If you’re lucky enough to be at the Fair Grounds this year on the first Friday, you can see and hear one of those musicians, under the billing of George Wein and the Newport All-Stars playing in the Economy Hall tent, having the time of his life behind the ivories, leading the band and tearing it up with some of the finest swing musicians he knows, This same fellow, unassuming, jovial, in all ways an average kind of guy, also is responsible for practically inventing the concept of the music festival as we know it.
Beginning in 1950 with a nightclub in Boston that presented jazz and other American-made music in a setting that demonstrated respect for both musicians and the audience while still generating a profit, George Wein has always been the producer who makes it work, the guy behind the scenes, practical and astute, as ordinary looking as the neighborhood plumber, but also defiantly dedicated to raising to the highest level possible the circumstances in which Americas native-bred music is played and heard.
Which brings up the other side of JazzFest. A shindig like this doesn’t keep growing consistently for 30 years without generating a little of the green stuff: half a million paid attendances at the Fair Grounds, nearly a dozen nighttime concerts, an incalculable catalyst to the city’s tourism economy, not to mention to a music industry in the state approaching an estimated $2.5 million in impact. The crafts fair alone has generated a burgeoning community that does business nationally from New Orleans.
One way to think of the operating model of JazzFest is as a rent party, a wonderful institution found in many black communities, especially during the Depression, that was basically a neighborhood musical gathering held as much for entertainment as for covering some of those nasty but unavoidable bills. In New Orleans, naturally, there was inexpensive, mouth-watering food involved, and what might have been called a rent party in Harlem became the Saturday night fish fry, a New Orleans cultural institution made world famous by Louis jordan and in many ways a revered ancestor of the JazzFest.
And one way to think of George Wein, the happy fellow at the keyboard, is that he is this extended fish frys original proprietor, the guy, as he puts it, “who started it all.” In truth, just as Tipitinas celebrates Professor Longhair with a bust at its entrance, so should the jazz and Heritage Festival pay homage to Wein’s contribution to an event that has become a late-20th-century cultural phenomenon. And talking with him, you realize he embodies the dual nature of JazzFest, a brass-tacks pragmatism that makes possible an experience rooted in deeply held and passionate beliefs.
With his clipped, Northeastern idiom and razor-sharp intellectual reflexes, Wein’s manner is like that of the character actor Eli Wallach, pointed, slyly humorous, always drawing from a reservoir of strong feelings. Since Wein’s great success at producing festivals has grown into an enterprise known as Festival Productions, and the company’s high profile was responsible for attracting an offer recently from the parent company of the Black Entertainment Network, asking about that offer seemed as good a place as any to start a conversation.
What’s happening with BET’s bid to acquire Festival Productions?
Well, we signed a piece of paper, a letter of intent, and they just let the time run out. We had one meeting, and I made a few suggestions, and Bob Johnson, the head of BET, didn’t seem very interested in any of them. So I figured he really didn’t need our ideas. I’ve been an independent all my business life, so I felt it best just to stay that way.
Where do you have Festival Productions offices now?
In New York and New Orleans. Then we have smaller offices in Boston and Santa Monica.
And how many festivals do you produce?
About 12, 13, 14 different ones. It changes from year to year. The main ones, besides JazzFest, would probably be the JVC Jazz Festivals in New York and in Newport, the Mellon Jazz Festivals in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and the Folk Festival in Newport.
What were some of your early influences? Do you come from a musical family?
I grew up in a Jewish family, in Newton, Mass. just outside of Boston. My grandfathers both were born in Europe. They emigrated to the States somewhere around 1890. So, both my father and mother were born in America.
Did you think about becoming a musician?
I never seriously gave it a thought. I knew you couldn’t make any money as a musician. And I knew I was never going to become the best in the business. But I always played, I love to play. Whatever I’ve done in life has come about because I played. When I started playing, people would call me to play in clubs and the next thing I knew, bands that came to town needing a piano player, I knew the tunes. So I played with some big-name musicians.
Then somebody said, “Why don’t you open up your own club?” So in 1950, when I graduated from Boston University, I made a deal with the Copley Square Hotel, opened up a club, and called it Storyville. Billie Holliday played there, everybody played there, Duke, Louis, Sarah, Ella, Basie …. We were open for ten years in all, from 1950 to 1960. Downstairs, in the same hotel, I had a second club, called Mahogany Hall. Two clubs, both with New Orleans names, but we didn’t play New Orleans music in either of them, really. We played New Orleans tunes, but basically it was swing.
