George Wein: ‘Hooked’ by the Records of Armstrong and Lunceford

October 11, 2021

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In December 2013, as the Newport Jazz Festival was approaching its 60th anniversary, New Jersey Performing Arts Center President and CEO John Schreiber held an invitation-only evening of “music and conversation with George Wein.”

Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, died September 13, 2021, at the age of 95 in Manhattan. At the NJPAC event, he reminisced about one of the historic moments in the Festival’s history — the performance by the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1956. That performance — sparked by a combination of “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue” highlighted by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’ extended solo, is credited with revitalizing Ellington’s career.

“Ellington called me on Thursday night,” Wein said, “and I asked him what he was going to do at the concert. He said he’d play a medley of favorites. I said, ‘I want to perpetuate the genius that is Ellington. I’m not getting any help from you.’”

In his autobiography, Myself Among Others (DaCapo Press: 2003), co-written with Nate Chinen, Wein described what actually transpired at the concert. “At the proper moment, Gonsalves dug in with his tenor and started blowing. Somewhere around the seventh chorus, it happened. A young blonde woman in a stylish black dress sprung up out of her box seat and began to dance. She had caught the spirit, and everyone took notice — Duke included . . . The tune ended, and the applause and cheering was immense — stronger, louder, and more massive than anything ever heard at a jazz concert before.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Wein in June 2013 for my book, Jeru’s Journey: The Life and Music of Gerry Mulligan (Hal Leonard Books: 2015). While Wein was a great fan of Mulligan, he related to me an unpleasant occurrence at the very first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. “I’d worked so hard to put together a reunion of Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, and Jo Jones,” Wein told me. “It was re-creating the great Billie Holiday bands of the ‘30s — the first great records she made. Gerry was so moved by that, he jumped up on the stage to play with them. And, I didn’t want him on the stage. I was really upset at that time. He disrupted the memory-feeling of what I was trying to get . . . At his funeral, I talked about how I was very mad at him, but now I see that he belonged there because they’re all up in Valhalla together.”

Wein was born October 3, 1925, in Lynn, MA. His mother, Ruth, was an amateur pianist, and he began taking lessons when he was eight years old. In high school, he led a jazz band, and, in his autobiography, he recalled his first exposure to the music of the big bands. His older brother, Larry, brought home a new record player, “and a batch of Decca Blue Label 35-cent records. Louis Armstrong was on Decca, as well as Larry Clinton, Glenn Gray, and Jimmy Lunceford. The phonograph’s crackling warble didn’t filter out any of the kinetic excitement of those records — swing anthems like Lunceford’s ‘White Heat’ and Armstrong’s ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. It was my first exposure to this kind of music. I was hooked.”

After graduating from Boston University in 1950, Wein opened a jazz club in Boston called Storyville, named after the red-light district of New Orleans, often cited as the place where jazz was born. In my book, Mulligan described Storyville as “a great club. It was a dinner restaurant and very classy-looking on the first floor. Then downstairs in this hotel was another room, smaller like a saloon . . . Down there, he had traditional bands. We’d be playing upstairs, and maybe downstairs would be Jimmy McPartland and Vic Dickenson, and Pee Wee Russell. You’d meet all these wonderful guys, and we would have a grand time in the place.”

The success of Storyville drew the attention of Elaine Lorillard, a Newport socialite, who contacted Wein about producing a jazz festival, which she and her husband, tobacco magnate, Louis Lorillard, would fund. That became the first Newport Jazz Festival, in 1954. It wasn’t a financial success, but the reaction was very positive; and it became an annual Newport ritual until riots in 1960 forced its cancellation in 1961, although it resurfaced in 1962. The Festival moved to New York City in 1971 but returned to Newport in 1981. In 2007, Wein sold his Festival Productions company to Shoreline Media, remaining with the new company, Festival Network LLC. In 2016, Wein relinquished his position as Artistic Director of the Festival, handing over the reins to bassist Christian McBride. He performed on piano at the 2019 Festival, but did not attend this year’s event, citing his advanced age.

Wein also founded the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, best remembered, perhaps, for Bob Dylan’s appearance in 1965 when, to the consternation of the crowd, he played an electric, rather than an acoustic, guitar.

