I don’t have any influence with the Authorities, but I am worn down by the recent deaths of jazz heroes: John Sheridan, Phil Schaap, and now George Wein. When someone dies at 95, my first reaction is, “That was a beautiful long life,” and it was a long life filled with his energetic desire to give music to as many people as possible. Think of any musician active between 1954 and now, and they played or sang at a Newport Jazz Festival, whether the festival took place in Newport, New York, or was a traveling version overseas. And when I think of how music from those festivals was broadcast by the Voice of America, George’s eager spreading-the-gospel was cosmic. Think of every musician you revere — Billie, Miles, Trane, Louis, Hawk, Ben, Monk, Donald Lambert, Basie, Duke . . . . from Eli’s Chosen Seven, Vince Giordano, David Ostwald to Cecil Taylor — and there’s some documentation of them at Newport. And these concerts and recordings would not have happened without George’s fervent desire to make sure that his heroes got heard by the largest audiences possible.
I’ve chosen the portrait of George and Louis below for a reason: I think George’s ripples-in-a-pond effect on the music was congruent, if not equal, to Louis’. Imagine a world without the Newport Festivals . . .
But George was more than the fellow who offered Ellington or Roland Kirk a concert set and whose name was on the check. Early and late, he saw himself as a musician, and his great delight was to sit at the piano among congenial friends — the many incarnations of the “Newport All-Stars,” which included great swing-modern players from Pee Wee Russell to Warren Vache. Whitney Balliett, I believe, noted that his piano style was a mix of Jess Stacy and Lennie Tristano: he loved to swing and he loved to surprise. And he was an affecting homegrown singer, although he didn’t take many opportunities to do so.
His idea of jazz was ecumenical: here he is with George Brunis and Roy Haynes — a delightfully expansive band:
Please note that the live broadcast — introduced by Nat Hentoff, no less — came from a Boston club George ran, Storyville, along with “Mahogany Hall,” where Lee Konitz might have a week and be followed by Sidney Bechet, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz.
Here’s another sample of George at the piano, from the Nice Jazz Festival:
As I said, I found George to be an engaging low-key singer, with Ruby Braff and the wonderful Sam Margolis:
I never made it to Newport, but I did attend a number of the Newport in New York festivals, and they were memorable beyond belief. The last great Eddie Condon concert, with Lee Wiley, Bobby Hackett, Teddy Wilson, Joe Thomas, J. C. Higginbotham; the first jam session at Radio City Music Hall, with Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter, Vic Dickenson, and Gene Krupa; piano concerts that included Jimmie Rowles, Jess Stacy, Ellis Larkins, Art Hodes, Bill Evans; the Benny Cater “Swing Masters” big band . . . and others will have memories of Ellington and Mingus.
Without George, we would not have had what I consider one of the highlights of my life — perhaps twelve minutes by Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones. I wouldn’t have seen and heard Lee Wiley sing MANHATTAN. And because Ruby Braff was one of my earliest heroes, I couldn’t help but notice that Ruby had many many more recordings and concerts because of George, and George’s loyalty to the usually prickly Ruby.
There will be dozens of tributes to George, and all of them will focus on different facets of his open-handedness. From the late Forties in Boston (where he was friend and champion of Ed Hall, Frank Newton, Doc Cheatham, and two dozen others) to his last years, George approached this music generously, bringing us treasures of every sort. We would be so much poorer had he never existed.
I keep thinking, “Someday there’ll be no more Old Folks,” and since Jack Teagarden sang and played at Newport, I will close with Jack’s version:
George, we miss you already.