When two visitors to George Wein's Boston jazz club in the early 1950s begged him to enliven their dull Rhode Island summer with an open-air music festival, he was sceptical. But the couple's persistence and financial clout convinced Wein it was worth a shot.
That first bill, in 1954, was compèred by Stan Kenton and included Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie. The Newport Jazz Festival was the first modern open-air music festival, and for Wein the start of a lifetime commitment: this year's will be the 57th under the Newport banner.
Wein, who lives in Manhattan, is 86 years old and started playing piano in spit and sawdust bars before the second world war, going on to tour with musicians such as Ruby Braff and Pee Wee Russell. Even while promoting the huge enterprise into which Newport has evolved he continues to perform – his current band includes trumpeter Randy Brecker and drummer Lewis Nash.
Wein has survived at the top – on a couple of occasions by the skin of his teeth – by following each twist of the jazz canon and doing the maths. When we talked at his Upper East Side apartment, his conversation was peppered with break-even points, audience figures and the demographics of public taste. Short, sharp sentences spilled into each other as he spoke of the what, how and why of his musical career with an improviser's energy.
Wein was born in 1925 and raised in a suburban Boston family – his father was a physician. His mother played radio hits on the piano and enrolled her son in classical piano classes when he was seven. The young Wein, however, preferred popular music and singers like Bing Crosby and, by the time he was 12 or 13, was drawn to the jazz he heard on the radio. Soon he "collected all the kids in the neighbourhood, just like kids collect a garage band nowadays ... I collected a full jazz band".
At one point, still in high school, he was earning $2 a night playing piano in "real cheap, buckets-of-blood joints". Later, during his wartime service with the combat engineers, he organised a band that played in the officers' mess, which "stopped us getting pushed round too much".
After the war, Wein enrolled at Boston University on a pre-med course but continued to play in clubs every night. He was still unsure about throwing himself wholly into music. He knew he was never going to be as great as some he was working with, and he "saw these great musicians working for $100 a week and staying in fleabag hotels. I didn't know if wanted this life."
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