Dear Mailing List,
George Wein: October 3, 1925 to September 13, 2021
On a cold January day in 1964, I walked into George Wein’s office on Central Park West. He was looking for a tour manager for the Blues and Gospel Caravan featuring Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Rev Gary Davis that was booked for a UK tour that April. I was about to complete my undergraduate credits at Harvard and was itching to go to Europe where people seemed to appreciate the music I loved far more than in America. When I asked Boston promoter Manny Greenhill if he had any suggestions about what I could do over there to earn some money, he made a phone call, then told me to be at Wein’s office in New York the next morning.
George listened to me talk about blues for perhaps fifteen minutes, then motioned to a desk with a telephone and told me to get started finding a bass player for the tour. That moment was the beginning of my life in the music business; he made a quick decision, handed me responsibility for the tour and let me get on with it. George repeated that process again and again; an astonishing number of America’s best promoters, presenters and festival programmers have learned their trade working for him or with him. His influence goes far beyond the graduates of the George Wein school of concert promotion; Coachella, Glastonbury, Hardly-Strictly Bluegrass, WOMAD, Bonnaroo, before COVID hit us, music festivals seemed close to becoming the defining events in our musical culture. George invented the form.
The year and half I spent working for George on tours and at Newport was one of the most intense and enjoyable periods of my life. I talked about those adventures on a recent radio show; it’s more fun to hear those stories with a great musical soundtrack, so I won’t repeat them here, but you can click on this link to Johnny Fewings’ Jazz Blues and Beyond and have a listen.
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George Wein was a doctor’s son from Newton, Massachusetts who started taking piano lessons at 8; by the time he reached high-school in the late 1930s, he was jazz crazy. After military service in WW2, he attended Boston University, then started a jazz club called Storyville in nearby Kenmore Square. One of the regulars was Elaine Lorillard, a tobacco heiress with a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island; a casual conversation one night at the club led to her backing the Jazz Festival there in 1954.
The Newport Festivals had a huge effect on the music of 1950s America, showing, for one thing, that there was a far broader audience for jazz than anyone had previously imagined. George was criticized sometimes for his mainstream tastes, but during those staid years, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Chuck Berry and Pete Seeger all appeared at Newport alongside the greatest jazz artists of the era. Charles’s set is immortalized on the great ‘Ray Charles at Newport’ lp and Mahalia’s is the centrepiece of the film ‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day’. (Stream them both if you haven’t already!) Newport had a powerful influence in the jazz world; Miles Davis got his deal with Columbia Records after a storming set at the 1955 event and the following year Duke Ellington emerged from his decade-long decline with an extraordinary performance of ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo’ in which saxophonist Paul Gonzalvez took a 27-chorus solo as the crowd roared him on. (Hear it on YouTube.) One can probably identify the Gonzalvez moment and Ray Charles’ set as key hinges that helped jazz turn funkier and more blues-inflected following the death of Charlie Parker in 1955.
Wein was balding and round and looked (and sometimes talked) as if he should be smoking a cynical, tough-guy cigar. But not only was he a sweet and open-hearted man, but for his entire life he remained supportive of music that he may not have always enjoyed and which may not have commanded a large following, but which he believed should be heard. When folk music surged in the late ‘50s, he added a folk festival to the Newport summer but soon realized the folk world was politically complicated and he wasn’t the one to create a great festival single-handed. Following a 3-year hiatus, the Newport Folk Festival returned as a non-profit event, run by Pete Seeger’s committee. George’s company provided the infrastructure, but the profits went to a foundation that supported traditional music, while creative decisions were in the hands of Seeger’s board. I attended the 1963 event and seeing Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson for the first time with the fog rolling in off Narragansett Bay remains an indelible memory. To say that the Folk Festival had an even greater effect on popular culture in the ‘60s than the Jazz Festival had in the ‘50s would be an understatement. (Events at the notorious ’65 festival, where I was production manager, are addressed in the radio show…)
In the early ‘70s, as changing conditions (in both the American cultural landscape and in ever-more-touristy Newport) were making it impossible for the Folk Festival to continue, George turned his attention to New Orleans. The background to the Jazz and Heritage Fair (now, as you know, an immense annual event) is instructive about George. He was approached in the early ‘60s by the mayor, who wanted to bring a jazz festival to the city. When it became clear that such an event could not be fully integrated – onstage, backstage and in the audience – George walked away and turned down repeated efforts by the city fathers to engage with him. When, in 1968, New Orleans finally felt ready to have a racially mixed event, George agreed, only to have the deal cancelled when the city discovered that Joyce, George’s wife (and invaluable cohort), was African-American. They went ahead with another promoter and for two years had money-losing, unimpressive festivals.
