The Man Who Keeps Jazz On The `A' Train

The music is starting to sizzle. As the sounds of a wailing saxophone blend into the steady beat of a bass and drums, a full house is swaying to the jazz classic Satin Doll. One solo leads to the next, and each volley takes the quintet a little higher. Before long, it's unclear who's more excited, the band or its audience.

On the piano, George Wein glides his fingers across the keys as smoothly as wind sweeping sand. He's not the star, and his gentle solo isn't flashy, but his steady playing provides the band's foundation. With his round face creased by a laid-back grin and his eyes shut in concentration, Wein leads the quintet to a crescendo. When it's over, the room erupts in applause, and his face breaks into a satisfied smile.

That's George Wein, sometime bandleader and jazz music's biggest impresario. Low-key and unassuming, the 66-year-old Bostonian hardly exudes the hip, showbiz persona of his ilk. Yet without him, such legends as Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton might still be playing for chump change in smoke-filled dives. Wein's company, Festival Productions Inc. (FPI), is the world's largest producer of corporate-sponsored music festivals. By marrying music and deep-pocketed advertisers, Wein has helped put an American art form back on the A train. Says acclaimed jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis: "Without George's festivals, a lot of jazz musicians wouldn't be working."

Since Wein masterminded the first Newport Jazz Festival in the 1950s, his catalog of festivals has grown to 35 each year, including such blockbusters as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the JVC Jazz Festival New York, and the JVC Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice (table). He's a consultant to some 120 others. Since 1985, a resurgent interest in the genre has boosted global jazz record sales from $143 million to $390 million, and Wein's festivals have both stoked and benefited from the trend. Still, jazz recordings make up only about 5% of the $7.5 billion music market, and Wein's mission is to keep the money flowing. "I just don't want the music I love to die," he says.

OBSESSED. Wein discovered early on what ballet companies, symphonies, and art museums are now learning the hard way: Certain art forms need corporate dollars, not just ticket sales, for sustenance. Wein's first Newport festival was launched with a mere $20,000. Today, companies such as JVC Corp. of America, Philip Morris USA, Playboy Enterprises, and Ben & Jerry's Homemade pump in over $8.5 million annually to sponsor festivals in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Says Rolling Stone writer David Fricke: "Wein's festivals have kept the music in front of the public during jazz's lean years and its peak years."

Wein has been obsessed with jazz since the 1940s. Although his parents insisted he study premed as an undergraduate at Boston University, he was more interested in practicing piano than medicine. He started moonlighting with a quartet at a local nightclub, and before long he was booking road dates. He quickly learned that a single gig at a college raked in more money than two weeks at the nightclub. "I was adequate at playing piano," recalls Wein, who in his spare time leads a group called the Newport All Stars. "But I was very good at creating work for the band."

After he graduated, Wein tapped his $5,000 in savings to open a Boston nightclub called Storyville. The club developed enough elan to lure premier jazz artists at affordable weekly rates, from the Count Basie Orchestra ($3,500), to Duke Ellington's band ($4,000), to the Louis Armstrong All Stars ($5,000). Over 10 years, Storyville never turned a profit. But, says Wein, "I learned my trade there. I got to know my musicians, what they wanted, what their fears were, what their pride was."

His first big break came in the summer of 1954, when Louis and Elaine Lorillard, heirs to the Lorillard tobacco fortune, tapped him to stage a jazz festival near their summer home in Newport, R.I. Wein took a flat fee, promoted the event, and hired 65 of the day's top jazz artists, including Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, and Ella Fitzgerald.

The early Newport festivals developed the Wein formula. His secret was shuffling big names in various combinations during the festival, rather than the usual approach of having each one appear individually on a single day. Cooks were hired to dish up homemade food while local artisans displayed their wares. The result was an event, not just a concert. Says marketing consultant Lesa Ukman, president of International Events Group: "Not only was George the first producer of nonsport events to work with corporate sponsors, but he was also the first to realize the whole is bigger than individual acts." By 1969, Newport's success convinced Milwaukee's Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. to spend a then-extravagant $120,000 to sponsor a 20-city tour dubbed the Schlitz Salute to Jazz.

`NATURAL FIT.' These days, festivals of all kinds have become big business. Ukman estimates that corporate sponsorship of fairs and festivals in North America alone has nearly doubled since 1988, to about $290 million. Wein is still at the forefront. While the 22-year-old New Orleans festival is his most popular production, his JVC-sponsored festivals make up his bread and butter. Last year, JVC Corp. of America pumped $3 million into 11 festivals throughout the U.S. and Europe, drawing more than 300,000 people. Says J. Kevin Weinhoeft, JVC's national sales and marketing manager: "It's a natural fit. What better genre of music than jazz to show off audio equipment?"

While Wein has plenty of fans--he once played piano for President Jimmy Carter--he also has his detractors. Some complain that he too often features old music and aging headliners, bypassing younger, avant-garde musicians. This year's New York festival, says New York Times pop music critic Jon Pareles, "is kind of necrophilic. About half of the acts are tributes to people who died."

Rolling Stone's Fricke, however, argues that "while Wein's festivals may not be on the cutting edge, they draw people into the music." And as long as jazz is flourishing, Wein is happy. "Sure, I prefer the music of the swing era, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie," he says. "But hey, I'm dedicated to the art." He's also dedicated to the art of making the art sell.

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