NEW YORK (AP) — Newport Jazz Festival Founder George Wein was singing the blues just hours before turning 90 on Saturday.
On the eve of his 90th birthday, Wein took the stage Friday night at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center to play piano and sing an original blues he had written for the occasion.
"I'm going down to Dizzy's to enjoy the last day of my 89 ...," he belted in a strong voice. "I've got the jazz to keep me going, as long as I can keep the beat."
JALC Director of Programming Jason Olaine opened the festivities by thanking Wein "for everything he's done for this music over the many, many years" from creating the first outdoor jazz festival in 1954 at the Rhode Island resort that became a model for similar events worldwide to supporting young musicians.
The Boston-born pianist-turned-impresario was then feted by a lineup of musicians who had played with him many times at the festival as the Newport All-Stars — with trumpeter Randy Brecker, clarinetist-saxophonist Anat Cohen, guitarist Howard Alden, drummer Lewis Nash and bassist Jay Leonhart. Wein invited pianist Frank Kimbrough to fill in for him because his hearing difficulties make it difficult to play a full set.
Alden said the set list drew heavily from Duke Ellington — including more obscure tunes such as "Johnny Come Lately," ''What Am I Here For?" and "The Jubilee Stomp" — to honor the close relationship Wein enjoyed with the big band leader for many years.
As Wein did when he led the All-Stars, the musicians had a chance to showcase their virtuosity on feature numbers with Brecker performing the standard "I Can't Get Started," Alden and Cohen trading lines on the Brazilian waltz "Desvairada," and Kimbrough playing solo piano on Ellington's "Reflections In D."
"I've done a lot in my life at festivals ... but really the greatest joy that I've ever had is playing with these guys," Wein said before taking over on piano for the last two numbers.
After his blues, Wein and the band closed the set with the Ellington band's theme, "Take the 'A' Train. The audience then stood and serenaded him with "Happy Birthday."
Friday's event kicked off a round of birthday celebrations. These include a fundraiser on Thursday at New York's City Winery club that's expected to raise at least $500,000 for the nonprofit Newport Festivals Foundation, with "Late Show" bandleader Jonathan Batiste, whose breakthrough came when Wein began presenting him at Newport, among the performers. An invitation-only dinner party will be held on Oct. 19 at Carnegie Hall, where Wein produced more than 400 concerts.
But even at 90, Wein remains active booking the 2016 Newport festival scheduled for July 29-31. Once again, he'll be going out to clubs in the upcoming weeks to hear young musicians to add to the festival lineup.
"As long as my mind stays young, my body I can handle," Wein said in an interview.