GEORGE WEIN, producer of next weekend's Kool Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center, has chutzpah. Three years ago, when his Newport-New York Jazz Festival was celebrating its 25th anniversary, President Carter honored Wein for his contributions to jazz with a star-studded, afternoon-long concert on the South Lawn. The instigator of the event? George Wein.
The short, portly Wein is indisputably the most prolific jazz producer in the world: This year, he will produce 30 festivals, five of them overseas; some will last up to 10 days. Wein is also the single largest employer of the traditionally beleaguered members of the jazz community (with an annual payroll of more than $4.5 million). If his three decades of wheeling and dealing have provoked their share of controversies, they've also been marked by a single-mindedness that has benefited the music Wein calls "America's most important contribution to world culture."
Being a successful businessman in a field that prides itself on artistic integrity has caused Wein to be buffeted by criticism--for what some jazz buffs perceive as conservative booking policies; for being a white entrepreneur in a black-dominated music (though Wein has been married for 25 years to a black woman); for sheltering pop and soul acts under the Kool Jazz banner (a practice all but abandoned now in the festivals he holds around the country; there are only three nights of pop in this season's 120 nights of music).
"My whole life has been devoted to only one direction," Wein says proudly. In fact, at 56 Wein can point to a career not only dedicated to spreading the word about jazz, but to a life inspired by it. The son of a Boston plastic surgeon, Wein showed musical aptitude early on: At 13, he was leading his own 15-piece band. In college, he took premed, but found himself preferring to operate late at night on nightclub pianos. "I knew the limits of my musical talents," Wein says, admitting he was "far from the best. But I found that I had a tremendous mind for organizing; that was the natural thing for me. As a kid, when I wanted to play baseball, I called all the kids in the neighborhood and suddenly had a team. I don't know if it's a talent, but it's the way you are."
While still playing in clubs, Wein produced his first concert in 1949, then channeled energy and savings into his own nightclub, Storyville. In 1954, he was hired to run a two-day series of Tanglewood-style concerts at Newport. Although jazz was popular in clubs and ballrooms, and had occasionally been heard in concert halls, this would become its first outdoor venue.
Newport was an immediate hit: It soon became the "World Series of this feisty art," as Nat Hentoff once wrote. Newport brought jazz to a wider public, not only through concerts but through the media attention lavished on it as an annual cultural event. Wein disavows the commonly held view that public interest in jazz fluctuates. "Maybe the media's perception changes but jazz fans are eternal," he insists.
Newport paraded its artists like a virtual Who's Who in Jazz. The festival helped establish reputations and, in some cases, revived careers: Eubie Blake, now 99, was 80 when he first played Newport in 1962. "He was just the guy that wrote 'I'm Just Wild About Harry,' " Wein recalls. "Newport started his whole later life. He's played more in the last 20 years than he did in his first 80!"
The festival also had its share of problems, culminating in 1971 with the riots that led to its expulsion from Newport. Media attention had waned by the late '60s and in an effort to attract new crowds, Wein had started booking rock acts. "We drew more people than I ever knew existed, but that's not my world. We were martyrs on the altar of the Woodstock generation," Wein says.
Rather than admit defeat, he reopened for business a year later in New York, spread out over a dozen locations. "We rented Avery Fisher and Carnegie Hall for 10 days. Nobody'd ever done that. They used to close during the summer; now they stay open." Newport-In-New-York, recently renamed the Kool Jazz Festival after its sponsor, was also an immediate success.
Wein came to Washington promising a full plate of jazz; the potential is certainly there, with several dozen major figures performing all over the Kennedy Center. Legends like Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Dexter Gordon, Sarah Vaughan and the Modern Jazz Quartet will vie for attention with experimentalists like Amina Claudine Meyers, Chico Freeman and Leroy Jenkins; Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner and Betty Carter inhabit that gray area of innovation and familiarity. It's the first time in its history that all of the Kennedy Center's facilities have been given over to a single event.
Wein's had his share of problems with Washington. His first venture here in 1976 was at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium with a Kool package of soul acts; up against Earth, Wind and Fire at the Capital Centre, his shows lost a considerable amount of money. This time around, Wein found himself surrounded by sudden jazzmania: " In mid-June, Wolf Trap will have its second six-day jazz festival and a three-day city-wide festival is planned by the Charlin Society; with a substantial donation of money from the Wein camp, it will now consist of eight free concerts out of the 10 scheduled.
While Wein decided to help out the Charlin Society, he was distressed to find some of his acts--McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, Wynton Marsalis--suddenly appearing in a major concert, a national Urban Coalition benefit at Constitution Hall, two weeks before his own event. "I had contracts," he said. "I could have blocked it, but I didn't. How can you block a benefit?" In addition, Mel Torme, who appears with Benny Goodman in Saturday's special concert, is just ending a two-week run at Charlie's. Since these acts will work at many of his other festivals, Wein finds himself between the jazz and the hard place; it is, he admits, an uncomfortable position.
Wein has lived out the adage that you can't please everybody. Insisting he's "anything but conservative," he has spent almost three decades dodging flak--from the progressives for including traditional jazz and from the old-liners for showcasing the avant-garde. Newport wasn't very old before bassist-composer Charles Mingus set up his Rebel Festival; soon after the move to New York, there was a counter, Loft-Jazz Festival to protest the "exclusion of avant-garde and experimental jazz artists." But Wein has always brought those people into his festivals, though not always on the central stages they desire. "The rebels become the establishment of jazz after a while," he points out.
There's one other area where Wein has been a trend setter, and that's in establishing corporate support for the arts. He's intimately connected with the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Co., which through Kool will sponsor 20 of this year's festivals, but Schlitz sponsors the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and Playboy is affiliated with the Los Angeles festival; overseas, Budweiser supports his Japanese Festival, Capital Radio backs his London festival and "in Nice, France, the city itself is our biggest sponsor."
Corporate sponsorship is common in sporting events, but it's still new to music. Wein's relationship with Kool could serve as a model for others in the arts community. "Kool is not interested in money but in promotions," Wein says, pointing out that the Kennedy Center festival will lose money even with a sellout. "They don't ever meddle with the artistic side, and it's an association that doesn't involve the blatant promotion of product."
With a solid core staff and individual promoters in each town, Wein hints that he may reduce his role in future festivals. Later this year, he'll be going back out on the road as a pianist for the first time in six years with his Newport Allstars (including Ruby Braff, Slam Stewart and Scott Hamilton).
He's already thinking ahead to next year, though, wondering about the possibility of kicking off a week-long celebration at the Kennedy Center and ending it at Wolf Trap, with a series of free city-wide concerts bridging the two cultural institutions. "Now, that would make a great festival," says George Wein.