For more than seven decades, George Wein has been making music, as a performer and as a promoter and producer. He’s elevated folk and jazz to new levels, through the festivals he founded and shaped for so many years.
He’s played piano in seedy clubs around Boston as a kid, earning two dollars a night; in magnificent theaters worldwide; and on the stages of the festivals he’s produced. He’s presented legendary jazz musicians, like Armstrong, Davis and Monk at his Storyville Club in Boston, and at the festivals in Newport, New York, New Orleans and more.
He’s become a legend in music, been honored by presidents, and, as his autobiography suggests, has been living his life “his” way.
The son of a doctor, George would attend Boston University, earning a degree in pre-med, the career his father hoped he would choose. Instead, George turned back to the music, back to the jazz that he had been playing since he formed his first band at 13, practicing in the basement of his parent’s Newton, Massachusetts home.
He would marry an African American woman in the 1950’s, and never thought anything of it. They just fell in love. He was called a rebel, but doesn’t believe it, and together he and Joyce forged a lifetime together, through music and total dedication to one another. They endured the difficult years, when they couldn’t travel together to New Orleans, to the day when a building on historic Rampart Street was named for them, The George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center.
Today, George Wein lives and works in an upscale part of New York City, the 27th floor of an apartment building off Lexington Avenue. Workspaces have been carved out of rooms that once were part of the residence, and other rooms are shared as part of George’s home and workspace. Art work lines the walls, and a baby grand piano sits in the corner of a well-appointed living room.
At 91, George Wein walks slower these days, but fills a room with his wisdom, his vivid memories, and his vision.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with George at his home. Here’s the first part of his story.
QUESTION: It appears that the festivals are attracting younger, more mixed audiences.
Wein: I think it reflects the artists. Very few artists we presented at the old folk festival work for us now. They’re old, they’re not contemporary. They still are wonderful artists. There’s a whole new wave in both jazz and folk. Not only in the artistic end, but in the promotional end. A lot of young promoters coming along … Jay Sweet, a young man in his 40’s has a whole different approach to promoting than I have. I’m in my 90’s. We have no problem conversing and he has no problem taking advice from me, but at the same time I’m learning from him. The artists, of course, reflect the promoters. Or the promoters reflect the artists, whatever way you want to do it. Most of our artists on the folk festival are from their mid-20s to mid-40’s. People say why isn’t the jazz festival the same? Why isn’t the folk festival the same? The people aren’t the same. The world is not the same. And we have to stay with it. I’m doing the jazz festival with Christian McBride, who I asked to be my artistic director. We’re looking at old names. And who’s around? Very very few. The big names are old, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter.
QUESTION: It seems that there are these waves of performers who come along. But I look on stage and I see a Roy Haynes (in his 90’s), playing with an Anat Cohen. It’s almost seamless. Age doesn’t seem to matter on stage.
Wein: Well it doesn’t matter on stage. It matters in life. I was playing until just two years ago. I had Anat (Cohen) in my band. I remember when I played in Bern, Switzerland. I called Esperanza (Spalding), who I didn’t know, but I had seen her. I said would you like to play a gig with me in Switzerland for a week. ‘It would be an honor Mr. Wein.’ And I called Anat Cohen, who I didn’t know, and I heard her playing. ‘It would be an honor Mr. Wein.’ Then I had in the band Howard Alden. I had Randy Brecker, and Jimmy Cobb. Esperanza was 22, and Anat was 32. Howard Alden was in his 40’s. Randy Brecker was 62. Jimmy Cobb, at that time was 79, and I was 82. What is the age? Just played for a week and had a ball.
QUESTION: Tell me about the music. Tell me how you define jazz.
Wein: Defining jazz is difficult, because … what are the horns playing? Are they improvising? Are they free to do what they would like to do? And then what is the rhythm? Is it the Count Basie 4/4? Is it a Brazilian rhythm? Is it a Cuban rhythm? Is It a country rhythm? The first thing is you worry about are these guys saying something musically? And some people don’t like the various rhythms. They say that’s not jazz. We have to accept what the musicians are playing. If they’re strictly commercial and just playing notes we don’t particularly want them. But if they have a commercial approach rhythmically and at the same time from the blowing of their horns they are improvising and creating something and playing for their own enjoyment, then I feel they’re qualified to be on the festival. Because if we didn’t do that there wouldn’t be many groups available.
QUESTION: Is there a particular type of performer you look for?
Wein: Artistry. You can tell whether a guy has creativity in his soul and approaches his music as an artist and not just as a professional to make a living. Artistry is what I look for and you can spot it. It’s not difficult to spot.
QUESTION: Over the years, are there particular musicians that stand out to you as committed to the music?
Wein: It’s difficult. I keep saying it’s difficult. It is difficult. It is very hard to put together something that you as a producer are completely satisfied with, because you’re stretching out and listening, and your ears are hearing new things all the time that are not necessarily your cup of tea. You have a young man named Amir ElSaffar. He plays trumpet. He’s from Iraq. And he plays with such a heart when he puts his Arabic feeling into his music. Then you have Anat (Cohen), who is Israeli, and every time she plays she’s putting her heart into what she’s doing. I had two piano players up here the other night, Hiromi and Michel Camilo, who the jazz critics aren’t crazy about. But they’re such dedicated artists, it’s unbelievable. And to hear them play, I cannot believe what they can do musically. But then you have Jason Moran, who is a dedicated artist. Charles Lloyd, and you go on and on.
QUESTION: Then you have a kid like Joey Alexander.
Wein: Well, Joey is a natural prodigy. I’m pleased that we had the opportunity to present him, and I hope that we’re presenting him when he’s 20 years old and 25 years old. He’ll always be a good piano player. Is he going to develop? I think he will, because in just the year I’ve known him, he’s developed. When you’re that young, you’re not finished. You’re just beginning.
- A Conversation with George Wein: Artistry – the Festivals (Part 1)
- A Conversation with George Wein: Madam Chaloff, a Bucket of Blood, and Storyville (Part 2)
- A Conversation with George Wein: Motivation (Part 3)
- A Conversation with George Wein: ‘I’ve lived my own life on my own terms’ (Part 4)
- A Conversation with George Wein: ‘You Have to Say You Did The Right Thing’ (Part 5)