Only one figure in jazz history has played piano behind dozens of major jazz artists, recorded as a singer, owned a major jazz club, produced jazz albums, and started a festival that gave people of all ages daytime access to the greatest jazz musicians of the 1950s and beyond.
That person is George Wein, 82, founder of both Boston's Storyville jazz club and the Newport Jazz Festival. Starting in the 1950s, George was a champion, colleague and employer of virtually every major swing, bop and modern jazz artist. All played at his club and many performed at his famed annual concert series in Newport, Rhode Island. In January 2007, George sold his company, Festival Productions Inc., to Festival Network LLC, which now produces the JVC-sponsored jazz festivals. [Photo above by Jim Cooper]
JazzWax: How many jazz club owners can say they played with Bobby Hackett?
George Wein: [Laughs] We played together several times. Bobby [pictured] was a good friend. He meant a great deal to me. When Bobby was alive, I utilized him a lot. Whenever I had jam sessions, Bobby was in charge of them. When he died in 1976, I said to Dizzy, another dear friend who worked often for me, "You're going to have to be my Bobby Hackett."
JW: What did Dizzy say?
GW: Dizzy said, "Um, Bobby Hackett, yeah, um, yeah, OK." [Laughs]
JW: What was Bobby like?
GW: He was the nicest guy. In the early days of his career, when he was drinking, I didn't know him. When I knew him, in the last 20-odd years of his life, Bobby was one of the sweetest guys I worked with. Never a problem.
JW: Who came up with the name for your Boston club, Storyville?
GW: Nat Hentoff. We were sitting around talking before I opened in 1950, and he came up with it. But then he took the name back, saying it wasn't that good. I said, "No no, it is the name. We don't have to go any further." I wanted a name that eliminated the word "the," which only loaded down the sound. This way, people would say, "Let's go to Storyville." [Pictured: Nat Hentoff in 1955 presenting Miles Davis with a Down Beat award]
JW: Storyville moved a few times during its history, yes?
GW: We opened downstairs in the Copley Square Hotel [pictured] in 1950, closed six months later, moved to the Hotel Buckminster in Kenmore Square in February 1951, and moved back to the Copley Square Hotel in 1953, where we went into prestigious street-level space. We re-opened there with Charlie Parker. At the very end, in 1959, we did a year at the Bradford Hotel on Tremont St. I was going to close the club but the Bradford wanted to keep it open for a year. By then, organizing and promoting the Newport Jazz Festival was a full-time enterprise.
JW: How did you pull off the Copley Square Hotel deal?
GW: People in hotels have space. If the space isn't earning them money, they want to do things with it. In Boston in the '50s, hotels had space that wasn't necessarily producing income. I went to the Copley with the idea, and they said, "OK, let's do it." That's basically what it was. Everything in life is being in the right place at the right time. If I went to a hotel now that's busy, they'd say they don't lease out space, that they're making money with what they're doing with it.
JW: Was the Copley Square Hotel the first place you went to?
GW: Yes. Things were easy back then in one respect: There wasn't much business in Boston. Boston wasn't completely dead, and on Saturday nights it was OK. But during the week, no one was around. You have to understand, Boston is a much busier town now. Today the Copley Square area is packed. I go up there and I can't believe it. The area was very different in the 1950s. Our move to Kenmore Square and then back to Copley Square had to do with costs.
JW: Who did you attract to Storyville if Boston was dead during the week?
GW: Once we caught on, our audience was mostly made up of professors from the different local colleges. We didn't draw many kids because they didn't drink and most were under 21, the legal age limit then. If Boston had allowed drinking starting at age 18, I might still be in business up there [laughs]. The club attracted blacks when I had certain artists booked, but for the most part the audience was white and middle class.
JW: How did you like growing up in the Boston area?
GW: Well, I had a rather a nice time. My father was a doctor, and we lived in Newton, a Boston suburb. We weren't rich by any means, but I never lacked for anything. My father always made a living. I enjoyed Boston and Newton High School [pictured] very much. But I missed a lot of years that would have been important when I went into to the army at age 18. Between age 18 and 21, those are your growing-up years, as a young man. I was growing up much faster in the army. By the time I attended Boston University, from 1946 to 1950, I wasn't a kid going to college. I was a man getting my degree on the GI Bill.