There wasn’t much New Orleans music in Boston in the 1940s. Bob Wilber came up there with a Jelly Roll Morton-type band, and I was playing some New Orleans songs back when I played with Max Kaminsky and Pee Wee Russell.
Eventually you developed a more eclectic booking policy?
Up until then, there was a tremendous dichotomy in jazz between the new jazz, which was bebop, and the traditional jazz of swing. But I started mixing them at my club. One week, I’d have a traditional group, the next week, I’d have a modern group. And I could see the musics were related, because I was basically a student of the music. I had gone to study piano in 1948 with Teddy Wilson in New York. At the same time, Lennie Tristano was becoming important, and I wanted to study with him, too.
I also was influenced from visiting the old Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, and the Village Vanguard, where they played folk music along with jazz. This was in the’ 40s, the late ’30s. I was 14, 15 years old. I would see Josh White there, and a lot of different people. Eventually, I started booking people like Odetta into my club in Boston.
I’ve always felt, in spite of my own musical tastes, particularly in jazz, that I had a responsibility to play all kinds of things. I think it’s natural when you’re a producer, you want to play the music you like, what you listen to when you put on a record in your living room. But you have a responsibility to your public. It’s a responsibility to the music as well as to the audience.
You didn’t get good grades and you weren’t academically motivated, but it sounds like you’ve always been strongly motivated by curiosity.
I’m still that way. I’m 73 years old, and my mind starts up first thing in the morning, to see what we can do today. If I had a little more energy, I’d be doing more things. Right now, I’m producing in New York. I’m putting together 30 different concerts, a lot of them concept concerts. I’ve been a rebel all my life, but a rebel from within.
I’ve always seen myself as a doctor’s son from Newton, Mass., who was proud of what he was doing, and wanted the same respect his father had as a doctor. I didn’t want to be just somebody on the fringe of society because I was in jazz. So I’ve searched for that respect all my life, and worked to earn it.
And did you find the business difficult?
Exceedingly difficult. h’s still exceedingly difficult. Whatever it was, you could never take in enough money to pay everybody, and there were always the inevitable problems that came up every year. Whether whatever artist you wanted was available, and whether you guessed right about what artists to play. There’s always the inevitable problems, you know.
Did there ever come a time when you were feeling burned out?
Only when I was broke.
When were you broke?
I could list about ten different years. But somehow or another, I stayed alive. I really don’t know how, because I never had investors. I never had anyone to put up the money in front.
It’s the same with the Jazz and Heritage Festival. Nobody puts up any money for that. We created our own money. When we first came in there, a gentleman named Durrell Black, who nobody remembers now, was putting up the money. After a year or two he left, and Arthur Davis and I signed notes at the bank to keep the thing going.
Who was Durrell Black?
He was a businessman who loved jazz. He loved Louis Armstrong. He knew enough people in the city to raise $30,000, $40,000. A group of people had started something they called the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1968, which was the bicentennial or something of New Orleans. Their idea was having something in New Orleans similar to what I’d created up in Newport. But they wouldn’t give me the job at first because the Mayor found out I was married to an African American. At least, that’s what I was told.
When did you first come to New Orleans?
The Hotel Corporation of America, based on what was doing at Newport, brought me down here in 1962 to discuss putting on some concerts. But that was impossible. h before the Civil Rights Bill was passed.
When did they finally come back to you?
I’d made a lot of friends in New Orleans. I knew Alan Jaffe, because we’d brought the Preservation Hall Band up to Newport. Dick Allen I met through the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane. So, they knew me down here, and I knew them. I was playing piano at a place called Economy Hall, which was in the Royal Sonesta Hotel. I had a band with Red Norvo, Rudy Braff, and Barney Kessel. It was a wonderful band.
Durrell came to me and said, George, we want you to do the festival. I said, I’m still married, my wife’s going to come down here with me. He said, we checked and it’s okay now. So I said, fine, but what about the five-year contract you signed with someone else to produce the festival’ He said, don’t worry about that, we’ll just tear it up and start up a new foundation. I said, fine, but I want to do something a little different. Food, crafts, and music. Mix them all together. The Louisiana heritage, you know.
