October 3: Happy Birthday, George Wein
I can’t possibly do justice to George Wein, born in Boston on this day in 1925, in a single blog post. I can’t even do justice in one post to his 12 years on the Boston scene, the beginning of his 65 years (and counting) as a vital contributor to the world of music.
In The Boston Jazz Chronicles, the chapter about Wein is titled “Dynamo,” because he was a man constantly in motion. And it was during the 1950s, when he was the most important figure in Boston jazz, that Wein began his rise to national prominence.
Wein grew up in Newton and graduated from Newton High School (so did Ralph Burns, Serge Chaloff, Hal McKusick, and Roz Cron, all within a few years of each other), and while still in his teens, George was playing piano in the buckets of blood (yes, at Izzy Ort’s!) and sitting in at jam sessions. Then he got drafted. After his discharge in 1946, the jazz odyssey began in earnest.
Wein played piano at the Ken Club and the Savoy, where he was music director for a time, and he opened a short-lived club, Le Jazz Doux, with Frankie Newton. In November 1950, Wein opened Storyville in the Copley Square Hotel, and closed it six weeks later following a dispute with the landlord. Wein reopened in the Buckminster Hotel in Kenmore Square in February 1951, then moved back to the Copley Square Hotel in September 1953, where the club remained until May 1960. Ralph Snider assumed control of Storyville, and moved it to the Hotel Bradford, where it operated from September 1960 to December 1961.
Storyville was one of the best-known jazz clubs in the nation, and when the biggest names in fifties jazz came to Boston, they came to Storyville. Take today, October 3, for instance. Johnny Hodges, Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Lee Konitz with Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Jeri Southern, and Erroll Garner were in the house on Wein’s birthday over the years.
Wein also operated a second nightclub, a Dixieland room called Mahogany Hall, which he converted to a folk club in 1959.
But Wein is known best for festivals. In June 1954, Wein introduced Jazz Night at the Boston Arts Festival, and a few weeks later, he staged the first Newport Jazz Festival. In 1959 he staged the first Boston Jazz Festival and the first Newport Folk Festival, and in 1960, the Jazz Festival at Pleasure Island, aka the second Boston Jazz Festival.
Running two nightclubs and staging festivals still left Wein with too much free time, so he found projects to fill his idle hours: disc jockey on WVDA-AM, lecturer in jazz history at Boston University, producer of The Storyville Show on WBZ-TV, active supporter of the Teenage Jazz Club, and author of “The Jazz Beat,” a weekly column for the Boston Herald. Then, together with Cecil Steen, Wein started Storyville Records, which produced about 40 LPs in four years.
Finally, Wein played piano—as a sideman at Storyville and Mahogany Hall, on a half-dozen Storyville Records sessions, and toward the end of the decade, with his own group, the Newport All-Stars. He still tours with the All-Stars, last stopping in Boston at Scullers in 2012.
LIke I said, he was a dynamo and there was just no keeping up with him. And Boston was the opening act! He’s had 53 more years of bringing jazz to audiences all over the world.
Happy birthday, George, and thanks.
Here’s a short Newport All-Stars video with a solo by George, from 2011.
Here’s a longer video, from 2003, “A-Train.” George’s quiet opening recalls the Duke. The group is a little stiff to start, but Regina Carter’s solo took care of that.