Iolani graduate Nate Chinen was selected by George Wein to co-write the jazz legend's memoirs.

A Jazz Journey

A Hawaii writer profiles
the man who brought music
to the great outdoors

Nate Chinen spent a year researching the memoir he was writing with legendary jazz impresario George Wein, the man credited with creating the contemporary outdoor music festival, but he was stuck looking for a hook to draw readers into the tome.

A little time travel helped.

"Myself Among Others:
My Life in Music"

By George Wein
with Nate Chinen
(Da Capo Press, 448 pages,
hardcover, $27.50)

"I had been assembling material and doing research, and told George one day, 'Let's go up to Boston, where you opened your first club, Storyville, and get a lay of the land.'

"We hit his childhood home, and, just liked I described it in the book, we drove up to the curb and he got out and knocked on the door. What happened next became such an absorbing scene -- a moving one when he discovered a photo of himself sitting in front of a piano with his junior high band, still stapled to a cellar wall 60 years later -- that I knew it was a good setup for the book."

Wein had come a long way from his days in Boston to starting what would become the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954.

The trip also helped complete a journey for the 27-year-old, local-born writer, who left home five years ago uncertain of how he'd end up making a living.

Chinen graduated from Iolani School in 1994 and majored in English at the University of Pennsylvania before heading off to New York City.

The son of entertainers Teddy and Nancy Tanaka, Chinen said his parents were always supportive of his pursuits. "When I was in Iolani, I was always writing, but I never did straight journalism. It was creative writing, stories and poems, some of it published in the school's literary journal, Mane O Keola. I was also active musically, playing drums and percussion with the marching band and the jazz stage band.

"But I never mixed the two of them (writing and music) together."

It was only after joining the Philadelphia City Paper that he "began to synthesize" his skills. "One day, I found out that jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman was coming to town, and, being both an avid music fan and musician, I asked the music editor if I could do a story on him. She gave me the go-ahead to do it. It turned out to be a great opportunity for me to pull together all that I knew."

Chinen became the paper's primary jazz critic while only a sophomore at Penn. Since his move to the Big Apple, he has played drums with his own band and continued writing as a regular contributor to Jazz Times magazine and as city editor of arts, entertainment and features for Digital City, AOL's online city guide to Philly and New York City.

But, before all that, Chinen said he "made it my mission to learn interview and research skills" by reading the work of other noted jazz writers such as Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, Gary Giddins and Francis Davis.

Coincidentally, the woman who gave Chinen his first shot at writing, Margaret Detweiler, is now a managing editor at Digital City. "It's all come full circle," said Chinen, who wrote a remembrance on the late Arthur Lyman for this newspaper last year.

Duke Ellington, left, George Wein and Erroll Garner meet backstage at the Newport Jazz Festival.

CHINEN STILL considers it "miraculous" that he and Wein started working together.

"I came back home during the summer after my last year at Penn, asking myself where was I going now. I had no return ticket back to Philadelphia. ... By the end of summer, I decided I would hit New York City. I had a couple of college friends there who could help me, the economic boom was still going, so I went with less than a hundred dollars to my name."

Chinen ended up subletting a closet-size room that was near a no-cover jazz club, where Mark Copeland was leading a piano trio.

"So on the very first Monday I was in town, I went to the club and happen to notice a man at the next table over with a notepad. His name was Bill Zavatsky, and he ended up writing the liner notes for Mark's CD. He was also a fellow poet and had been part of the New York scene since the '60s.

"About a month or two later, while I was working through some temp jobs, Bill told me that he met George Wein at a party and that he mentioned his unsuccessful attempts in putting together his memoirs.

"George had sent about a thousand pages to Bill to see if he would help transcribe them, but Bill couldn't see quitting his job for something that would be too much for him to complete.

"But he did put in a good word for me, saying I was willing and able, a young writer who just got in and was enthusiastic and hungry."

Unbeknownst to Chinen, Wein already knew his name. During his first week in New York, Chinen met former island resident and Carnegie Hall manager Kimo Gerard, who recommended that he send a resume and clips to Wein's Festival Productions office.

Chinen received a letter from Wein's secretary, saying that they would keep his resume on file. His resume just happened to be on Wein's desk when he called the impresario to follow up on Zavatsky's suggestion.

"George and I had an informal interview one afternoon at his office, and he was willing to do a tryout for a month." With Chinen's understanding of the importance of finding a working rhythm with others in both music and work (and through a bit of trial and error), he was on his way, working with a man with a mind-boggling list of credentials and associations.

Wein worked with the most celebrated names in music -- Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and even Bob Dylan -- throughout his career. He was the founder of many of the important outdoor music festivals from coast to coast, from the Newport Jazz Festival, Newport Folk Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the multicity JVC Jazz Festival and Verizon Music Festival, to the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles.

Wein also succeeded in helping to break down the race barrier on a professional and personal level. He worked with the Newport, R.I., society elite in bringing important African-American musicians to larger, mixed-race concert audiences, and married a black woman in the '50s, when mixed unions were illegal in some parts of the country.

Chinen said he faced several challenges patching together Wein's many anecdotes and narratives. "I spent a good year talking to George, recording and transcribing. I would write and rewrite, trying to get the rhythm of his voice. I remember spending a month's vacation at his and his wife's house in France, sitting in our pajamas around the kitchen table. I've been humbled by his career.

"And his wife, Joyce, is an amazing person in and of herself. She's this hyperintelligent, cultured, middle-class woman who graduated college at 18 and was on her way to being a cancer researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her family lived in Oak Bluffs, an African-American enclave in Martha's Vineyard.

"She's been integral to George's life and career, and has been his supporter in more than just the conventional sense. She managed Thelonious Monk for a time, and I discovered when Joyce was the hospitality coordinator for the Newport Folk Festival, she would help rent houses and cabins for the visiting musicians and would feed everybody picnic style. It would be a motley bunch that included topical folk singers like Bob Dylan to a chain gang from Missouri.

"George himself has nurtured a lot of people," which Chinen discovered firsthand, saying he was grateful Wein gave him the chance.

"I admit it was nerve-wracking during the 2 1/2 years of getting this book out. I knew it was solidly written, but you still wonder if it would be a good read. But the reviews that have been coming in have been gratifying and universally positive."

Chinen says he's most grateful that after reading the book, Wein told him, "I'm glad your name is on the cover."

"Even though he wanted me to put in more of my own asides and notes, my goal has always been to make his story seamless, and gain legitimacy through being his documenter.

"Writing in his voice came with time -- I guess you could call it active osmosis. His whole life is a fascinating story, and I, as a writer, had to keep his voice true."

Chinen continues to regard Festival Productions staff like family. One member, Charlie Bourgeois, has been with Wein since 1950, and Darlene Chan and Quint Davis, who started with Wein in their teens and 20s, are now organizing festivals for him. Darlene's in charge of the Playboy Jazz Festival, and Quint runs the New Orleans office that stages the Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Essence Festival.

"He even extended an offer to me," Chinen said. "And I did co-produce a couple of avant-garde events at the Verizon Music Festival 2001 -- which didn't do very well moneywise.

"After that, I realize I'm better suited as a writer -- although George had no doubt that I could produce, since I practically knew everything he knew."

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.


E-mail to Features Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Calendars]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2003 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --