George Wein masterminded the legendary Newport Festival, which has been held in Rhode Island for the last sixty years. He is an author, pianist and former club owner and record label owner as well as a mentor and friend to countless musicians and fans. He has watched genius emerge in front of his eyes during many of the remarkable live performances he has sponsored, and has spent his lifetime making sure that jazz is considered an inclusive genre in academia and in the world of music at large.

Although he is well versed in all types of jazz, Wein doesn’t play favourites, and the Newport Festival line-up reflects his unbiased and open-minded approach. The annual festival will commence in August in Rhode Island this year again and will include rising stars and generations of icons. In a mere fifteen minute chat, George Wein contextualised jazz and reminded us why this art form continues to gain momentum with today’s youth whilst still honouring its ancestors. With his own Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars, he has performed internationally with Bucky Pizzarelli, Esperanza Spalding, Anat Cohen, Randy Brecker and Regina Carter.

PB: Let’s start with some history, George. You owned and ran the Storyville nightclub in Boston in the 1950s in an area with other popular clubs. What made Storyville stand out?

GW: We had the good fortune of playing people like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Louis Armstrong. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. We played every big name in jazz that was alive at that time. There was Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, whoever you could think of played there. Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Billie Holliday, they all worked Storyville. There weren’t many places that played all those artists except Chicago or New York. So, it was a real history of the music and it’s where I learned my trade.

PB: You taught a history of jazz class at Boston University. Was that a novel idea?

GW: I taught the history and evolution of jazz. I was an instructor. I wasn’t a professor. I did it for three years. It was a pioneering thing. I don’t know whether anybody had done it before. They wanted me to lecture. I said no. I will not lecture. I will give a course for credit. That was the beginning, I think.

PB: What material did you cover and what was your favourite part of the curriculum?

GW: We went all the way back to African music; call and response, timbre and timing. I did a lot of reading before I wrote the course. I started with New Orleans jazz and going back to gut chuck and ragtime. I really got into the history of how it’s done, and I got into the swing era and to bebop, and at that time bebop was the advanced thing. ’55 it was.

So, we covered the whole thing and I gave examinations. I couldn’t flunk anybody for jazz, but I gave a few D minuses. And because Dizzy would work my club or Duke, they would come over to class.

PB: You recorded an artist, Toshiko Akiyoshi (Japanese-American jazz pianist, arranger - LT) on your Storyville label. The recordings featured traditional Japanese songs as well as jazz standards. What attracted you to Toshiko’s style of piano playing?

GW: When Toshiko was coming to Berklee School on a scholarship, Larry Berk, the president and founder of Berklee, called me and asked me if I would come to the airport. He had a feeling it would make Toshiko a little more comfortable knowing somebody in the jazz world. And so I went to the airport, and remember meeting Toshiko and we became very friendly.

We recorded her at Storyville. I loved those first few albums. I don’t know what ever happened to them. We managed her for a while and brought her into New York to play in the Hickory House and places like, that but my management career didn’t last long. I realised I couldn’t do that.

PB: You have worked as a promoter, manager and label owner, but you’re also a pianist. Do you have any regrets about the time you’ve spent grooming and promoting other artists when you could have promoted your own career instead?

GW: No, I have no regrets. I had a record company, I managed, I did every different thing trying to find my way. I found out that what I was best at was producing festivals, and so that’s really what I ended up just doing, producing events. I realised it was a conflict of interests if you’re managing and also producing because your artists want to be in your festivals and you don’t feel they’re ready for it. You learn and you can’t conflict. You have to specialise in what you do best.

PB: I read that the first type of jazz that attracted you was Dixieland.

GW: The first type of jazz I was really attracted to was Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, but when I started playing in Boston they needed a piano player who could play with a Dixieland band. One of the piano players taught me all of the Dixieland tunes. One of my first professional jobs was with Pee Wee Russell and Max Kaminsky, who were very famous Dixieland players, but that was not only my favourite type of music.

I loved Teddy Wilson. He was my idol: Teddy Wilson. The Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet.

PB: Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Nina Simone and Miles Davis were just a few of the artists whose appearances at the Newport Jazz Fest were recorded live. What was your opinion about those live recordings? Did they do the artists justice? Were there any nights that you thought that you wished somebody had recorded that magic?

GW: That’s a tough question because we had so many performances. And for a period of time many of the recording companies would record a lot of different things at Newport and then it sort of died out. We don’t do much live recording. I’d like to get back to it because some of those performances were the greatest performances done.

Duke Ellington’s live performance was his greatest recording, and as far as his records nothing sold like that. Duke always said he was born at Newport in 1956. Lots of luck.

I just got a call from Columbia Records. They’re going to reissue all the albums that Miles Davis recorded at Newport. There will be many hours of tape never released before.

