A year ago, the Festival Network, belly-up in debt, failed to come through with any of its proposed summer jazz festivals, and New York City went without a major jazz festival for the first time in 37 years. Things looked bleak — until the man who started it all at Newport in 1954 returned from an abridged retirement to make things right.
This summer, George Wein is back on both the Newport and New York fronts, with a major sponsorship and a lot of new ideas. George Wein’s CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival takes place Aug. 6 – 8 – “last year was good, but we can do better,” he promised – and the brand new CareFusion Jazz Festival New York runs from June 17 – 26.
In both cases, these are more than just rescue missions. Wein is focused on the goal of broadening the reach of his fests, both in terms of audiences and artists. And if the originator of the American music festival can bring a younger crowd and a more accessible reputation to these key events, the jazz industry stands to reap the benefits.
“I used to think that young artists might not be ready for the fests, but now I just hope the fests are ready for the young artists,” said a chipper Wein, summing up the basic difference between his approach before and since he sold Festival Productions in 2007. “There’s such a wealth of talent coming out now, and they have exciting ideas, they have good educations, these are talented people.”
This year, Wein’s festivals are being booked by a pared down version of the team he’s worked with in the past, including Jason Olaine, Darlene Chan and Dan Melnick. The group, New Festival Productions, has about half a million dollars in support from the medical supply company CareFusion, which is about the same amount they had when JVC was their title sponsor, according to the New York Times.
But some important elements have changed. For one, Wein is doing more of the booking himself. “I’m going out all the time to hear young artists,” he told Downbeat in February. “I’m into Darcy James Argue, I like what Hiromi and Esperanza are doing, I like what Vandermark is doing. There are so many.”
Like any hungry promoter half his age, Wein, 85, is also spending plenty of time in Brooklyn clubs and honing his indie rock palette. “I just went to Zebulon the other night to hear Mostly Other People Do the Killing,” he said, before cracking a joke about the new complication of having to remember the names of bands he wants to book (MOPDTK has since
landed a spot on the festival’s opening night).
Another new development is that Wein’s invited some of the city’s top promoters to curate their own series, which will then be subsumed under the city’s CareFusion Festival. By tapping promoters whose work reflects a diversified audience, Wein’s jazz festival is set up more like CMJ Music Marathon than the old JVC Jazz, which tended to rely on high-ticket shows featuring legendary names and a predilection for octogenarian headliners.
“What I noticed in checking out the jazz scene over many nights out on the town was that in addition to the plethora of musical creativity, there had developed a group of young producers who were totally enmeshed with jazz that was directing their lives,” Wein wrote in a February post on JazzTimes.com in which he previewed plans for the New York festival. “I realized I could take advantage of that. Here was the help I needed.”
Moved in large part by the young audience he encountered at Brice Rosenbloom’s NYC Winterfest Jazz Festival, Wein chose to mix the usual jazz fest suspects – Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Stanley Clarke – with some less obvious lineups.
“I recently performed at the NYC Winter Jazzfest and I remember I saw this older gentleman and I was saying to myself, ‘Wow this guys’s really hanging out,’ and I didn’t know it was George Wein til he turned around,” recalls saxophonist J.D. Allen, who will perform material from his 2009 album “Shine,” and some new work at Wein’s 2010 Newport festival.
“I was impressed that he was there checking out acts. He seems to have a hands-on approach. There’s definitely a shift in jazz going on right now and he’s in it, which is inspiring.”
Working with co-producer Simon Rentner, Rosenbloom and Wein settled on three main shows for the New York event, including a repeat of the hit Winterfest bill featuring Aetherial Bace and prog-rockers Tortoise, and a Revive to Live big band show featuring Nicholas Payton and hip-hop MC Talib Kweli. “He’s really reaching out to the jazz community and offering audiences something they’re already being inspired by,” says Rosenbloom. “The wonderful thing about New York is there are a lot of independent producers that are doing their own thing, nurturing audiences in the jazz community.”
Wein’s community-oriented approach to booking has also won favor among artists. “The way he’s doing it is smart,” says saxophonist John Ellis, who will perform a narrative work called “The Ice Siren” at the Jazz Gallery in June as part of the New York fest. “I’m excited about any kind of new and creative booking. I think we need that.”
The festivals will also get varying degrees of financial facelifts, to the tune of lower ticket prices, big name free shows and student discounts. The New York fest offers a free Central Park show featuring a double bill of McCoy Tyner with Esperanza Spalding, Ravi Coltrane and Francisco Mela, and Stanley Clarke with Hiromi on June 23. Citywide, Wein promises that most shows will average $15 per ticket, with relaxed drink minimums.
At Newport, the best deals will be for Berklee students. “At Berklee, we have tickets available for $15 and anyone who comes to a box office in Newport’s convention center can get tickets for $50, which gets people to Newport,” says Wein. These developments stand to bring positive change to the industry as a whole. Cheaper prices, combined with the flexible booking approach mean there’s more room for creative surprises, new audiences, and a better distribution of the wealth that summer can bring to jazz.
As he looks ahead, Wein hesitates to pinpoint the direction he might take with next year’s festivals, seeming content to focus on the goals he’s carved out for 2010.
“I’ve fulfilled all my dreams,” he says. “At this point in my life, I’m just thinkin’ about tomorrow.”