For the Love of Jazz
Music led George Wein (CAS’50) to fund professorship in African American Studies| From Alumni Notes | By Jean Hennelly Keith
Three piano players backstage at Newport: (from left) Duke Ellington, George Wein, and Erroll Garner. Photo courtesy of George Wein
As a young soldier stationed in Oklahoma in the mid-1940s, George Wein once rode a train 18 hours to Chicago to hear jazz trumpeter “Red” Allen and swing trombonist J. C. Higginbotham. Earlier, when he was a piano-playing high school kid in Newton, Mass., he went to New York City every chance he got to visit clubs and catch musicians, hoping to sit in with them. “They would let me play a number and then kick me off the bandstand,” says the legendary jazz impresario and pianist, now 86. “Jazz was my very first love.”
Graduating high school during World War II, Wein enrolled at Northeastern University, where he took premed courses at the urging of his physician father, Barnet Wein (MED’20), despite his lack of interest in medicine. Soon he was drafted into the army and, when his service hitch was up, came to Boston University on the G.I. Bill. Switching to a history major, he played jazz piano in local venues. “I was working six-week stretches,” says Wein (CAS’50), “seven nights and Sunday afternoons, and still going to school.”
He played more piano gigs after graduation, and through his network of jazz musicians assembled bands for Boston bookings. When he was just 24, he leased space at the old Copley Square Hotel and turned it into his own jazz club. Storyville, which later moved to the Buckminster Hotel in Kenmore Square, became a hot spot overnight, and for the next decade drew many of the artists who were or would become some of the world’s most famous—Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald (Hon.’78), Stan Getz, and Dave Brubeck, then a new talent, among many others. Wein soon started his own label, Storyville Records.
Storyville also became the incubator for Wein’s career. Jazz fan and Storyville regular Donald Born, a BU English professor, introduced him to Elaine and Louis Lorillard, summer residents of fashionable Newport, R.I. They were looking for something to liven up the social scene in Newport, and with the classical music festival at Tanglewood in mind, Wein proposed creating a jazz festival there. It was agreed, and in 1954 the now-famous Newport Jazz Festival launched—the first of its kind. “That year we broke even,” he says, “and we were off to the races with it as a nonprofit festival.”
In the video above, watch George Wein at the piano.
In 1959, working with his friends Pete Seeger and his wife, Toshi, he cofounded the Newport Folk Festival. Four years later, the event featured Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Wein was a pioneer of the corporate-sponsored music festival in the mid-60s. Over the past six decades, he has presented jazz and folk music festivals all over the country as well as in Europe and Japan—from New Orleans to Nice to Tokyo—bringing outdoor music performances to millions. “We must have had 20 to 25 festivals a year at the height of what I was doing—we were traveling all the time,” he says. He produced so many festivals that “somewhere between 500 and 600, I lost count.”
A jazz festival is “a convention of the greatness of what jazz music is,” Wein says. The power of great music reaches “into your soul. You can remember the times when you are transported listening to music. Those moments are priceless. I’ve had them in jazz, folk music, opera, and symphony.”
Miles Davis and Duke Ellington both made comebacks in the mid-50s after playing Newport, and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was introduced to the broader general public there. The list of artists whose careers benefited from playing Newport is long, Wein says. “I feel very proud of that. I don’t feel that we created anybody, because their talent was theirs. We just got a chance to give them a stage.”
Over the years, he has known all the best, including Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Wynton Marsalis (Hon.’92), and Ellis Marsalis. Wein’s autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (Da Capo, 2003), is a who’s who of jazz greats.
His first heroes were jazz performers, mostly African Americans. “When I was 17 or 18, I became very racially concerned because I was close to musicians,” he says. When black artists arrived at a club, “they couldn’t go in the front door; they had to go in the back door. I wanted respect for jazz musicians.” He and his late wife, Joyce, who was African American, were concerned for “minorities who really have a difficult time” and together they supported inner-city education programs, such as the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, and other efforts to promote appreciation of cultural diversity and racial tolerance.
Allison Blakely is the George and Joyce Wein Professor of African American Studies. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
With a million-dollar gift, the Weins in 2002 established the George and Joyce Wein Professorship in African American Studies at BU, held by historian Allison Blakely. A champion of the liberal arts who was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council on the Humanities, Blakely researches the historical evolution of color prejudice and is writing Blacks in Europe, a book on the black identity of modern-day Afro-Europeans. The professorship is “really a great gift for the African American Studies program to continue in the vein that George and Joyce were hoping we would follow—to further education about diversity,” says Blakely, the new program director. “It meant something to me to give that,” Wein says, “because my life has been so involved with African American culture and the friends who directed my life.”
For his philanthropy and his gift of bringing grand-scale music festivals to the world, Wein has garnered a list of impressive honors, including a Global Peace and Tolerance Lifetime Achievement Award from the DaCapo Foundation and Friends of the United Nations, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Fellowship, DownBeat magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and France’s Légion d’honneur. He has performed for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. He is also a winner of a College of Arts & Sciences Distinguished Alumnus Award.
These days Wein, the CEO of New Festival Productions LLC, keeps a schedule that would challenge many far younger. He works pro bono to assure the continuation of the Newport Jazz Festival, which has returned to nonprofit status.
He was exhilarated this spring when he returned from a week at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which he founded and of which he is now executive producer emeritus. “It goes beyond anything I ever imagined,” he says of the quality of jazz, blues, world, and pop performances by such musicians as Ellis Marsalis, Esperanza Spalding, and Buckwheat Zydeco, to name just a few. He also played piano on a couple of numbers with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and was looking forward to his next gig in August with the Newport All-Stars at the scene of the first festival he created.
With characteristic gusto Wein travels to Europe in between U.S. festivals to take in music performances and visit with fellow festival producers. “They treat me like I’m their granddaddy,” he says, “because I am their granddaddy.”