A Life in Music
No one has had a better seat in the house than George Wein. The legendary impresario has known some of the most celebrated figures of jazz — from Duke Ellington to Count Basie, and from Thelonious Monk to Miles Davis. As a founder of the Newport Jazz Festival and countless other festivals around the world, Wein has brought a broad spectrum of musical artists to millions, forever changing the country’s cultural landscape.
Beginning in 1950 with the opening of Storyville in Boston, Wein presented jazz in a setting respectful of both the musicians and the audience. Since 1954, the Newport Jazz Festival has always reflected Wein’s vision and grit, attracting music immortals as well as aspiring young artists to his stage.*
Along with writer Nate Chinen, Wein has recently authored his memoir, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music. He joined Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a discussion on his life achievements, and on his unique perspective on the past, present and future of jazz.
photo by Bob Parent
Sid Catlett, George Wein and Hoagie Carmichael
“The week after our exhilerating Armstrong incident, Big Sid (Catlett) came through once again. Hoagy Carmichael, composer of “Stardust,” and so many other standards, was working at the Copley Plaza Hotel across the square from Storyville. The Plaza had the most elegant music room in the city, and was charging a six-dollar cover for its show — steep by 1950 standards. Sid knew Hoagy, and when he went over to the Plaza, he was able to lure the songwriter back to Storyville, where to everyone’s surprise and delight, Hoagy played and sang an entire forty-minute set. First Pops, and now Hoagy. Who, I wondered, would drop in next?”
Benny Goodman plays Rose Room
JJM When was your career in show business born?
GW I guess I could say that it was born around the time I was seven or eight years old, when I used to sing on “kiddie” programs in New York. I wasn’t a professional, but every so often I would be part of a group of kids who were allowed to sing. At that same time, I played a classical piano recital. In junior high school I had a band that was paid two dollars or so for playing a dance. That was something…Then, on stage with Lionel Hampton at age sixteen, we played a tandem rendition of “Lady Be Good” on the piano, and that was it, because when I heard the applause, it reached me in a way I have never forgotten.
JJM Playing with Hampton at that stage of your life must have been a great thrill.
GW Yes, it sure was.
JJM What was your most memorable experience as a musician?
GW The most memorable experience as a musician in all my life was when I played in the Dominican Republic city of Santo Domingo with my band that included Warren Vache and Lew Tabacken. I believe we were a quintet or sextet at the time, playing in back of merengue and salsa bands consisting of something like four trumpets, four trombones and five saxophones. There were three thousand people in the stands, which was a beautiful recreation of a Greek amphitheater. We started to play the blues and I asked the drummer and bass player to lay out while I played solo blues, and within about twenty seconds, I had the entire audience clapping on the beat of four. I had a three thousand person rhythm section that picked up the inflections of my beat. It was one of the most thrilling things I have ever experienced, because as they kept urging me on, I felt like I kept playing better and better. It was a thrill I will never forget.
JJM And you also played with Charlie Parker.
GW Yes, and I also played on a weekly basis with Lester Young, which was one of the great highlights of my life.
JJM What are your memories of 52nd Street?
GW My brother and I used to come down to New York from Boston when I was around fourteen. I wasn’t even old enough to drive at the time, so he did all the driving. The first thing we would do after getting off of the West Side Highway — even before checking into our hotel — was drive from one end of 52nd Street to the other, all the way up to 5th Avenue, just to see who was playing. We would see the names of the great players of the era on the marquees there — Art Tatum, Jonah Jones, Red Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, Ben Webster…It felt as if we were entering jazz heaven. At night we would go out to many of the clubs, where I would drink ginger ale all night. It was during this time that I cut my teeth and realized I eventually wanted to be part of the New York scene.
JJM Did you pattern your own club in Boston, Storyville, after any particular club on 52nd Street?
GW Not so much after any club on 52nd street, rather the downtown clubs, particularly Café Society and the Village Vanguard, because they had a broader appeal than only featuring jazz groups. As I began looking for entertainment attractions on a fifty-week basis, where each week I needed a new attraction, I felt it was important to feature artists who would appeal to a jazz audience but who were a little more sophisticated on a broader basis.
JJM The Café Society was a pretty sophisticated club that wasn’t afraid to showcase a political edge along with jazz, folk, comedy, gospel…
GW Yes, I learned a lot from the Café Society, and it exposed me to many types of music I would have otherwise taken a few years to get around to hearing.
JJM How did Sid Catlett figure into your early success?
GW Just knowing him was a thrill, because he was among the greatest drummers in jazz history. Catlett played drums in my first club, Storyville, when I opened it in 1950. During this time, he often played for the Louis Armstrong All Stars. One night, after I had been in business for only about three weeks, Armstrong and the All Stars were playing a concert at Symphony Hall, so I gave Sid the night off and hired another drummer. I told Sid to bring Louis to the club after the concert, and sure enough, one by one they all filed in, almost as if it were rehearsed. First Cozy Cole went on stage, then Barney Bigard, then Earl Hines, then Jack Teagarden, and the next thing you know, “Pops” walked into the room and went right up to the stage as if it had been planned, and sang “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” When I saw that excitement, I knew that this business is where I wanted to be the rest of my life, with the best entertainers.