So you finally saw after all those years in Newport how you could put it all together in one package?
Yeah. I had to create a few different things. Like the different sound barriers, because Newport didn’t have multiple stages. We realized if you got close to a stage with the sound, then it blocked out the sound from the other stages. People kept asking me about sound. I said, if you’re walking down the fairway in the middle, you’ll hear sound from all the stages, but the closer you get to one stage, that’s all you hear.
There are people who find that experience special, to be able to walk down the middle of the racetrack and hear all the different musics blending with each other. Because that’s what they do here culturally.
Let’s face it, medieval fairs had a lot of activity going on. You would go to country fairs, there’s a lot of activity going on. Nothing’s original, nothing’s the very first time. h’s all a product of something that happened centuries ago.
What happened with Durrell Black?
We were losing money in the Heritage Fair, so he wanted me to change what I was doing. And I said, Durrell, you don’t need me if you just want to put on a few concerts. I said the future is the Fair. He said, I’ll get the money one more year, but after that I’m going to retire. That’s when I got Arthur Davis. I said Durrell’s going to resign, and I need your help.
And that very first year, your idea was to have exclusively Louisiana artists?
Except for Duke Ellington, and I commissioned him to write a New Orleans suite. It was always my intent to bring in other artists, but I needed to build up some momentum for it.
And was New Orleans ready for all this?
They weren’t ready for it. Believe me, they weren’t ready for it. They didn’t pay any attention. The town, the newspapers, and TV, and the radio, they weren’t ready for it. We had to cultivate them.
The history of newspaper editorials here condemning jazz is pretty famous.
We changed that all around. You know Larry Borenstein, who ran the art gallery, the one where Preservation Hall started? He knew Si Newhouse, who owned the Times Picayune. Borenstein told Mr. Newhouse I was a little annoyed at the Times Picayune, because they wouldn’t give us any coverage. So, he set up an appointment with Ashton Phelps, the father of the current publisher.
I said, Mr. Phelps, you have heroes walking the streets here who are known all over the world, and the only time you write about them is when they die. We’re trying to bring the world here, and you’re not giving us any help.
What did he say?
He didn’t say anything He just changed the whole paper around. He listened and the:next thing we knew we were getting all sorts of feature write-ups, and having programs printed in the paper, the whole thing.
When was that?
I forget. h was about the fourth, or fifth, or sixth year of the festival.
And you lost money those years?
Any thought of giving up?
We showed a little improvement each year, and we could always borrow a little money from the bank to carry us over, and somehow or another, keep it going. The Royal Sonesta always gave me a room when I came down, so my expenses weren’t that heavy. And that was important; because if I had to pay for a room every time, I probably wouldn’t have kept coming down.
You were that close?
Oh, yeah. I mean, well you know, the money… Quint was working for $1,500 a year, something like that.
But the idea was enough?
You know, New Orleans is a unique city. It’s fun, it’s part of your life. And then there’s the attraction of the human element in New Orleans, which keeps you coming back.
Human element, in what way?
You know, everything in New Orleans is like a performance, like a vignette.
So, what was the turning point?
I think around the fourth year, we started to grow. We moved out to the Fair Grounds from Congo Square and then we started drawing enough people to pay the way. We didn’t have to borrow money after that.
When did it start to get a reputation outside the city?
About die fourth or fifth year the writers started coming you know. We started getting columns in Houston and Atlanta, places. It was part of the concern for music with the rock generation.
But the rock generation is all spinoffs of the blues and country music and everything else. The write ups all came about because of the heritage of the music in Louisiana. Of all the writers, very few were jazz writers.
The music was becoming more commercial, and there was a kind of reaction to that.
That’s what it amounted ‘to. When we rediscovered Professor Longhair back then, there was tremendous national interest.
When was that?
I guess that was about the fourth or fifth year again. A lot of things started happening the fourth, and fifth years.
There’s a habit here in New Orleans of taking things for granted. Going to the festival is an amazing experience, but to see what it’s done in the city is really extraordinary.
