© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Fresh Air' Remembers George Wein, Founder Of The Newport Jazz Festival


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

George Wein, the pioneering music impresario who created the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, died Monday. He was 95 years old. Early on, Wein's Newport Jazz Festival helped rejuvenate Duke Ellington's career and revived the career of Miles Davis after years of decline from heroin addiction. We're going to listen to Terry's 2003 interview with George Wein, recorded at the time of the publication of his autobiography, which was called "Myself Among Others: A Life In Music."

Weins' first Newport Folk Festival, somewhat of a novelty at the time because it was held outdoors over two days, featured such artists as Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. It rained the second day, but the audience stayed. And the news media paid attention. The festival continued, more or less, for nearly 40 years, eventually moving to New York City then back to Newport. Wein also produced the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and other festivals and tours worldwide.

Wein fell in love with jazz as a teenager, becoming a professional piano player. But he set that aside to open the Boston Jazz Club called Storyville where he first worked with many of the artists he later booked for his festivals. Terry asked him how his experiences as a musician helped shape what he wanted out of his club.


GEORGE WEIN: I guess I wanted to make a living. I didn't know much about what I was going to do for my life. But I wanted it to be known as a musician's club, a club owned by someone that loved the music, was part of the music and presented the best possible jazz available.

TERRY GROSS: As opposed to - what kind of clubs had you performed in that weren't very friendly to musicians?

WEIN: Most of the clubs were people - owned by individuals who had a liquor license. And they wanted to sell liquor and put in music, hoping that they'd draw some people.

GROSS: You write in your book, I didn't know what it was like to be the man until opening Storyville. Suddenly, I was in the position of hiring musicians, most of whom were older than I was and often famous. Many were African Americans who had an inherent distrust of whites, never mind white nightclub owners.

What were some of the difficulties you faced being the man?

WEIN: The basic thing was that I loved these musicians, and I found out that they did not love me. I was, as I say, the man. And I would ask them things, and they just would look at me with a blank stare sometimes because they didn't trust what I had to say or what I asked of them. That was difficult to understand. It took me years to fully comprehend and how to accept that.

GROSS: Well, how did you learn to gain the musicians' trust?

WEIN: That's a good question. And every musician had a different reason. I was talking about Thelonious Monk having - being on the road with him when I had to run up and down the stairs five or six times to get him on the stage. And I finally yelled at him, Thelonious, get the hell on the stage. And he went up and played for 45 minutes a drum solo - had the drummer featured. And he came off the stage. And I said to him, what did that - what was that all about, Thelonious? He said, you had not have yelled at me. And I told him I ran up and down the stairs, and I was getting too old and fat for that. He says, you had to run up and down the stairs? I don't blame you for yelling at me. And that was when I gained the trust of Thelonious Monk. In many areas with different musicians, they were - a different story with Miles Davis. I bounced a check on him, and he got the message that we were going to be equals, and he wasn't going to push us around, and I wasn't going to push him around.

GROSS: Wait, wait. You intentionally bounced a check on him?

WEIN: No, no. I intentionally bounced it because he didn't play the play the job. And he figured that I had paid him in - two days before the job. And I bounced the check on him. And he says, well, why did you bounce the check? And I said, why didn't you play the gig? And so that solved that problem.

GROSS: Did it bother you to have to sometimes play the heavy with musicians who you kind of idolized?

WEIN: No, I never really played the heavy except when it actually was necessary. Basically, I established a rapport with them. I found out that they respected me for playing the piano. And then when I married my wife, they knew where my feelings were - my deepest feelings were. And that meant a lot in gaining the respect of African American musicians.

GROSS: Your wife is African American.

WEIN: My wife is African American. We've been married since 1959, which is a long time since we'd have been put in jail in 25% of the states at that time.

GROSS: You have hired many of your idols over the years to play at festivals and to play in your club when you owned it. Did some of your idols not really remain your idols because you saw their behavior offstage?

WEIN: I used to say to Stan Getz - I said, Stan, how can you be so evil and play so beautifully?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WEIN: And Stan would say to me, man, I'm changed. I'm changed. I'm not going to be the same (laughter).

GROSS: What kind of behavior did he display that led you to call him evil?

WEIN: He was evil...


WEIN: ...What evil is. He treated musicians badly. He treated club owners badly. He was involved with drugs. And he was - you couldn't trust his word. And you had to be very careful with him. But he was a great, great musician.

GROSS: Did he lie to you about performances that you expected him to play?

