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George Wein Reinvents His Jazz Festival At 84

George Wein's CareFusion Jazz Festival New York is under way in venues big and small. (Redferns/Getty Images)

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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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The most important concert promoter in jazz is changing the way he listens to music. George Wein virtually invented the jazz festival back in 1954 when he brought a busload of artsy musicians to crisply nautical Newport, Rhode Island. The first Newport Jazz Festival was a success and spawned many more there and in New York City over the years.

Mr. Wein eventually sold his production company. But when his successor cancelled last year's JVC Jazz Festival, he decided to get back into the game. So 84-year-old George Wein set out to check out what was going on in the city's many jazz clubs and what he heard led to this week's CareFusion Jazz Festival and a new approach to presenting concerts.

George Wein joins us from our studios in New York.

Mr. Wein, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. GEORGE WEIN (Jazz Festival Producer): Well, thank you for having us.

SIMON: We'd like to begin by playing you some music, take you back a little bit. May we?

Mr. WEIN: By all means.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: So you recognize that piano technique?

Mr. WEIN: I recognize it. I dont know where it was. That was Ruby Braff on the coronet, I think.

SIMON: Yes. Exactly. I'm told that's a 1969 recording, Red Norvo on the vibes too.

Mr. WEIN: That was a good band. Barney Kessel on the guitar. And I was privilege playing with those guys.

SIMON: So how did you get from performing to promoting?

Mr. WEIN: I never thought I was going to be a piano player. And, in fact, I dont consider myself a pianist. I play the piano. I have a lot of fun. I just never thought I'd be good enough, and I had a natural head for organizing and the next thing I know, somebody said open your own club. I was playing in clubs in Boston. Somebody said open up your own club. I leased a room from a hotel and I've been in trouble ever since.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, I mean a lot of promoters fail, dont they? I mean a lot of clubs that open and are gone in just a few years.

Mr. WEIN: I think people fail when they're looking for more than is there. I always knew that I could make a living in the music industry and I just kept doing my thing. I never said I'm a failure because I didnt make any money. And for years I didnt make any money, and then I got lucky when sponsors came and that established me a little bit financially, and then as the years went on I did better. I'm doing okay. I'm 84 years old. I dont have to worry about the next few years, which - as long as I have a next few years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEIN: But promoters want to make money. I was in it because I really loved it. It was my life. I wasnt in - I never went into as quote, "a business." Sure, you had to make a living, but I mean the music was in my head, in my heart, in my soul, and it still is.

SIMON: So why did you sell your company, Festival Productions?

Mr. WEIN: I had a huge overhead and we had done a lot of business. We had been successful the past eight or 10 years, so - and we lost a major client and that would've meant I would've had a loss of a million dollars that year, so I said it was time. What the heck, I was 81 years old, I said it's time to get out, so I got out.

SIMON: Was it hard to see the company go under after you left?

Mr. WEIN: Not really. You know, no. No, no. There were a lot of problems. A lot of - I had a lot of wonderful people and most of them are still with me, by the way. They all came back. So I lost my wife, which hurt. That hurt very badly. Joyce died in 2005. But she wanted me to keep on living. I'm trying. It's not easy but I'm doing my best.

SIMON: Yeah. So tell us how you put this festival together.

Mr. WEIN: Last year, when I went back to Newport, CareFusion came to me out of the blue sky, because I was prepared to lose money in Newport. I was going to give it a one year shot just to see if I could get a sponsor and keep it alive. But they came out of the woodwork, I dont know where, and walked in and gave me enough money so I broke even last year. And so I said to them, look, if youre all these - they were doing several other cities besides Newport. I said you got to do New York, they want a festival in New York. And so they said okay.

So when they said do New York, I figured I had to do something different because its the jazz capital, almost the music capital of the world. All over the city, you never know where youre going to run into a jazz group. And so I said I have to do something that brings in the whole city. So I did a few concerts at Carnegie Hall last Thursday with Keith Jarrett.

But in addition to that, I figured I had to do a lot more. So I took in places like the Jazz Gallery and the Jazz Standard and free concerts at Central Park. And then we went to Brooklyn, we went to Puppet's Club and we went to Zebulon and we went to Bobby's and we put in groups there to work during the festival. And working with these different promoters over - in the city was an education for me. We're doing something at the Louis Armstrong House in Queens to bring in all aspects of what is happening in this city.

Jazz at Lincoln Center came in to work with us; we're doing a blues show there and we're introducing Darcy James Argue there Monday night at Dizzy's Club.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Now, is that one of the differences that you discovered going around to the clubs? Instead of trying to put the focus on a certain kind of jazz and certainly one venue, to move it around the city as much as you do?

Mr. WEIN: Well, that was part of it. But basically it's an awareness of what's happening in the music business, in jazz as an art form.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WEIN: You see, there's so many young musicians coming. We're in a transition period. I remember when Herbie Hancock and Keith, they were the youngsters. They came along after Dizzy and after Miles and after Coltrane. They are now - Herbie celebrated his 70th birthday. There's a whole world of young musicians coming along and every one of them is trying to establish an individual identity. All of them dont have great talent. But out of a thousand kids you might have a few that are really talented, and its fascinating to hear them.

SIMON: It doesnt sound like you spend a lot of time sitting at home watching reruns of "Law and Order."

Mr. WEIN: I do. I'm a real "Law and Order" freak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEIN: Yeah. I mean, no, I had to combine my work with watching "Law and Order." I mean I have to - I went back to the days of Michael Moriarty, you know, and that's how far...

SIMON: You are a "Law and Order" fan.

Mr. WEIN: Oh yeah.

SIMON: He was the original prosecutor. Yeah.

Mr. WEIN: Yeah. And Michael loved to play the piano. And we were at a dinner one night and Michael wanted to play 'cause he said I have to play for you. I want to play at Newport. And so he played and I played after him and he says, I didnt know you could play (unintelligible) yeah. But I said - by reference to your playing, he said, 25 years to life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Boy, he takes that role a little seriously, doesnt he?

Mr. WEIN: I have fun like that once in a while, you know?

SIMON: Sounds like youre busier than ever.

Mr. WEIN: In some respects, yes. We're finishing up New York. We go up to Newport. Newport is really a - more in the traditional concept of presentation; its all at Ford Adams. But we have three stages and then we have Chick Corea's Freedom Band with Kenny Garrett and Jamie Cullum and Ahmad Jamal and Maria Schneider's Orchestra. So there's so much happening that it does keep you busy. Just keep going and hoping that you - tomorrow night I'll hear something that I love too.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Wein, a real pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. WEIN: Thank you very much.

SIMON: George Wein, he's the producer of the CareFusion Jazz Festival now underway in New York. For more coverage of that festival, including live concert recordings, you can come to our website, nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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