A jazz world miracle worker
George Wein forged a place in the jazz pantheon of John Hammond and Norman Granz as an entrepreneur and prime mover who made a difference -- a big difference -- thrusting jazz into new arenas of social acceptance and respectability (though some purists suspect that the move from the cabaret to the concert stage might not necessarily be a Good Thing). Wein’s founding of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and his overseeing of its triumph emboldened communities from Montreux, Switzerland, to Tokyo to launch spinoffs, spreading jazz to massive new audiences and providing employment for once-scuffling artists.
Motivated by obsessive passion and commitment to jazz unabated after half a century and driven by an inexhaustible fount of energy, Wein displayed intuitive gifts for wiring himself into the moneyed aristocracy and political superstructure of whatever community he invaded. Given the breadth of his life and the talent he showcased, his aptly titled memoir, “Myself Among Others,” offers an exhaustive look at a life lived upon the most exciting jazz stages of the 20th century.
Born in 1925 into Boston’s Jewish middle-class, he took the perilous step at 25, with no expertise save his fanatical dedication to the music, of opening the now-famed Storyville, which Wein made into an ideal jazz club and recording venue: “It was never a joint. We had no floor show, no drug dealers or resident hookers. We kept things clean, reaffirming my vision of the club as a true music room.” He established unusual rapport and respect among musicians, for whom nightclub owners had long loomed as natural enemies. Such simpatico was aided by his ability to sit in on piano with the great and near great with a prowess better than he gives himself credit for. Wein’s acceptance was further enhanced by his interracial marriage to Joyce Alexander, which initially horrified both their families, until they grew reconciled to this enduring union. Possessed of uncommon intelligence and good sense, Joyce served as George’s partner, advisor and, most of all, his ballast throughout his multifaceted half-century career.
“My life changed after the first American Jazz Festival in Newport in 1954. In addition to becoming the major public relations vehicle for jazz and making festivals a principal source of employment for jazz musicians, it vaulted me into international prominence.” Overcoming the predictable opposition of the old Newport aristocracy and city fathers for whom jazz was a four-letter word, Wein persuaded well-off bluebloods Elaine and Louis Lorillard to underwrite the first festival, featuring Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Oscar Peterson Trio, a reunion of Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday, and a rare public appearance by reclusive pianist Lennie Tristano. “Newport,” proclaimed down beat magazine, “opened up a new era in jazz presentation.” One felicitous result of the first Newport Festival was the opening of a new era in jazz reviewing by the metropolitan daily press: To cover Newport, the New York Times assigned a classical music critic, who wrote a withering review of seminal pianist Erroll Garner that so enraged the jazz community that the outpouring of protest mail impelled the Times to hire a full-time jazz authority, John S. Wilson, a step many other major dailies copied.
Newport’s future years were rife with historic happenings, including the 1956 apotheosis of Duke Ellington, when tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’ 27 stomping blues choruses on “Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue” brought the screaming crowd to its dancing feet to jump-start Ellington’s then-faltering career. But 1960 brought trouble. Critics accused the festival of “selling out” by hiring pop acts like Pat Suzuki and the Kingston Trio. Worse, a mob of drunken teenagers, bent on raising hell, invaded the festival outside Freebody Park to charge the Newport police with beer bottles; the melee erupted into a full-scale riot that became an international scandal and impelled the City Council to pronounce the festival dead.
The eternal survivor, Wein inaugurated the Midwest Jazz Festival in French Lick, Ind., and took the Newport festival on a European tour before returning to Newport in 1962 “to reclaim my identity,” welcomed by a community that had missed the excitement -- and the financial boon. Cashing in on the exploding youth cult trend toward ersatz “folk” groups like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary, Wein added the annual Folk Festival to his growing roster of Newport presentations. Wein made a disastrous foray in 1971 into the unfamiliar world of rock, though he had little empathy for the music and less for its fans. He recalls, with refreshing candor: “The rock-and-roll generation had come into power and Woodstock had given them a voice. But the booze-riddled gang of the 1960 [riot] was naive compared to this crowd in 1971. Gate crashers poured into the field like angry wasps, about eighty maniacs mounted the stage, smashing fixtures and music stands, setting sheet music on fire while 20,000 loyal jazz fans filed peacefully out of the park without incident.... [M]y usual way of communicating with artists was ill-suited to the rock world. I vowed never to present a rock-centric event again.” The Newport City Council voted 5 to 2 against the folk-rock festival and effectively terminated Wein’s relationship with the city. “All I knew was that Newport was finished,” he tersely writes.
It wasn’t Wein’s first setback. In 1968, when he was broke and debt-ridden, he was scrounging around for a gig and was asked to produce New Orleans’ Jazz Fest. Preliminary arrangements were made but soon canceled when the mayor of the city, Vic Schiro, discovered that Wein was married to an African American woman. “It was the only time in more than 40 years that my relationship with Joyce adversely affected a business opportunity.”
Wein revived the Newport Festival with a move to Manhattan in 1972, where jazz literally took over the city: Radio City Music Hall, the Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Hall and the wealth of New York’s jazz clubs, donating half its profits to the National Urban League. He founded the New York Jazz Repertory Company to keep alive older forms of classic jazz -- Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton -- that had momentarily passed from favor among younger fans, who might have thought jazz began with Miles Davis. With the backing of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Wein launched the Kool Newport festivals nationwide, later gaining financial backing from Japan’s electronic empire JVC.
Considering his 50 years as a top-level entrepreneur, Wein seems commendably free from what must have been ample opportunities to settle old scores, although he can’t resist a few payback shots. With its exhaustive listings of who played what and where, these memoirs, while cleanly scripted, are not aimed at a casual lay readership but at the dedicated jazz community, which he regales with a wealth of insider gossip: Benny Goodman’s notoriety as a pathological martinet is again reinforced. When he went backstage to wish Sarah Vaughan luck before her concert, her only comment was, "[W]hy do you pay Ella more than me?” On hearing Stan Kenton on a jukebox, Art Tatum snorted, “that guy can’t play any piano at all.” And to the plethora of Miles Davis horror stories, Wein contributes some veritable eye-poppers.
His aversion to the rock generation and its sonorities never abated: “The jazz art was fed by two primary sources -- the black experience, a culture steeped in the blues and church music, and by American popular music. The culture experienced a transformation in the rock-and-roll era. With the Beatles and Rolling Stones, a new standard of listening took over. Music was no longer an enhancement, but an escape from life. The volume of the music rose to such levels that social conversation was impossible. Widespread audience drug use created an ambience that was otherworldly.” Unlike some jazz critics, Wein felt no compunction to prove himself hip to young audiences among the culturally deprived.
Wein’s “Myself Among Others” unfolds the panorama of a miracle: how the music of black America began as a rural folk-entertainment, catalyzed by an exploding technology, that interacted with white Protestant church music, Broadway musical theater, popular songs, European concert music and the ethnic music of every continent. Despite virulent prejudices -- racial, social and academic -- jazz quickly evolved into a highly complex and diverse art that, in one guise or another, became the first universal language to bless this beleaguered planet. George Wein played no small part in helping to bring this miracle about.