When George Wein's Storyville opened in Boston in 1950, it attracted mostly professors from local colleges. In the fall of 1953, one of those professors brought socialite Elaine Lorillard into the jazz club and introduced her to George. Over drinks, Lorillard told George that months earlier she and her husband had attracted the New York Philharmonic to Newport, Rhode Island, for a concert series. But the symphony drew too few listeners, and the benefactors lost much of their $30,000.
Wondering aloud, Lorillard asked George whether Newport could do something with live jazz the following summer. George said he thought so and asked for a little time to put a few ideas together. A short time later, George traveled to Newport to visit with Elaine and her husband, Louis. Basing his concept on the nearby Tanglewood Music Festival, George outlined his vision for a series of jazz concerts. Intrigued, the Lorillards loved his idea and agreed to finance it. Now it was up to George to put together the acts, schedule and logistics. [Pictured, from left, Louis and Elaine Lorillard with George]
In Part 3 of my conversation with George, the legendary club owner and concert promoter reflects on the festival, his week playing piano behind a skeptical Lester Young at Storyville, and the only career decision he would have done differently:
JazzWax: When you launched the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, did it do what you wanted it to do instantly?
George Wein: Immediately. Because I knew two things: I knew what artists would sell tickets based on how they did at Storyville, and I knew going in what I wanted to do with the festival. I saw it as an opportunity to promote jazz on a large scale and expose people of all ages to this great music. For the first time, people who didn't go to clubs or couldn't get in because they were too young now could see and hear the music and musicians live, outside, in a relaxed, laid-back setting.
JW: What was the secret ingredient to the festival's success?
GW: The most important thing about the first Newport Jazz Festival and probably one of my greatest contributions, was not sticking with one kind of jazz. I had Eddie Condon there and Lennie Tristano in between Billie Holiday and Lester Young on the same program. Whether it was traditional jazz with Bobby Hackett and Wild Bill Davison, or swing with Lester and Billie and Teddy Wilson, or bebop with Dizzy Gillespie, or modern jazz with Tristano and Lee Konitz—everyone's taste was covered. And you could see whether jazz you had not heard before or didn't care too much for appealed to you, too. We put musicians together who played very different types of jazz. This had never been done before. [Photo: Billie Holiday at the 1957 festival]
JW: One would think that as a musician with a heart, you might have been too sympathetic to succeed as a businessman and festival promoter.
GW: Well, first of all, I don’t think I am a good businessman. I had a feeling in those days for the public. I still have a slight feeling for the public but it’s a little different now. The music I love no longer sells tickets. What sells tickets now is contemporary rock and things like that. Today, jazz festivals have to feature crossover music. If you feature just pure jazz, you’ll only have a few people in the seats. Economics has to come first today. Back then, love could play a role.
JW: You sound like a pretty good businessman to me.
GW: When I said I could only add and subtract, I was talking at a level where I could have success as an individual and the reputation that goes with it. But I never knew how to take business to another level. The next level is using other people’s money and getting investors and coming up with ideas that might have made me a very rich man.
JW: How so?
GW: I stayed in business for as long as I did because I knew that if I spent $10, I had to take in $11. But that’s not how you get rich in business. If you spend $10, you may take in only $8. But if you get people thinking that next year there's a good chance you'll take in $20, then you’ll get them to invest with you. When they do, you wind up building a bigger company. I never could think like that. I thought purely on what I was doing. I still think like that.
JW: What do you think when you see the film, Jazz on a Summer's Day, which was filmed during the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival?
GW: I think it was a rather great festival. I always get a little upset when my name isn’t mentioned in the film as the festival's creator. But that's life. You learn your lessons. If you want your name protected, you had better protect it yourself. No one’s going to protect it for you.
JW: Of all the artists you’ve known, who did you bond with most?
GW: I got very close with Duke [Ellington]. I think Duke realized two things: That I was a businessman to a degree and could help his career, and that I really loved his music and loved him. He respected both of those qualities. There were a lot of people who loved Duke who weren’t contributing to his career so much. But I was giving Duke as much work as I could. [Pictured: Duke and Elaine Lorillard]
JW: Did he appreciate what you did?
