DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, sitting in for Terry Gross. Actress Jean Smart is nominated for two Emmys this year. One is for starring in the comedy series "Hacks," as a comic whose career is in decline. The other is for her supporting role in the drama "Mare Of Easttown," as the mother of Kate Winslet's character. Her comedic timing was obvious in the hit '80s sitcom "Designing Women," and in the early 2000s, when she won two Emmys for her guest-starring role on "Frasier."
We're going to listen back to Terry's interview with Jean Smart, recorded in May when her HBO Max series "Hacks" premiered. She plays Deborah Vance, a comic who overcame a lot of the obstacles faced by women comics of her generation and became a top act in Vegas. When the series begins, her career is in decline. Her jokes are kind of funny but way past their expiration dates. In an attempt to save Deborah's career, her manager pairs her with a young woman comedy writer Ava Daniels, whom he also manages. Her job is to write material for Deborah that will sound more up to date.
At one of their first meetings, Deborah tells Ava, played by Hannah Einbinder, that the jokes she's written for her aren't funny. Deborah asks if Ava is a lesbian, to which Ava responds that Deborah is her employer, which makes that an inappropriate question to ask. And then Ava goes on to describe in graphic detail her sexual experiences with women and men and concludes by telling Deborah this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HACKS")
HANNAH EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) So anyway, I'm bi.
JEAN SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Jesus Christ, I was just wondering why you were dressed like Rachel Maddow's mechanic.
EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) Right, so the jokes? You didn't like any?
SMART: (As Deborah Vance) They're not jokes. I mean, like, are they, like, thought poems? I had a horrible nightmare that I got a voicemail. What?
EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) It's funny because voicemails are annoying. It's like, just text.
SMART: (As Deborah Vance) First of all, if you start a sentence with it's funny because, it is probably not. And second, jokes need a punchline.
EINBINDER: (As Ava Daniels) Well, in my opinion, traditional joke structure is very male - so focused on the ending. It's all about the climax.
SMART: (As Deborah Vance) Oh, look who's talking. I just got a TED Talk about yours.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Jean Smart, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. You're terrific in this, as you've been...
SMART: Thank you.
GROSS: Yeah, for so long. So, you know, you've done a lot of comedy, but this is the first time you've played a comic. Do you have any favorite jokes of the bad jokes that your character tells?
GROSS: 'Cause they're both funny and bad at the same time.
SMART: Oh, sure. You know, I mean, I don't think of her jokes as bad, necessarily. It's just that, you know, she's sort of got her stock-style jokes. She knows her audience really well, and she knows what they expect and what they don't want to hear from her. And she gives them what they pay for, you know? I mean, as risque as she gets, it's probably the first joke we hear out of her mouth at the very beginning of the show, where you can just kind of hear her before we even see her face, where she talks about being in bed with a guy who keeps saying, you know, are you close? Are you close? And she says, yeah, I'm close, I'm close. I'm close to getting a buzz cut, a flannel shirt and finally accepting Melissa Etheridge's dinner invite. I love that joke.
GROSS: Are there things you related to about the generational conflict in this, you know, 'cause, you know, the young comic who starts writing for your character thinks of herself as so, like, you know, cutting edge and a little transgressive. And she really has kind of contempt for your character 'cause it represents everything that she - that the younger comic doesn't want to be.
SMART: Exactly. She thinks I'm a dinosaur, which I am in a way. But Deborah's attitude, I think, is a little bit that Ava's generation has thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and that all they want to do is shock people into laughing. And that's much easier to do than to come up with something kind of clever that actually makes people laugh, not just out of shock. And so (laughter), you know, she - it's just sort of funny to watch them, you know, navigate this. They come from completely different worlds, or at least seemingly at first.
And Hannah actually is a stand-up comic so I was a little bit intimidated at first. I'm thinking, OK, she's playing the writer, I'm playing the comic. And she's an actual stand-up comic. Yeah, that's been the fun part. It's just their conflict. That's just - and the fact that I just get to abuse her horribly.
GROSS: Is there a generational conflict that's similar for actors, either about the material that's acceptable in a play or movie or TV show, or how standards have changed for the language you can use and what you can talk about and how sexual you can get?
SMART: Oh, sure. Oh, sure, yes. I used to make a joke to friends. I'd say I would never do any kind of nudity while my parents were still alive, but they lived so long that now I'm at the age where no one asks me to do a nude scene...
