The George Wein Interview: Part 1

After talking about this interview for a few months, the Raggy Waltz staff has finally gotten around to transcribing and editing it, and now presents the first of two posts of my conversation with Mr. George Wein. After the conversation was over, Mr. Wein told me that he enjoyed talking about Dave Brubeck, and to call him again whenever I had anymore questions. I knew that I was incredibly lucky and privileged to have been able to speak with him, and told him as much. Little did I know how lucky I truly was, as he would be gone six months later.

The late George Wein lived an incredible life. Born in 1925, the man became a jazz fan early on, which, combined with his entrepreneurial spirit, would prove consequential. From opening a jazz club to starting the Newport Jazz Festival to briefly operating a jazz record label, Mr. Wein loomed large in the field of jazz and American culture. In the course of his legendary career, Wein worked with almost every notable figure in jazz. One of those notable figures was Dave Brubeck.

The lives of Brubeck and Wein intersected for the first time in early 1952, when the relatively unknown Dave Brubeck Quartet was booked by George Wein to appear at Storyville, Wein’s Boston nightclub. Their paths would cross numerous times after that, professionally and personally, for the next six decades until Brubeck passed away at the age of 91 in 2012.

Mr. Wein passed away last year, September 13, 2021, at the age of 95. Luckily, I had the opportunity to talk with him over the phone only months earlier on March 9, 2021. Our conversation was centered on Dave Brubeck and his quartet and Wein’s relationship with Brubeck. I found Wein to be a rather funny man, and at five years shy of 100, as sharp as ever. Being that he died six months later, this is possibly the last interview he ever did. I’ve only lightly edited this interview. And with that, let’s jump into the first part of my conversation with the late great George Wein.

Me:  Well how are you, first of all?

GW:  I guess I’m ok, I’m not sure. Getting old every day

Me: I have to say it’s an honor and a pleasure to be talking to you. You are a hero of mine, and you figure large in the history of jazz, so it’s a pleasure to be talking to you.

Well, its a pleasure to be talking to anybody for me, thank you. *Laughs*

Well, lets dive right on into it.

You have worked extensively with the Brubeck Quartet from its very earliest of days back in 1952, and I want to ask you about that, when you first worked with them in ’52 at the club.  You said that when they first got there, there weren’t many people but as they played, more people showed up.  Why did you take a chance on this Brubeck group and if you were afraid that you might have made a mistake in booking them.

Well, we were a part of an artificial group of clubs in the country (Philly, NY, LA) and jazz clubs that were trying to pay attention to what was happening and the name Dave Brubeck and some said it was interesting music.  That was my job, to present new things at my club, so there was a lot of talk about Dave and what he was doing and Paul Desmond, so I said “Give them a try”. I hadn’t even listened to their records that much because they didn’t have that many records in 1952.  So they came in, and well the rest is history in that respect.

You didn’t listen to their records, so you didn’t know what they sounded like until they played at your club.  You hadn’t listened to their albums before so when you heard them at your club, that was the first time that you were really hearing them?

Yeah that was the first time I really heard their music, was in the club. I hadn’t heard any recordings of them, I’d read about them, I’d read Down Beat about this group on the West Coast, so I said you know, that was part of what was happening at the time, the new groups: Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker. A lot of things happening, and we were just paying attention to everything. 

Do you remember when they showed up, do you remember if Brubeck was nervous or anything?

The Dave Brubeck circa 1952

I had no notice if they were nervous or anything.  I just know it took me four or five days before I realized one was Paul or one was Dave. I knew they were both there, I didn’t know who was who for four or five days.  Both Dave and Paul were friendly, but Paul was more funky and Dave was more impersonal and friendly, and Paul you could talk about different things.  The appeal of the group of course was that they were different!  They looked different. The college kids related to them. They didn’t necessary look like college kids, but they looked like those that had just graduated from college.  Nobody nobody played the piano like Dave Brubeck.  I mean, he had his own style completely, different from Erroll Garner, different George Shearing, different from Oscar Peterson.  Dave Brubeck had his own style, which a lot of the jazz critics didn’t particularly like but the people loved it because they could relate to the apparently difficult intricacies which were easy to absorb on an intellectual basis.  So Dave Brubeck was an instant hit and having Paul Desmond with him.. Desmond was the only alto player in America at that time that played contemporary music but didn’t imitate Charlie Parker!  All the great saxophone players, Phil Woods and everybody, they were Charlie Parkerites and Paul Desmond wasn’t. So here you had a group that was contemporary in music and at the same time had its own individuality and still related to the young people that came to see them.  They could relate them on stage as friends, or as an uncle or as a cousin.  They weren’t like Miles Davis who they could only relate to the greatness of his music.

I think it’s important that you say that Paul Desmond was an individual and not a Parkerite. You were talking about talking to Dave and Paul. What do you think their relationship was with each other and the other members of the group?

The relationship of Paul and Dave?  They loved each other.  When Paul died, he left all his publishing of “Take Five” to Dave. He would not of done that if he loved Dave.  At the same time, Paul really wasn’t that happy playing with Dave’s piano playing.  He loved the whole association but he was happy when after a few years he could leave and play with more… not traditional players, but fitted his mental attitudes about music, which was was much more lyrical than Dave’s piano playing.  Paul was pure lyrical in his playing while Dave was more – I won’t say swinging but more jumping and he jumped around from chorus to chorus.  And yet, Dave when he played a solo in his Chopinesque type of thing it would be so lyrical that you could cry from it.  

