A Fireside Chat With George Wein
“ If you go into little clubs where you have a social scene and they are playing jazz and the price is not too high... you will see young people. Young people cannot afford to go to Carnegie Hall. We get a lot of young people at Newport because it is a good ”
As the man behind what seems like every major jazz festival in this country, if not the world, George Wein has seen and heard everything. You can't argue with someone who has seen the likes of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and my hands are getting tired. To think he was a Harvard dropout. It must say something about Harvard when the two most famous people I know to drop out of the school are running all (but a few) the world's jazz festivals and the other is the richest man ever. Wein has a wealth of knowledge and stories and he tells a few in his new book, Myself Among Others. Reading Wein's book, $19.25 on Amazon.com, getting the knowledge from it to form your own festival (as unlikely as it seems), priceless. Wein, producer extraordinaire, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: What does a producer actually do?
George Wein: That is a good question, but it relates to what you are producing. If you are producing a festival or a nightclub or a recording. The philosophy we always use if it is possible and you have a big enough festival is jazz from "A-Z." In other words, a broad spectrum of what jazz is in any given year. You can't always do that, but in New York we do that at the JVC Festival because we have a ten-day festival and we can cover many different aspects of the music. The original concept of Newport was to do that and that's why Newport was such a great festival because the original Newport, back in the early days, was something new and people who liked bebop, who never listened to Dixieland would hear a little bit of Eddie Condon and slowly but surely, you bring in your Coltrane. You bring in your Ornette Coleman. You bring in your different people along with the great stars like Ellington and always mixed in something that has to do with crossover. When I say crossover, it doesn't necessarily mean a crossover group. It has to be a jazz group or artist or singer that reaches out beyond the world of jazz itself. If you don't do that, you are presenting more or less a very small event that will attract the pure aficionado, but you won't reach out. You won't go beyond that and that is always a problem. That was the problem years ago and that is the problem today. You have to try and reach out beyond the people that bought the records of the latest jazz artists.
AAJ: Do you fear you are diluting the integrity of jazz?
GW: The aim is to always try and maintain a certain credibility to the event with them getting a more popular appeal. The popular appeal just by itself won't draw any jazz fans. It won't help jazz at all, but if you have a credibility of putting on artists that they can't hear elsewhere and yet, at the same time, you have a more commercial artist at the top of the bill, some do it with stages. You have two stages. In Newport now, we have a second stage to present a lot of the younger groups that are more avant-garde. That stage is packed, but there are only seven hundred to a thousand seats at that stage, while the main stage has four or five thousand people. Meanwhile, if we didn't do that, you would have nothing of what is happening in the world of jazz right now.
Maintaining a credibility, making money is always part of anything. You have to make money to live. Whether you make a lot of money or a little money, you still have to earn a living, but the point is, the name of the game with me is success. Success means that there is a reason to do the festival next year. Maybe the festival lost money, but the sponsor covered the loss. If the festival is a success, the sponsors have to stay with it, which means you drew enough people even if your overhead and your costs were not met by the ticket sales. Success is the most important thing to an event. Non-profit events do not make money, but they have people who contribute to cultural organizations. If nobody comes, I don't care how great an artist is, why would anybody do that? Nobody is interested. A festival without people is not a festival. A festival that doesn't necessarily make money can be a successful festival as long as your subsidies are in order.
AAJ: Is a festival viable without corporate underwriting?
GW: Not for me. I would not do a festival without corporate sponsorship at this point.
AAJ: In all the years, what have been the constants?
GW: The constant positive is the growing respect for the word jazz. The constant negative is the growing confusion as to what is jazz. Jazz is a good word now. Jazz is no longer a dirty word as I write in my book. I was thinking of making that the title of the book, "No Longer a Dirty Word."
AAJ: What challenges does the future hold?
GW: Now, for instance, Fred, we are in competition in areas where we were never in competition. We are in competition from us to them and them to us. Let's put it this way, if Ella Fitzgerald were alive today, we wouldn't get her for jazz festivals because Clear Channel would be booking her for all this shit. A Norah Jones comes along, who is halfway to being a jazz artist and we can't get her because she sells so many tickets that we can't compete with Clear Channel people who are paying her a fortune already. That does not stop. Anything that sells a ticket now, whether it is Brazilian artists or world music, if it sells tickets, Clear Channel wants them. We can't compete with that. There was a time that a jazz artist would come to the Newport Jazz Festival. Other promoters did not want anything related to jazz and so we could create great, great festivals. Then there were great people. The big problem now is that there is a confusion in the world of jazz and there is no Charlie Parker. There is no Coltrane. The only icon that is really alive now is Ornette Coleman and Ornette Coleman was never a great commercial situation. He was a great artistic situation. We have him this year in New York. You need icons in jazz. You need the Ellingtons. You need the Armstongs. You need the MJQs. You need groups that play jazz, but also sell records. We have Dave Brubeck. He is still alive and he is still an important artist. There are really new, young artists who are fine and great players, but there is a transition period that we are involved in and we better get through it or there won't be any jazz.