George Wein Never Stopped Listening
There are innumerable photographs of George Wein at the Newport Jazz Festival, the groundbreaking event he co-founded in 1954 and kept producing, in hands-on or emeritus fashion, until his death last month at 95. One of my favorites, by David Redfern, shows only a sliver of his face. Taken on July 5, 1969, it finds Wein standing in the wings behind Miles Davis, who's sporting bug-eye sunglasses and a denim leisure suit with bell bottoms. Both men are watching the stage, where Sly & the Family Stone are throwing down outside the frame. A trumpet dangles from Davis' left hand; with his right, he's leaning against a stage divider. Wein, though mostly obscured by that outstretched arm, communicates plenty in the image. Hand on his hip, gaze fixed, he's taking in the set with a palpable, fretful alertness.
I know that look. I've seen it in many variations, from multiple angles, since I first met Wein more than 22 years ago. As co-author of his autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, I also know the tempest of concerns on his mind at this moment, as Sly is starting to urge the crowd into a hazardous frenzy. A producer's compulsion for keeping the show running smoothly, safely and on time. An impresario's dual obligation to his audience and his institution, which aren't always conveniently aligned. A lifelong jazz lover's investment in the art form and where it might be headed — though under the circumstances, that would have ranked a distant third.
Throughout his storied seven-decade career, Wein was often hailed as the man who set the big stage, whether that be Newport Jazz, Newport Folk, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, or an assortment of other fêtes and touring packages around the world. He was also celebrated for his close proximity to so many iconic figures, an idea conveyed by the title of his book, which our publisher insisted on against his protestations.
But when I think about his relationship to the music, I'll always remember George (and let's use his first name from this point forward) pursuing epiphanies and building connections on a distinctly human scale. He really did care about where jazz was headed, and he understood that the answer could often be found at ground level — or further down, where a tangled root system was hard at work drawing nutrients from all manner of sources.
I was 22, broke but hopeful, when I first met George several months after I moved to New York City in 1999. He'd been struggling on his book project with a small succession of noted writers who couldn't commit fully to the task. I was not a noted writer, but I'd sent some photocopied clips to his company, Festival Productions, and between that and a chance endorsement from a mutual acquaintance, George decided it was worth a shot. For the next three years, I was a fixture by his side: in his high-rise apartment on the Upper East Side; at his brownstone office on the Upper West; at the homes he and his brilliant wife, Joyce, had made in Connecticut and the South of France. Over piles of interview transcripts and many bottles of Bordeaux, we wrestled the sprawl of his life and career into manuscript form, having our share of aesthetic arguments along the way. Gradually, I learned how to write in his voice.
At the time, George was preoccupied with a public narrative about his festivals, and in particular the marquee events held in Newport and New York — a notion that they were bloated, corporate affairs increasingly out of touch with the lifeblood of the music. He was still smarting from a 1996 New York Times piece whose headline, "A New Champion in Town," referred to Michael Dorf, founder of the Knitting Factory and its What Is Jazz? Festival. The casual cruelty of the article, which pegged George as a "wizened head" and his company as an empire deserving of decline, partially obscured a legitimate point: that a major festival bears some responsibility in nurturing the broader musical ecology. And George saw through the crude oppositional framing, as Dorf remembered just after his passing, in a post on LinkedIn: "Rather than run me out of town, he mentored me as a competitor, as he did his many young aspiring producers who worked with him who have gone off to create music around the globe."
Not long after we met, George took me up on an invitation to see Masada, the avant-klezmer quartet led by alto saxophonist and composer John Zorn. This was emphatically a Knitting Factory band — and Tonic, the Lower East Side club where they were playing, had the same reputation as an outpost for rugged iconoclasm. George had never ventured down there. I was a regular, but I'd never rolled up to the spot in a black Mercedes, as I did with him that night. The audience was sitting on the concrete floor; he was granted the privilege of a metal folding chair. And because George had a reputation for musical conservatism, I was thrilled by his glowing response to the show.
He promptly booked Masada on the next Newport Jazz Festival — though their set there, wedged between incongruous acts on the main stage, failed to spark in the same way. "It made no sense whatsoever," Zorn told me recently. "And as we got offstage, George was like, 'Hey, did you connect with the audience?' And I said no. You know, it's like they just didn't get it." In this, George saw a puzzle to be solved. Four years later, after the festival had added a stage inside Fort Adams, Zorn was given the keys to an entire bloc of programming, presenting nine groups under the Masada banner to a packed, elated crowd. The experiment worked, George proudly reflected, because Zorn had been given the freedom to create his own space and atmosphere within the festival frame. For Zorn, who maintained a fond friendship with him over the years, this was in keeping with his character. "George had an open mind," he says, "and that's not always true of people who put on jazz festivals."
