George Wein, 1925–2021

George Wein in 2014. Credit: digboston, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
George Wein, the legendary impresario who virtually invented the concept of the contemporary music festival, died on September 13. He was 95 years old. According to his obituary in the Washington Post, Wein “may have presented more musicians to more people than anyone else in history. He launched the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, the folk festival in 1959 and later developed the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, and dozens of others across Europe, Asia and North America.”

Joe and Wayne performed at many Wein productions over the years. Weather Report’s first time at Newport was to be in 1971, but that appearance was canceled in the wake of a riot the previous night. Later that year, Weather Report participated in a concert in Boston to benefit Wein, who suffered significant financial losses because of the festival’s cancelation. When the festival was moved to New York City the following year, Weather Report took part, as it did in 1973.

Wein inaugurated the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1979, where Weather Report was the headliner. When the band returned in 1981, it put on a stellar performance that prompted journalist Leonard Feather to call them “the unquestioned crowd killers of the festival.” Wein booked Weather Report for yet another appearance in 1982. Given their strong showing the previous year, Wein asked Joe if the band could do “something special”—something that could top the previous year’s gig. He suggested a guest musician, which led to Zawinul inviting the Manhattan Transfer to perform “Birdland” with Weather Report—a surprise, unannounced encore that brought down the house.

Aside from appearances at Wein’s festivals, there are a couple of stories that involve Wein and Zawinul that are of interest. It is well-known that Joe came to the United States in 1959 thanks to a partial scholarship to the Berklee School of Music. Less well-known is that Wein almost brought Zawinul to the States in 1958 as part of the International Youth Band, which Wein organized with Marshall Brown for a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. As Wein describes in his autobiography, Myself Among Others, he and Brown were intent on including musicians from across Europe, but finding one from Switzerland proved difficult.

“We could find no suitable musicians in Switzerland, one of our target countries,” Wein wrote. “Fortunately, we did find a good Swiss pianist by the name of George Gruntz—in Milan. Our problem seemed to have been solved, but another arose when we discovered a more desirable pianist in Austria, a young man by the name of Josef Zawinul. What could we do? There were a number of good musicians in Austria, but only one capable player from Switzerland. And so it was that we chose George Gruntz over Joey Zawinul for the International Youth Band.”

The other story takes place shortly after Joe arrived at the Berklee School of Music in January 1959. Joe was older and quite a bit more experienced than most of the Berklee students, and he found the curriculum to be well-beneath his abilities. However, there was an advantage in being the best piano student in school. Wein owned and operated the Storyville jazz club, located not far from Berklee in Boston. About two weeks into the semester, Ella Fitzgerald was scheduled to appear there. The pianist for the house band was ill that night, so Wein called Berklee for a substitute. Ray Santisi, a legendary piano teacher at the school, sent Joe. He impressed the drummer, Jake Hanna, who called his former employer, trumpet player and bandleader Maynard Ferguson, whose pianist was going into the Army. On Hanna’s recommendation, Joe to auditioned with the Ferguson band the next day. The rest, as they say, is history.

A Book Update

First of all, thanks to all who have purchased a copy of my book Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report. And thanks to the many readers who have sent me personal notes. I appreciate them all.

I don’t know how many copies the publisher printed, but they sold out by early August—meaning the publisher ran out of stock in less than two months. There are still books available at some retailers in the U.S.—in particular, Amazon has it in stock. However, Elegant People‘s release in the United Kingdom didn’t occur until August 15, and, apparently, only a small number of books reached the U.K. shores. I know it’s hard to get there, as I’ve received several emails from folks in the U.K. trying to buy it. The publisher tells me that a reprint is in the works, but because of industry-wide printing delays, we do not know the date yet. They are taking back orders, however, so we should see more books soon. I will post an update when that happens.

In the meantime, the book received a nice review at Something Else!, written by Tom Wilmeth. For a time, it was even on the website’s home page (which is where the screenshot above was taken). Tom is the author of Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening, a fascinating book that he describes as “a lifetime collection of interviews, essays, and reviews of music and the artists who create it.” Wilmeth has been involved in the radio business since the 1970s and his knowledge and musical interests are broad, indeed. He has a voluminous personal library of music albums, and has had the opportunity to interview many musicians as part of his radio gig, while personally attending enumerable musical performances. All of this informs Sound Bites—an enjoyable read for all music fans, and especially baby boomers whose years of listening will largely overlap with Tom’s.

Tom also produces a podcast called The Vinyl Approach. In Episode 14, “Fusion Music and Weather Report”, he discusses Elegant People at length. In the first half of the episode, Tom covers some of the first fusions efforts, especially those of Gary Burton in the mid- to late-1960s. Tom’s discussion of Elegant People consumes the second half of the episode. I encourage you to check out the whole thing, as well as other episodes of The Vinyl Approach that may interest you.

Again, thanks for all your support.

Could John McLaughlin Have Been a Charter Member of Weather Report?

