‘One of the Nicer Guys’: Jazz Legend Riffs on Life

By Jon Moskowitz

Published August 22, 2003, issue of August 22, 2003.
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Myself Among Others: A Life in Music

By George Wein with Nate Chinen

Da Capo Press, 448 pages, $27.50.

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In the early 1960s, Newport Jazz Festival promoter George Wein tried to become Duke Ellington’s manager. Ellington rebuffed him with trademark grace: Wein, he said, was “one of the nicer guys,” and Ellington wanted someone ruthless to look after his affairs.

Ellington was right to want someone tough on his side. If jazz has been predominantly an African-American art form (apologies to Glenn Miller, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck and hundreds of others), it remains predominantly a Caucasian business. The stereotype of the white club owner mercilessly exploiting the genius of black musicians is a powerful one, because it was often true. From the 1930s — when nice Jewish boy Benjamin Goodman was dubbed the “King Of Swing” — to today, when statuesque blond Diana Krall receives the lion’s share of Verve’s promotional budget, black musicians have had plenty of reason to feel exploited.

On the other hand, jazz provided one of the first opportunities for blacks and whites in America to interact with relative equality. For the musicians, chops usually trumped skin color. In the 1920s, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke might not have been allowed to appear together on stage, but in after-hours jam sessions they could freely appreciate each others’ genius.

Wein has always believed in the music’s potential as an agent of change. He pioneered the now ubiquitous open-air music festivals that are so important to the jazz industry — indeed to the music industry as a whole. He founded the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals and then took that model to New York, New Orleans and Europe. He’s the man behind Ellington’s career-reviving 1956 Newport performance, Bob Dylan’s controversial electric set in 1965 and Miles Davis’s return to music in 1981.

Written with music journalist Nate Chinen, “Myself Among Others” follows Wein from his precocious childhood in the middle-class Boston suburb of Newton to his brief stint as a working jazz pianist and his founding of the jazz club Storyville — and on to the main act of his life, a career that was as much an improvisation as any solo from one of his jazz idols. Wein made things up as he went along, cajoling politicians, town governments and corporations into helping him. He based his pitch on idealism as much as plain business sense, and he ended up reinventing the way people go to concerts. Along the way, he worked with, and sometimes befriended, people like Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and Frank Sinatra — even Led Zeppelin crossed his path.

With such a cast of characters, the book should be riveting. But, alas, Wein remains “one of the nicer guys.” His style is polite, with all the narrative tension of one of your grandfather’s after-dinner stories. He graciously praises those who helped him along the way, respectfully disagrees with those who wronged him and gives credit where credit is due. While commendable in a person, this approach leaves much to be desired in a memoirist. The book is filled with hackneyed phrases that do nothing to illuminate the people they ostensibly describe: bassist Slam Stewart “was one of a kind”; the “legendary” Sidney Bechet “was a giant”; “There was only one Erroll Garner,” and so on.

This tendency is even more disappointing when Wein addresses race. As a white man married to a black woman for over 50 years, and a Jew who made a career promoting African Americans — a man who indeed brought black music into the heart of white, Protestant New England — Wein has a unique perspective. Yet his accounts of the racism he witnessed (and the antisemitism he himself experienced) are bloodless. Each story just seems to sit there, with no attempt made to contextualize or illuminate. Perhaps Wein feels that the injustice of what he is describing is so self-evident that it needs no comment. But he tells the reader nothing about racism — beyond the obvious fact that it is absurd and wrong.

Tellingly, one passage in which Wein’s tough idealism comes through actually dates from the mid-1950s. A transcript of an exchange at a board meeting of the Newport Folk Festival, shows Wein the agitator trying to convince the board to confront the racism black audience members encountered in Newport.

Wein: “If we decide to hold [the festival] in Newport, I believe there is something that we should do and something that we could do to solve the problem of racial prejudice. We can do a little bit more quickly in Newport than can be done in the entire country…. Nobody has ever been made to feel ashamed of these different innkeepers and these housekeepers that they are being un-American by not having Negroes. This has never been done. I feel that this can be done.”Alan Morrison: “I don’t think that should be the function of the festival.”Wein: “I think that should be the function of life.”

That is the voice of a man with music in his soul. It’s a pity his prose doesn’t have more of a sense of swing.

Jon Moskowitz’s work has appeared in Interview, the New York Press and Playboy.

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