SMART: ...You know? So that kind of took care of it right there. But certainly, obviously, things have changed dramatically. I guess part of that's just natural evolution of anything, you know, when you look at television and movies and what's considered just kind of normal entertainment and what would have been considered X-rated a few decades ago. I'm not sure it's a good evolution. I still think there's some things better left to the imagination. Sometimes, I think they're actually more effective when they're left to the imagination.
GROSS: So your new series "Hacks," the comedy series, starts on HBO Max on Thursday. Meanwhile, there's, I think, three episodes left of "Mare Of Easttown," the series that you're co-starring in on HBO that's part crime drama and part family drama. Kate Winslet plays Mare Sheehan, who's a police detective trying to solve a murder. But there's a lot going on in her personal life. Her son died by suicide, leaving behind his young son, who Mare is raising because the boy's mother has been in rehab.
You've moved in. You're Mare's mother, and you've moved in with Mare to help her raise the grandson, your great-grandson. But you and Mare are afraid that you're about to lose custody because the boy's mother is getting out of rehab. You've been trying to prepare him for the likelihood he'll be returning to his mother. And that's made Mare very angry with you because she wants to keep custody. And let's hear a clip in which she's showing how angry she is that you're trying to prepare him to go back to his mother.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARE OF EASTTOWN")
KATE WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Why are you telling him he might have to go live with his mom?
SMART: (As Helen) 'Cause he might have to go live with his mom.
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) He's 4 years old, Mom. We don't know what's going to happen, all right? Don't be telling him stuff like that. He's lived in this house his entire life, Mom.
SMART: (As Helen) Which is why we need to prepare him. Otherwise, he'll feel like the ground is just falling out beneath him. I called Kathy Dryers today.
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) You did what?
SMART: (As Helen) She works for the Child and Youth Services, and I thought that she might be...
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) I know where Kathy Dryers works. Why the hell are you calling her?
SMART: (As Helen) Because I want to find out how this whole custody thing works.
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) That is not your place, Mom.
SMART: (As Helen) She told me...
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) All right?
SMART: (As Helen) Carrie has a place to stay and a job...
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) It is so out of line for you to be telling him stuff like that, Mom.
SMART: (As Helen) And she stays clean and takes her meds. She's his mother. She's the mother. She'll get custody. And there's not a damn thing you or I can do about it.
GROSS: Wow, that's - you're really good in this. How did you get the part?
SMART: They offered it to me. It was lovely. And I said, HBO? Kate Winslet? Unless I really hate the part, I'll say yes right now. But I love their relationship because - I mean, even though it's a bit dysfunctional, I hope that there is - that it comes across to the audience as they still - there is still love and respect there between them. They've been through so much. And like a lot of families who go through suicide and divorce and things, there's a lot of blame. There's a lot of regrets. And - but they still manage to, you know, eke out a life together and find moments of humor and moments of happiness.
GROSS: So "Mare Of Easttown" is set in Delaware County, Pa., just outside of Philadelphia. And Delaware County has some pretty wealthy neighborhoods and some working-class suburbs. And you probably saw this or at least heard about it, that "Saturday Night Live" did a parody of the accents.
SMART: Yes (laughter).
GROSS: Did you see it, of the accents of "Mare Of Easttown?"
SMART: Kate sent it to me (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah. And she's the one who got the brunt of the (laughter)...
SMART: It was hilarious.
GROSS: ...Of the satire in this. And the premise of the show is that instead of saying murder and daughter, because of the, perhaps, overly exaggerated Philadelphia accent, it's like - I can't even do it right - murder and daughter. Yeah, you do it. You do it.
SMART: Well (laughter), I don't know quite where they were going with some of it. But, yes, they called it "Murdur Durdur" - murder, daughter. But, yes, like, one of the examples of that accent is the way they say water. It's water, like - almost like W-O-O-D-E-R. You know, give me a glass of water, water.
GROSS: So did you have, like, an accent coach?
SMART: Oh, yes. No, we had a couple of wonderful dialect coaches. Mine was a native from the area. And she was extremely helpful, extremely helpful. And I would put my lines on a loop tape and just - on my phone and just fell asleep listening to it, because you want it to be as automatic as possible because if you're thinking about it while you're doing your lines, then you're not thinking about the right things (laughter), what you're supposed to be thinking about, what your character is supposed to be thinking about. That's the hard part of doing an accent. But it's always fun to do accents.