In my book, Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report, I run down some of the musicians who seem to have been considered for Weather Report—or for whatever band Joe and Wayne were planning for themselves until they hooked up with Miroslav Vitous to form Weather Report.

One name I didn’t include is guitarist John McLaughlin, even though he had stated in a 2017 interview that he declined an offer from Miroslav to join Weather Report because he was intent on forming the Mahavishnu Orchestra. When I asked Miroslav if this jibed with his recollection, he wrote back saying, “Is possible that that happened but now I don’t remember it.”

Last month, in an interview published in JazzTimes, McLaughlin repeated the story with the pretty much the same details. In both cases, McLaughlin recalled how Miles Davis gave him the nudge he needed to establish his own band. It came in 1970, when McLaughlin was a member of the Tony Williams Lifetime. At one point Miles took in a Lifetime gig in Massachusetts (probably in April 1970 when Lifetime performed at a weekend festival at Tufts University). Afterwards, they were chatting backstage.

“I was sitting in the band room with Miles in a club just outside of Boston,” McLaughlin remembered. “We had just finished a gig and I played like shit. I was apologizing to him, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ A few seconds later he said, ‘It’s time you formed your own band.’ That was the last thing I expected to hear from Miles, but he was the most honest person I ever met and I took everything he said so seriously. I thought, ‘If he thinks I can do it, I’m going to do it.’”

Of course, by this time Davis and McLaughlin were well-acquainted, with a history going back to February 1969, when the guitarist famously accompanied Davis in the studio for the In a Silent Way sessions. Though McLaughlin never became a member of Davis’ stage band, he continued to record with the trumpeter throughout 1969 and 1970, most notably for the albums Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

Meanwhile, McLaughlin and Miroslav had also become friends and they were frequently part of the same recording sessions. McLaughlin performed on Miroslav’s 1969 album Infinite Search, and both played on Wayne’s album Super Nova, also recorded in 1969. The next year, McLaughlin and Vitous played on Larry Coryell’s album Spaces, and McLaughlin also recorded some experimental tracks with Miroslav that became part of the bassist’s album Purple. Furthermore, McLaughlin, Zawinul and Shorter all knew each other from playing on many of the same Miles Davis sessions, so it wouldn’t have been at all surprising for any of them to reach out to McLaughlin to see if he would be interested in joining their band, or vice versa.

And that’s how McLaughlin remembers it. “I had gotten close with Miroslav Vitous,” he told JazzTimes. “I asked him to join the band [which became the Mahavishnu Orchestra] but he said, ‘We’re making our own group with Wayne [Shorter] and Joe [Zawinul]’—which of course became Weather Report, one of the best bands ever! Miroslav said, ‘We want you in our band, John.’ But I was under orders from Miles to form my own band!” The “orders,” of course, being Davis’ insistence that McLaughlin start his own band.

Though nothing came from each other’s overtures, Miroslav was instrumental in connecting McLaughlin with Jan Hammer. McLaughlin continues the story: “So I asked him about other keyboardists and he said, ‘Jan Hammer. He’s a great pianist.’ I said, ‘I never heard of him.’ Miroslav said, ‘He’s out playing with Sarah Vaughan.’ I thought, ‘If he’s playing with her, he’s no slouch. He’s got to be swinging!'” Miroslav had known Hammer since they were both teenagers in Czechoslovakia, where they formed the Junior Trio with Miroslav’s older brother Alan, who played drums. The group was a bit of a sensation, and both Hammer and Miroslav eventually made their way to the States. McLaughlin wound up hiring Hammer for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, where Hammer established himself as a leading proponent of the Rhodes electric piano and the Moog synthesizer.

Melody Maker, Jan. 19, 1974.
If the idea of John McLaughlin as a charter member of Weather Report doesn’t sound odd enough, how about this: In January 1974 (right after recording Mysterious Traveller), Melody Maker reported “Weather Report’s new album also includes a few keyboard appearances by Jan Hammer, late of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.” Then in April, Melody Maker ran another short item regarding a proposed Weather Report spring tour of Europe that didn’t materialize. It includes this perplexing nugget: “It is also believed that former Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboard player, Jan Hammer, will be joining the band, although at press time this remains unconfirmed.”

Melody Maker, Mar. 2, 1974.
Huh?

Forty-seven years later, it still remains unconfirmed. I actually asked Miroslav about this. His response: “I have never heard about anything like this and believe me I would have known this. Do you really think Joe Zawinul would take a chance to have Jan Hammer come in and play? Joe would never do that.”

I also asked Hammer’s long-time manager Elliot Sears the same question. Jan Hammer “would never even have entertained the thought of performing live with them,” Sears wrote me. “I have no idea how Melody Maker got that impression. Strictly bad reporting based on unsubstantiated rumors.”

