Photo by John Abbott
The gifted 26-year-old pianist talks about making a career in jazz. [29:07]
Jo Reed: That was jazz pianist Aaron Diehl and his trio playing his composition, Tag You're It! It's from his cd: Live at the Players.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Aaron Diehl comes pretty close to being a wunderkind, touring with Wynton Marsalis's septet before he entered the jazz program at Julliard. Now at the rip old age of twenty-six year he's fulfilled that promise, winning the 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz, the prestigious competition of the American pianists Association.
Mentored by the Todd Stoll, who was director of the Columbus Youth Orchestra, Aaron Diehl brings to his playing a musical dexterity which results in a near-perfect blend of composition and improvisation that's becoming widely recognized. Since graduating from Juilliard he's toured round the world playing at many international festivals. He's performed with The Boston Symphony, Benny Golson and Hank Jones. And he's been a guest on Marion McPartland's public radio show. Given his commitment and his impeccable jazz credentials, I was surprised to learn that Aaron Diehl used to think that jazz was old people's music.
Aaron Diehl: My grandfather, Arthur Baskerville, he played and still plays a little bit piano and trombone, and so when I was a kid I always heard jazz around the house, but I also went to his gigs, whether it be a Saturday brunch in my hometown Columbus, Ohio. We'd go and hear him play with some of the local musicians. And so I usually saw people in their 60s, 70s, 80s at these gigs, but the funny thing is I grew up playing classical music. In a way it was ironic because classical music could be seen as archaic and or antiquated and yet I had this liking for that style of music but I wasn't too enthusiastic yet about jazz.
Jo Reed: What changed your mind about jazz?
Aaron Diehl: I went to a summer arts camp at Interlochen in the northern part of Michigan near Traverse City and I met a young man, was a boy at that time. His name's Eldar Djangirov. You might have heard of him. He goes by the name Eldar now. He was only about 11 or 12 at this time and he was playing Oscar Peterson transcriptions like Oscar Peterson and he was able to improvise in the style of jazz music. It was incredible to hear. So we hung out a lot and he kind of showed me a few things and introduced me to that whole idiom. So and it was great to see somebody who was young playing that style of music. So he kind of got me interested I think initially, and this was when I was about probably 13, 14 years old.
Jo Reed: Now, your family is very musical. Your father plays a couple of instruments, doesn't he?
Aaron Diehl: No, no, actually my family besides my grandfather, there's no one who really plays. My father, I think he played percussion in high school. My mother played piano when she was very young, but only for a brief while. I don't think she had a great teacher. In any case, neither of them were really into music at a young age.
Jo Reed: So what was it that drew you to music?
Aaron Diehl: Well, I had experiences or exposure to music in church. I went to a church, it was very unique. It was a predominantly African American Catholic church. So they would have--- one mass would be traditional church music and then the other mass would be gospel music. So I got a chance to hear both spectrums of liturgical music and there was a gentleman by the name of Reverend Dennis Freeman when I was about eight years old. I had just started playing piano. I started at about seven years old. But I had just stated playing and he saw that I had interest in the piano, so he invited me up on Sundays and asked me to play a short hymn or something before mass, sort of like a prelude. So that was the beginning of my experience playing in the church and I was very influenced by the styles of the gospel tradition, but also I mean, I had a love for classical music and I had a great classical teacher when I was very young. So that's kind of how all that started. I had a very strong musical influences from a very young age.
Jo Reed: And what about in high school?
Aaron Diehl: High school, there was a gentleman by the name of Todd Stoll, who's now the Executive Director of Education at Jazz at Lincoln Center. And he was my high school band director in Columbus, Ohio.
Jo Reed: Lucky you.
Aaron Diehl: Yeah, right. And he was the one who sort of introduced me to playing in a jazz ensemble. He had an orchestra, a high school regional band called the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra, and it was comprised of students, music students from all over Central Ohio. There wasn't just one school. In fact, my high school was primarily an academic school. I mean, they had a music program, but it wasn't very strong. So I had an opportunity to play in Todd's band, so we played the music of Mingus, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie. We got a chance to play the music of all these great composers in jazz. And he's the one, in fact, who introduced me to Wynton Marsalis and that's how I got to have a relationship with Wynton.
Jo Reed: Well, do talk about that, because you toured with Wynton Marsalis' sextet right out of high school, but form what I heard when he first offered you the gig, you said no.