BIANCULLI: We're listening to Terry's interview with Jean Smart. She co-starred in the HBO series "Mare Of Easttown" and stars in the HBO Max comedy "Hacks." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview recorded last spring with Jean Smart. She's been nominated for two Emmys, one for her starring role in the HBO Max comedy series "Hacks" and another for her supporting role in HBO's drama series "Mare Of Easttown." She got her start in TV on the 1980s CBS sitcom "Designing Women."
GROSS: You've played, like, brassy, cynical, sarcastic women in comedies and in dramas. In Entertainment Weekly, you were described as the reigning Meryl Streep of tough broad-types.
GROSS: So I want to play an example of that. And this is from your role in "Fargo," when you played the matriarch of a crime family that controls Fargo. And you've taken over from your husband after he had a debilitating stroke. Meanwhile, the Kansas City mafia made an offer to take over your operation. And in this scene, you meet the gangster representing the Kansas City family. And you make a counteroffer, an offer for a partnership between their family and your crime family. So in this scene, you're laying out the terms of your deal and then warn him not to underestimate you. And the mobster from Kansas City is played by Brad Garrett. You speak first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")
SMART: (As Floyd) Now - I don't know - maybe when you look at me, you see an old woman. And I am 61. I've borne six children, had three miscarriages. Two of my sons are here today. Two were stillborn. My first born, Elron, killed in Korea - sniper took off half his head. The point is, don't assume just because I'm an old woman that my back is weak and my stomach's not strong. I make this counter because a deal is always better than war. But no mistake, we'll fight to keep what's ours to the last man.
BRAD GARRETT: (As Joe) You're a good woman. I wish I had known your husband.
SMART: (As Floyd) No. My husband would have killed you where you stood the first time you met. So be glad you're talking to his wife.
GROSS: You must have loved that speech when you read it.
SMART: (Laughter) Oh, I did. That was the speech they gave you to audition with for Noah. And I said, that tells me so much about this person.
GROSS: So I'm going to squeeze in one more clip. This is from "Frasier." This is the role that you won two Emmys for. And you're hilarious in this. So for people who don't know the sitcom "Frasier," Frasier is a psychiatrist who has a radio advice call-in show. And you played Lana Lynley, who was one of the most popular and pretty girls in high school. And Frasier had a crush on you. And now, years later, you run into each other at a cafe. And you're a fan of his radio show. You hit it off. And you end up spending the night together. And this is, like, Frasier's high school dream come true.
GROSS: And in the morning, you wake up in his bed. You still have a glass of wine on the night table next to you, which you used in the scene I'm about to play to swallow some pills later in the scene. And so you wake up in the morning together. Things are still dreamy between the two of you until - OK. Here is the scene. You speak first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRASIER")
SMART: (As Lana) Oh, I had a wonderful time last night.
KELSEY GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Me, too. It was like being back in high school but with sex.
SMART: (As Lana) Oh, I don't want this to end.
GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Must warn you, now that I've learned to finally ask you out, I'll be doing a lot more of it. Are you free this evening? See? There I go already. How about tomorrow night? Somebody stop me.
SMART: (As Lana) Not me. I wonder what time it is.
GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Oh, 10 o'clock.
SMART: (As Lana) Oh, crap. I'm late.
GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Is there something I can do?
SMART: (As Lana) Oh, yeah. Make this lousy hangover go away. Where the hell are those aspirin?
GRAMMER: (As Frasier) You know, perhaps I should get you a glass of water for those. Would you prefer sparkling or still or not? I see you're fine.
SMART: (As Jean) Oh, I'm sorry. Did you want to finish this?
GRAMMER: (As Frasier) No, no. You're the guest.
SMART: (As Lana) Oh. Yeah, it's me. I'm running late. Move my 10:30 to 11:30. Just move it to 11:30.
SMART: (As Lana) Oh.
GRAMMER: (As Frasier) I didn't realize you smoked.
SMART: (As Lana) Oh. Yeah, I'm always trying to quit, but my weight just balloons up. I mean, trust me. You don't want to see my ass when I'm off these things.
