Wednesday, January 31, 2007

George Wein reflects on 50 years in the festival business

As George Wein, the father of the modern music festival, moves on to a new chapter in his storied career, he paused to reflect on his accomplishments in an interview with Festival Preview.

Wein said he started off as a jazz pianist in college playing with future jazzmen Max Kaminsky and Pee Wee Russell, and moved to the business side of the business as a young man. "I realized I had a better head for being a promoter than a producer, so I started a club, and then I had a chance to do a festival.

"I didn't know anything about festivals at the time. Other than county fairs, there was nothing like it at the time. I knew one thing--that i wanted to hear as much jazz as i could all the time."

He said he wanted to duplicate the experience of jazz listening one could get by wandering all night from club to club on 52nd Street in New York. "That's what I tried to do when I put Newport together for the first time, and all these years later, that is still what I am doing."

As festivals became established and proliferated, they began to have an important impact on tourism, on raising awareness for the music, and creating work for musicians. They also have had a great influence on music education, he said.

"I don't like to claim credit for [the impacts of festivals] except it all went on in relationship to what we were doing. On the other hand, these things would have happened anyway. If I hadn't created a festival, someone else would have. It is just that I happened to have the opportunity to do it the first time."

Jazz festivals were also a huge hit in Europe in the '50s and '60s. Wein recalled bringing jazz tours to Europe featuring greats like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and Sarah Vaughan. "We would go from London to Amsterdam to Brussels to Copenhagen to Stockholm to Berlin, literally holding a festival in every major city in Europe. Those were incredible days," he said.

Wein's 2003 autobiography Myself Among Othersrecounts his many memories from his long career.

"I wrote the book to catalog some of these things and make them a part of the history, but it's what you are doing now that counts. And I hope to still be doing things for the next few years," he said.

Looking ahead
At 81, Wein has visions of expanding the business, creating new festivals and opening new markets. But he recognized that at his stage of life, he needed a partner with deep pockets.

He was impressed with the sincerity and vision of Chris Shields and Shoreline Media. "These people have money, they are very respectful of my legacy, and they want the legacy to grow. Also, I'm proud enough to feel that they need me and I can help them."

So he is looking forward to new challenges. "Absolutely, there is room for the company to grow. There are areas that need festivals and there are festival concepts that can be created.

"I have been a very blessed person, even surviving all the bad days I've had--and I had a lot. I had riots and I was in debt. As I said in the book, I have never been poor but I've been broke."

After concluding the deal for the sale of his company, that's one experience he probably won't have again.

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