Aaron Diehl: I did. I did say no. I had an offer to go to the Jazz Aspen Snowman's Camp in Aspen, Colorado. And somebody had called me during the summer or spring and said, "Oh well, we'd like to have you in this camp in Aspen." I said, "Okay." So maybe a month later so Wynton called me and asked if I would play with his septet for a few months over in Europe and quite honestly I had an obligation, so I'm sorry I have a commitment in Aspen. But it's funny because Wes Anderson, his alto saxophone player, his wife called me and said, "Are you crazy? You just turned down the gig with Wynton Marsalis." So anyhow somehow I got out of the Aspen gig. And so I went on the road with him, yeah.
Jo Reed: Well, what was that like? How old were you?
Aaron Diehl: I was 17.
Jo Reed: And how old were the other people in the sextet?
Aaron Diehl: Other people in the sex-- yeah, it was a septet. They were mostly, I guess at that time, they were probably in their mid-40s or early 40s.
Jo Reed: That must have been quite a learning experience in many ways for you.
Aaron Diehl: Oh, indeed it was. I mean, I really shouldn't have been out there, but I think Wynton saw a certain enthusiasm and he wanted to challenge me or maybe even better, see what I could aspire to if I wanted to work hard at it. But it was tough. These are number one guys who have played together for, at that time, 15 years or so and so they all knew each others' playing and I wasn't even near the level where they were, on top of that the fact that they had been playing so long together. And it's funny because I listened to recordings of Wynton and his band, the septet, and I tried to kind of get the flavor of how they played. The thing is those recordings were from 10 years prior, 15 years prior, so those pieces had developed 15 fold since then. So it was very different, playing with them live was very different than playing along with the recording. So yeah, it certainly was an experience just being on the road just going from one city to another.
Jo Reed: Where did you tour?
Aaron Diehl: We went all over Europe, I mean, pretty much anywhere in Western Europe.
Jo Reed: How long was it? Was it a summer tour?
Aaron Diehl: It was, yes, about a month, a month and a half and then we did some gigs. I think my first gig with him was in Chicago in Ravinia. It started off in June and then we went over to Europe and then we came back and did some gigs on the East Coast, I believe.
Jo Reed: You then went to Julliard. What was it like coming into Julliard after having that really intensive experience touring with Wynton Marsalis?
Aaron Diehl: Well, it was quite a change, because I mean, I was playing with the crème de la crème so to speak in jazz, so I went back to playing-- well, the good thing I was playing with students who are at my level or better even, but still not at the level as Wynton and his group was at, but at the same time I was a little bit spoiled having that privilege playing with them. And so in playing with other students I kind of had to come down to planet Earth so to speak. But having that opportunity be at Julliard and getting a chance to play with peers my age and developing and learning together. I mean, that was a tremendous four years that I had there.
Jo Reed: I was just wondering if playing with Wynton and then coming back to a school, if you had a more refined sense of what it was you wanted to work on?
Aaron Diehl: I don't know. I think I knew I had to work-- I knew I had to work hard, but I still didn't-- that short amount of time I was with him, I can't say I really knew exactly how to get there. So that's what Julliard did. It taught me the how to get there and Wynton taught me what it was that I wanted to aspire to do, so.
Jo Reed: I know you were also involved in Julliard's outreach program.
Aaron Diehl: I was.
Jo Reed: Talk a little bit about that.
Aaron Diehl: That was what was called a community service fellowship and it's a fellowship that's given to a select number of students and they do cross-collaborative, cross discipline collaborations and go out to hospitals, nursing homes and schools and talk about performing arts and perform. So I was in a group with let's see, two actors and two dancers, and I was, yeah the only musician and so we came up with some crazy program how to incorporate three different art forms and present it. And it was a lot of fun. And that's one of the things that Julliard, it's just one of their strengths in teaching the importance of collaboration. I mean, there are musicians there, jazz and classical musicians, dancers and drama students and they've very much espoused the importance of collaboration.
Jo Reed: How do the kids in the schools respond to the arts programs?
Aaron Diehl: Oh, they loved it. They loved it. There's actually a waiting list for it. People got denied because there was such a long list.
Jo Reed: Wow.
Aaron Diehl: Yeah, yeah.
Jo Reed: That's something.
Aaron Diehl: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: When did you start your own trio?