GRAMMER: (As Frasier) You know, I hate to be a fusspot, but I'd prefer...
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
SMART: (As Lana) Yeah. Well, who let the dog in? Put your brother on. Put your brother on. Put your brother on.
GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Oh, will you be a sweetie, make me some coffee?
GRAMMER: (As Frasier) OK.
SMART: (As Lana) Well, you know, that mess better be cleaned up by the time I get home. Both of you. Put your brother on. Put your brother on. Put your brother on the phone.
SMART: (As Lana) Oh, this is nice.
GROSS: Oh, you're so good in that.
GROSS: What do you think about when you hear that back?
SMART: Oh, it was so much fun. That was the first episode I did as that character, and it was my favorite one.
GROSS: Did it say in the script, get louder every time you say put your brother on? Or was that something you just figured out you should do?
SMART: I think I just assumed that that's what it would be (laughter).
SMART: I had women coming up to me in supermarkets saying, oh, my God, that's me. That's me. Oh, my God.
SMART: What? Oh, dear. OK. You know? People still come up and say, put your brother on the phone. It's like...
GROSS: You were so good in that scene they brought you back for another season. And that - it's the second season that you won an Emmy for that role. So you grew up in Seattle - right? - where "Frasier" was set. How did you get interested in acting?
SMART: I had a terrific drama teacher my last year in high school. His name was Earl Kelly. He was kind of locally famous 'cause he put on particularly good shows and musicals and things at our high school. And so then I took the class my senior year, and he was great. He was tough. I mean, he taught us - he treated us like we were, you know, a professional acting troupe. He expected a lot from us. He hated the fact that I was a cheerleader. He thought that was just appalling. (Laughter) But he liked me. And so I really got bitten by the bug. So I told my parents that I wanted to major in theater in college. And my mother was not too happy with me. But after I started doing some plays at the University of Washington, she became my biggest fan, my biggest supporter.
GROSS: When you were getting started, what were some of your day jobs?
SMART: You mean after I got out of college?
GROSS: Mmm hmm.
SMART: I'm embarrassed to say I never had another day job.
GROSS: You never - you were able to make a living acting right from the start?
SMART: Yeah. It wasn't much of a living, but yeah.
GROSS: How'd you do that?
SMART: Well, there's a lot of professional theater in Seattle. And between Seattle and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., where I would do summers, I managed to just get by. You know? You'd always think, oh, jeez, I don't know if I have next month's rent. But something would come along.
GROSS: Did you go through any fallow periods where you thought, I'm never going to get a role again?
SMART: The only time that springs to mind that that happened, ironically, was after "Fargo." I, you know, got great reviews. The show was a big hit. I think I won the Critics Choice Award for that role - and crickets.
SMART: I shouldn't say this, but I think it was because of the way I looked and that, all of a sudden, it was sort of like, oh, dear. No, she's an older woman. And now what do we do with her? And I don't know - I mean, literally not a meeting, not an audition, not an offer for a long time. But once it started again, it's just been, you know, a steady climb towards, you know, wonderful roles. I mean, I just can't - I'm extremely grateful.
BIANCULLI: Jean Smart talking with Terry Gross. Jean Smart is nominated for two Emmys this year, one for her starring role in the HBO Max comedy series "Hacks" and the other for her supporting role in HBO's drama series "Mare Of Easttown." The Emmys are scheduled to be televised this Sunday night on CBS.
Coming up, we remember jazz entrepreneur George Wein, who created the Newport Jazz Festival which became a jazz institution. He died Monday at age 95. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY GIUFFRE'S "GOTTA DANCE")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.
George Wein, the pioneering music impresario who created the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, died Monday. He was 95 years old. Early on, Wein's Newport Jazz Festival helped rejuvenate Duke Ellington's career and revived the career of Miles Davis after years of decline from heroin addiction. We're going to listen to Terry's 2003 interview with George Wein, recorded at the time of the publication of his autobiography, which was called "Myself Among Others: A Life In Music."
Weins' first Newport Folk Festival, somewhat of a novelty at the time because it was held outdoors over two days, featured such artists as Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. It rained the second day, but the audience stayed. And the news media paid attention. The festival continued, more or less, for nearly 40 years, eventually moving to New York City then back to Newport. Wein also produced the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and other festivals and tours worldwide.