PB: There have been so many pivotal moments in the history of the Newport Festival: Bob Dylan going electric, Miles Davis, coming away with a Columbia recording contract. Were there any other turning points that you remember?

GW: I remember Mahalia Jackson. That was the first time a gospel artist really sang before a large white audience. That was a very important thing in the development of festivals presenting jazz-associated music. Chuck Berry played at the Newport Jazz Festival and some of the great moments; Anita O’Day singing ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, that was one of the great moments, musically, in her career.

So back and forth over the years, it’s very difficult for me to recall the festival highlights. Like, for instance, this year we’re presenting fifteen groups a day in three days. So, forty-some odd sets of music, and last year one of them was Amir El Saffar. He did a set, which was recorded on NPR, and it’s one of the great sets of music I’ve heard in a contemporary way. There are always things happening. It’s still exciting for me after all these years.

PB: I read about an evening where you included rock groups like Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, and Miles Davis, who generally performed and then left, stayed after finishing his set because he was so transfixed by the likes of these rock artists.

GW: He saw all the kids and the music. He realised that there’s a public out there, and that’s when during the last few years of his life he played electronic music. I don’t think he ever reached what he wanted to reach like Led Zeppelin, but he worked a lot of pop festivals and he made a lot of money the last few years of his life and I think that he saw the crowds. Music was part of it, but he saw the reaction and the rock kids really reacted to the music.

PB: The Newport Festival has welcomed generations of musicians like Ravi Coltrane and the Brubeck Brothers. Is it exciting to showcase the next generations?

GW: It’s a tradition in jazz that the families – a lot of musicians, like in New Orleans, for instance, people like Donald Harrison – all through New Orleans there are musical families. It’s the same in New York, the same in Detroit, the same in Philadelphia. If you check, if the parents weren’t famous, they were local musicians. If the father made a living making music, the son says, "Why can’t I?" If I took a few minutes, I could probably give you twenty different names of young men whose fathers were musicians. Joshua Redman, his father was a famous musician, and that’s just one.

PB: I heard that you’re adding a third full day to the Newport Festival this year. Jon Batiste, Cecile McLorin Salvant and Rudresh Mahanthappa. I was astounded at how much their styles contrasted. They’re so different and yet they’re all performing under the umbrella of jazz. Is that part of the allure of the festival?

GW: When you say the umbrella of jazz, is jazz the music of the 20s, of the 30s, of the 40s, of the 50s, of the 60s, of the 70s or is the music what young people are playing?

I don’t feel that I have the right to say that this is jazz or that is jazz. There are thousands, and I say that literally, there are thousands of young people coming out of schools majoring in jazz. All want to be creative.

Some of the music is fantastic, and some of it is not that interesting. But you’ll find that all of these young players have all gone to school as opposed to the players in the Duke Ellington Band. They took music lessons, but they never studied jazz. So, it’s a different world and I recognise that world. For me, my responsibility is providing a stage for these young musicians who are recognised by critics by certain elements of the public because then their music really communicates on a wider level. They are jazz musicians. They may not be playing with the same feeling of a bebop player or of a swing player, but they’re playing jazz in a structure that they believe themselves and that’s their life. It’s jazz, and that’s my responsibility.

PB: I hear Rudresh is performing his original Charlie Parker project.

GW: That’s something very special this year.

PB: Cecile McLorin Salvant is young, but has the sophistication of the classic jazz singers back in the day.

GW: There are people that are really crazy about her, and I think she’s wonderful myself.

It remains to be seen. She’s in the formative stage. She knows what she’s doing. She’s a very professional performer, but we’ll see what happens in five years.

PB: It’s a lifetime commitment to do it well.

Do you have any recollections of Horace Silver?

GW: Horace is a very private man, but he loved music. In fact, the first time he played at Newport was with the Modern Jazz Quartet (Kenny Clarke, John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath - LT). John Lewis was accompanying Ella Fitzgerald and Horace was with the Modern Jazz Quartet, which was not his kind of music but he had no problem playing it. Horace, whenever he played, it was funky and good. It really swung.

PB: George, you’re extremely involved in the music community at large and you serve on a number of boards which bring music to underserved populations: prisoners, young mothers, inner-city high school students. You oversee the Louis Armstrong Museum, as well. I read about a lullaby program, in which the young mothers compose lullabies with composers so that they can sing the songs to their infants and enrich their bonds. Are these programs demystifying jazz?

GW: I think there is a tremendous concern for education of the public in jazz. There’s a lot of money being spent but, to me, we do things at Newport right now. We’re having an International Jazz Day. Jon Batiste is playing, and six hundred kids will be coming to the concert free. So, we feel that that’s just the beginning of it. We’ve been doing a lot of that for the past couple years. We want to do much more.

