George Wein is a concert promoter whose name is synonymous with festivals — the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festivals. His new autobiography has the musical pulse of a great concert. It’s a literary festival, a feast of fascinating information about the jazz world that gains its heartbeat from the affection Wein feels for music. Wein is a businessman, but he reached the heights because he felt “my primary motivation continued to be my concern for the musicians themselves.”
After learning the piano as a child, Wein studied with Teddy Wilson and did a gig with Lionel Hampton, including a tandem rendition of “Lady Be Good” that convinced him show business was his destiny. He portrays his musical colleagues with understanding and generosity, but he also offers a revealing portrait of himself, including his humorously ill-fated Army stint, his father’s infidelity and his own controversial marriage to an African-American woman. His career got rolling when he opened a club, rent-free, in Storyville, New Orleans, but grim reality struck when he was forced to close following refusal to sell inferior liquor. He also discovered many musicians distrusted him because he was white.
Fair-minded but truthful, Wein offers numerous vignettes about the artists who shaped his life and career, among them Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn.
John Hammond is the book’s true hero, a legendary launcher of talent and a stand-up friend who stuck his neck out to help Wein keep his festival job. Wein also brings Miles Davis alive through a narrative about Davis’ sickle cell anemia, operation on left hip and cocaine addiction, remaining the supportive friend who engineered Davis’ comeback.
Like Davis, Wein is a survivor. Denied musical director credit for a film, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” fired by the Newport Festival board, wracked by financial turmoil, he pushed bravely forward. Presenting musicians ranging from Duke Ellington to Bob Dylan, he was sustained by his desire to keep jazz fresh, relevant and artistically credible.