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.