Himself/Myself
Writing someone else’s autobiography.

 

The New York Times’ review of the new autobiography of jazz impresario George Wein concluded, “Anyone can write about the music played at a jazz festival. Very few people can write authoritatively about what it takes to run one. George Wein can do both, and in Myself Among Others he does both very well.”

While he didn’t live it, Wein’s co-author, Nate Chinen C’98 deserves at least some credit for writing the life of the man who founded the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals and befriended the likes of Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and Miles Davis. Chinen, an editor at Digital City, an online city guide, and a freelance writer for JazzTimes and other magazines (including the Gazette), discussed the book and what it was like to inhabit Wein’s persona and write in his voice in an e-mail interview.

Why was this project of interest to you?
Like most jazz fans, I’m an avid amateur historian. As a working jazz critic, I have also nurtured a fascination with the workings of the industry and art of jazz. Writing George Wein’s autobiography was the perfect fulfillment of all these impulses: He has been an integral part of the music for over 50 years, and still commands one of its most influential businesses. When I first met George early in 1999, I was a recent arrival in Manhattan. What brought us together was a combination of coincidence and persistence. We struck an immediate rapport, and quickly developed a method of working together.

What was the process?
When I came aboard, the project consisted of roughly a thousand pages of raw transcription from a previous interview. I used this material as an initial reference, and spent hundreds of hours interrogating George on tape. Over the next two years, I transcribed these conversations; from them I culled the basic material for the book. At the same time, I devoted massive amounts of time and energy toward traditional research. Although George has an amazingly detailed memory on
certain matters, others required some prompting; that’s where this supplemental material came into play. It also provided a valuable context for much of the information George was imparting.

What did you learn about him or jazz that stands out? Was this an education for you?
I used to take pride in my knowledge of jazz history and lore; this project was a healthy dose of humility. The career of George Wein serves as a companion to the jazz encyclopedia, and there were many names and anecdotes I discovered along the way.

I inhabited every period covered in the book, growing briefly obsessed with such things as postwar New York City nightlife; Yellow Fever epidemics in the late 19th-century South; civil rights in 1960s New Orleans; and the vicissitudes of small-town politics in Newport, Rhode Island. Finally, writing the book was in itself an education. There’s a particular skill to co-authoring an autobiography, particularly one of this magnitude. And one can only learn by doing.

You have a “with” credit on this book. How is that different from being a ghostwriter?
From the outset, George and I agreed that I would receive a co-writer’s credit. This was an act of some largesse on George’s part, since he could easily have enlisted a ghostwriter instead. Throughout the book-writing process, he made it clear that he wanted the project to reflect well on my career as well as his. I spent countless hours at his elbow, absorbing his personal philosophies, mannerisms, and unique perspective. It took some time, but eventually I was able to free myself from our interview notes (which, when cobbled together, fell absolutely flat on the page) and write convincingly in George’s voice. What makes me happiest about the finished product is the fact that George recognizes himself in those pages.

2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 09/02/03

ALL THINGS ORNAMENTAL : The Arts

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Interview: I’m “with” George—co-author Nate Chinen


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