Aaron Diehl: Oh, I don't know if the actual formally the Aaron Diehl Trio, when did that start? Probably, say around 2006 and I got a chance to do an album for Pony Canyon, which is this record company in Japan and they asked me to--
Jo Reed: Is that Mozart Jazz?
Aaron Diehl: That's Mozart Jazz, that's right one. Mozart Jazz asked me to put together an album of 15 Mozart compositions. And so I said, well that's a fairly strange project, but okay. So they wanted a jazz trio album of Mozart. Well, what do you do with that? So what I did is I got together two guys who I hadn't worked with a lot to the that time, Quincy Davis, a drummer who's actually teaching out in Manitoba in Winnipeg now and David Wong, who I play with quite often now. He plays with Roy Haynes and Jimmy Heath amongst other, many other musicians. But anyhow, we put together a project where basically I went through a bunch of Mozart scores and figured out which ones were the most adaptable thematically for jazz and put together a trio album of Mozart Jazz and that's the name of the album.
Music up and hot – Mozart, Clarinet Concerto In A Major, K 622 II Adagio
Jo Reed: In Gerald Wilson's recent CD, Legacy, he presents musical themes based on Stravinsky, and another on Puccini and still another on Clair de Lune. It's really interesting how much classical music and jazz have to say to one another.
Aaron Diehl: Right. I think the music, the French music of like Ravel or DeBussy, what one would call impressionistic music, sometimes I think is more adaptable, conducive to jazz than something like Mozart. I think it's much harder, much more difficult stylistically to take Mozart or Beethoven or Haydn and put it into a jazz context. That was a great challenge to have. I'll do it again if I have the opportunity.
Jo Reed: You played at Dizzy's recently with Warren Wolf, the xylophonist.
Aaron Diehl: Yes, indeed. Well, actually the first time that group played together was here at Dizzy's. That was last year, April and we put together the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet. I had an opportunity to work with Marianna Lewis, who is John Lewis' widow and she asked me to organize the archive of Mr. Lewis. Mr. Lewis being, John Lewis being the music director and the pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet. So I had an opportunity for about five or six months to see the scores of John that all the manuscripts, pretty much a complete library of the Modern Jazz Quartet, so I had an idea of performing the music at Dizzy's, a select number of compositions from that group and so I put together Warren, David Wong and Rodney Green and we performed the music of the MJQ. So this time around we kind of put our own spin and thought about how using some of the elements and devices of the MJQ and creating our own compositions and trying to figure out how we can create our own ensemble sound with using some of those concepts.
Jo Reed: What's it like playing in a room like Dizzy's, which we should describe to people is a nightclub with this--the band is in front of this extraordinary panorama of New York.
Aaron Diehl: That can be inspirational, also can be distracting. You kind of gaze off, if the piano's positioned a certain way, it's easy to gaze off into Central Park South, and it's an amazing space, has amazing view and it's very intimate and the sound onstage is great, even-- usually when I do performances there of the small ensemble, it's completely acoustic. I don't have any kind of monitors or anything onstage. It's just a great room to play in. The staff is wonderful, food's good, so it's one of my favorite rooms in New York City.
Jo Reed: How is it different from playing in a concert hall, for example?
Aaron Diehl: Definitely. I mean, you have the kind of, I think, sophistication of a concert hall there, but you can actually hear. In most concert halls, you can't hear, especially playing jazz. It's very difficult. They can be too large, too boomy, they're not made-- typically, concert halls except for place like Jazz Lincoln Center aren't made for jazz, so they're made for chamber music or bigger halls for orchestras. So it can be very tough playing jazz in concert halls.
Jo Reed: How about playing in church? I know you're interested in doing liturgical music that's jazzy. I of course, think of Duke Ellington and his sacred music.
