A Conversation with George Wein: ‘…after all your life, and it is the last part of my life, to have reached that place. I guess, you have to say you did the right thing’ – Part 5 of 5
Throughout this five-part series, we’ve explored George Wein’s career from when he was working in what he calls “buckets of blood,” clubs in Boston while he was in high school, earning two dollars a night to today, when he’s assured the continuity of the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals through the non-profit that was formed a few years ago.
We’ve learned about artistry, about motivation, about a marriage that to some was courageous and bold, but to George was just about marrying the woman you love, and spending nearly 50 years together.
We’ve learned about trust, the trust that musicians have for George, and the trust that George has for those he’s entrusted to carry on his dream, his vision.
Personally, I am grateful for the time that George spent with me, and for the music he’s kept alive.
QUESTION: Tell me about Joyce (George’s wife. Joyce Alexander Wein, an African American, she died at the age of 76 in 2005, after a battle with cancer). She was a bio-med major in college. Is that, right?
Wein: She was a bio-chemist. She worked at the Massachusetts General Hospital with a very important doctor. She graduated when she was 19, graduating Simmons College. I met her back in 1947 or ‘48. I just was attracted to her. She’s smarter than I was. She loved jazz. She was beautiful. I said what’s to prevent us from getting married. People think it was such a brave thing. Nineteen fifty-nine was before the civil rights bill was passed. Several musicians came up to me, and younger people, and said how can you do that? I just never thought about it. I’ve never been a rebel. We just wanted to live our life. When my father was mad at me I wouldn’t let him be mad at me. I kept yelling at him until he finally broke down and accepted my wife, who he loved dearly. Joyce was an exceptional person. I would say that my success in life directly relates to the wonderful marriage I had for 47 years.
QUESTION: She came to work with you. Correct?
Wein: It isn’t that she worked with me. She did, like on the folk festival, worked with Pete Seeger. She never worked in the office. We became role models to a lot of people. With the way we had dinners. She became an excellent cook. I became a wine specialist. Our house was always filled with art. Some of the most important people would come and they’d say these are good people, you want to get to know them. And those people would end up helping me. Who were the people that helped me most in life, and what reason did they help me? When I was in trouble or needed something. Then I’d get up the next day and send them an email. I might not have seen them for years. And I always realized that our house was always open to people. People had an experience coming to my house. That was Joyce that created that experience.
QUESTION: Would you say that she inspired you?
Wein: No. She kept me straight. It’s difficult to say. I was always doing things that were different from what was being done, but I never thought that was such an achievement. And I always picked up things. The concept of the multi-venue festival. We created that whole thing. The multi-stage thing, like in New Orleans. We created that. We created that in the Newport Folk Festival, where we had workshops without stages. And when I went to New Orleans, why can’t we have stages, like the workshops? Have the sound barriers block each other out, when you were near one stage, block the sound from the other stages. It worked. When I think of the things that we were the first to do, nothing that was so creative. We just took what was happening before and did them in a little different way. I’m proud of those things, but I never thought of those as genius. I see it three or four times in print, the word genius. I’m no genius. Honestly, I’m a little embarrassed when I see that word. I like it, I like seeing it, but I don’t believe it.
QUESTION: From somebody who has watched from afar, I don’t think it’s an inappropriate word to use.
Wein: People in New Orleans, after I sold my piece in the festival, the foundation there, Quint Davis, who runs the festival – he’s like my surrogate son, very loyal to me – but the board, I don’t even know half the members of the board, they wanted to name the building after me, the Joyce and George Wein Jazz and Heritage Center, and when I go down to New Orleans and I see our names on this building on Rampart Street, and when I realize when I first went down to New Orleans I couldn’t bring her with me, because they would put us both in jail. That’s a good feeling, that maybe you have done something.
QUESTION: Whether you know it or not, what you did was a remarkable thing.
Wein: The things now that I’m working on. I was just saying the other day what’s happened the last six years, turning Newport non-profit, and keeping the folk festival alive, and the success that it’s had. And the board of directors we’ve built up. And the respect in Rhode Island that we have generated, after the years when they wanted to kick us out of there. You remember some of those days. And I see in six years, after I sold the company and took it back when I was 85 years old, and built this incredible organization we have now, that’s something I’m proud of. Because the people that have come to be on the board are some of the most important people in Rhode Island. Now, people are calling us to be on our board, they want to be associated with us. It’s amazing, and that’s a good feeling, after all your life, and it is the last part of my life, to have reached that place. I guess, you have to say you did the right thing.
QUESTION: Certainly, for Rhode Island you did. Without the festivals, Rhode Island would be lost little bit, because they attract so many people, and bring so much positive attention to Rhode Island. That, plus the Newport Musical Festival, the chamber music festival in the mansions.
Wein: We started all that, when we brought the opera festival to Newport. We did them in the big houses, but when the opera (festival) folded (in Newport), the Newport Music Festival was formed right out of what we did.
QUESTION: We’re several months away from the festivals. You’ve just announced the first wave of musicians. Any surprises?
Wein: I have lived by my word in turning the artistic direction over to Christian (McBride). It reflects his thinking. We work together. There are a few things I wanted on there. Not that I wanted, but I directed certain things. But basically, when you see the final list of artists there are a few surprises, naturally, hopefully a little bigger than the ones we already announced. It reflects his feelings about the way we should go
QUESTION: Why Christian McBride and not somebody else? What did Christian McBride bring to the table for you?
Wein: He’s a together guy, an organizer. He’s a leader. When I say a leader, not a band leader – he happens to be a band leader – but he’s a leader of musicians. Musicians follow Christian McBride. Great musician. When we announced his appointment, I got so many calls congratulating me for asking Christian. I picked, I hope, the right guy. We’ll find out. We’ll see what happens this year. We’ll give him a chance for a couple of years. If it works, he’ll be there forever.
QUESTION: And if not, you’ll go back and do it again.
Wein: (Laughter) Well, I hope I’ll be here another two, three years to see what happens. Not to do it again. I’ll keep my eye on things. I’m still involved. Have you talked to Jay Sweet?
QUESTION: I spoke to Jay Sweet (Jay is now the executive producer of the Jazz and Folk Festivals and producer of the Folk Festival) last year, and I spoke to Danny (Melnick) as well. (Danny is now producer of the jazz festival).
Wein: Danny has been a big help. Danny worked with me, and now he’s working with Christian and me. I am very grateful to him.
QUESTION: I frankly, can’t think of a better bass player today than Christian McBride.
Wein: He’s worked with you, right?
QUESTION: I had him in the theater. A pleasure to work with. George, I want to thank you very much. I don’t want to keep you any longer.
Wein: It’s fun.
- 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)