Wein fell in love with jazz as a teenager, becoming a professional piano player. But he set that aside to open the Boston Jazz Club called Storyville where he first worked with many of the artists he later booked for his festivals. Terry asked him how his experiences as a musician helped shape what he wanted out of his club.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GEORGE WEIN: I guess I wanted to make a living. I didn't know much about what I was going to do for my life. But I wanted it to be known as a musician's club, a club owned by someone that loved the music, was part of the music and presented the best possible jazz available.
TERRY GROSS: As opposed to - what kind of clubs had you performed in that weren't very friendly to musicians?
WEIN: Most of the clubs were people - owned by individuals who had a liquor license. And they wanted to sell liquor and put in music, hoping that they'd draw some people.
GROSS: You write in your book, I didn't know what it was like to be the man until opening Storyville. Suddenly, I was in the position of hiring musicians, most of whom were older than I was and often famous. Many were African Americans who had an inherent distrust of whites, never mind white nightclub owners.
What were some of the difficulties you faced being the man?
WEIN: The basic thing was that I loved these musicians, and I found out that they did not love me. I was, as I say, the man. And I would ask them things, and they just would look at me with a blank stare sometimes because they didn't trust what I had to say or what I asked of them. That was difficult to understand. It took me years to fully comprehend and how to accept that.
GROSS: Well, how did you learn to gain the musicians' trust?
WEIN: That's a good question. And every musician had a different reason. I was talking about Thelonious Monk having - being on the road with him when I had to run up and down the stairs five or six times to get him on the stage. And I finally yelled at him, Thelonious, get the hell on the stage. And he went up and played for 45 minutes a drum solo - had the drummer featured. And he came off the stage. And I said to him, what did that - what was that all about, Thelonious? He said, you had not have yelled at me. And I told him I ran up and down the stairs, and I was getting too old and fat for that. He says, you had to run up and down the stairs? I don't blame you for yelling at me. And that was when I gained the trust of Thelonious Monk. In many areas with different musicians, they were - a different story with Miles Davis. I bounced a check on him, and he got the message that we were going to be equals, and he wasn't going to push us around, and I wasn't going to push him around.
GROSS: Wait, wait. You intentionally bounced a check on him?
WEIN: No, no. I intentionally bounced it because he didn't play the play the job. And he figured that I had paid him in - two days before the job. And I bounced the check on him. And he says, well, why did you bounce the check? And I said, why didn't you play the gig? And so that solved that problem.
GROSS: Did it bother you to have to sometimes play the heavy with musicians who you kind of idolized?
WEIN: No, I never really played the heavy except when it actually was necessary. Basically, I established a rapport with them. I found out that they respected me for playing the piano. And then when I married my wife, they knew where my feelings were - my deepest feelings were. And that meant a lot in gaining the respect of African American musicians.
GROSS: Your wife is African American.
WEIN: My wife is African American. We've been married since 1959, which is a long time since we'd have been put in jail in 25% of the states at that time.
GROSS: You have hired many of your idols over the years to play at festivals and to play in your club when you owned it. Did some of your idols not really remain your idols because you saw their behavior offstage?
WEIN: I used to say to Stan Getz - I said, Stan, how can you be so evil and play so beautifully?
WEIN: And Stan would say to me, man, I'm changed. I'm changed. I'm not going to be the same (laughter).
GROSS: What kind of behavior did he display that led you to call him evil?
WEIN: He was evil...
WEIN: ...What evil is. He treated musicians badly. He treated club owners badly. He was involved with drugs. And he was - you couldn't trust his word. And you had to be very careful with him. But he was a great, great musician.
GROSS: Did he lie to you about performances that you expected him to play?
WEIN: I think he lied to me about everything we ever talked about at different times.
WEIN: But I loved him. I really did. And at the end, we were very close friends.
GROSS: Now, when you were running Storyville, there was something of an alcohol scandal that you discovered. Describe what happened.
WEIN: I leased a room from a hotel. I didn't own a liquor license, and we were buying the liquor from the hotel. The next thing I know, my bartenders were telling me that I was getting Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch. But it - didn't have Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch in the bottle. The label said it. And it seemed that the hotel owner was putting this stuff on me and charging me regular prices. That's why he gave me such a good deal. My - I was very young. And finally, people were complaining. I went up to the hotel owner and told him I had to have my liquor in sealed bottles. He wanted to change the deal. I found out that I - didn't even think, but I closed the club in one night. I could not start business with that kind of a dishonest reputation. My feelings were so deep about it, I didn't even stop to think about it. I closed the club. I knew then that honesty was important to me.
