Farewell to a Mensch
George Wein, who died at his apartment in Manhattan on September 13th at the age of 95, was a mensch of the highest order. And a helluva piano player. Founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, the granddaddy of all outdoor music festivals, he presided over that summer clambake on Rhode Island from its inception in 1954 to 2016, when he finally relinquished the reigns after 62 years.
It is no exaggeration to say that jazz history was made at the Newport Jazz Festival. Not only did Wein present his favorite Dixieland/Swing players like saxophonists Bud Freeman and Coleman Hawkins, trumpeters Max Kaminsky and Wingy Manone, cornetists Bobby Hackett and Muggsy Spanier, clarinetists Peanuts Hucko, Ed Hall and Pee Wee Russell, trombonists George Wettling and J.C. Higginbotham and drummers Buzzy Drootin and Papa Jo Jones, he also showcased bona fide stars like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra along with beboppers like Dizzy Gillespie and Howard McGhee, hard boppers like Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley and Booker Ervin, and free jazz pioneers like Cecil Taylor, Sunny Murray, Pharaoh Sanders and John Coltrane.
The 1958 Newport Jazz Festival was captured on film by the photographer Bert Stern in the documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day , one of the most celebrated jazz movies ever made, featuring performances by Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Giuffre, Sonny Stitt, Chico Hamilton, Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong with Jack Teagarden. In 1959, Wein launched the Newport Folk Festival. Six years later, it became the scene of controversy when Bob Dylan unveiled his electric band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, sending shock waves through the folk world. Wein helped establish the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970 and later continued promulgating jazz through festivals he established around the world, including the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice, France.
Sometimes called “the Red Auerbach of jazz” (a reference to the legendary basketball coach of the Boston Celtics), Boston native Wein was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2005 and was twice honored at the White House for his efforts in supporting music, African-American art and other charitable work. He also left behind a handful of stellar recordings showcasing his swinging piano style and vocal charms, including 1955’s Wein, Women & Song on the Atlantic label, 1963’s George Wein & The Newport All-Stars on Impulse!, 1988’s The Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars European Tour on Concord and 1993’s Swing That Music on Columbia.
While I met and chatted with George several times over the years — at Newport, at his own gigs, at the gigs of rising stars on the scene (he was a ubiquitous presence at the Winter Jazz Festival, always looking for fresh faces and new talent) — I felt like I got closer to the man when I began working with the Newport Jazz Festival archives as a consultant for Wolfgang’s Vault, one of the world’s biggest and greatest online music services. That job sort of fell into my lap, and I’ll forever be grateful to the great jazz critic and author Gary Giddins for recommending me for the gig after he was unable to do it himself. Treating him and his wife to dinner at the famous Greek seafood restaurant Milos on 55rd Street in midtown Manhattan (called “one of the holy grails of modern fine dining") was a mere token gesture of thanks. In truth, I should’ve treated Gary to Milos every night that year for putting in a good word for me to Wolfgang’s Bill Sagan and George Howard.
It was almost exactly nine years ago — late August of 2012 — that I got the call from George Howard saying, essentially, “We just acquired the Newport Jazz Festival catalog and we don’t know anything about jazz. Can you come on board and give us some direction with this?” Bill Sagan, founder of Wolfgang’s Vault, started the business in 2003 after purchasing a warehouse filled with Bill Graham Productions memorabilia, including taped concert recordings of everyone from Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, Santana, Grateful Dead, Miles Davis, Van Morrison, The Allman Brothers Band, Steve Miller Band, Mothers of Invention…on and on. The name Wolfgang's Vault was inspired by the Berlin-born Bill Graham's original name, Wolodia “Wolfgang” Grajonca. Sagan later purchased the Newport Jazz Festival archives in 2010 and I came on board two years later. In their Manhattan offices near Madison Square Garden, Wolfgang’s Vault stored the immense archives from Newport in a separate climate-controlled room. Many of the reel-to-reel tapes from the early ‘50s and ‘60s had to be baked in ovens to prevent magnetic tape degradation.
The earliest tapes in the collection were from 1955 (Wein’s inaugural Newport Jazz Festival was in 1954), including a set from the Miles Davis All-Stars featuring Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Percy Heath and Connie Kay. Miles’ appearance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival is generally regarded as something of a comeback for the trumpet star. Plagued by a heroin addiction in the early 1950s, he dropped off the scene entirely for a couple of years. And while he had gone into the studio in 1954 to record an all-star session for Prestige, resulting in the classic Walkin’, his Newport set on Sunday, July 17, marked his return to the public arena in a very real sense. And a triumphant return it was. As George Wein noted in his autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music: "Miles was in better physical shape in 1955 than he had been in recent years. But he didn’t have a working group. So I added Miles onto a jam session that already featured Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, and Thelonious Monk. Because of his late addition to the festival, Davis’ name wasn't even printed in our program book. But his presence was felt that night. The clarity of his sound pierced the air over Newport's Freebody Park like nothing else we heard onstage that year. It was electrifying for the audience out on the grass, the musicians backstage, and the critics — some of whom had opined that Miles' career was already over.”
Laying my hands on that Miles tape from ’55 Newport was like touching history. And in my capacity as consultant and eventually site programmer, I touched a whole lot of history over the ensuing six years. Most of the tapes were simply labeled with an artist’s name and the year, leaving me on a kind of detective hunt to fill in the set list and sidemen, which often took days at a time to track down. And by reviewing all of those endless stacks of Newport tapes, and hearing George Wein’s brusque, often humorous introductions and announcements from the stage, I felt like I came to really know the man.
And now he’s gone. He was a great man, a hip man, an enlightened man ahead of his time, and a helluva piano player. Indeed, he was a mensch.