These failures drove the city back once again to George in 1971, with no caveats this time, and giving him full control. (Culture seemed to shift a lot faster then than it does now…) George took the Folk Foundation approach, forming a non-profit organization with local presenters Quint Davis and Alison Miner and blurring the boundaries between jazz, r&b, cajun and the unique cultural traditions of New Orleans. In the most recent pre-Covid Festival, half a million people attended over two April weekends. An endless list of great artists, obscure and famous, from James Booker to Wynton Marsalis to Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones have played the festival, while the Foundation continues to support cultural initiatives across the region including the great local radio station, WWOZ (which you can get online). The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fair is one of the great commercial and philosophical success stories of American culture.
Over the years, George launched many festivals around the world in collaboration with local promoters. Many artists came to rely on him to fill their dwindling datebooks during jazz’s lean years. Though he loved doing the occasional turn at the keyboard as part of a band, his comfort zone was behind the scenes, doing what he loved – producing. There has never been anyone better.
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My favourite personal memory is from Paris, in August, 1964. I had stayed on in London after the ‘Blues and Gospel Caravan’ that spring and was broke and eager to go back on the payroll, helping George get ready for the autumn ‘Newport in Europe’ tour. I crossed the channel by motorcycle and ferry while George arrived straight from a gastronomic trip up the Rhône. On the agenda that first day was lunch at Fouquet’s on the Champs Elysees with the editor of Jazz Hot magazine and George insisted I come along. As I ordered ‘bifsteak bien cuit avec pommes frites’, I noticed a frown out of the corner of my eye. When the lunch was over and we were walking back to the hotel, he put an avuncular arm on my shoulder and said, gruffly, ‘listen, kid, if you’re going to work for me, you gotta learn how to eat!’ Over the next three evenings, he took me to some of the best restaurants in Paris, ordering instructive and delicious courses and wine. I never ate a well-done steak again.
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Phil Schaap: April 8, 1951 – September 7, 2021
Jazz lost another great champion this autumn. Whenever I spent time in New York in recent years, I made a point of eating breakfast to the sound of Phil Schaap’s Bird Flight on WKCR-FM. For those who never experienced this unique show, it may be difficult to convince you how compelling it was. The episodes consisted of Charlie Parker’s full discography (including out-takes) in chronological order, with Schaap’s vivid, thorough and ever-changing introductions. When he got to the end, which usually took about ten months, he’d start again at the beginning. On weekends, he celebrated jazz birthdays with marathons devoted to individual discographies (in chronological order, of course). This makes him sound like the ultimate ‘trainspotter’ (if you’re British) or ‘music nerd’ (American), but he was so much more than that. His passion, enthusiasm and deep knowledge allowed him to spin fascinating tales, to evoke long-past times and cultural twists and turns that have disappeared beneath the waves of history. I remember being entranced one morning by his introduction to a mid-February Parker session from, I think, 1946 or thereabouts. Schaap veered into a 10-minute monologue about Lincoln’s Birthday (Feb 12) and how it was celebrated in Harlem during those years with all-night parties, school assemblies, speeches and parades, an urban culture galvanized to celebrate Emancipation in a way that has completely disappeared.
Schaap was a connoisseur of shellac and vinyl, pointing out how vivid the original 78s sound compared to a reissue LP or – horror of horrors! – a cd or digital download. Schaap toiled in the shadows for years, but his gifts became more recognized in the new century. He taught jazz at Columbia and Julliard and gave adult education courses at Lincoln Center. If you want to experience the man’s unique brilliance, dip into the archives at: http://www.philschaapjazz.com/index.php?l=page_view&p=radio
Though jazz was at the centre of my youthful listening (and still is) I never got to work much in the field after leaving George. It seems to be surviving pretty well into the 21st century. I hope today’s virtuosi and their champions spare a thought for those who helped ensure its continuity and its future – George Wein and Phil Schaap.
PS – My friend Johnny Fewings host of the radio show linked above, is worth a newsletter all on his own; he was the man behind Virgin Megastores and has guided many of your favourite music documentaries from vague idea to the big screen. And before the lockdown, in his spare time from doing million-dollar movie deals, he and his wife Anna built up a wonderful acoustic concert series in their home town of Whitstable. George would approve.