Jazz Legacies: Wein & Giddins
by Emilie Pons - Jan 2010
On Wednesday, October 28 , Gary Giddins and 84-year-old George Wein were having a conversation at the Graduate Center in New York. Jazz impresario George Wein started the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954. He is also the founder of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles. In 2009, he regained control of the Newport Jazz Festival and toured with the Newport All-Stars. Gary Giddins, former Village Voice columnist and one of the most acclaimed figures in jazz criticism, is the author of ten books, including Visions of Jazz: The First Century, for which he was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. He also teaches at the Graduate Center.
Giddins decided to start by playing a song that would perhaps “trigger memories” to which Wein reacted: “I have improved over the years. I think now that making mistakes is creative.”
He then asked Wein about his twenties: “Back in1948. 61 years ago. I was a kid in college and nobody in Boston knew the tunes. I didn’t know the tunes but I learnt them. Nobody plays them nowadays but it was great material. I didn’t do very well in college at that time. It’s understandable: playing the piano several nights a week and going to school the next day.”
The main focus of the conversation was George Wein’s career as an impresario. What follows is a transcription of their most exciting dialogue.
Gary Giddins : You’re famous for your love of jazz, but you started with classical music?
George Wein: Mrs Chaloff [mother of baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff] was my piano teacher. She became very involved with Berklee. She knew a lot about technique. That’s why I have a lot of technique. But she never taught me a lot about harmony or music. But she did teach me how to play the piano. Then, I went to the army in 1943.
GG : What was your response to modern jazz at that time?
GW : My influence wasn’t dizzyland. I studied with Teddy one summer. Then I went to meet with Lenny to take some lessons with him. He said: You have to give up everything you know about Teddy Wilson. Teddy could create an atmosphere and wanted you to improvise and develop his feeling(s). It was the feeling he was trying to generate. It wasn’t a classical way. He would play and you would get the feeling of what he was doing. He would give you some ideas and stuff like that.
GG : Why did you create the Newport Jazz Festival?
GW : In those days I thought jazz should be treated with more respect. I wanted the same respect my father had as a doctor. Jazz is a great music, it is an art form.
GG : What was your experience with Miles Davis?
GW : Miles was a wonderful man. He was also very difficult. You had to kick him once in a while. Once he respected you, you had no problem with him. Once I earned his respect, he would do anything I asked. Before that, he wouldn’t do it. Just to be negative.
GG : Now that you’ve come back to Newport, do you have any other plans?
GW : Next year we are focusing on NYC which is the jazz center of the world. We have most of the program set. We’ll do about 40 concerts, but in small venues.
GG : You used to rent Radio City Music Hall or Yankee Stadium when you moved the festival to New York.
GW : Miles, MingusÉ You had so many people in those days. They were all alive. You could get whatever you want. And we did it. They gave us the Staten Island Ferry! You can’t do that now. We do 10,000 people at a jazz fest. That’s enough.