GROSS: So you were able to open the club again in a different location?
WEIN: We opened about eight weeks later, never caught the atmosphere that we had when we first opened, which was quite sensational for six weeks. But as the years went on, we played the greatest artists in jazz. I don't care - it was Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan or Miles or Duke or Louis, Art Tatum, Byrd - they all played Storyville. And that's where I really learned my trade. And that's what has directed me to where I am today.
GROSS: You gave up your club, Storyville, and then ended up starting the Newport Jazz Festival. So what was your first concept of the out-of-doors summer jazz festival?
WEIN: The concept was to present jazz from J to Z. I always had that feeling, so I presented a group like with Eddie Condon and Wild Bill Davis and on the same bill with Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano. And in the middle, you know, Ella Fitzgerald and Gene Krupa, a total view of the spectrum of jazz. I always felt that's what a jazz festival should be. We can't always do it. But in those days, it was not difficult because there was so many great jazz musicians still with us.
GROSS: What were your first thoughts about getting good sound outside?
WEIN: That was difficult because there was no history of good sound outside. And we experimented for two or three years before we found out what to do. The second year in particular was difficult. And that was the year that Miles Davis put his horn right in the microphone and came up with a beautiful "Round Midnight" (ph). And Columbia signed him, and that was the kickoff to his great career in the '50s.
BIANCULLI: Music promoter George Wein, the creator of the long-running Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from 2003 with pioneering music promoter George Wein. The creator of the long-running Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival, died Monday at age 95.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: One of the most famous performances at a Newport Jazz Festival was the Duke Ellington performance in 1956. Why was this a turning point in Ellington's career?
WEIN: Ellington, to me, was a god always. I didn't realize that he wasn't doing business wherever he went. Well, he would - made a record of this incredible performance. It was recorded. And it was the biggest selling album he ever had. What happened that night was literally a happening. A woman started to dance in the audience. It made news. The next day, Ellington broke up the festival. The crowd was orderly, but for the first time, they were all standing on their feet. And Ellington reached out. He made the cover of Time magazine very shortly after that. And ever after that, he said, I was born at Newport in 1956.
GROSS: The musical centerpiece of that night was a performance of "Diminuendo In Blue," and the saxophonist Paul Gonsalves blew about 27 choruses on that in his solo. That's a lot of choruses. That's a long time. What were you thinking when his solo went on and on?
WEIN: I was worried about crowd control because I saw the crowd coming towards the stage and standing up. But really, there was no serious problem. I think the record shows that I was saying, Duke, take it out, take it out. But it was so exciting that we were all caught up in it. And what I learned that night was the way Duke Ellington brought the crowd down after Gonsalves was finished. He had Johnny Hodges play a beautiful ballad and a blues. And the crowd just settled back into their chairs. It was a beautiful experience.
GROSS: Well, let's hear part of the Paul Gonsalves solo on "Diminuendo In Blue."
(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "DIMINUENDO IN BLUE")
GROSS: That's Paul Gonsalves soloing on Duke Ellington's "Diminuendo In Blue" in the Ellington band's performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. My guest, George Wein, was the creator of the Newport Jazz Festival and many other festivals. Well, George Wein, a little later in that evening, the Duke Ellington performance was going on and on. You wanted the performance to end, and Ellington wasn't ending it. Why were you anxious to wrap things up?
WEIN: I was anxious because I was concerned that - it was the first time I ever felt any nervousness about a crowd. And I don't remember it that well. I really recollected from the recording where my voice is heard telling Duke, no more, Duke, no more, you know. And - but Duke was not going to give up that moment. That was one of the great moments in his life, with 12,000 or 15,000 people cheering for him and the band sounding so great. So he just kept doing it until he realized that the evening was over. And - but he did the right thing. He really did the right thing.
GROSS: He did the right thing in keeping going and not listening to you to stop?
WEIN: Absolutely. I mean, you know, look. I'm only me. I mean, Duke Ellington is Duke Ellington. He did know a little bit more than I did. I was very young, and I was learning from him every minute.
