Civil rights activist. Friend of Dizzy Gilepsie and Duke Ellington. Shoulder-rubber with the President of the United States, movie stars, and baseball legends. Sound like attributes and accomplishments of a select group of overachievers and Hollywood powerbrokers? No. These are the actions of one man who has influenced American pop culture yet has managaed to stay out of mainstream America's notoriously distracted attention span. The man is George Wein, and if you read Myself Among Others written by Wein with Nate Chinen, you can fully comprehend how much of an impact George Wein has made on music and how remarkable it is that he has managed to accomplish all these feats and yet remain a humble, appreciative, and relatively unknown person.
If you listen to music, there's a good chance what you listen to has been influenced in some way by George Wein. He is not a critically acclaimed signer or songwriter, though he is an accomplished pianist who has jammed with many superb artists. George Wein has managed to influence music by being a music promoter, a jazz promoter to be more precise. So important to jazz is George Wein that he is credited with raising jazz off its deathbed and back into the ears of America, by resisting the rock and roll revolution of the 1960s and focusing his promotional skills on jazz.
It's arguable that Wein's involvement with the civil rights movement has had more impact than his work with jazz. Though he didn't directly participate in the lunch counter sit-ins or the confrontational and highly publicized marches, Wein made his own point through his actions, including marrying an African-American. Wein's decision to marry a black woman inherently forced the issue of race relations into his life, and his rather public occupation further complicated his involvement in this difficult issue. His career as jazz festival promoter has often taken him into the strongest bastion of southern ideology, the Deep South, and he has had to deal with the most negative (and it also should be noted the most positive) characteristics of Jim Crow culture. How Wein managed to juggle the egos of legendary musicians and the demands of tradition is a remarkable feat. The fact that he manages to belittle his accomplishments is almost as impressive.
Though it's well-written and follows a logical chronological timeline, Myself Among Others is not a notable literary accomplishment. At times it seems as if one is reading the playlist of a festival -- or Wein's personal phonebook from yesteryear. But more importantly, the book successfully serves as a forum for Wein to conduct business such as giving his account of historic events like The Newport Jazz Festival; allowing him to immortalize and give permanent recognition to artists whom he feels he didn't express his full gratitude or reverence towards during their years collaborating; and apologizing in a very public and sincere way to those few people whom he did not fully appreciate at the time. Wein's humility manifests in his relationship with the artists and businespeople he has worked with over the years. His feelings of awe and bedazzlement toward the musical feats he was responsible for and watched unfold on stage are never numbed or mundane. Throughout, Wein's enthusiasm for the musicians and their astonishing accomplishments can be felt -- and Wein constantly makes sure to give credit to the musicians.
An interesting and relevant tangent highlighting Weinís admiration of the musicians is his production of the Newport Folk Festival. By the time the Newport Folk Festival achieved full strength in the early 1960ís, folk music was undergoing an identity crisis rivaling that of a high school teenager. Politics, the electric guitar, and its own popularity pressed Folk music on all fronts. Interestingly, the growing pains felt by Folk music closely paralleled the civil rights movement that was itself gaining strength and attention and was on its way to reaching a threshold. Consequently, the Newport Folk Festival, in true George Wein fashion, was a mixture of folk music and germane civil rights speeches, performances, and a general showing of solidarity. The attitude of the artists, the audience, and producers lent a benevolent atmosphere to the Folk festivals, where the music and its message acted as the keystone. At one point Mr. Wein recalls:
"Joan Baez and Bob Dylan disappeared into a room by themselves. So much was happening that no one noted their absence. But after a while I stuck my head in the room and saw that they were trading songs. Baez and Dylan, the virgin queen and crown prince of the folk revival. Moments like these were what the Folk Festival was really all about."
The Folk Festival exemplifies Wein's deepest motivation for putting on such legendary music festivals. His appreciation for the music and his influential position in delivering this music to the masses undoubtedly helped raise standards and also broaden artistic boundaries, not only for jazz but also for other genres of music.
Wein adds just enough of his personality to make Myself Among Others another run-of-the-mill autobiography. There's not much to say about the book as a literary accomplishment, but any music enthusiast who appreciates all aspects of music from live performances to the personalities to the grinding world tours will enjoy this book that is a wonderful blend of the many facets of music. Wein has put himself in a position to observe, influence, and record the history and workings of jazz, and that privilege has resulted in this thorough account.