Tuesday, September 14, 2021

George Wein: A legacy of innovation without ego

A day after announcement of his departure from this vale, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the news that George Wein is gone. The music impresario died peacefully in his sleep on Monday at age 95 – just three weeks shy of his 96th birthday. 

My, what an imprint he left the world of music, jazz in particular, though there was so much more given his creation (with Pete Seeger) of the Newport Folk Festival, creating the more-global New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and much later, producing the Essence Music Festival in the Crescent City, which celebrated a much broader spectrum of Black music

Let me dig a bit into the essence of George Wein. Advancing the music and creating opportunities for musicians were the driving force in his life. He wasn’t in it for the money, although that came to him through his success in creating new performance formats, and adding innovations throughout his 70-year career.

George Wein, 2009
He spurned his parents’ wishes to go to medical school in Boston. Instead, the yeoman jazz piano player, still in college, started producing concerts here and there. Then, he opened two jazz clubs in Beantown: Storyville and its companion Mahogany Hall, starting in 1950.

Then Elaine Lorillard came knocking. She and her tobacco-scion husband, Louis, wanted to shake things up the dowdy summer scene for their fellow socialites in Newport. They weren’t sure what they wanted, but George had an idea – a multi-day outdoor jazz festival. Money wasn’t his driving force here either. When the weekend was done, the festival netted a profit of about $125 – and only then because Wein didn’t take a producer’s fee.

But the format and Newport mystique took hold. Soon came the companion Newport Folk Festival. George had created a new concept for an outdoor popular music format with these two pioneering festivals. Others – produced by himself or other entrepreneurs, started popping up across the US and around the globe. Many have said that without Newport, there wouldn’t have been Woodstock or other mega-crowd popular music events. Indeed, George Wein was their torch bearer.

He had his hand in many other festival ventures – Jazz Fest in New Orleans, the Grand Parade du Jazz in Nice, France, festivals in Japan, the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. And so on. And so on. And so on.

George and festival co-founder Elaine Lorillard, 1994
More musicians were getting noticed, had career revivals in some cases, and were working steadily. They enjoyed performing at Wein venues and festivals because he was one of them, and understood them.

The next Wein innovation was attracting corporate sponsors who would pay for naming rights to these expensive events. It meant he and other producers wouldn’t take a financial bath from inclement weather or lagging ticket sales. By golly, it worked – and has become the norm rather than the exception.

The newest profound idea he had was ensuring the Newport Jazz Festival would outlive him. There had been a sad chapter in 2007, when Wein, pondering retirement in his early 80s, sold his company, Festival Productions Inc., to some young hotshot entrepreneurs with grandiose ideas. They ran it into the ground in less than two years.

George Wein at Newport, 2017
Wein then reacquired the storied festival names and rekindled Newport’s success and longevity with the help of some wealthy friends. A year later, he set up a nonprofit, Newport Festivals Foundation, to run the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival long after he was gone. With Executive Director Jay Sweet and Newport Jazz Festival artistic director Christian McBride taking over the helm, the ship is in good hands. The Foundation has a contract to use Fort Adams State Park in Newport for its festivals that runs several decades.

We can thank George Wein. Always thinking ahead, always innovating, always with the music – and his fellow musicians – in mind.

I also have to thank George for something more personal. It was his steady encouragement  as I wrote about and photographed his music festivals over the years, primarily in Newport, but sometimes in other locales. We first talked in 1979, which was the 25th anniversary of the first Newport Jazz Festival. By then, the festival had been sent packing to New York City by a 1971 Newport riot by gate-crowding rowdies. But in 1981, it returned to the City-by-the-Sea, followed by the Newport Folk Festival in 1985. They have been a steady cultural force ever since.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Looking ahead: Southwest Florida jazz preview

Here is a rundown of noteworthy jazz events, principally in the Sarasota to Naples territory, from now through October. Keep in mind the reality of COVID-19 protocols, expect possible cancellations, and mask up to keep yourself and others safe.

  • Wednesday, September 22 – Guitarist Nate Najar and singer Daniela Soledade bring their Love and Bossa Nova program to a special pre-season matinee performance for the Charlotte County Jazz Society. The Grill at 1951, Port Charlotte. 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, October 2 – Trumpeter James Suggs’ quintet’s Louis Armstrong tribute concert. Hough Hall, Palladium Theatre, St. Petersburg. 8 p.m.
  • Monday, October 11 – La Lucha, with singer Ona Kirei and trumpeter James Suggs as special guests, opens the Charlotte County Jazz Society’s 2021-22 concert series. William H. Wakeman III Theater, Cultural Center of Charlotte County. Port Charlotte. 7 p.m.
    Cécile McLorin Salvant
  • Wednesday, October 13 – Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant opens the 2021-22 Jazzy Nights concert series, with pianist Sullivan Fortner. Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, Fort Myers. 7:30 p.m.
  • Monday, October 18 – The Jeff Rupert Quartet performs at  Jazz Club of Sarasota’s Monday Night Jazz Cabaret series. John C Court Cabaret at Florida Studio Theatre. Sarasota, 7:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, October 24 Acme Jazz Garage CD release concert for its new recording Sharkskin. Hough Hall, Palladium Theatre, St. Petersburg. 4 p.m.
  •  Wednesday, October 27 – Violinist Benjamin Schmid is special guest with the Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra as the sextet opens its 2021-22 season. Artis Naples’ Daniels Pavilion. 6 and 8:30 p.m.