Since you’ve been associated with he group for years, almost all of their time as a quartet, and with Brubeck until he died, what was your professional relationship like with Dave, with Paul and if you even talked with the other members of the group?

I knew so many musicians, and musician’s way of life, and yet I don’t think I know we had Paul Desmond to dinner when he had cancer, and we were friendlier with Paul. I don’t recall ever having Dave over for dinner. They did have me over for dinner, Dave and Iola. So it was a slightly different relationship.  There was a trust there that they trusted me. You mention in one of your questions that tour we did in New York State, small towns. It was more New York, New Jersey, Vermont, and it was a total failure but we never cried. We traveled out every night in a car. I drove Dave and Paul was in another car with Charlie Bourgeois. The three of them were in one car and Dave was with me.  We talked a lot. We talked about music. He loved Louis Armstorng.  He loved the traditions of the music. He loved Duke Ellington, and he always respected the traditions of the music.  I remember the most memorable thing of the trip. We hit a skunk one night on the road, and I let out a scream “we hit it! We hit it!” Dave always laughed at that. Hit it while driving on one of those back roads in upper NY.

What made the tour a failure?

Those clubs had never seen jazz. There may be 50 jazz fans in each town, 75 or 100. I forget what town in Vermont, we went to Trenton, NJ. I think we did ten or twelve days. We did a good date in Montreal, Cananda. We did ok up there.  I don’t have the routing of the tour, but it brought us very close because we were together for two weeks but Unfortunately it didn’t make us close business wise. Neither of us made any money. Dave didn’t make any money and I didn’t make any money.  Dave got paid, but he didn’t get paid a lot of money. Too bad. It was a good idea.  

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Desmond’s article in Punch Magazine, but I wondered if that experience came out from that tour.

I don’t remember, but I remember we did a date in Vermont and Mort Sahl came to the date because he was friendly with Paul, and Mort Sahl used to talk about in his act made a joke about what you did in Vermont on a Saturday night.

You started the NPJ in 1954. 

Brubeck was at ’55.

Any funny moments with DbQ at the NPJ?

He was always available as I needed him. Whatever place in the program we asked him to put on, he didn’t have star complex and yet he was selling as many tickets as anyone else that was on the festival.  Dave, in particular in New England with all the college kids, had a tremendous audience. Now we had that everywhere, like in Europe.  This was before rock n roll took over the colleges and Dave Brubeck was the biggest thing in colleges and a lot of those college kids that saw him at college came to the festival.  Dave Brubeck was a very important festival attraction.  

In your book, you said that Max Roach said you played with Clifford Brown.  There’s a recording of a jam session between Brubeck, Desmond, Max Roach, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown. Do you remember with Brubeck and all them?

I remember playing with Max but I don’t remember playing with anyone else. If Brubeck was there I wouldn’t be on piano. I didn’t have that much chutzpah

Between 1951 and 1967, jazz went through a lot of changes and yet the Brubeck quartet really didn’t change its sound. What do you think is the reason the DBQ was so popular despite all the different changes going on in jazz?

Brubeck was an individualist. He was his own changes. He made his own changes and that was his life.  IT was like asking Erroll Garner to play differently, and he never played differently up till the day he died. Or like asking Louis Armstrong to be different. Brubeck set his own style.  That was his image. That’s who he was, and till the day he died that was the way he played.

Do you think the interplay between Bru and Des had anything to do with it?

Oh there’s no question of Paul being important to the success of the DBQ.  But everyone thought when Paul would leave that Dave would be finished.  Dave of course, was not finished. He went on for the next 40 years after Paul left him.  I said “Paul was the frosting on the cake, but Dave was the cake”. That really sums up the Brubeck Quartet in one sentence.  Paul was the frosting. Peple loved him. But the cake, the guts of what was happening, the personality the individuality was Dave Brubeck.  When Paul left him, I think Brubeck played with him for a while but it was always Dave’s quartet.

Did you notice Paul being erratic, unreliable, diva?

Well, Paul could drink a little bit. He and Gerry Mulligan got together in London and got so drunk we wondered if we could keep the tour going.  But they’re a professional. But if everyone was like Paul Desmond we’d have a wonderful world. A wonderful wonderful man.  A sense of honor. He liked women. Women took advantage of him.  I don’t know if you heard some of the stories.  He enjoyed life.  It’s a shame cancer killed him.

Part 1 of 2 of my interview with the late George Wein. Conducted March 9, 2021 with me over the phone.

5 thoughts on “The George Wein Interview: Part 1

  1. i appreciate your posts!!!! i’ve enclosed pics of ron crotty (w me)…dear friend and mentor bassist…brubeck octet and trio w cal tjader…but you prob already knew that!!!! i hung out with him as much as possible in santa rosa, ca and later in berkeley…i you look closely he is playing the same bass as in the early album covers!!!!  such a loving artist, bassist, mentor, friend… bassicness all-ways,steve shainsanta rosa, ca i remember going to a birthday party for ron and dave had sent a birthday telegram!!!

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