Working the margins
George Wein’s enduring gamble with jazz and folk
BY JON GARELICK
The New Orleans connection
George Wein and Festival Productions have two signature events: Newport and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The latter is scheduled every year over the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May, and Wein has been involved in it since 1970. For fans, it’s a chance to hear jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis and Max Roach and regional artists from the world of pop, blues, zydeco, and Cajun. But the festival has ballooned every year, with superstars like Phish, Dave Matthews, and Jimmy Buffett drawing huge crowds to New Orleans’s Fair Grounds race track. All of which has brought Wein and New Orleans producer Quint Davis under fire for greedily crowding the site and subverting the integrity of the festival.
" I was very concerned with Phish, " says Wein. " Not because of what they did on the stage. The kids they brought were followers that hung out, they didn’t want to leave the field. Then when they got in the city, they had no place to stay, they just hung out on Bourbon Street. And all that whole week you could see nothing but Phish kids all around. That kind of a crowd will kill your festival. . . . Dave Matthews’s crowd is not like that. They come, go see the concert, go home, go about what they’re doing, follow their life. Jimmy Buffett, Paul Simon, groups like that we can handle. Groups like Phish, Rage Against the Machine, we can’t handle it. And I made a statement — the agents were ready to kill me — here the biggest group in the country came to New Orleans, and when they were over I said, ‘We never want Phish back here.’ Quint was ready to kill me! It made the Los Angeles papers. The agents called up: ‘Is Wein crazy? Is he insane?’ I meant it. "
" In my mind, as far as what’s happening now, I’m a complete anachronism, " says legendary concert promoter and producer George Wein. And yet, much to his own surprise, Wein and his Festival Productions, which puts on the annual Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals (which take place this year August 3 through 5 and 10 through 12, respectively), are thriving.
In 1954, Wein organized the first Newport Jazz Festival with what now seems an impossibly rich line-up of jazz greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Errol Garner, Lennie Tristano with Lee Konitz, and a tribute to Count Basie with a small ensemble of Basie-ites: Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Jo Jones, Milt Hinton, and Teddy Wilson. Those were the " pure " days of the festival. By 1958, Chuck Berry was in the festival line-up, and the mix with pop has continued ever since, just as it has in the folk festival — the former purview of acts like folk granddaddy Peter Seeger and blues titan Howlin’ Wolf as well as then new folkies Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. The folk festival this year has bona fide folkies the Indigo Girls and country-folk goddess Nanci Griffith but also blues-rock belter Joan Osborne and alternative blues guys the North Mississippi Allstars with John Medeski as a special guest. This year’s jazz festival includes ageless jazz star Dave Brubeck; a new superstar headliner with an undeniable jazz pedigree, Diana Krall; Ray Charles, who, to invoke Duke Ellington’s well-worked phrase, is " beyond category " ; and pop diva Natalie Cole.
What makes Wein and his company an anachronism is that they continue to fight the pop-music world even as they use it. " I hate the rock world, " Wein tells me when we get together for lunch on Newbury Street. He’s 75 now, and he walks with a cane, but he’s more dapper than ever, in a checked jacket, white shirt, and dark tie. And as he recalls the ups and downs of his career, the great moments and the raw deals, he laughs easily and the years fall away from his face. His company now produces jazz festivals all over the world, Newport — with its 10,000-person-per-day capacity — being one of the smaller ones. There’s also the JVC Jazz Festival every year in New York City, the Saratoga Festival, the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, and the giant 10-day New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival every spring, which can draw as many as 90,000 people in a single afternoon for acts as diverse as the Dave Matthews Band and swamp-pop legend Frankie Ford. (See " The New Orleans Connection. " )
" It was really [Columbia Records producer] John Hammond who brought in Chuck Berry to Newport, " says Wein, who also ordered Bob Dylan to offer the crowd an acoustic encore after Dylan’s infamous electric debut at Newport in 1965. " When Chuck Berry did his duckwalk across the stage at Newport, I thought it was terrible. I happen to love Chuck Berry, and I love the duckwalk — I can’t wait for him to do it! But we were so purist in those days — I was purer than the purest critic. I’m given credit now for putting Chuck Berry on at the Newport Jazz Festival — I was way ahead of my time because that’s where the festivals have gone now — and I fought it tooth and nail! I always say, ‘Please, give John Hammond credit, don’t give me credit.’ "
I propose that the festivals, both jazz and folk, thrive on turning points, when key crossover artists bring in a whole new audience, and that the pop stars (a Natalie Cole, or the Indigo Girls) can turn an audience on to newer or different acts (the North Mississippi Allstars, Uri Caine, Roy Hargrove, or even a jazz legend like Wayne Shorter who remains unknown to the larger audience). But Wein doesn’t go for my thesis, at least as far as jazz is concerned. He’s been through too much for that. " There’s no given artists that could have done it. We’ve gone through crossover jazz groups — the Spyro Gyras. Last year we had Femi Kuti. " Instead, Wein has seen a gradual broadening of the audience ever since he returned to Newport — after a decade layoff — in 1981.
Newport’s hiatus is as storied as its inception. By 1969 — the year of Woodstock — rock had taken over, and Wein, desperate to keep his festival relevant and in the public eye, looked for rock acts. " See, I consider ’69 the low point of my whole career. Because for the first time I lost faith — and I’ll use the word with quotation marks because it changes so much — I lost faith in ‘jazz,’ because I could see, hey, there was a whole thing out there with the underground press: Ginger Baker was a better drummer than Elvin Jones, Jack Bruce was a better bass player. "
Wein asked around and was told that Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson learned flute by studying Rahsaan Roland Kirk, that Led Zeppelin were a good white blues group. " So I hired all these rock groups, and at that point I could hire them, they were all available to me, they all wanted to come to Newport. There was no Don Law [the long-time monolith of the New England live-music scene] at that time. I could have had the whole rock world. I could have built what Don Law has built. And after that year I said never again, I don’t want to do that, it’s not where I’m coming from. I had no control over the groups, no control over the people. They were bigger than the festival. Any one of the acts on the bill without the other acts could have drawn the same number of people. And we never sold tickets faster in our life. The only time we came close was when we had Frank Sinatra a few years earlier. Newport Jazz Festival tickets sales go like this [Wein shows me a stepwise incline with his left hand] and they reach a level at a certain point and they stop. You bring a pop artist and the day the tickets go on sale, they sell out. "
Wein didn’t learn his lesson that fast, though. In 1971 he hired a new band called the Allman Brothers. " After Woodstock, no one would allow rock festivals. Those kids had no place to go. I asked Ahmet Ertegun [at Atlantic Records] to recommend a white blues group, but I wanted to make sure they weren’t popular. So in January he recommended this group he’d just signed. And between January and July they became monsters. So the kids descended on Newport and they broke the fences down and we cancelled the festival. "
In his decade away, Wein developed what he called the Newport Jazz Festival/New York, and he refined his marketing strategy, most significantly in the area of sponsorships. He’d worked with the Schlitz brewery in Newport, but now he codified the idea of the " name sponsorship, " which has become a standard in the industry. Kool cigarettes and then JVC took part (this year’s Newport event is, officially, JVC Jazz Festival-Newport).
Issue Date: August 2 - 9, 2001