George's first foray as a presenter was Storyville, a Boston jazz club he ran throughout the 1950s. And he never lost the appetite for experiencing live music in a small room. By the time we met, he was already walking with a cane, and it could be a challenge to negotiate the steep passages leading up or down into a club. At the Village Vanguard, he'd complain about a handrail that ran flush against the stairwell, making it hard to get a proper grip as he gingerly made his way down the stairs. But even in his 90s, he was undeterred, making it a point to go out a few times a week, in search of a sound that spoke to him. And at his invitation, a steady stream of musicians used to stop by the apartment, where they'd play in his salon-like living room and get to know each other on personal terms.
His philanthropic work to support the scene includes not only the Newport Festivals Foundation's own programs but also several years' worth of commissions granted through the Joyce and George T. Wein Shape of Jazz Series at Carnegie Hall. And while he never sought credit for it, George stepped in a few times to save The Jazz Gallery, a vital nonprofit performance space in New York, from the brink of financial ruin. "He really put his money where his mouth was," Hank O'Neal, chairman of the board at The Jazz Gallery, recalls. "And he wanted to be sure it made a difference for a performing musician." As a longtime board member at Jazz at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, George understood that a gift of the same amount to those institutions would be welcome but not pivotal. If he could keep the Gallery alive, that was a real impact with lasting implications for the art form and its practitioners.
His spirit will live on in these places, in direct or unseen ways. The jazz and folk festivals at Newport, overseen by executive director Jay Sweet, are only the most obvious manifestation. Rio Sakairi, artistic director of The Jazz Gallery, is among the figures George admired and championed, and she carries on his legacy. And Deborah Gordon, owner of The Village Vanguard, recently passed along a tip for my next visit to the club. "Stop for a moment on your way down the stairs," she wrote in an email. "On your left side, maybe about six steps down, feel for a little wedge between the wall and the railing. We put it there for George when his fingers were getting stuck on his way downstairs. So, I often think of him."
The day after he died, I called Bruce Gordon — no relation to Deborah, but one of George's closest friends, and his successor as board chair of the Newport Festivals Foundation. "George had this insatiable curiosity for uncovering emerging artists," he said. "At Newport and his other festivals, he certainly wanted to attract the headliners — the big names that, frankly, would get people to come. But he was equally committed to mixing those big names with emerging artists and presenting them to large audiences. So he took great pleasure in going out and hearing someone that most folks didn't know. Once he heard someone and thought they had a future, I'm not sure if there was anything that excited him more."
Bruce Gordon served as master of ceremonies at a memorial for George this past Sunday, which would have been his 96th birthday. Held at the New York flagship of City Winery, a constellation of venues owned by Dorf, the evening unfolded with all the warmth and buoyancy George would have insisted upon. There were touching toasts from Radhika and Nalini Jones, who literally grew up in the Festival Productions family; Dr. Glory Van Scott, his loving companion of more than a decade; Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and a longtime friend; and Quint Davis, who developed Jazz Fest into a juggernaut with George's counsel. Another former protégé, Darlene Chan, produced the evening, which featured winning performances by some of the artists George encouraged over the years — including singer Cécile McLorin Salvant; pianists Michel Camilo, Hiromi, Jon Batiste and Christian Sands; saxophonists Lew Tabackin and Branford Marsalis; and trumpeters Jon Faddis and Randy Brecker. Serving as musical director was Christian McBride, the virtuoso bassist (and Jazz Night in America host) handpicked by George to take the helm as artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival.
McBride had also played with clarinetist Anat Cohen, another longtime favorite, graveside at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx last month, when George was laid to rest beside Joyce, who died in 2005. Their plot is adjacent to the one for the legendary drummer Max Roach, and not far from the gravesites for Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. In his book, George devoted standalone chapters to Miles and Duke, along with Thelonious Monk. He did so not only because of their genius, but because he knew them as people, and his story was in some way fatefully entwined with theirs. One of the reasons I like that David Redfern photograph is that I know the invisible history behind the image: the fact that 14 years earlier, Miles had revitalized his career and landed his record deal on the strength of a performance on the Newport stage. The fact that he had once been an emerging talent, too.
A few days after George died, I got into my car, turned the key in the ignition and heard his voice. It was a rebroadcast of an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2003, when the book was just out. They were wrapping up the conversation, and Gross asked whether it ever felt lonely to have outlived so many of the musicians he had known — the "others" in Myself Among Others, as it were.
George countered that it wasn't lonely, though he did get emotional. "I've had the good fortune to have played with and worked with so many wonderful players," he said. "And they talk to me, and I get a beautiful feeling about it, not a sad feeling. It's a beautiful feeling that I knew those people and was close to them. And they were part of my life. And maybe I was part of their lives."
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