Believe it or not that was the intent. People used to say to me, people will never go to a festival when they can see all that stuff in the neighborhoods. And, I said, don’t you believe that, they don’t really know what they have. They take it all for granted. When it becomes apparent, they will go.
Add you had people like Irma Thomas, Who tried to have a national career, hadn’t been able to do it, and it seemed like they were just waiting for something like this to happen.
I know. And nobody cared about them. And that was the Louisiana heritage. That’s why it’s a great heritage. That’s the human element. I mean a kid’s father was a musician, the son is a musician, and the grandson is a musician.
Looking back at the synergy between the festival and the local culture, it’s hard to tell who nurtured Who exactly. But it starts with Professor Longhair, and all of a sudden, careers were being made and remade.
The festival generated a lot of that because it created a national focus and international focus. Before that, a lot of these people were just singing in bars. Nobody paid any attention. All of a sudden, they were on stages in front of 10,000 people. We had been bringing a lot of these artists up North from New Orleans before the festival. Both Allan Jaffe and I were guys from up North who came down here, and Allan focused the attention of the world on Preservation Hall when there was no organization of the older jazz musician. I came down here and focused attention on a broader level of the Louisiana heritage. I could always see it would grow. I wouldn’t have gone into it if I didn’t feel it had that potential. So, when it began to happen, it didn’t surprise me that much.
It’s happening in New York, too. We’ve got jazz all over the city in June. You never saw so many things happening in New York the month of June. When I first came to New York in ’72, editors in their 40. and 50s were the guys that first supported me. They didn’t know me. But jazz was coming to New York and this was their music. They were all part of the 52nd Street era. That promotion affected the whole concept of entertainment in New York in the summer time. You look at the New York Times in the summer before 1972 and look at it now.
What about New Orleans? What effect has JazzFest had in the way culture is being presented in the world?
The importance of the Newport Jazz Festival can never ever be overestimated, because, it was the first music festival. Not just the first jazz festival, it was the first non-classical music festival in America that reached out to the public. It sort of got lost in the Woodstock syndrome, but a lot of the people who put on the first Woods rock festival came from Newport, the sound people, the light people, the stage hands, the roadies, all that. The Monterey Pop Festival also came out of Newport.
There are festivals all over America now. And, for the most part, they copy the New Orleans festival. Everywhere you go, everybody is looking for their own culture. Before, they didn’t pay attention to it. There’s a thousand, two thousand, jazz and music festivals in the world now, where there used to be, like, rose festivals. Everywhere you go, you’ve got neighborhood and local people applying for money from the state councils and the city administration. These things never happened before. Nobody gave money to musicians to create civic events. And it’s affected schools, it’s affected everything.
What challenges do you see for JazzFest in the future?
I think right now there’s more danger than ever regarding the future because our budgets are so high that, even though we make a lot of money each year, you could be off 10-15% and we could lose money. That’s pretty dangerous. We’ve never had any grants or income other than what we earned ourselves. I feel that we’re going to have to start getting grants to insure the future of this festival. Because one of these days we’re going to get rain, and we’re going to find out we have a deficit one year. We’ve never had a deficit, but we’ve come close. You’re dealing with a lot of overhead now, and we have to get grants.
Well you’ve also reached a point where size is a factor.
Tremendous drawbacks to being big. Now, you have maybe 50 people making a living out of the festival.
And you’re not even talking about the food vendors ….
I’m not talking about the thousands of others that make a living off the festival. Never mind the musicians, the vendors. The vendors make enough there to live the whole year, some of them.
Artistically, what are the challenges?
You want to know the truth’ We’ve got to influence the board and Quint and everybody that we need a broader aspect of entertainment. Whatever that means. I don’t know necessarily. We can just keep playing the same people every year, with one or two changes, besides the headliners. Those other stages have to have some fresh artists. Even though it’s supposed to reflect New Orleans and Louisiana, and it should always do that, we really should be introducing a few new elements every year.
You’ve got a limited budget, a time budget, so use that Spot to bring in somebody a little different, without changing the whole structure of the festival. Because one of these days people just aren’t going to come. Or, they’re not going to come in the same numbers. Or, when it rains. They’re ‘ going to say, I’ve seen the same people year after year, you don’t have any thing interesting or new there this year. Even though you want to maintain the traditions of New Orleans, which is the board’s message, even the traditions change from year to year.