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“As the music changes, I’ve changed a little bit with it,” jazz promoter says

Irwin Block Special to The Senior Times

June 2011

Of all the great musicians who have played at the jazz festival here—Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Sonny Rollins, Oscar Peterson—not many will have heard of pianist George Wein. George who, you might ask?

Apart from his talent and achievements as a jazz musician, Wein’s vision as a music promoter has an awful lot to do with the continued health of the music, considered a unique art produced in the U.S.A.

It was Wein who founded the Storyville jazz club in Boston and in 1954 produced North America’s first summer jazz festival at Newport, Rhode Island. It spawned a folk festival there and scores of other jazz festivals across North America and around the world.

As a producer, Wein has been enormously successful. At one point, his Festival Productions Inc. ran 25 major international jazz festivals in the U.S., Europe and Japan. But in spite of his entrepreneurial success in promoting jazz, Wein has never stopped playing and finding good gigs for fellow musicians he loves and admires.

We first met Wein at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 1987 when he played with a Newport Jazz All Stars group, featuring saxophonists Norris Tunney, Scott Hamilton and Al Cohn, of Woody Herman orchestra fame. Cohn had cancer and would die a year later.

In a lengthy interview from New York City, we recalled that gig. At 85, Wein combines a fantastic memory for detail and a continued love for the music, and pride in his role in its advancement.

Playing with the masters as a senior is magical, both for Wein and his audiences. “I feel privileged that these great musicians will play with me,” he said with humility.

“I’m not in their league, but I am a good leader. I present them well and they enjoy that. My raison d’être for being in this business is playing this music. The fact I can do both is the unique position that I cherish. I’m not blasé about it.

George Wein, pioneer of jazz festivals, to perform with all-star crew June 26 Photo: Michael Weintrob

Wein is still playing with a full deck. “I have not lost any of my mental energy whatsoever. I’ve lost a little of my physical energy, but my head is better than it’s ever been. I think I play better than ever. As the music changes, I’ve changed a little bit with it, not completely, but enough so I can play with (saxophonist) Lew Tabackin and (trumpeter) Randy Brecker and (drummer) Lewis Nash.”

Wein was referring to his current all-star crew, who perform June 26, 7 p.m., Salle Gesù, 1200 Bleury St.

“It’s not the same as playing with the musicians I’ve played with many years ago, who were much more traditional,” he reflected.

As for Al Cohn: “He did me a terrible disservice. After many years I finally played with him. It was so great, and then he went and died on me. I was very mad at him for doing that. He was one of the best that ever played the tenor sax.”

Wein emerged in the late 1940s as a swing player alongside trumpeter Max Kaminsky and fiery coronet player Wild Bill Davison. It was a time when bebop, modal playing, and various forms of free jazz and improvised music broadened the art form.

For Wein, modal playing pioneered by saxophonist John Coltrane and others—based on evolving rhythm and melody over a usually stable harmony, rather than chord progressions—remains the major influence and is becoming absorbed as part of the tradition.

These days, Wein says he’s listening to such new stars as saxophonists Rudresh Manathappa (June 29, 10:30 p.m., Gesù) and Miguel Zenòn, Blue Note trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and bassist Avishai Cohen.

“They are very involved with every aspect of the music, be it changes, modal or free—they can go in any direction.”

Wein’s concert is shaping up as a festival highlight because of his remarkable side players, including Israeli-born clarinet sensation Anat Cohen; first-call New York trumpeter Randy Brecker; and veteran saxophonist Lew Tabackin.

George Wein’s 85th Anniversary Celebration with the Newport All Stars performs Sunday, June 26, 7 p.m. at Salle Gesù, 1200 Bleury St.

Tickets cost $28.50, $38.50, $48.50.


Wein praised the continued relevance of some of the older performers headlining the festival:

Pianist Dave Brubeck, 90 (June 28, 9:30 p.m., Théâtre Maisonneuve): “Music keeps him alive. If he stopped playing, he would die the next day. He personifies a lot of what jazz is. He does not play in the mainstream. He has his own voice. People said that without (alto saxophonist) Paul Desmond Brubeck would be finished. Paul was the icing on the cake, Brubeck was the cake.”

Singer Tony Bennett, 84 (July 1, 7 p.m., Salle Wilfrid Pelletier): “His vocal technique is impeccable. That’s why at his age he can still sing, still hit the notes, still sing in tune and remember the songs. He is a direct descendent of Louis Armstrong and his phrasing.”

Pianist Oliver Jones, 76, I Remember O.P. (July 2, 9:30 p.m., Théâtre Maisonneuve): “Oscar (Peterson) ... could take a trio and bring an audience to its feet, as only Errol Garner and Keith Jarrett, in a different way, could do.”



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