George Wein: The man who founded the Newport Jazz Festival.

Stories from the Financial Times. 
July 16 2011 8:15 AM

Jazz Man

George Wein and the Newport Jazz Festival.

Article from Financial Times

Jazz. Click image to expand.

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.

EDITOR'S CHOICE

Advertisement

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."

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They just aren’t ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

How Steven Moffat Made the Best Doctor Who Episode in Years

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 16 2014 2:11 PM Spare the Rod What Charles Barkley gets wrong about corporal punishment and black culture.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 16 2014 1:23 PM Germany Has Asked Google to Reveal Its Search Algorithm, but That's Not Going to Happen
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 1:39 PM The Case of the Missing Cerebellum How did a Chinese woman live 24 years missing part of her brain?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.