Aaron Diehl: Yes. Well, I had an opportunity when I was at Julliard to meet a gentleman who was pianist Marylou Williams' manager for years. His name's Father Peter O'Brian and we played up at Seton Hall in New Jersey some time ago, 2004, 2005 some time around there. And I got a chance to know him and later on I started playing at a church in Harlem, St. Joseph of the Holy Family, and he was a visiting priest there and he approached me and said, "Hey, you're playing here at the church, now Aaron, maybe we could kind of get a project together having Marylou Williams Lenten Mass." This was just before Lent. He said, "Maybe we can do Marylou Williams' Lenten Mass here. It would be nice to have the choir singing and you play-- you know Marylou's music. And I said, well that would be a great idea. So we had the whole Lenten season leading up to Easter, we performed and sang Marylou's Lenten Mass. I hadn't known much about her sacred music to be quite honest. And she composed a few masses, the Lenten Mass, the Mass for Peace, there's another mass, an early mass that she did. So she had a very extensive liturgical sacred works that I think are widely unknown. So it's nice to get a chance, and actually I did a concert, I think, last May, let's see, no May, 2010, we performed the music of Marylou, sacred music of Marylou Williams for what would have been her 100th birthday at St. Francis Xavier downtown, where she was a member. She was a member. So it was my trio with Victor Goines. He was playing tenor saxophone and flute. And then the St. Francis Xavier choir and we performed a lot of the different, various sacred works of Marylou. It was incredible.
Jo Reed: Your interest is in composing sacred music as well?
Aaron Diehl: Yeah, I haven't been working as much as I probably should on sacred music at the moment, but I do have an interest and would like to do that more in the future and people then kind of urging me to do that, especially at my church. So it would be a great project to take on.
Jo Reed: Okay. Let's talk about the competition. The 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship in Music. It's very intense.
Aaron Diehl: Indeed, yes, it was very intense.
Jo Reed: How does the competition unfold?
Aaron Diehl: There are five finalists. I was one of five.
Jo Reed: What's the selection process to become a finalist?
Aaron Diehl: Oh, sure. You have to be nominated by someone, a reputable "individual" in the jazz world and they have to nominate you. So I think there were about 40 applicants, I believe, total. Once you're nominated, you send in a CD if you choose to send in the CD. You send in the CD and then they'll let you know if you are one of the finalists or not.
Jo Reed: How many performances do you give over what span?
Aaron Diehl: Each finalist goes to Indianapolis, which is where the APA is based, about a week. They have their own week so to speak and they perform one night at the Jazz Kitchen, but before that they do community involvement, outreach in one of the Indianapolis schools. We all taught, for a few days at a school there. We performed at the Jazz Kitchen for the night. So that's considered what they call the semi-finals, okay. It's not technically, because everybody's a finalist, right, but they have their own week in Indy. And then you come back, we came back in April for a week and we had various activities that we participated in, performances, community outreach, and then on Friday night everybody performs at the Jazz Kitchen for about 20 minutes or so. So all the finalists for the first time were together, because before that we really didn't see too much of each other. And the next night is the big night where we got a chance to play with the Buselli Wallarab Orchestra and Brent Wallarab was a fine arranger. He composed or arranged a standard for each of us that we had to perform, a jazz standard.
Jo Reed: What was yours?
Aaron Diehl: Nardis 11s, yes. And then we also had an opportunity to perform with Dee Dee Bridgewater, which was very, very exciting. That for me was kind of like the highlight of the whole experience doing that. She's incredible. So and then after performing with Dee Dee and Brent and the Buselli Wallarab Orchestra, we-- the winner was announced and I was fortunate to receive the Fellowship.
Jo Reed: Winning the Cole Porter is a great honor, but it's also generous award and it supports career development.
Aaron Diehl: Oh, it's great. Yeah, it's great. So now, I actually just got finished recording for Mack Avenue. One of the incentives of receiving this fellowship is you have the opportunity to perform for Mack Avenue Records. So Warren, David, Rodney, myself, we were in the studio Monday and Tuesday recording for this album that's going to be released in the spring of 2012.
Jo Reed: What's the difference between performing and studio work?
Aaron Diehl: There's a big difference because number one typically when you're doing a professional recording, you're in isolation and the whole situation's very sterile. And when I say isolation, every musician is in a completely different room, okay. So and that helps with editing and just the cleanliness of the album, the clarity of the album. So it's a very sterile environment. I find it's very hard to record because you're listening through earphones to everybody and you can't really feel the band. When you're performing live, like when we were just at Dizzy's, in such a small space, you can feel everybody. You can feel the beat, you can feel their pulse. And you can hear them very clearly. So I love playing live, especially in intimate settings, have that feeling of interacting with somebody in such close proximity and that's one of the advantages of being in a venue like Dizzy's or the Village Vanguard or whereever.
Jo Reed: Blue Note, yeah.
Aaron Diehl: Blue Note, yeah, wherever as opposed to being in a huge concert hall.
Jo Reed: Can you just say a word about what it meant for you to have the opportunity to work with somebody like Todd Stoll?