WEIN: I think he lied to me about everything we ever talked about at different times.


WEIN: But I loved him. I really did. And at the end, we were very close friends.

GROSS: Now, when you were running Storyville, there was something of an alcohol scandal that you discovered. Describe what happened.

WEIN: I leased a room from a hotel. I didn't own a liquor license, and we were buying the liquor from the hotel. The next thing I know, my bartenders were telling me that I was getting Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch. But it - didn't have Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch in the bottle. The label said it. And it seemed that the hotel owner was putting this stuff on me and charging me regular prices. That's why he gave me such a good deal. My - I was very young. And finally, people were complaining. I went up to the hotel owner and told him I had to have my liquor in sealed bottles. He wanted to change the deal. I found out that I - didn't even think, but I closed the club in one night. I could not start business with that kind of a dishonest reputation. My feelings were so deep about it, I didn't even stop to think about it. I closed the club. I knew then that honesty was important to me.

GROSS: So you were able to open the club again in a different location?

WEIN: We opened about eight weeks later, never caught the atmosphere that we had when we first opened, which was quite sensational for six weeks. But as the years went on, we played the greatest artists in jazz. I don't care - it was Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan or Miles or Duke or Louis, Art Tatum, Byrd - they all played Storyville. And that's where I really learned my trade. And that's what has directed me to where I am today.

GROSS: You gave up your club, Storyville, and then ended up starting the Newport Jazz Festival. So what was your first concept of the out-of-doors summer jazz festival?

WEIN: The concept was to present jazz from J to Z. I always had that feeling, so I presented a group like with Eddie Condon and Wild Bill Davis and on the same bill with Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano. And in the middle, you know, Ella Fitzgerald and Gene Krupa, a total view of the spectrum of jazz. I always felt that's what a jazz festival should be. We can't always do it. But in those days, it was not difficult because there was so many great jazz musicians still with us.

GROSS: What were your first thoughts about getting good sound outside?

WEIN: That was difficult because there was no history of good sound outside. And we experimented for two or three years before we found out what to do. The second year in particular was difficult. And that was the year that Miles Davis put his horn right in the microphone and came up with a beautiful "Round Midnight" (ph). And Columbia signed him, and that was the kickoff to his great career in the '50s.

BIANCULLI: Music promoter George Wein, the creator of the long-running Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from 2003 with pioneering music promoter George Wein. The creator of the long-running Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival, died Monday at age 95.


GROSS: One of the most famous performances at a Newport Jazz Festival was the Duke Ellington performance in 1956. Why was this a turning point in Ellington's career?

WEIN: Ellington, to me, was a god always. I didn't realize that he wasn't doing business wherever he went. Well, he would - made a record of this incredible performance. It was recorded. And it was the biggest selling album he ever had. What happened that night was literally a happening. A woman started to dance in the audience. It made news. The next day, Ellington broke up the festival. The crowd was orderly, but for the first time, they were all standing on their feet. And Ellington reached out. He made the cover of Time magazine very shortly after that. And ever after that, he said, I was born at Newport in 1956.

GROSS: The musical centerpiece of that night was a performance of "Diminuendo In Blue," and the saxophonist Paul Gonsalves blew about 27 choruses on that in his solo. That's a lot of choruses. That's a long time. What were you thinking when his solo went on and on?

WEIN: I was worried about crowd control because I saw the crowd coming towards the stage and standing up. But really, there was no serious problem. I think the record shows that I was saying, Duke, take it out, take it out. But it was so exciting that we were all caught up in it. And what I learned that night was the way Duke Ellington brought the crowd down after Gonsalves was finished. He had Johnny Hodges play a beautiful ballad and a blues. And the crowd just settled back into their chairs. It was a beautiful experience.

GROSS: Well, let's hear part of the Paul Gonsalves solo on "Diminuendo In Blue."


GROSS: That's Paul Gonsalves soloing on Duke Ellington's "Diminuendo In Blue" in the Ellington band's performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. My guest, George Wein, was the creator of the Newport Jazz Festival and many other festivals. Well, George Wein, a little later in that evening, the Duke Ellington performance was going on and on. You wanted the performance to end, and Ellington wasn't ending it. Why were you anxious to wrap things up?

WEIN: I was anxious because I was concerned that - it was the first time I ever felt any nervousness about a crowd. And I don't remember it that well. I really recollected from the recording where my voice is heard telling Duke, no more, Duke, no more, you know. And - but Duke was not going to give up that moment. That was one of the great moments in his life, with 12,000 or 15,000 people cheering for him and the band sounding so great. So he just kept doing it until he realized that the evening was over. And - but he did the right thing. He really did the right thing.