JW: Did you have brothers and sisters?
GW: I had one brother. We got along very well. He was a little older. He introduced me to jazz when I was 11 years old. He brought home a record player with 13 free records that came with it. I remember hearing Louis Armstrong's When the Saints Go Marching In; Benny Goodman and Sing, Sing, Sing; and Jimmie Lunceford's White Heat. I loved what I heard. Slowly but surely I got involved with jazz.
JW: Where did you learn to play piano?
GW: I was playing classical music on the piano when I was 7 or 8 years old. I switched to popular music because I used to sing as a kid and wanted to accompany myself. When I heard jazz and improvisation on my brother's records, I said to myself, "This is interesting, I have to get into this." Next thing I knew I was playing jazz.
JW: With whom did you study?
GW: I studied classical music with Madame Chaloff, who was baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff's mother. Serge and I were friends as kids. She taught me how to play the piano. At age 14, I switched to Sam Saxe, a jazz pianist. He taught me about chording and improvisation and playing on changes and things like that. I was with him for about 2 1/2 years. I played and sang at school events and eventually wanted to become a jazz musician.
JW: When did you start playing professionally?
GW: In college. I was studying pre-med and history, but in my spare time I played regularly with groups like the Edmond Hall Quartet. Edmond [pictured] played clarinet, and our group played Dixieland jazz. We performed regularly at the Savoy Club on Massachusetts Ave. in Boston.
JW: At what point did you develop a head for business?
GW: I never was, quote, business minded. But I could always add and subtract [laughs]. And I found I was a pretty good organizer. I had always been an organizer when I was growing up. If I wanted to play baseball, I'd call all the other kids and we'd start a team. If it was football, I'd call the kids and we'd get uniforms and start a team. I was always organizing. When I played the Savoy with Edmond Hall, he'd say, "Would you please go speak to the boss to see if we can get a raise?" Everyone turned to me to keep things together. I finally said to Edmond, "Let's do our own concert." So we got a Saturday night offer, I rented a hall and that was my first concert. The next thing I knew I was a producer and then a club owner.
JW: Storyville opened in September 1950. Who was the first group booked?
GW: Bob Wilber, who played soprano sax at the time. His original group was a pure Jelly Roll Morton band. He had played the Savoy when I was there with Edmond Hall. He was the other band. I knew that Bob had a following in Boston. But he changed his style at Storyville when he added drummer Big Sid Catlett. Bob wanted to get more into swing. I was all for that, and Bob having Big Sid was very important. Big Sid was an extraordinary swing drummer. That's how we opened the club. It was very exciting. [Pictured from left, Big Sid Catlett, George Wein and Hoagy Carmichael at Storyville in 1950. Photo by Bob Parent.]
JW: Do you think your ability to play jazz helped you as a club owner?
GW: Well, it certainly helped me enjoy life [laughs]. I listen to music from a different point of view than most people. Being a musician myself, I have different feelings. I'm either more tolerant or more intolerant depending on how you look at it. A guy may not play the way I like, but if he can play, I relate to it. Or he may play music that I like but if he doesn't play well, then I'm not a good critic for him. It has nothing to do with style. It has to do with artistry. I respect artistry because I know how hard it is to be a good musician. So when I booked musicians into Storyville, it was always about the artistry, whether I liked the music or not. Looking back, my musical ability certainly influenced my taste and choices. [Pictured: Frankie Newton, George and Joe Palermino. Photo by Bob Parent.]
Tomorrow, George talks about the artists who played at Storyville, including Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz and Billie Holiday.
JazzWax tracks: George recorded on many albums as part of larger ensembles, including the Newport All-Stars. One of his prettiest small-group albums is Wein, Women and Song, recorded in 1955 for Atlantic. It features Ruby Braff and Bobby Hackett on trumpets and Jo Jones on drums among other fine musicians. The album can be purchased or downloaded here.
JazzWax pages: George's autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, written with Nate Chinen, is available here in paperback.