GROSS: Let me play the track that's called "Riot Control" on the CD version of this 1956 Newport concert. And here you are at the mic trying to end the concert as people start booing you.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WEIN: That's it.
GROSS: George Wein, what's it like to stand before thousands and thousands of people who are booing you because you want to end the concert?
WEIN: I never was a great baseball player, so I don't know what it was to strike out with the bases loaded. But I really didn't hear the booing. I mean, in all honesty, you don't hear those things. Your mind is so involved with what you're thinking at the moment that you don't hear those things.
GROSS: At the Newport Jazz Festival, when you started the festival, were the audiences pretty integrated? Because there were obviously Black and white fans for the performance that you were presenting, but it was an area of New England that, I think, was very predominantly white.
WEIN: We had a small percentage of blacks at the beginning of the festival. There were always blacks that liked jazz. They were never a mass. The mass audience was usually white. We had a few racial problems the very first year when some of the hotels weren't used to blacks coming to the hotels and registering. And they were refused. But after one year, that ended. And a few years later, they elected an African American mayor of Newport. So you have your influence. And what you do influences the attitude of people. And we're very proud of that. And we - problems are always there. The whole thing is to just not fight the problems. In a sense, just make people aware that these problems are useless and that they don't have any meaning. And let's go straight ahead.
GROSS: OK. Well, you not only did the Newport Jazz Festival, you created the Newport Folk Festival. Were you interested in folk music?
WEIN: I'm interested in all musics, including opera and symphony and folk music and world music. I love artistry. Artistry is what draws me. I used to play a lot of folk artists. In Storyville, we're needing an attraction every week. And I was influenced from Barney Josephson's Cafe Society and Max Gordon at the Village Vanguard. That's - I went to their clubs before I had my own club. And so Pete Seeger and Odetta and groups like that and artists like that had played Storyville. Now, we had presented tap dance afternoons and gospel afternoons at the jazz festival. And I said, we'll do a folk afternoon. But I found out we had much more available, and we should do a festival.
GROSS: Why don't you share one of your personal high points from the Newport Folk Festival?
WEIN: I think that one of the personal high points was when we brought this - a tin whistle player from South Africa, Spokes Mashiyane. He went on the stage. And we used to have 15,000 people at that time, all avid folk fans. And he played with that tin whistle. And he had a jazz feeling. And Pete Seeger and I went up to play with him. I played the piano. And he played the guitar. And he just played - sounded like Lester Young on a tin whistle. And when he finished playing, the entire 15,000 people stood up and cheered. It was a magical moment.
GROSS: One of the most famous moments from the Newport Folk Festival was when Bob Dylan performed with his band. And they used amplifiers. So it was electric. Dylan had gone electric.
WEIN: That was the expression, Dylan went electric.
GROSS: Yeah. And a lot of his fans felt betrayed that one of their, you know, folk music heroes had now plugged in. What were you thinking when he plugged in?
WEIN: That was a time I was aware of the booing. Some people have tried to write that there wasn't any booing. There was a lot of booing. And there was a lot of consternation backstage. And there were legends that have come down that are untrue about Pete Seeger wanting to take an axe and cut the sound system. That just was not true. He was in a car holding his ears and said - asked me to do something about it. I said, there's nothing we can do, Pete. But what I did was I went up to Dylan after he finished. And I - on the stage - and I said, Bob, you've got to go back and do an acoustic tune. And he said, I don't have a guitar. And I said, it's a folk festival. I turned around, does anybody have a guitar? And actually, about 40 guitars went in the air. And Peter Yarrow gave him a guitar. And he did go back and sing "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." And it was a very poignant moment. It was more important historically than it was to me at that moment because I was just acting as a producer and acting by instinct.
GROSS: Why did your instincts tell you he should go back onstage and play something acoustic?
WEIN: I had to - again, I was not concerned with the riot, but I was concerned with the crowd, the feeling of the crowd. It was a terrible disappointment to the real Dylan fans who didn't know anything about his going electric. And it really was an important moment that had changed the approach to music by young people who were folk fans, because a lot of their friends had adopted the new music of the Beatles. And they were fighting them, saying, no, the real music is our folk music. And when Dylan went electric, it gave them the right to go along with their friends. And then they all became lemmings and went in the direction of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and were part of their whole youth situation, which was great, you know? But it took away a lot of individuality in listening to music.
