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A jazz world miracle worker

Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, George Wein with Nate Chinen, Da Capo Press: 532 pp., $27.50

June 22, 2003|Grover Sales | Grover Sales is the author of "Jazz: America's Classical Music." He was the publicity director for the Monterey Jazz Festival from 1958 to 1964 and currently teaches jazz studies at Stanford and the Jazz school in Berkeley.

George Wein forged a place in the jazz pantheon of John Hammond and Norman Granz as an entrepreneur and prime mover who made a difference -- a big difference -- thrusting jazz into new arenas of social acceptance and respectability (though some purists suspect that the move from the cabaret to the concert stage might not necessarily be a Good Thing). Wein's founding of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and his overseeing of its triumph emboldened communities from Montreux, Switzerland, to Tokyo to launch spinoffs, spreading jazz to massive new audiences and providing employment for once-scuffling artists.

Motivated by obsessive passion and commitment to jazz unabated after half a century and driven by an inexhaustible fount of energy, Wein displayed intuitive gifts for wiring himself into the moneyed aristocracy and political superstructure of whatever community he invaded. Given the breadth of his life and the talent he showcased, his aptly titled memoir, "Myself Among Others," offers an exhaustive look at a life lived upon the most exciting jazz stages of the 20th century.

Born in 1925 into Boston's Jewish middle-class, he took the perilous step at 25, with no expertise save his fanatical dedication to the music, of opening the now-famed Storyville, which Wein made into an ideal jazz club and recording venue: "It was never a joint. We had no floor show, no drug dealers or resident hookers. We kept things clean, reaffirming my vision of the club as a true music room." He established unusual rapport and respect among musicians, for whom nightclub owners had long loomed as natural enemies. Such simpatico was aided by his ability to sit in on piano with the great and near great with a prowess better than he gives himself credit for. Wein's acceptance was further enhanced by his interracial marriage to Joyce Alexander, which initially horrified both their families, until they grew reconciled to this enduring union. Possessed of uncommon intelligence and good sense, Joyce served as George's partner, advisor and, most of all, his ballast throughout his multifaceted half-century career.

"My life changed after the first American Jazz Festival in Newport in 1954. In addition to becoming the major public relations vehicle for jazz and making festivals a principal source of employment for jazz musicians, it vaulted me into international prominence." Overcoming the predictable opposition of the old Newport aristocracy and city fathers for whom jazz was a four-letter word, Wein persuaded well-off bluebloods Elaine and Louis Lorillard to underwrite the first festival, featuring Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Oscar Peterson Trio, a reunion of Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday, and a rare public appearance by reclusive pianist Lennie Tristano. "Newport," proclaimed down beat magazine, "opened up a new era in jazz presentation." One felicitous result of the first Newport Festival was the opening of a new era in jazz reviewing by the metropolitan daily press: To cover Newport, the New York Times assigned a classical music critic, who wrote a withering review of seminal pianist Erroll Garner that so enraged the jazz community that the outpouring of protest mail impelled the Times to hire a full-time jazz authority, John S. Wilson, a step many other major dailies copied.

Newport's future years were rife with historic happenings, including the 1956 apotheosis of Duke Ellington, when tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves' 27 stomping blues choruses on "Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue" brought the screaming crowd to its dancing feet to jump-start Ellington's then-faltering career. But 1960 brought trouble. Critics accused the festival of "selling out" by hiring pop acts like Pat Suzuki and the Kingston Trio. Worse, a mob of drunken teenagers, bent on raising hell, invaded the festival outside Freebody Park to charge the Newport police with beer bottles; the melee erupted into a full-scale riot that became an international scandal and impelled the City Council to pronounce the festival dead.

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