Wein continues Newport jazz legacy

NEWPORT, R. I. — For the first time since he founded the Newport Jazz Festival, George Wein didn't have to sign any checks or worry about how the fickle weather might affect the bottom line. Instead, his biggest concern at the recent festival was whether he could keep up on piano with his Newport All-Stars band during their set on the main stage that preceded performances by Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins.

But though the 82-year-old Wein sold his festival production company last year, he is still very much a force in producing jazz events, not only working to preserve the Newport festival's legacy but even starting a new concert series at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall in memory of Joyce Wein, his wife and business partner for nearly half a century.

"I have no problem working. ... As long as I can breathe, I will be involved with Newport because that to me is the holy grail of jazz festivals," said Wein, interviewed behind the main stage at Fort Adams State Park during last month's festival. "The image of Newport relates so strongly to what I've created all these years that I will never let that go. ...

"There's one burden that I have been eased with greatly. ... I don't pick up the losses, I don't worry about profits. So I enjoy the festival for what it is," said Wein, sporting a madras patchwork cap and speaking with a distinctive Boston accent.

Wein, a jazz pianist-turned-impresario, was running Boston's Storyville jazz club, when Newport socialite Elaine Lorillard walked in one night and invited him to present some jazz to liven up the summer social season. Wein ended up putting the affluent Rhode Island seaside town on the popular cultural map by organizing what would be the world's first outdoor jazz festival in 1954 with such luminaries as Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald.

Wein would go on to create such other landmark cultural events as the Newport Folk Festival, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Playboy Jazz Festival, eventually establishing his own company Festival Productions Inc. that produced jazz events around the world.

But last year, Wein decided to sell his company, while staying on with the new owners, the Festival Network LLC, focusing his attention on the two festivals he feels closest to — Newport and the JVC Jazz Festival New York — an event he created under different sponsorship in 1972, a year after gate-crashing rioters forced the Newport festival to be canceled until its return in 1982.

Wein has already started booking next year's festivals, working with their new artistic director Jason Olaine, Festival Network's vice president for programming.

"I think of George as a professor because he's got facts and figures and all the historic knowledge in his brain," said the 40-year-old Olaine, who previously worked as the artistic director at Yoshi's jazz club in San Francisco and as a producer at Verve Records. "He's been here since the beginning so he knows what ... artists the audiences are looking for. .... When George wants someone, they're in. I think it's my role as the new artistic director to shake things up a little bit ... but not stray too far away from a formula that's been working."

When Olaine had one last slot to fill for Sunday's closing concert, he asked Wein to perform with his Newport All-Stars — a festival tradition dating back to the '50s. Olaine insisted that the festival's founder perform on the main Newport stage rather than one of the two smaller stages.

Wein's earlier Newport All-Stars bands had featured musicians who were more his contemporaries and comfortable with the pre-1950s swing style he grew up playing. But at Newport, his All-Stars lineup featured two up-and-coming jazz stars — bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, the youngest member at 23, and Israeli clarinetist-saxophonist Anat Cohen — as well as two distinguished veterans, the versatile guitarist Howard Alden and drummer Jimmy Cobb, the last surviving musician from Miles Davis' 1959 "Kind of Blue" album.

"I enjoy a festival but there's still nothing like playing with musicians that you develop a family relationship," said Wein. "I got to keep on my toes to play with these kids because they want to wail when they go up there. ... and believe me it's a challenge."

Wein now is putting together a different Newport All-Stars band for a Nov. 4-9 engagement at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center that will feature a veteran front-line with tenor saxophonist-flutist Lew Tabackin and trumpeter Randy Sandke.

Wein realized early on that he'd never be the greatest jazz pianist after hearing Art Tatum, but he discovered his true calling as an impresario while still a college student in 1949 when his bandleader, clarinetist Edmond Hall, asked him to negotiate a raise with a reluctant Boston club owner and he ended up producing concerts himself.

Wein hasn't lost his passion for producing. In September 2007, he organized an all-star benefit concert at Boston's Symphony Hall with Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis. Roy Haynes, Joe Lovano and other jazz stars to establish a scholarship fund for promising young jazz musicians at the Berklee College of Music named after his wife who died of cancer in 2005.

Wein recently announced that he will be producing a concert series in honor of his wife, which he hopes will become an annual event on the Carnegie Hall calendar.

"I wanted to do that because some people thought when I sold my company that I'm not active, but I'm just as active both with my company and on my own," Wein said.

The three concerts for the 2008-9 season will feature the Dominican-born pianist Michel Camilo who melds jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms (Nov. 13); conductor-composer-pianist Andre Previn leading a jazz trio as part of his 80th birthday celebrations (Feb. 19); and a concert titled "To Joyce With Love" (April 2) featuring Wein on piano with an all-star cast of their jazz musician friends.

"Jazz brought Joyce and me together, but it was pure love that kept us together," said Wein, who first met Joyce Alexander at a jazz concert in 1947. The couple wed in 1959 at a time when interracial marriages were rare and even banned in some states.

"We're picking tunes that she loved. ... the music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong ... Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie," said Wein, speaking in a follow-up interview by phone from a cruise ship in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Denmark where he had just given an impromptu performance for his fellow passengers.

"I just think it's the right thing to do that I recognize what she meant to me all my life. I didn't have a home life and a business life, everything was together. ... I think our partnership in life had meaning to so many people."

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