George Wein: A Conversation with the Father of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals

Dean Budnick on July 21, 2014

In August, the Newport Jazz Festival will commemorate its 60th anniversary. On hand to lead the Newport All-Stars will be George Wein. The pianist has not only been a frequent performer at Newport Jazz but he also founded the event, as well as the Newport Folk Festival, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and hundreds of other fests and package tours around the globe. Over a career that has spanned seven decades–he was in his mid-20s when he founded Storyville in a Boston hotel, naming the nightclub after the section of New Orleans that sevred as the birthplace of jazz–Wein has befriended, produced and performed with many of the world’s most influential musicians, while leaving his own vibrant, enduring imprint as well.

I’d like to start with a moment from the second Newport Jazz Festival in 1955 when Miles Davis walked offstage and complained to you that Thelonious Monk was playing the wrong changes to his own song.

That was a jam session set; they didn’t rehearse. Miles had not originally been scheduled for the festival—that’s when he saw me in a club and said, “You can’t have a festival without me.” Monk didn’t have a working band and Gerry Mulligan didn’t have a working band and Miles didn’t have a working band, so I put them together with the rhythm section for the Modern Jazz Quartet: Connie Kay and Percy Heath. They were just jamming and then they would call a tune, and Monk had his own changes to his own tune, so as Miles walked off the stage, he said to me, “Tell Monk he plays the wrong changes to ‘‘Round Midnight.’” I said, “Miles, he wrote the tune, what are you going to do?”

What would you say about Monk today to a younger jazz fan or perhaps someone who doesn’t know very much about jazz?

I think that Thelonious Monk, along with Duke Ellington, was one of the few jazz musicians who could also write songs. Some of his songs are absolutely beautiful, whether it’s “Round Midnight” or “Blue Monk.” When I put The Giants of Jazz together and Dizzy [Gillespie] played with Monk, every time they played “Blue Monk,” there was an audience response. Dizzy could not believe the audience knew Monk’s songs. If Monk had been a more stable personality and character, he would have been as huge as Duke Ellington, but he didn’t have that kind of stability in his physical life.

How about Miles Davis? What do you think the modern listener doesn’t understand or appreciate about Miles?

I think they don’t appreciate the simplicity of Miles Davis. Miles made his biggest reputation playing Kind Of Blue and also standards like “On the Street Where You Live” or “Bye Bye Blackbird.” The way he played them, with the mute communi- cated on a level that had a modern-jazz feeling, while, at the same time, went to the earliest feelings of jazz—the young musicians today don’t really understand it. They can’t play the melody like Miles played the melody. In Miles’ later years, he went the opposite direction because he was influenced by Santana and people like that who said, “You can either be a nightclub performer or you can play at big rock festivals and make big money,” which is what he did.

To what degree would you say that the Newport Jazz Festival of the 1950s was a precursor to those big rock festivals?

The pioneering work, we didn’t realize, but we were the first of the major outdoor music events. Woodstock evolved right out of Newport with my staff, my sound people and my light people. The people who put on Woodstock had been to Newport and said, “Hey, why don’t we put the rock thing into the same feeling that Newport has?” So Newport was ahead of its time because it represented the music of its day, which was jazz music. There was no rock when we started back in ‘54.

I received an award from the APAP [Association of Performing Arts Presenters] for being a pioneer in changing the way young Americans listen to music in the summer. I’m very proud of that award, but I didn’t realize I was doing that when I was doing that. [Laughter.] We thought, “Why don’t we set up on the lawn and build a stage and play the music?” Festivals go back to medieval times; there’s nothing original about doing a festival. I guess this was the first time music was presented in a two-to-three-day period like that.

One decision you made relatively early on—and it’s something that’s prevalent today—is that you welcomed title sponsorships. Can you talk a little bit about that decision and what sort of feedback you received at the time?

We were always concerned with the visibility of our event. With Newport, we always had very good public relations people— Charlie Bourgeois worked with us for years. The name Newport Jazz Festival became known all over the world, and a man from Schlitz beer came and said, “We want to be associated with you; you have a good image.” So we started this thing called the Schlitz Salute to Jazz and toured about 20 cities in America that year [1968]. That was the beginning of giving a sponsor involvement with an entertain- ment event. But it was nothing new because on radio and on television, you had the Texaco Star Theater; you had so many different things, like Jack Benny with “Jell-O again.” So I just realized, “Why not bring in a sponsor and give them credit for supporting your event?” That was very rare in those days. It hardly existed at all, and now, sponsorship is everywhere—every event is sponsored. They call the baseball stadium Citi Field. So we pioneered that whole thing.

You began your music career as a piano player and you continue to perform with the Newport All-Stars. Do you think that if things were different, you could have pursued a full-time career as a musician?

I don’t know—I’ve sort of been a jack-of-all- trades. I do many things but even as a kid, I would organize the teams when we played. That was my greatest talent, not playing, but the fact that I could organize a band whenever I wanted to play. So that’s what I ended up doing—bringing people together to get a job done, and creating the vehicle in which they could do things. I keep thinking about new things to this day.