Several venues offer jazz steadily. They include The Grill at 1951 (formerly J.D.’s Bistro) in Port Charlotte; Amore, Goodfella’s Café and Patrick’s in Sarasota; Scarpino’s in Bradenton; the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin; The Roadhouse and The Barrel Room at Twisted Vine Bistro in Fort Myers; and Slate’s in Cape Coral. Jazz at Two Friday matinee concerts sponsored by the Jazz Club of Sarasota also keep things swinging for jazz lovers.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

A trumpeter’s legacy of paying it forward

The fine trumpeter Bobby Shew, now one of the horn’s elder statesmen, gave Dan Miller an unforgettable present on his protégé’s 30th birthday.

As Miller recalls 22 years later, those sage words of wisdom went like this: “You don’t want to be a sideman all your life. You’re going to turn 50 years old and the phone is going to stop ringing. It is not because you can’t play well, it’s because there are two younger generations of players who are working with all the big acts. You have to become your own boss. You have to book your own gigs. You have to teach. You have to do clinics. You have to travel. You have to lead your own bands. You have to diversify how you work in music.” 

Dan Miller
Miller has done all that with an energy that seems tireless. While he keeps busy as a player, bandleader and trumpet ambassador, the jazz education side of his career seems most satisfying. More so lately in the pandemic environment and being sidelined for the past two months after surgery on a broken foot.

He grew up in Chicago, immersing himself in the Windy City’s jazz scene as a listener and student player. Then he headed to the University of North Texas in 1987, where he found even more mentors, including brass instructor Don Jacoby, before going on the road with the Woody Herman Orchestra two years later.

In 1991, Miller moved to New York City with his brother, trombonist David Miller. Whenever Dan was in town, he made sure to go to pianist Barry Harris’ Tuesday night jazz workshops to soak up more ideas on the art of improvisation. Harris, at 91, still runs his workshops. 

Miller’s credentials include work in Harry Connick Jr.’s big band, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Maynard Ferguson and Tom Jones. He began splitting his time between the Big Apple and Southwest Florida in 2004, and has made the Sunshine State his home base for more than a decade. He works regularly in bands co-led with saxophonist Lew Del Gatto, and also leads the Naples-based Gulf Coast Big Band.

He started teaching in 1989 when he was on the road with the Herman band, and has been a Yamaha-supported clinician and performing artist since 1990. In an average year, he does 10 to 12 clinics and master classes out of state, and another 10 in Florida at the college and high school levels, the latter primarily working with all-county jazz bands. His regular stops include Chicago's VanderCook College of Music, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Texas A&M, the Interlochen Arts Academy and Hillsdale College in Michigan, the University of Northern Colorado, and Middle Tennessee State, among others.

Miller just started his third year as jazz trumpet instructor at the University of Central Florida after five years as a visiting artist-in-residence in the UCF Jazz Studies Program. He also teaches privately, and is in his seventh year directing the Naples Philharmonic Youth Jazz Orchestra (NPYJO) for students from Collier and Lee Counties.  

The pandemic has had quite an impact over the past 18 months. While all travel and in-person events were cancelled, he has kept doing clinics and lessons with Skype and Zoom from his home studio. “It’s an incredible asset to be able to connect with students who only have to put their smartphone on a music stand,” Miller says. “I’m able to teach anyone, anywhere, at any time.” His only caveat to prospective students: they must practice.

This week, he was busy working to recruit the students for the 2021-22 NPYJO season at Artis-Naples. Student auditions are being conducted by video recording, due by September 23, because of the pandemic. The 20-member band will begin rehearsals in early October, studying about and playing the music of select jazz greats.

No matter which subset he is teaching – improvisational concepts on all instruments, working with trumpet players to improve their skills, or leading a student band – he says the motivation is the same.

“When you’ve been the recipient of so much great teaching and inspiration, you want to pass that on,” Miller says. “I’m taking the lessons I learned from them, and adding my own approach to sharing that information with people who are hungry to learn.”