JJM How old were you at this time, George?
GW At that time I was 24. I had been in the Army and when I got out, I started the night club.
JJM Prior to the Catlett performance, you had to have the desire and the impetus for even opening a club. The trumpeter Frankie Newton played a role in that, didn’t he?
GW Frankie Newton played around Boston a lot and I became very friendly with him. He was my mentor, in a sense. My first venture involved making an arrangement with a hotel to play in a little room which we called “Le Jazz Douxce”, which is what we thought was French for “The Quiet Jazz.” Frankie and I played with just a bass player. Frankie taught me more than music. He was the first militant African American I had ever encountered. I will never forget one time we were walking along the street and he wanted a drink. I pointed out a bar to him, but he didn’t want to go in. I said, “Come on, Frankie, let’s go in. Nobody will bother us.” He said, “George, you have never been black one day in your life.” I have been thinking about that statement for the rest of my life, and I have never been able to figure it out, except that I am so close to the problems, and have worked so long with them now, that you begin to understand it. But when somebody says you have never been black one day in your life, it says something to you in terms of how difficult it must be.
JJM The way Newton played trumpet gave you the idea of having a quiet room for him to play in?
GW He played a lot with a mute, and he got the most beautiful sound out of it. Sometimes in clubs he would leave the stage and walk out and play among the audience seated at their tables. It was beautiful to see. Frankie had exquisite taste. He was the one who introduced me to people like Vic Dickenson, who became my favorite trombone player, and to Bud Freeman’s tenor saxophone playing when most everyone else was listening to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. While Frankie loved them, he got me to listen to Freeman also. I learned a lot from him. My friendship with him was a very important part of my musical development.
JJM What was your first disillusionment with jazz musicians?
GW This is sort of a sad story to me. I was partners with clarinetist Edmond Hall, and the two of us produced our first concert in 1949, “Edmond Hall and George Wein Present: From Brass Bands to Bebop” at Jordan Hall, which was a thousand seat auditorium where the New England Conservatory played. After the concert Edmond’s wife Winnie said that while we were partners, since Edmond was the “name” attraction, they should get 60% and I should get 40%. Being only 23 at the time, I just could not handle this emotionally. The concert was my idea, and I had done much of the organizational work, so I just could not accept that arrangement. It would have been very easy to accept it because I was playing with Edmond, whom I loved dearly. But it did open my eyes to the realization that it’s important to always know who you are doing business with. You may have love and respect for someone who may not have the same feelings for you in return. Although I had a wonderful relationship with them after this happened, it was a very disturbing thing for me at the time. I didn’t know how to handle it, so I resigned from Edmond’s group, which really hurt me. To me, my word is my bond. I have always been that way. If I give you my word, that’s it, and at the time I couldn’t understand how somebody would change an agreed upon deal.
JJM When was the first time that you gained the trust of a major artist?
GW People like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington were easy to work with in one respect, but were not always flexible until you gained their trust. In the case of Monk, during his first tour of Europe, I was really taking care of him, doing things like driving him around town and taking him to restaurants. While our friendship was developing, I still had not gained his trust. One night in Manchester, England, Thelonious was in his dressing room in the company of some friends. As the time came for him to perform, I went to the dressing room to tell him. There was a six or seven step stage, and I ran up and down those stairs many times in an attempt to get his attention. But he wouldn’t move. He was too busy enjoying himself talking. Finally, I told him to get the hell on the stage. He looked at me, went up on stage, and proceeded to play a set that featured the drummer for 45 minutes. He came off the stage and I asked him why he performed such a set. He replied, “You ought not to have yelled at me.” I told him that I ran up and down these stairs many times to get him on stage, and I am getting too old to do that. Thelonious said to me, “If you ran up and down those stairs seven times, I don’t blame you for yelling at me!” From that experience, I gained his trust. Ellington was a little different. I would say I gained his trust at Newport in 1956, when we had a little success there.
JJM What inspired you to start the Newport Jazz Festival?
GW That originated when Louis and Elaine Lorillard came to my club in Boston in 1953. Elaine came in first, and I was introduced to her by Boston University English Professor Donald Born. We sat and talked about the exclusive resort of Newport — where the Lorrilard’s lived — as a great summer place but there wasn’t much to do there in the way of entertainment. It had the potential for being a beautiful outdoor setting for jazz, and we thought that perhaps we could do something with jazz there. Since there were classical music festivals — particularly in New England at Tanglewood — I felt we could do a festival of jazz music. Louis gave me a $20,000 line of credit at the bank to operate with. They went off to Europe for a vacation, and when they came back, we had the festival. Our first year featured artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Condon, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Gerry Mulligan, and Oscar Peterson. We never dug into the line of credit., and broke even our first year.