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George Wein virtually invented the jazz festival back in 1954, when he brought a busload of artsy musicians to crisply nautical Newport, R.I. The first Newport Jazz Festival was a success, and spawned many more festivals there and in New York City over the years.
Wein eventually sold his production company. But when his successor canceled last year's JVC Jazz Festival, Wein decided to get back in the game. At 84, he set out to investigate what was going on in the city's many jazz clubs. What he heard led to this week's CareFusion Jazz Festival New York -- sponsored by CareFusion, naturally -- and a new approach to presenting concerts.
Wein is best known as an impresario, but he's also a jazz pianist. He performed and recorded with the Newport All-Stars in the 1950s, but says he never thought he was going to be a piano player.
"I don't consider myself a pianist," he says in an interview with Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday. "I play the piano and have a lot of fun. I just never thought I'd be good enough. ... I was playing in clubs in Boston, and somebody [told me to open my] own club. I leased a room from a hotel, and I've been in trouble ever since."
Almost 50 years after founding his company, Wein decided to sell. Festival Productions had been successful, but the recent loss of a major client jeopardized the company's ability to stay profitable. So Wein, at 81, said it was time to get out. After he left, Festival Productions went out of business, but he says that wasn't hard to cope with compared to the loss of his wife.
"Joyce died in 2005," he says, "but she wanted me to keep on living. I'm trying. It's not easy, but I'm doing my best."
Back In The Business At 84
Wein now operates a new company, New Festival Productions, and his newest project is the CareFusion Jazz Festival New York, now under way in New York City. He says he knew he had to approach this festival differently and sought to bring together all parts of the city, so he contacted numerous venues -- big and small -- to participate. Carnegie Hall and Jazz at Lincoln Center, as well as clubs like The Jazz Gallery, Puppets Jazz Bar, Brooklyn's Zebulon and the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens are just a few of the participating venues.
"Everywhere you're going to hear great music," Wein says.
The CareFusion Festival also draws upon the diversity of playing styles in jazz today.
"At one time, bebop was a school; swing was a school -- you were into the modal playing of Coltrane," he says. "Some went into the avant garde. There is no school now. These musicians have drawn from all of these schools, and they're looking to establish their own individuality. One group may sound nothing like another group. And yet they're all contemporary and all new and experimental, and it's fascinating to hear them."
Wein shows no signs of slowing down. He says he still goes out two to five nights a week and occasionally gets up on stage. Promoters often get into the business for the money, but Wein says it's all about the music for him.
"I was in it because I really loved it. It was my life," he says. "I never went into it as 'a business,' ... I mean, the music was in my head, in my heart, in my soul. And it still is."
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