In 1976, Wein collaborated with New Jersey Jazz Society President Jack Stine to present concerts at Waterloo Village in Stanhope, NJ, as part of the Newport Jazz Festival in New York. “The invasion of New Jersey by the Newport Festival,” wrote The New York Times’ John S. Wilson, “was inspired by another New Jersey Jazz Society activity, the annual Pee Wee Russell Memorial Stomp, which is held every February at the Martinsville Inn in Martinsville. Each year at the Stomp, the Society presents plaques of commendation to two persons — a musician and a non-musician — whose activities in jazz are deemed outstanding. Last February, the non-musician’s plaque was sent to Mr. Wein. And, when the Newport Jazz Festival producer arrived at the Martinsville Inn that afternoon, he found the place so packed with fans listening to New Jersey jazz bands that he had trouble getting in.”

Wein told Wilson that he was, “astounded. Here were 900 people in a roadhouse on a rainy Sunday afternoon in mid-winter. It has to have some significance.” Among those who appeared at the first Waterloo/Newport program were the Count Basie Orchestra; pianists Eubie Blake, Dick Wellstood, and Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines; and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. After the NJF moved back to Newport, the NJJS Waterloo festival continued through 1994.

Although Wein was sometimes criticized for making the NJF too commercial or having acts that veered too far from pure jazz, he is recognized for creating the jazz festival genre as we know it today. And, he received countless honors: National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master; Legion d’Honneur and the Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres from the Government of France; member of the Board of Directors Advisory Committee of the Jazz Foundation of America; lifetime Honorary Trustee of Carnegie Hall; and Trustees Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Recording Academy. At the latter event, in 2015, rapper and actor LL Cool J introduced him, saying, “More than anyone, George set the stage for what great festivals today look like.”

In addition to his career as a jazz entrepreneur, Wein continued to play the piano as the leader of group called the Newport All-Stars, whose personnel was continually changing. In 1967, for example, the members were tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman, clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, trumpeter Ruby Braff, bassist Jack Lesberg, and drummer Don Lamond. At the NJPAC 2013 event, he was joined by saxophonist/flutist Lew Tabackin, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, trumpeter Bria Skonberg, bassist Jay Leonhart, and drummer Clarence Penn.

Recalling that night, Tabackin told Jersey Jazz that Wein, “opened up many opportunities for me, too many to note. I vividly remember, after playing a set at the Nice Festival around 1983 as a member of the Freddie Hubbard All-Stars, I was scheduled to join George and the Newport Festival All-Stars. I never played much in this (traditional) idiom, although I was familiar with some of it. It was a joy, reaffirming my idea of the continuity and inclusiveness of the great jazz tradition.”

Guitarist Howard Alden, who frequently played with the All-Stars, posted a tribute to Wein on Facebook. “George was such a huge part of the jazz world,” he wrote. “It’s hard to imagine a jazz/festival scene without him. In my 30-year association with him, I was able to play with people and in places I would have never imagined . . . The most fun was seeing how much George enjoyed just being on the road and making music with players he loved.”

On November 20th, as part of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival, NJPAC will present “A Celebration of George Wein Featuring Anat Cohen and the Newport All-Stars”. Joining clarinetist/saxophonist Cohen will be Tabackin, McBride, pianist Kenny Barron, trumpeter Randy Brecker, drummer Lewis Nash, bassist Peter Washington, and the vocal group, Duchess. After playing with the Newport All-Stars at the 2014 Festival, Cohen told the Associated Press: “People know George as a producer, thinker, and entrepreneur. And then, there’s the little boy that plays piano. When the music feels good, and he’s really swinging on the piano — there’s such a look of joy on his face at the end of a solo. It feels good for everybody.”

NJPAC’s Schreiber was a protégé of Wein’s, having worked for him for about 10 years. “There’s not a day goes by,” he said at the 2013 event, “that I don’t think about George Wein.” Wein was queried at that occasion about the future of jazz, and he tried to put it into its proper perspective. “If you ask 100 people about jazz,” he said, “three of them will say it appeals to them.” That’s okay, he added, pointing out that there were about 300 million people in the United States. So, having an audience of 3 per cent, or nine million, he added, is not so bad.

Wein’s wife, Joyce, passed away in 2005; there were no immediate survivors. –SANFORD JOSEPHSON



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