GROSS: He did the right thing in keeping going and not listening to you to stop?

WEIN: Absolutely. I mean, you know, look. I'm only me. I mean, Duke Ellington is Duke Ellington. He did know a little bit more than I did. I was very young, and I was learning from him every minute.

GROSS: Let me play the track that's called "Riot Control" on the CD version of this 1956 Newport concert. And here you are at the mic trying to end the concert as people start booing you.


WEIN: That's it.


GROSS: George Wein, what's it like to stand before thousands and thousands of people who are booing you because you want to end the concert?

WEIN: I never was a great baseball player, so I don't know what it was to strike out with the bases loaded. But I really didn't hear the booing. I mean, in all honesty, you don't hear those things. Your mind is so involved with what you're thinking at the moment that you don't hear those things.

GROSS: At the Newport Jazz Festival, when you started the festival, were the audiences pretty integrated? Because there were obviously Black and white fans for the performance that you were presenting, but it was an area of New England that, I think, was very predominantly white.

WEIN: We had a small percentage of blacks at the beginning of the festival. There were always blacks that liked jazz. They were never a mass. The mass audience was usually white. We had a few racial problems the very first year when some of the hotels weren't used to blacks coming to the hotels and registering. And they were refused. But after one year, that ended. And a few years later, they elected an African American mayor of Newport. So you have your influence. And what you do influences the attitude of people. And we're very proud of that. And we - problems are always there. The whole thing is to just not fight the problems. In a sense, just make people aware that these problems are useless and that they don't have any meaning. And let's go straight ahead.

GROSS: OK. Well, you not only did the Newport Jazz Festival, you created the Newport Folk Festival. Were you interested in folk music?

WEIN: I'm interested in all musics, including opera and symphony and folk music and world music. I love artistry. Artistry is what draws me. I used to play a lot of folk artists. In Storyville, we're needing an attraction every week. And I was influenced from Barney Josephson's Cafe Society and Max Gordon at the Village Vanguard. That's - I went to their clubs before I had my own club. And so Pete Seeger and Odetta and groups like that and artists like that had played Storyville. Now, we had presented tap dance afternoons and gospel afternoons at the jazz festival. And I said, we'll do a folk afternoon. But I found out we had much more available, and we should do a festival.

GROSS: Why don't you share one of your personal high points from the Newport Folk Festival?

WEIN: I think that one of the personal high points was when we brought this - a tin whistle player from South Africa, Spokes Mashiyane. He went on the stage. And we used to have 15,000 people at that time, all avid folk fans. And he played with that tin whistle. And he had a jazz feeling. And Pete Seeger and I went up to play with him. I played the piano. And he played the guitar. And he just played - sounded like Lester Young on a tin whistle. And when he finished playing, the entire 15,000 people stood up and cheered. It was a magical moment.

GROSS: One of the most famous moments from the Newport Folk Festival was when Bob Dylan performed with his band. And they used amplifiers. So it was electric. Dylan had gone electric.

WEIN: That was the expression, Dylan went electric.

GROSS: Yeah. And a lot of his fans felt betrayed that one of their, you know, folk music heroes had now plugged in. What were you thinking when he plugged in?

WEIN: That was a time I was aware of the booing. Some people have tried to write that there wasn't any booing. There was a lot of booing. And there was a lot of consternation backstage. And there were legends that have come down that are untrue about Pete Seeger wanting to take an axe and cut the sound system. That just was not true. He was in a car holding his ears and said - asked me to do something about it. I said, there's nothing we can do, Pete. But what I did was I went up to Dylan after he finished. And I - on the stage - and I said, Bob, you've got to go back and do an acoustic tune. And he said, I don't have a guitar. And I said, it's a folk festival. I turned around, does anybody have a guitar? And actually, about 40 guitars went in the air. And Peter Yarrow gave him a guitar. And he did go back and sing "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." And it was a very poignant moment. It was more important historically than it was to me at that moment because I was just acting as a producer and acting by instinct.

GROSS: Why did your instincts tell you he should go back onstage and play something acoustic?

