For the love of Joyce: George Wein

Boston Globe, September 28, 2007

NEW YORK—Few life stories in jazz have been as fulfilling as that of George Wein, the pianist and promoter who virtually invented the jazz festival at Newport in 1954 and went on to become the music’s most iconic and influential impresario.

Now, two years since the death of Joyce Alexander Wein, his wife and longtime creative partner, and days away from his own 82d birthday, Wein is looking back on a charmed life that has bridged business, performance, philanthropy, and personal friendships with scores of the music’s most important artists.

All these dimensions come together tonight in a spectacular, sold-out Symphony Hall concert to benefit a scholarship fund in Joyce’s name at the Berklee College of Music. The event is also a homecoming for Wein, who grew up in Boston and at the time of the founding the Newport festival ran Storyville, a Copley Square club that regularly hosted the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis.

Tonight’s lavish lineup speaks to the enduring influence and convening power of the Weins in the jazz world. It includes pianists Herbie Hancock, Geri Allen, Kenny Werner, Michel Camilo, and Toshiko Akiyoshi; saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Joe Lovano; trumpeter Jon Faddis; violinist Regina Carter; flutist Lew Tabackin; guitarist Howard Alden; and singer Lizz Wright.

“I can’t recall a jazz concert like this one in a long time,” Wein says in a conversation at his elegant Upper East Side apartment, amid works from his famous art collection. “I can’t recall when I’ve produced a concert as carefully as this one. It’s not one group after another. It’s each one doing something that’s very special, something that I really am asking them to do.”

Those elements will include, among others, solo performances by Hancock and Faddis; a rare trio of Allen, Carter, and Wright; a Marsalis and Lovano tenor battle; and a closing solo by Roy Haynes, himself a Bostonian whose friendship with Wein dates back to teenage jam sessions 65 years ago.

The Weins were an early interracial couple, he Jewish and she from Boston’s African-American middle class. Together, they provided musicians over the years with not just gigs at such hallowed events as Newport, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the jazz festival at Nice, France, but also advice, moral support, and most important of all, home cooking.

“When people came to our house for dinner, it was like family,” Wein says. “And that meant an awful lot to musicians. We entertained so many musicians over the years: Duke Ellington used to come to dinner, Fats Domino came to my house, Miles came many times, and you’d get to know them. Joyce taught [Art] Blakey to swim in a pool.”

Haynes met the future Mrs. Wein on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1945. “I remember we went bicycle riding,” he says. “Just riding bikes, being young, a natural energy.” When Wein opened Storyville and started dating Joyce, Haynes often came back from New York to play there. “That’s when I started seeing them together a lot,” he says.

The familial spirit made for strong relationships, Wein says, “because these were all very unique individuals, these jazz musicians. And a lot of them were very suspicious; a lot of them were hung up on personal problems, physical problems with the drugs or whatever it might be. And yet they were still professionals. And I treated them as professionals, and that’s the way they wanted to be treated.”

Wein has been a widower since Joyce died of cancer in August 2005; the couple had no children. “This apartment can be very lonely,” he says with unconcealed emotion in his voice. “I have a lot of friends, thank God.”

He is now focused on leaving a productive legacy in arts and education. He has sold his stake in Festival Productions, the company he founded, as well as real estate and artworks, including seven pieces to the Museum of Fine Arts; and he has endowed a chair in African-American studies at Boston University.

“I want to give it all back,” he says. “I’m setting up a foundation dedicated to education for minority students who have a chance to go to another level. It’s not just music. Joyce was very concerned that African-Americans weren’t getting educated in the areas where they should be, mathematics and science and English. That’s where I’m going. I’m going to spend the last years of my life very involved in those things.”

He adds: “I think that my life and Joyce’s life had some meaning beyond jazz. I want to preserve that meaning, and I want to preserve her name and my name along with it.”