Aaron Diehl: Oh, I mean, I could have an hour talk about that because to have an educator who is so extremely sincere and passionate about educating students, teaching them about jazz, about music, about the arts, I mean, this is a guy who had spent basically the entire day, he was a high school band director, but he also had the Youth Jazz Orchestra. He also did-- he put together gigs for us, opportunities for us to play in Central Ohio, and I didn't get a chance to tour with him, but he also did tours with the orchestra abroad in Europe. But he is such a passionate educator and one of the very, I feel like one of the very few guys out here who have that sort of fire in them to teach young students. I mean, when I say that sort of fire, I mean, he'll talk to you at 11:00, 12:00 o'clock at night and give you information about jazz or just being a mentor figure. I haven't really had anybody quite like that in my musical experiences, and I'm just so happy that he's here in New York now at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I mean, maybe I'm a little bit jealous now that Jazz Lincoln Center has him and he doesn't have quite as much time to talk as maybe I'd like to, but he's an incredible human being and I think somebody very special, holds a very special place in my heart indeed.
Jo Reed: You also played with one of, I think, the most elegant jazz pianists, Hank Jones.
Aaron Diehl: Oh yes, very much a generous individual. I got a chance to interact with him a few times and listen to quite a few of his records and it still amazes me hearing him, how fresh his ideas were, how fluid he was as a pianist, and as an individual, he was the nicest guy you'll ever meet, the most genuine and very, he had a very sophisticated demeanor, very gentleman quality to him, but self-effacing, humble. I got a chance to do a master class with him at NYU some time ago, and I think that was the first time I got a chance to hear him live, but just the kind of sound that he got out of the piano, was just incredible, was just oh, just so pure. He was a tremendous individual. I'm really happy that I got a chance to know him.
Jo Reed: And you also got a chance to be on Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland.
Aaron Diehl: Yes. Piano Jazz, wow.
Jo Reed: A program I adore.
Aaron Diehl: Oh yes. I got a chance to hear her, I guess, she said it was going to be her final public appearance at Dizzy's about a week ago, yeah, about a week ago or so and it's amazing just to-- you can hear the whole history of jazz piano in just a few notes. The same with Hank Jones, being at the age that Marian is at now. I think she's 93 and Hank before he passed away, was I think about 91, just to hear the depth of sound and the depth of the history and the information and the experiences they have had over the course of their lifetime just coming out in just a few notes, it's just amazing to witness and when I went on their show, it was interesting because she asked me to come be on her radio show and I'm just like, I don't know really what you could talk to me about. What are you going to interview me? What have I done? So the way I approached it is I just started to ask her questions, what was it like at the Hickory House and being around all these people; Bud and Monk and Marylou Williams and so I just kind of approached the show from that angle. That was an incredible experience playing with her on the show.
Jo Reed: You're 26-years-old, you're very accomplished, and somehow you've managed to create a life in which you really can support yourself doing what you love.
Aaron Diehl: Yeah. I mean, I consider myself vey fortunate. I mean, I think there's that old saying where there's a will, there's a way and I just have such a passion for jazz music and playing the piano that I just find a way to make it work, so to speak. Fortunately I have so far.
Jo Reed: Oh, I have great hopes. I think we all do.
Aaron Diehl: Oh.
Jo Reed: Aaron, thank you so much.
Aaron Diehl: Thank you, Jo. It was my pleasure.
Jo Reed: I really appreciate you giving your time.
Aaron Diehl: Alright.
Jo Reed: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was jazz pianist and the 2011 Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz, Aaron Diehl.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from "Tag, You're it!" and Dorsem" composed by Aaron Diehl
Excerpts from "Clarinet Concerto in A Major" composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
All performed by the Aaron Diehl Trio, from the CD Live at the Players, used courtesy of Mack Avenue Records.
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We'll be back the first Thursday in January with a conversation with 2012 Jazz Master Jack DeJohnette.
If you love jazz, don't miss the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters Concert and Awards Ceremony. It will take place at 7:30 p.m. on January 10, 2012, at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Along with Jack DeJohnette, the NEA is honoring Von Freeman, Charlie Haden, Jimmy Owens, and Sheila Jordan. The concert may be sold out, but you don't have to miss the action: we are webcasting it live! Go to arts.gov and click on Jazz Masters for more information about this free event and live webcast.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed wishing you happy and healthy holidays. Thank you for listening.