WEIN: I had to - again, I was not concerned with the riot, but I was concerned with the crowd, the feeling of the crowd. It was a terrible disappointment to the real Dylan fans who didn't know anything about his going electric. And it really was an important moment that had changed the approach to music by young people who were folk fans, because a lot of their friends had adopted the new music of the Beatles. And they were fighting them, saying, no, the real music is our folk music. And when Dylan went electric, it gave them the right to go along with their friends. And then they all became lemmings and went in the direction of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and were part of their whole youth situation, which was great, you know? But it took away a lot of individuality in listening to music.

GROSS: If you really thought it was great, you wouldn't have used the word lemmings (laughter).

WEIN: Well, you know, music had never had that feeling before. Everybody had a - the concept of what was good didn't always relate to what was the most popular. So once the rock 'n' roll world came in, the most important groups were the ones that sold the most records. In jazz, Glenn Miller sold more records than Duke Ellington ever dreamed of selling. But Duke Ellington was still the boss. In piano, there were a lot of great piano players. But all of the piano players stood up when Art Tatum came into the room. In rock 'n' roll, they stood up when the guy that sold the most records came into the room. And that's always the way it's been.

BIANCULLI: Music promoter George Wein speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening back to Terry's interview from 2003 with pioneering music promoter George Wein. The creator of the long-running Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival died Monday at age 95. They spoke the year he published his autobiography, which was titled "Myself Among Others: A Life In Music."


GROSS: You've seen many of the musicians who you've loved most, who you were closest with and who were among the greatest musicians, you know, in the history of the music - you've seen many of them die. Do you ever feel lonely out there - like, you've outlived so many of the people who you came up with?

WEIN: It isn't that I feel lonely. But sometimes I hear music, and it's talking to me, and I literally get tears in my eyes and - 'cause the music means so much to me. And having known so many of these great players, not just the big names like Duke but - or Louis. I knew them all. But you know, the ones that I write about in the book that are not necessarily the genius - but they're the troops, you know, the ones that made jazz happen and to which we owe an unfathomable debt. And I've had the good fortune to have played with and worked with so many wonderful players. And they talk to me, and I get a beautiful feeling about it, not a not a sad feeling. It's a beautiful feeling that I knew those people and was close to them. And they were part of my life. And maybe I was part of their lives.

GROSS: In writing this memoir, you had to pick through your mind and hopefully some journals that you had - if, in fact, you had any journals - in order to revive the past, you know, as you lived it. What was that process like for you of trying to remember things that happened to you over the years?

WEIN: The process of remembering was relatively easy 'cause I only remembered what I remembered. A lot of that sounds strange. But what I remembered, I remembered vividly. And that's what I put down. The things that I didn't remember too vividly, I didn't use. The young man that worked with me on the book, Nate Chinen, did some research and things. And he went through a lot of my papers. And we found some fascinating things - for instance, letters I had written to Miles Davis that I had forgotten all about that I used in the book where I start off one of the letters, I've always known you were evil, but I never knew you were stupid. I knew you were crazy.

GROSS: (Laughter) What were you writing him about?

WEIN: Well, that we made an offer for a European trip, and he was he was holding me off, you know? And we were - he wouldn't get - couldn't get an answer out of him. And I said, look; if the other guy gives you a better offer, go with them - you know, something like that. And then he met my wife on the street and said, I like George, but he doesn't respect me. And so then I wrote him another letter saying how much I respected him and, you know, and that he was one of the important figures in jazz and my whole life was working with important people, you know? And after that, we, you know, along with the other things, we developed a good friendship.

But Miles liked to be talked to that way 'cause that's the way he talked to people, you see? So it - I established a rapport, but we had to dig to find those letters. And when I found them, I was so happy to use them because they did reflect my attitude and how I worked with Miles and how I established a relationship with a guy who was really a unique human being, Miles Davis, and, in his way, a very beautiful, beautiful man.

GROSS: Well, George Wein, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

WEIN: This is a wonderful interview. And thank you very much. You asked me wonderful questions, and I want to thank you very much for that.

BIANCULLI: Music promoter George Wein speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. The creator of the long-running Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival died Monday at age 95. Wein continued to play piano throughout his life. Here he is singing and playing, recorded in 1955.


WEIN: (Singing) Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven. Don't you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven? You'll find your fortune falling all over town. Be sure that your umbrella is upside down. Trade them for a package of...

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, a political reporter grapples with questions many Americans are asking. How did our country become so divided? Why is there so much rage and fear? How did the gap grow so large between the wealthiest and everyone else? We talk with New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, author of "Wildland: The Making Of America's Fury." I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.