|Myself Among Others: A Life In Music|
by George Wein with Nate Chinen
Da Capo Press, May 2003
George Wein is probably the best-known name in jazz in the world. Born in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1925 to a Jewish family, his musical career began as a kid, with liberal parents who took him to musical events, a mother who played the piano, and a father who was a medical doctor and a lover of jazz. His piano skills were good enough to front a high school jazz band. One of his early teachers was Sam Saxe, and later, Teddy Wilson. Not a bad start for a precocious young man.
In high school and college, he got his first lessons in racism and anti-Semitism. He met an African-American woman, Joyce Alexander, whom he married in 1959. In the 1940s, he was a regular visitor to Boston jazz clubs where he made friends with Henry "Red" Allen, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Hinton and others, inviting them to his home after late-night gigs. His mother would cook meals for the musicians and the Weins accommodated their guests. When he couldn't find a date for a Benny Goodman concert, his mother accompanied him.
His brother Larry also had a powerful influence on him, inviting young Wein to join him in New York City, where they hung out at the famous clubs on 52nd Street. Wein recalled first hearing Charlie Parker in a club, and getting his first education in what would come to be called bebop.
Drafted into the Army during WW II, Wein managed to teach himself enough trumpet to play in a military band, and also organized a jazz band which played in officer's clubs. He barely escaped being sent into one of the most brutal battles against the Nazis.
All this and the rest of his life in music constitutes a powerful, fascinating, often boastful read. He was assisted by Nate Chinen, a Philadelphia/NYC-based writer and editor. An important feature of this autobiography is Wein's personal account of practically every important jazz musician from Armstrong to T.S. Monk, Jr. He mixes his often biting commentary with factual information.
After his term in the Army, he returned to Boston, where he played piano in his own groups and with famous musicians. One night, when James P. Johnson failed to show up for a gig with Sidney Bechet, Wein sat in on piano. He ultimately opened his own club in September, 1950. He named it Storyville after the famous New Orleans club of the same name. How he managed to accomplish this, with all the details down to seating, Blue Laws and finances, explains his promotional and musical abilities, which, over the next 50 years, would lead to the forming of Festival Productions, Inc., one of the largest and most successful jazz and music businesses in the world.
In 1954, Wein met with Louis and Elaine Lorillard. Louis was the wealthy heir from the Lorillard tobacco family, and Elaine wanted to initiate jazz concerts at Newport, Rhode Island. Wein joined the Newport Jazz Festival board, and began to organize what were to become the first outdoor summer jazz festivals. The chapters about these events from 1954 to 1971, when wild young people, high on drugs, raided the stage and smashed equipment, are a book in themselves.
The list of those who appeared at Newport jazz festivals is a who's who of jazz, from the Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, Mingus, and Kenton bands, to traditional giants such as Willie "The Lion" Smith, Bob Wilbur, Buck Clayton, Eddie Condon, Anita O'Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. etc. One of the persistent problems for Wein, an outspoken advocate for civil rights, was racism in Newport. Black artists had a difficult time finding places to stay, and were subjected to racial taunts by locals. Elaine Lorillard and Charles Mingus were so upset by this racism they suggested moving the event from Newport.
Given all of the problems at the Newport events, Wein persisted, cutting his teeth as a jazz and music promoter. Newport was only one of his ventures. He arranged a 1961 European tour for Thelonious Monk, and traveled with the Ellington and Basie bands on international tours he arranged.
Wein was eclectic in his jazz and musical tastes. While always grounded in traditional and swing jazz, he realized that audiences wanted to hear the new genres from bop to free jazz. Thus, he would schedule everything from a Dixieland band to Cecil Taylor.
He also liked folk music. The biography is dedicated to Pete and Toshi Seeger. Along with a jazz revival movement in American, there was a folk and blues revival with such artists as Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, James Taylor, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, etc. When he included folk and blues artists at the Newport festivals, he received criticism from jazz purist, and thanks from those who enjoyed folk and rock. Bob Dylan's famous appearance at the Newport festival is carefully and humorously explained.
After the riot of 1971, Wein moved the Newport Jazz Festival to New York City in 1972, where, under its various changed names, still continues every summer. This move tested Wein's organizational and promotional skills. With big money sponsorship, he presented jazz concerts at Philharmonic, Carnegie, and Radio City halls, as well as in other venues. With the New Jersey Jazz Society, Wein sponsored events at Waterloo Village. There was a built-in jazz audience in New York City, but this didn't always result in financial success for Wein and his company.
He devotes an entire chapter to Miles Davis, who after years in retreat, played for Wein's 1981 JVC Jazz Festival. Wein also accompanied Davis to Europe, where they were installed in the French legion of honor. While Wein had close and friendly relations with hundreds of jazz artists, he found Miles Davis to be the most difficult. He tells why.
The Coda includes sensitive and sometimes scary conclusions about jazz and its presentation. "Jazz festivals have become as diverse (some would say diluted) as jazz itself." He credits cultural and educational institutions for helping to keep jazz alive. "Defining jazz involves defining who is a jazz musician, and this is a practice best left to the musician himself."
It is apparent that Wein has a love affair with jazz and jazz musicians. He calls this his raison d'etre. We can be thankful for that and for this book. It includes discography of his Storyville recordings and footnotes.
Former president of the New Jersey Jazz Society, Terry Ripmaster says he is concluding work on his biography of Willis Conover.
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