GW: Yes, and he appreciated the success he had at Newport. Whenever he introduced me afterward to musicians and friends, he'd say, “My career began at Newport in 1956.” Then he’d introduce me and give me the biggest plug. That felt so good, coming from Duke. He felt I was a major part of his success during that period in the 1950s and beyond. The festival gave many musicians a huge popular platform they never had before. Even when jazz artists were popular on the radio and on records, and even with Jazz at the Philharmonic, it was still considered nighttime music. Newport changed all that. Newport brought jazz into the daylight, made it family music, and put it on par with classical music. After Duke's performances there, whenever I’d call him, he'd get me whatever I needed for concerts and events. There was never any hesitation or a problem on his part.
JW: What was it about Duke you admired so much?
GW: His generous spirit. And that he was very protective of his music. He wanted to make sure his acknowledgments were there. When we did his Sacred Concerts, he wanted to make sure everything was the way he wanted it. And we did that for him. Whatever Duke asked us for, we saw that it was done.
JW: What were they writing?
GW: Some of their larger works. He would say, “Billy, I have the first movement, you get the second movement and we’ll discuss that third movement later.” Stuff like that.
JW: Lester Young played at Newport, but did he ever play Storyville?
GW: Yes. Back in 1953, he played a swing date with a local rhythm section I put together. On the first night, before the first set, Pres asked me who would be playing with him that week. I told him Buck Clayton was coming up from New York and that I had a great local bass player and drummer. He asked who was playing piano. I told him I was. He gave me that look, but I told him I knew all his songs.
JW: What did he say?
GW: He said, "OK, if you say so, Pres." Lester called the person in charge "Pres," and at the club, that was me. He also let me call the first tune—Pennies from Heaven. So when it was time for us to start, he told me to go up and take the first chorus. So I went up with the bass player and drummer. But after the first chorus, Pres still hadn't come up on stage. When I looked at him, he waved me on to take another. And another. Not until the end of the fourth chorus did he come up to play.
JW: Was he happy with you?
GW: Just before he put his horn in his mouth, he said, "You and me are going to be all right, Pres." That felt great. We had a ball the whole week. Lester was so happy playing swing. I think he was tired of playing bebop. When I put Buck Clayton with him, that sort of brought him back to his greatest days.
JW: When you look back on your career, are you satisfied?
GW: Oh, I wouldn’t change a thing. It has been a great adventure. I'm only sorry that my wife, Joyce, died too young in 2005 at age 76. [Pictured: Joyce Wein]
JW: Anything you’d do differently?
GW: My only regret is not making more records. I should have scraped together more money on my tours and recorded my sidemen. You could record very cheaply in those days. I recorded the Giants of Jazz in Switzerland and live concerts in London. But that was toward the very end. All the years before that I could have made 100 albums. That was the only thing I would have done differently.
JW: What about with the festival?
GW: I wouldn't change a thing. Look, I could have been the biggest rock producer in New England. In 1969, I had all the rock groups at Newport. At the time there was no Don Law, the big rock concert promoter up there now. All the agents were selling me their rock groups. After the festival, I said to myself, "This isn't the life I want." I was too proud of my jazz festivals. And I had no control over the rock concerts. I couldn’t program them. I couldn’t use my own creative talents, whatever they were. [Pictured: Anita O'Day at Newport in 1958]
JW: Why not?
GW: With rock, you had no control. Your taste and mix meant little. You put a group on, and they owned the festival. No one else could be playing someplace else. A rock group's popularity was so great that the audience resisted any deviation. See, I liked to put on different groups on different stages at the same time. That was the beauty of the festival. Rock audiences were different. They were uni-dimensional and uni-directional. Young people didn't want anything other than the main attraction. I didn’t want that. I wanted a range of groups that someone age 16 and 60 could go to see and enjoy.
JW: Looking back, were the 1950s as romantic a time as they seem?
GW: Oh yeah. It was that good. I mean there were problems, always. Some clubs did more business, some jazz groups were more popular than others. Even the good ones faced constant challenges from rivals. Then a Dave Brubeck would come along, for example, and completely change the scene. But even when someone had a hot album, it helped all of jazz.
JazzWax video clips: This clip of Dinah Washington singing All of Me remains my favorite clip from Jazz on a Summer's Day. You hear Dinah in all her glory, but you also get to see the effect her voice and her swing had on the young fans who were there in 1958.