American Routes Shortcuts: George Wein
In the absence of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, originally rescheduled for this month, we pay tribute to its founder, the late George Wein, by revisiting his creative work with the influential Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals. George Wein passed away on September 13, 2021. George Wein grew up during the Depression in a Jewish neighborhood near Boston. He heard religious cantorial music, pop songs, and eventually jazz. After World War II, Wein was playing gigs on piano before finding his niche as a club owner, concert organizer, and jazz impresario. He started the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, followed by the Folk Festival in 1959. George Wein sat with us at his home on New York’s Upper East Side to talk about his early experiences with music.
George Wein: My real talent was making things happen, and so when I wanted to play baseball, I called up all the other kids in the neighborhood and got a baseball team together, and we called kids in other neighborhoods and played them. So when I wanted to play music, I called up twelve kids and had a band. Next thing you know I wanted to really learn how to improvise. And then now I was sixteen, and I was really getting involved with the music.
Nick Spitzer: Tell me about starting up Storyville, your first club.
GW: While I was in college, I was playing piano, and I played many weeks seven nights and Sunday afternoon I would go to classes in those days. And I began to realize that this money didn’t just float through your fingers, you had to think about holding on or else you were just, you were out of it. And I had five thousand dollars to my name because that had been put aside for my education, which I didn’t use because of the G.I. Bill. And so I leased a room from a hotel and spent my time buying a cheap cash register, and you know you can go into business. Sound system cost me maybe a hundred and twenty dollars, and I thought of the name “Storyville” because of Storyville, the birthplace of jazz, George Wein’s Storyville, the birthplace of jazz.
NS: Who were some of the performers that you brought to Storyville?
GW: Name any great jazz artist from the ‘50s, and they were at Storyville, whether it was Miles or Bird, Charlie Parker, or Dizzy Gillespie, or from the swing era there was Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald. I mean you name them, they were there. There was nobody of that period that didn’t work for me at Storyville, and if they didn’t work for me at Storyville, they got to Newport one way or the other.
NS: Storyville was a success in Boston, and then in 1954 you had an even bigger success with that first Newport Jazz Festival, but I kind of wondered, Newport is a kind of high-toned New England town. How did the festival get started?
GW: WE went down there to see the city; we stayed over night to see Newport. I came back with the idea that there was a classical music festival in Tanglewood, why couldn’t we have a jazz festival? We didn’t know what a jazz festival was per se, but I knew that if I put together the artists from Storyville that did business, that sold tickets, then the people would come. Newport was really the birth of Monterey Pop, Woodstock, it all started there.
NS: Does improvisation carry over into operating clubs and festivals and getting musicians on stages? GW: Oh no question about it. Dealing with jazz musicians, you better know how to improvise, because they’re always testing you. Every artist is testing you–most people are testing you–but particularly jazz musicians. People have been beaten and stolen from and not paid and working for little money, they’re not sitting home and playing a guitar and singing and writing songs and then go out happy to work for two dollars a night, they’re trying to make a living playing music. You have to earn the trust of those musicians.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.