So what to make of the Hammer rumor? The best I can come up with is that perhaps, given their long history and friendship, Miroslav and Jan talked about doing something together after Miroslav was ousted from Weather Report at the end of 1973, when the Mahavishnu Orchestra also dissolved. Both were without a regular gig for the first time in years, and it seems likely that they could have talked to each other informally. Perhaps a reporter at Melody Maker got wind of it and misconstrued the details. That said, the idea of anyone other than Zawinul playing keyboards in Weather Report is far-fetched, indeed.

The Mysterious Traveller Album Cover

Comet KohoutekArtist depiction of Comet Kohoutek from Popular Science magazine, Nov. 1973.
This week’s peak of the Perseid meteor shower inspired me to write about another astronomical event that took place many decades ago.

On March 7, 1973, a Czech astronomer was photographing asteroids at the Hamburg Observatory in Germany when he stumbled upon a previously undetected comet some 465 million miles from the sun. Formally designated C/1973 E1, it was named after the astronomer who discovered it, Dr. Lubos Kohoutek (pronounced “Ko-ho-tek”).

If you are of a certain age, you may remember Kohoutek. Astronomers predicted that it would be “the comet of the century.” By the end of the year, as Kohoutek neared the sun, it was forecast to be so bright that it would be visible to the naked eye even in full daylight. Then, in January 1974, having switched over to the evening sky, it would create a spectacular display, easily visible even in the relatively bright skies of the world’s biggest cities.

By mid-summer, Comet Kohoutek had entered into popular culture, with t-shirts, books, hats, and all other manner of memorabilia flooding the market. Special viewing tours were being arranged, including a three-day cruise on the Queen Elizabeth II. The craze lasted for the rest of the year, as anticipation built for Kohoutek’s appearance. In its December 17 issue, Time reported, “[Kohoutek] promises to rival and perhaps surpass in brightness Halley’s comet, which last appeared in 1910 and will not be seen again until 1986. By the time Kohoutek emerges from its passage behind the sun early in January, its tail should be full grown, a glittering streamer extending across as much as a sixth of the evening sky.” Popular Science was onboard, too, running an article in November titled, “Get Set for the Sky Spectacular of the Century,” along with a depiction of what Kohoutek would look like in the evening sky.

Helmut WimmerHelmut Wimmer, photo credit Sandi Kitt.
Given his love of science fiction and fantasy, the idea of a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event must have tickled Wayne no end. With the recording of Mysterious Traveller set to take place in December, the plan was to name the album after Kohoutek; at least that’s how some of the other musicians remember it. Meanwhile, Bob Devere and Brian Risner visited the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, looking for ideas for a visual display during Weather Report’s concerts.

As Brian remembers, “We went to see the laser show there—they had one of the first laser shows—because I was thinking, what could we do to kick stuff up a notch?” While there, they saw the perfect cover for Weather Report’s new album: a painting of a comet over Madagascar created by Helmut Wimmer, an artist who produced vivid large-scale depictions of celestial objects for the planetarium in the pre-digital and pre-space telescope days. Wimmer, the planetarium’s staff artist from 1954 to 1987, produced hundreds of paintings on cardboard sheets, which were then photographed on transparency slides and loaded into projectors on the perimeter of the planetarium’s 48-foot-high dome.

Meanwhile, as December turned into January (when Mysterious Traveller was recorded), Kohoutek turned out to be a dud. According to the January 16, 1974 New York Times, “Kohoutek, once touted as ‘the comet of the century,’ made its closest approach to the earth yesterday, coming within 75 million miles, but few residents of this planet saw it. That, as a celestial ‘spectacular,’ it was a flop, according to astronomers, demonstrates that, while the paths of comets can be predicted with great precision, their behavior cannot.”

It wouldn’t do to name Weather Report’s new album after a cosmic dud, so the title was changed to Mysterious Traveller, adopting the British spelling of the second word. Wayne likened the comet to “a mysterious visitor” and he attributed extra meaning to the coming of Kohoutek. “It was a mystery about where was it born, and that means our life too, here we are: all mysterious travelers,” he told Jazz Times in 2002. In addition, The Mysterious Traveler was the title of a fantasy/science fiction radio show and comic book that Wayne remembered from his youth, so like I Sing The Body Electric, he co-opted the title for the album.

Nowadays, Kohoutek has pretty much been forgotten altogether. Fortunately, we can still enjoy the beautiful cover that it inspired for one of Weather Report’s best albums.

Elegant People Review in Jazz Wise Magazine

My thanks to George Cole for his review of my book Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report. The review appears in the August 2021 issue of Jazz Wise, the U.K.’s leading jazz magazine. “Definitive doesn’t come close to describing this book, which is set to remain the standard work on Weather Report for many years ahead,” Cole writes.

By the way, George is the author of The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis 1980-1991, the most comprehensive look at the final decade of Davis’s music. Highly recommended. Of interest to Jaco Pastorius fans, George recently posted interviews with drummer Lenny White and Japanese photographer Shigeru Uchiyama at his website, both of whom speak about their interactions with Jaco. (Shigeru also contributed many photographs to my book.)