Saturday, August 2, 2014
NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) — Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein doesn't know if this year will mark the end of a tradition dating back to the inaugural event 60 years ago: playing with his Newport All-Stars band.
The jazz pianist-turned-impresario is scheduled to perform Sunday with the latest edition of the All-Stars on the festival's closing day at Fort Adams Park. Its current lineup includes trumpeter Randy Brecker, Israeli clarinetist-saxophonist Anat Cohen, saxophonist Lew Tabackin, guitarist Howard Alden, bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Clarence Penn.
"I don't know whether this will be my last appearance because I find it very difficult," said the 88-year-old Wein. "I always wondered what I'm going to do in my old age. I'm in my old age. ... Keeping up with these younger musicians who know more about music is not easy, but I've had a good run."
Wein began his career as a jazz pianist, but after hearing Art Tatum he realized he could never match that virtuosity. Instead, he found his true calling as a producer and opened his Storyville club in Boston in 1951.
But Wein never gave up being a jazz pianist. His Storyville All-Stars morphed into the Newport All-Stars when Wein created the world's first outdoor jazz festival in the tony Rhode Island seaside resort in 1954.
The early All-Stars featured musicians comfortable with the pre-1950s swing style Wein grew up playing, including trombonist Vic Dickenson, cornetist Ruby Braff, clarinetist Pee Wee Russell and saxophonist Bud Freeman.
The All-Stars not only played the festival, they also toured the U.S., Europe and Japan and made a series of recordings from the late 1950s through the early '90s. Wein later brought in a younger generation of swing-style musicians such as tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, trumpeter Warren Vache, Jr. and guitarist Alden.
In recent years, the band's lineup has covered a generation gap spanning more than half a century — with up-and-coming jazz stars such as Cohen and bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding playing alongside veterans such as drummer Jimmy Cobb, the last surviving musician from Miles Davis' 1959 "Kind of Blue" album.
"I've had the best of both worlds," Wein said of his dual roles as performer and producer. "I'm a good leader and know how to present my musicians. When they're called All-Stars, I make them All-Stars."
Wein says that over the past five years he's changed his approach, even getting involved a little bit with more modern modal playing.
"We find tunes that I could stretch out on," said Wein. "And when Lew Tabackin says, 'You're playing better than you've ever played in your life,' it made me feel good."
Cohen says the All-Stars are "preserving the tradition of jazz" by playing Wein's favorite swing standards such as "Take the 'A' Train" and "Johnny Come Lately" performed by Duke Ellington's big band. But she says the pianist gives his musicians enough space "to really do their own thing" with the material.
Cohen says the All-Stars give audiences a chance to see a whole different side of Wein.
"People know George as a producer, thinker and entrepreneur," said Cohen. "And then there's the side of the little boy that plays piano. When the music feels good and he's really swinging on the piano ... there's such a look of joy on his face at the end of a solo. ... It feels good for everybody."
Follow Charles J. Gans at www.twitter.com/chjgans