Our Man in Jazz
Not many people can say they changed the world and make it stick. In Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, George Wein does. Without Wein, everything from Woodstock to Jazz at Lincoln Center might have happened differently--if it happened at all. For the 77-year-old impresario can justifiably claim to have invented, developed and codified the contemporary popular music festival.
It all began in 1954, with the first American jazz festival at Newport. Elaine Lorillard, one of the restless rich women who appear again and again throughout jazz history, showed up at Wein's Boston club, Storyville, with the idea of bringing jazz to the seaside-cottage elite. Wein plotted a festival that sought to merge the experience of discovery he'd had as a younger man wandering New York's jazz clubs with the music-intensive yet outdoor-vacation feel of Tanglewood, the well-heeled classical-music fest.
No one had assembled a multistar jazz program lasting several days before, so Wein was rolling dice with the gods of magnitude--though, characteristically, he hedged his bets. The financial risks belonged to his wealthy patrons, while he staked his ambitious future. Jazz was at a cyclical low in popularity: The swing era was over, and bebop, which put art before entertainment, had become the rage among musicians who, to noncultists, looked like junkies making noise. Yet Wein understood that the potential artistic and financial payoffs of putting on such a festival were considerable: By presenting a sweep of artists from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie, it could reach a potential audience larger than any that jazz had seen since World War II.
Wein rolled seven: The festival drew national coverage and thousands of fans, and brought an economic windfall for local merchants. From then on, the pop music world assumed a new economic shape. Thanks largely to Wein, an indefatigable spider, jazz, folk, blues and soul-music festivals proliferated, first across America, then the planet. By the late 1950s he was setting up tours and doing bookings and weaving Europe and Japan into the circuit, all the while hatching more festivals, spinning the web of interests that sustains his musical empire even today. Summertime became big-money time for musicians nurtured by Wein's Festival Productions, like Armstrong, Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, B.B. King and Ray Charles.
In 1960 Wein suffered his first significant setback when Charles Mingus masterminded a "rebel" festival in Newport to protest what he saw as Wein's favoring a handful of artists--a recurrent complaint. The staid Victorian resort erupted into riots by drunken collegians, prompting the town to shut down Wein's festival. It was one of his lowest points: Afterward he sat in his ground-floor Central Park West apartment and played one-handed Scrabble for months, trying to dope out his future.
This is one of the key Augustinian twists in Wein's generally well-paced and well-crafted memoir, which offers a pretty candid look at both the man and the Ur-promoter--though the two are not exactly separable. Myself Among Others traces how he got from an upper-middle-class home in Newton, Massachusetts, to Festival Productions, which annually runs some two dozen music festivals worldwide and has piloted countless others along the way, in the process mapping the logistics for all who followed. The book's engaging flow lets those who know Wein (I've covered his work for two decades) hear his nasal twang and deadpan delivery. Nate Chinen, Wein's ghostwriter, did his job. Although at times it devolves into lists--of stars who filled his festivals, of celebrities who crossed his peripatetic path--mostly it's entertaining, informative and spiked with eye-openers.
In the first third of the book, Wein evokes his childhood in Newton, highlighted by sports and the piano lessons provided by his proud secular Jewish parents. His father, Barney "Doc" Wein, was a dentist-turned-ear-nose-and-throat man who dropped $200 a week at the track and had a long affair with his divorcée secretary; his mother, Ruth, was a housewife whose family owned Ginsburg Brothers Paper Products, which paid her annual dividends of several thousand dollars even through the Depression. Along the way, Wein touches on his World War II Army hitch ("I hated every minute"), where he sidled into a band, and voices both his discontent at returning to pre-med courses at his father's insistence and his joy at rediscovering jazz, now transformed by bebop. In 1950 his story shifts into higher gear: He opened Storyville, which presented jazz and some comedy and folk music, and met Elaine Lorillard, an encounter that changed his life, and music history.
He also met Joyce Alexander, a young middle-class black woman, whom he began dating. Despite his parents' initially furious objections, the pair gradually fell in love and lived together for years before they eloped in 1959; after several more confrontational months, his parents finally accepted their marriage. Joyce is portrayed as George's indispensable sounding board, editor, general factotum, diplomat, chief cook and stalwart sharer of his belief that jazz could help individuals transcend race and class--a belief, Wein says, that underlay the Newport conception, as well as his life.
Wein started out as an idealistic fan-musician--a devoted if mediocre pianist, he led his first jazz combo at 15--so for Storyville he booked the best: Armstrong, Ellington, Fitzgerald, Vaughan, Art Tatum, Sidney Bechet, Erroll Garner, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington. He was shocked by commercial reality: His club frequently didn't fill (even for Ellington), and to most musicians he was simply The Man. And so he adapted--the book's central theme. At Newport he learned to deal with the bruising one-two punch of rich patrons (an expertise he was later the first to adapt to corporate sponsors) and local politics (festivals proffered financial benefits against the dislocations and expenses trailing hordes of music fans). He rapidly made musical friends and allies like John Hammond, Nat Hentoff, Nesuhi Ertegun and Pete Seeger, with whom he masterminded the Newport Folk Festival. He impressed black celebrities like James Baldwin and Bill Cosby. (In the book's foreword, Cosby writes with truth, "George would've tagged out Ty Cobb at second base with Cobb's spikes in his chest. George ain't afraid.") His success brought him recognition: He was feted at the White House twice.