GROSS: If you really thought it was great, you wouldn't have used the word lemmings (laughter).
WEIN: Well, you know, music had never had that feeling before. Everybody had a - the concept of what was good didn't always relate to what was the most popular. So once the rock 'n' roll world came in, the most important groups were the ones that sold the most records. In jazz, Glenn Miller sold more records than Duke Ellington ever dreamed of selling. But Duke Ellington was still the boss. In piano, there were a lot of great piano players. But all of the piano players stood up when Art Tatum came into the room. In rock 'n' roll, they stood up when the guy that sold the most records came into the room. And that's always the way it's been.
BIANCULLI: Music promoter George Wein speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY STRAYHORN & BEN WEBSTER'S "CHELSEA BRIDGE")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening back to Terry's interview from 2003 with pioneering music promoter George Wein. The creator of the long-running Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival died Monday at age 95. They spoke the year he published his autobiography, which was titled "Myself Among Others: A Life In Music."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: You've seen many of the musicians who you've loved most, who you were closest with and who were among the greatest musicians, you know, in the history of the music - you've seen many of them die. Do you ever feel lonely out there - like, you've outlived so many of the people who you came up with?
WEIN: It isn't that I feel lonely. But sometimes I hear music, and it's talking to me, and I literally get tears in my eyes and - 'cause the music means so much to me. And having known so many of these great players, not just the big names like Duke but - or Louis. I knew them all. But you know, the ones that I write about in the book that are not necessarily the genius - but they're the troops, you know, the ones that made jazz happen and to which we owe an unfathomable debt. And I've had the good fortune to have played with and worked with so many wonderful players. And they talk to me, and I get a beautiful feeling about it, not a not a sad feeling. It's a beautiful feeling that I knew those people and was close to them. And they were part of my life. And maybe I was part of their lives.
GROSS: In writing this memoir, you had to pick through your mind and hopefully some journals that you had - if, in fact, you had any journals - in order to revive the past, you know, as you lived it. What was that process like for you of trying to remember things that happened to you over the years?
WEIN: The process of remembering was relatively easy 'cause I only remembered what I remembered. A lot of that sounds strange. But what I remembered, I remembered vividly. And that's what I put down. The things that I didn't remember too vividly, I didn't use. The young man that worked with me on the book, Nate Chinen, did some research and things. And he went through a lot of my papers. And we found some fascinating things - for instance, letters I had written to Miles Davis that I had forgotten all about that I used in the book where I start off one of the letters, I've always known you were evil, but I never knew you were stupid. I knew you were crazy.
GROSS: (Laughter) What were you writing him about?
WEIN: Well, that we made an offer for a European trip, and he was he was holding me off, you know? And we were - he wouldn't get - couldn't get an answer out of him. And I said, look; if the other guy gives you a better offer, go with them - you know, something like that. And then he met my wife on the street and said, I like George, but he doesn't respect me. And so then I wrote him another letter saying how much I respected him and, you know, and that he was one of the important figures in jazz and my whole life was working with important people, you know? And after that, we, you know, along with the other things, we developed a good friendship.
But Miles liked to be talked to that way 'cause that's the way he talked to people, you see? So it - I established a rapport, but we had to dig to find those letters. And when I found them, I was so happy to use them because they did reflect my attitude and how I worked with Miles and how I established a relationship with a guy who was really a unique human being, Miles Davis, and, in his way, a very beautiful, beautiful man.
GROSS: Well, George Wein, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
WEIN: This is a wonderful interview. And thank you very much. You asked me wonderful questions, and I want to thank you very much for that.
BIANCULLI: Music promoter George Wein speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. The creator of the long-running Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival died Monday at age 95. Wein continued to play piano throughout his life. Here he is singing and playing, recorded in 1955.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PENNIES FROM HEAVEN")
WEIN: (Singing) Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven. Don't you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven? You'll find your fortune falling all over town. Be sure that your umbrella is upside down. Trade them for a package of...
BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, a political reporter grapples with questions many Americans are asking. How did our country become so divided? Why is there so much rage and fear? How did the gap grow so large between the wealthiest and everyone else? We talk with New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, author of "Wildland: The Making Of America's Fury." I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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