (smile) … oh yeah, and the Newport Folk Fest, remember when Bob Dylan went electric there and practically got booed off the stage? Well, that wouldn’t have happened without George … and oh, oh yeah, what about the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s performance of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” and tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’ pulsating 27 choruses with the crowd going berserk in 1956? Or Miles Davis resurrecting his career and getting signed to Columbia after his amazing performance at Newport in 1955? Well, none of those famous events in jazz history would have taken place without George. I don’t even know if jazz as a commercial entity would have had a history without George Wein.

A musician/pianist first, George had a unique ability to put unusual bands together, and give solid career advice to other musicians with regards to “packaging your wares,” so to speak. Thusly the Newport All-Stars were eventually formed, with the vibe and presentation bringing all of his programming savvy to the fore.

The Newport All-Stars had a week at Marians Jazzroom in Bern, Switzerland, it must have been 10 years or so ago. This edition was a great band, representing many decades of American music. Esperanza Spalding, on her way up, was on bass and vocals. I remember George asking her at lunch, “Where have you been all my life?” and she answered: “I wasn’t born!” Also featured was the great Anat Cohen on clarinet and tenor saxophone, along with me on trumpet, Jimmy Cobb on drums (!), and George on piano and vocals. George, besides putting this crazy multi-generational band together, also had a way of putting the set together, giving everyone a spot to shine. He really was quite an adept bandleader, and a much better pianist than he would ever admit to being.

After the first set on the first night, I happened to be standing next to George and Hans Zurbrügg, the club owner (and also co-founder of the Bern Jazz Fest), who, fully intending to give George a heartfelt compliment, said, “What a great variety show!” George took umbrage at that description of the set, and with a rasp in his voice that we all knew well, responded incredulously, “VARIETY SHOW???!” and quickly walked away shaking his head. Now it was known to George that it was primarily Hans’ wife Marianne Gauer’s money that had made Marians and the Hotel Innere Enge above the club possible. (She designed hotels and had her own chain; Hans was a fine jazz trumpeter.) Soon after that short exchange, the second set started. George calmly dedicated the first tune to Hans, then he sardonically commenced to sing and play none other than “Just a Gigolo.” Looking straight at Hans the whole time. Pure George! 

He was so loved by all of us, and even though we knew this was coming, it was and still is a shock to not to have him on this planet anymore. What an amazing life. We all tip our hats to him … the Great Impresario and Musician: George Wein!

George Wein 1925 – 2021

JT Notes: We Love You, George Wein