I remember when I was a kid in grammar school. There was a WPA (American program which provided cultural events - LT) period. I’m very old. I’m 88 years old. I remember musicians coming and playing in high school – professional top-notch musicians. I heard them when I was a baby; a band came and played ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. It affected my life. My entire life, I remember these things and I’d like to see that happen again, but with jazz.
It doesn’t make any different what kind of jazz, whether you do traditional or you do contemporary. Young people are fascinated by music and they’re fascinated by the sounds that come out of instruments. But we have to give them the opportunity to hear things and pick what they want for their enjoyment of life. Let’s face it. Music enhances the enjoyment of your life. We have to make it available.

PB: So, I hear you still frequent jazz clubs. When you do, do you mellow out to the music or are you critiquing the musicians and wondering who will be the next big act?

GW: No, I don’t think, that’s the next big act. I listen for artistry, and, if I feel the artist is really creating something that belongs to him and is doing something interesting. Then I’m interested in whether I should present him or her at Newport. There are many fine women musicians now that gender is no longer involved.

We just sent out a tour with Anat Cohen, who just was the star of the evening. She’s a tremendous performer, and already she’s won all the clarinet polls.

PB: I just had the pleasure of seeing the Newport Now 60 ensemble at Old Town School in Chicago.

GW: What did you think?

PB: I thought every person was a star, and yet they worked so well together with no ego. They turned the arrangements on their heads.

GW: That’s jazz.

PB: How did this Newport Now 60 band get together? Were they handpicked musicians?

GW: I have a man who works with me, Danny Melnick, and I have the Newport All-Stars, my band, and Randy Brecker and Anat play with me a lot. Danny put together the band for this tour. He put Mark Whitfield in it. He picked it and they booked it through an agency and they ended up doing twenty, twenty five concerts, which is good promotion for the 60th anniversary of Newport.
Last year, Monterey did a tour. It’s a healthy thing.

PB: They did an arrangement of 'La Vie en Rose', which was so unlike the Piaf version. It was delightfully original. Who arranged the songs?

GW: The musicians just get together and talk about it. Can we play this? Can we play that? There’s very little written music unless somebody doesn’t know the tune, and then somebody writes alto parts for him. I mean, I’ll take my band together, and we’ll have twenty minutes rehearsal, and I’ll say, make these things happens. It sounds easy, but it’s based upon a hundred years of working. These musicians collectively have been playing well over one hundred years, and they know the repertoire. They know what they’re doing. And this band was special because different styles evolved and everyone contributed the thing he wanted to play, and the other musicians fell right in.

PB: Anat Cohen – some refer to her as the modern day Benny Goodman. The clarinet has gone through some kind of a renaissance because of people like her,

GW: Yes, the clarinet is coming back between Anat and Ken Peplowski and a few people like that. But the point is Anat projects joy and love from the stage, and she is enjoying playing, and it’s such a joyful experience and that’s why she’s popular. It’s not just what she plays, which is great, but the combination of her obvious happiness while she’s playing. It makes the audience happy.

PB: Whom are you performing with?

GW: At Newport, they’re playing one day with Newport Now and Randy will play with me, and I’ll have Howard Alden on guitar and a different bass player and drummer.

PB: What kind of set will you be doing?

GW: Standards. I don’t play very much these days because I’m getting old.

PB: What are a few of your favourite tunes?

GW: I like so many things. But we’ve been playing ‘Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise’ – it’s a lot of fun to improvise on that, modal playing and you have the freedom to play whatever you want.

PB: What should a first timer expect to happen at Newport? What if I’m not a solid jazz fan? Should I still attend?

GW: If they want to have an experience that they’ll never forget the rest of their life, come to Newport because if the weather’s good and it’s not raining they’re going to have a good time. If the weather is good, it’s the spirit. See we have this thing now, we have $20 student tickets and last year we had over ten thousand students from different colleges in the area. We had crowds of seven or eight thousand people last year.

It was tremendous. There are three stages. You wander from stage to stage and listen to one group for fifteen minutes, and then you go to the next. There’s always room to stand at the back and then there’s the main stage, which is a big, big area. You just have a lot of fun. Nobody’s educating you. They’re entertaining you, but you are being educated in the process without realising it.

PB: Do you have any major concerns this year?

GW: I’m very concerned about the student tickets. That is the big thing. Having a $70 or $80 ticket available for $20 if you’re in college or high school… Boy, last year, I wanted to have four or five thousand students.

PB: Do you see the Newport Festival continuing way into the future?

GW: That’s what I’m working for. I’m going to make a bequest as much as I can. It’s a non-profit thing. I work pro bono. I put money into it now. I have a very good board of directors and they seem dedicated to my legacy, which is what I ask them for. They will stay hoprfully after I’m gone, and they seem to want to do it. So. that’s what I’m working for.

PB: Thank you.

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