In your autobiography [Myself Among Others], you mention that there was a point where Duke Ellington told you that you were too nice of a guy to be his manager. Looking back on that now, I’m curious how you view that perception?

It’s true. Certain things in the business, I could never accept. For instance, when I had a record company, it was very common to make someone who recorded a song put it in your publishing company. I would never do that. I would never attach my name to a song just because I was close to it. That was part of the business—the big band leaders all put their names on songs, and I heard about that and I didn’t like it. The same thing about being a nice guy—I’ve always been proud of my integrity. I’ve never been afraid of losing on a deal. If the other guy did it better than I did, it never bothered me. I think that’s what Duke saw in me. He was right: I didn’t want to get into that mess. The Ellington band was a total mess; the only thing great about it was Duke Ellington and the music. On the business end, it was a total mess and Duke knew I couldn’t handle that.

On the other hand, there was a moment in 1960 when Ellington was in Europe and he asked you to lead his band for a week of shows at the Jazz Gallery [in New York City], although you declined.

That happened because when the band played in Storyville, I would sometimes sit-in during the theme song before Duke came in. Duke also saw how I led my own band, the Newport All-Stars, a couple of times and for some reason or another, he thought that I could lead his band when he went to Europe. I was astounded and there was no way I could even dream of doing that.

Duke would invite me to sit-in with his band though, and I am on Duke’s last album from Scandinavia when he brought me up to play. I have that record where I am playing with the Duke Ellington band [In Sweden 1973].

You’ve witnessed a number of social, cultural and historical transitions in New Orleans since you produced the first Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970. Can you talk about those developments?

New Orleans has changed tremendously. Allan Jaffe and myself, two Jewish kids from the North, went down to New Orleans— the music and culture was there. We had nothing to do with that except we knew how to bring that culture to the world. He created the Preservation Hall that brought all the older musicians together, and when I went down to New Orleans, they wanted me to do a series of jazz concerts and I said, “No, the future is the culture of what you have here, and if you don’t realize that, then there is no reason for me to be here.”

I had learned that by putting on the folk and jazz festivals in Newport. Through the folk world, I had learned a lot about the culture in the South, and particularly in New Orleans. So what I did with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was create a focus on the culture that was already there. And once this festival took hold, promoters were coming over and bringing these musicians to Europe and to Japan— all different kinds of groups—not just jazz groups but funk groups, Cajun groups, gospel groups, everything you can think of. All this was started because of the Jazz & Heritage Festival.

The other thing that was very important in my situation was that I married an African-American girl. I came down there in a very visible situation, and there were some real racial tensions there with the board and with African-Americans who wanted to be on the board, saying, “You’re ripping off black culture.” I was instrumental in bringing people together because I knew how to do that. I knew how to talk to people, and I knew how to make them relax —“Hey man, let’s just get this together. Let’s stop this bullshit.” I could do that, and I’m proud of that.

Initially the city didn’t want you to be part of the event because of your wife’s race.

They said it would have been embarrassing to the mayor. So I said, “Well, call me back when it’s no longer embarrassing to the mayor,” and eventually, they called me back. I never was confrontational. I said, “Look, this is your world. If that’s the way you want to live, that’s your problem, but you’re going to have to solve that problem.”

You mentioned Allan Jaffe, whose son Ben eventually took over his leadership role at Preservation Hall. They’re two of the multi- generational artists you’ve worked with over the years.

I’ve known Benji since he was a baby, and he was always interested in hanging in the Hall. Then, he learned how to play the tuba. But what I didn’t realize was he was learning how to be a promoter, and he has done the most fantastic job. What he has done is, while maintaining the image of Preservation Hall in its traditional sense, he’s brought it into a contemporary sense, by working with artists like Jim James and folk artists. Now, they’re playing rock-and-roll festivals—you see them at Bonnaroo, you see them at Coachella, they’ll be at the folk festival in Newport and they’ll be at the jazz festival in Newport. It’s a tremendous promotional job that Benji has done.

Since most people aren’t jazz scholars, and they don’t know the history of the music, they’re listening to the music for what it is and just enjoying it. They don’t know anything about George Lewis or Cie Frazier or Sweet Emma or any of the great names that played with them, but all of a sudden, they’re listening to the Preservation Hall [Jazz] Band.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day [shot at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival] is on my short list of favorite music films. What are some of yours?

I love the Louis Armstrong one we did where we had Mahalia Jackson and Louis doing a duet, singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” when Louis didn’t know the lyrics, and then they’re singing and in the middle of it, Mahalia’s feeding him the lyrics. [Laughter.] It was a beautiful film; I’m very proud of having done that. That’s one of my favorite things.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day was a great movie, but I learned a lesson because my name is not mentioned in it. People will steal what you do if they can get away with it. I hired every musician and put every musician on stage and there’s no mention of my name.

That’s stunning to me.

It was stunning to me. I was sitting in the theater and so happy watching the film and then all the credits came on and I said, “What happened?” It bothered me very much at the time but I learned from it—to protect myself. To this day, I find very strange things happening—I get credit for things I didn’t do and I don’t get credit for things I did do. But look, I’m a very happy guy, because I’m 88 years old and I’m still doing what I’ve done for the past 60 or so years. How many people can say that?