Our Man in Jazz

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.


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.

Memoirs are often occasions for delicious score-settling, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Wein rips the town of Newport, placing the blame for the 1960 riots that almost destroyed him on greedy saloonkeepers, blinkered local officials and lackadaisical police. He scorns rock culture, which nearly capsized him a decade later, when jazz hit another commercial low. In 1971, the Newport Jazz Festival presented the Allman Brothers Band, whose album Live at the Fillmore East lured post-Woodstock thousands Wein characterizes as “maniacs”;he observes bitterly, “It was like observing lemurs at the zoo; they were zonked.” They pushed down his fences while the town shrugged. The following year, the Newport Jazz Festival moved to New York City.

Among many personal paybacks, some inevitably self-serving, Wein drolly skewers the widely disliked and feared Albert Grossman, who managed Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. When Grossman moved from Chicago, he crashed for months at the Weins’ West Side apartment; they would all too often come home to find him smoking a hookah pipe and be awakened nightly by phone calls from his shadowy creditors. One of the triumvirate behind the Newport Folk Festival, Grossman, the cutthroat businessman-thug, figures alongside Seeger, the determined idealist, as a foil for Wein, the pragmatist seeking to translate art into paying entertainment to sustain art, fighting an ongoing battle with varying success to keep up with audience tastes and musical trends. In this context, it’s revealing that only Pete and Toshi Seeger join Joyce among the book’s dedicatees.

Ideals aside, the pragmatist had more commercial lives than a cat. Despite trying to lure young rock and blues fans to his festivals, by the early 1970s Wein was deep in debt, thanks to jazz’s market erosion. In the mid-1970s he teamed with Kool cigarettes, becoming the first to tap deep corporate pockets for pop-music presentations. Kool sponsored a nationwide string of jazz fests, targeted mostly at black audiences, that featured as much soul music as jazz. They made Wein rich even as (overwhelmingly white) jazz fans and critics cried betrayal–although today that same stylistic mix predominates in Harlem, DC and Oakland clubs. By 1980, with Kool buoying Festival Productions, Wein’s annual salary was $100,000 (not including perks like travel and expenses); he wasn’t, he insists, rich until Kool bought the Newport name that year for $1.3 million.

Wein’s Seegeresque sides shine through the Newport Folk Festival and its nonprofit cousin, the widely beloved New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The Crescent City fest’s “local” stages host a wealth of regional talent often unheard beyond Louisiana and Texas, enhanced by indigenous food and folklore, and its foundation doles out money locally. The racial twists of its history are especially fascinating. In 1962, approached by city fathers about a jazz festival in the pre-Civil Rights Act South, Wein observed dryly, “You know, Duke Ellington is accustomed to being treated as royalty wherever he goes. He stays in the finest hotels. But I understand that your hotels are segregated and will not accept blacks as guests.” He noted that many jazz bands were integrated. The city fathers agreed the time was not yet ripe for a New Orleans jazz festival. In 1968 they came back to him, discovered his wife was black, and instead hired Wein’s former colleague Willis Conover.

A year later, they came back yet again–a sweet triumph that allowed Wein to radically reconceive the festival. “After Woodstock,” he writes, “it had become clear to me that young people would no longer sit in reserved seats at an outdoor concert event. They wanted the freedom to move around and be part of what was happening.” It was set at a racetrack. This concept has made the New Orleans Jazz Festival Wein’s most enduring success. But in 1977, it came under attack by black activists, who threatened, “We’re going to force you to take more blacks on to the board of directors. You have been ripping off black culture.” Wein’s characteristic response: “You can’t force us to do what we want to do in the first place.”The infusion of new blood created dissension and power struggles on his board that took years to work out. But he stuck with it.

At heart, The Man remained a Fan. His psychological acuity with musicians is demonstrated in backstage anecdotes. Famously crusty Art Tatum fondly played requests for Joyce and George at Storyville after hours. Unlike most promoters, Wein handled the eccentric Monk straightforwardly, like a rational adult, and got results: One night, after yelling at him to get onstage, Wein was aghast at the “payback” set, a forty-five-minute drum solo; he confronted Monk and explained, “I had to run up and down those stairs six times to get you on the stage and I’m getting too old and fat to do that.” “Then I don’t blame you for yelling at me,” said the famously difficult pianist, who never repeated the behavior.

A rare impresario, Wein also learned to get the best from his artists by limiting his role to business and not trying to dictate their creative choices–about what material they’d perform at his shows, for instance. When he planned a 1957 Newport all-star gala in Armstrong’s honor with manager Joe Glaser, Satchmo, vehement about controlling his sets, blew it off onstage. When he told Gillespie not to “clown” at the 1954 festival because he was afraid of critics’ reactions, the quickwitted trumpeter dissed him for years. And there are revealing, often funny backstage moments with everyone from Ellington to Davis.

As it winds through Wein’s complicated life, this memoir unveils his complexity: his stubborn convictions, his pugnacious diplomacy, his financial and psychological savvy. Take, for example, his thick-skinned reaction to criticism. Many jazz critics, including yours truly, have sharpened their claws on him only to be invited to discuss, if not resolve, differences. Or take his sense of loyalty: He boasts that all key Festival Productions staffers have been in place for twenty to fifty years. That toughness and generosity lighten his book’s most memorable moments.

There are two words in “music business,” musicians like to say, implicitly complaining about the inequalities between them. In music history, George Wein’s virtues reside in how he consistently tried to make those two words harmonize. Myself Among Others invaluably documents how and why.

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