Interview: Aaron Diehl

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Pianist Aaron Diehl has a way of making you think about what you're hearing. This happens on the ballads Single Petal of a Rose and Blue Nude from his The Bespoke Man's Narrative (2013). But Aaron also can make you think when turning up the heat with staggering command, as he does on Uranus and Broadway Boogie Woogie from Space, Time and Continuum (2015). His ballads tend to have a Charles Mingus-like brooding quality while his up-tempo works exhibit an impeccable technique as his fingers fly over the keyboard.

If you're in New York on Wednesday, July 26, you're in luck. Aaron will be performing at 92Y in “The Art of Tatum" concert showcase directed by Bill Charlap. The concert will feature four of the finest  jazz pianists around today—Aaron, Bill, Harold Mabern and Roger Kellaway. They will be backed by John Webber, drummer Joe Farnsworth and tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. That's a lot of firepower.

Before I share my interview with Aaron with you, let's take a brief Tatum break so we're reminded of what Aaron and the other pianists will be up against. Here's Tatum playing Tiger Rag solo (yes, there's just one pianist playing alone here)...



In advance of Aaron, 31, climbing into the ring with three other piano masters to take on the mightiest jazz pianist of them all, I had a chance to catch up with him recently:

JazzWax: What was it like growing up in your Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood in the 1990s?

Aaron Diehl: My mother, now retired, worked for Ohio's State Department of Education. My dad owns a funeral business on the near-east side, now known as King-Lincoln Bronzeville. He bought a house in the early 1980’s down the street from his business. That’s the home where I grew up. In some respects, the neighborhood was like Harlem given its rich cultural history, eventual plight in the '70s, and subsequent gentrification during the past 10 years or so. The Lincoln Theater, just a block away from my dad's funeral home, featured acts like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington back in the '40’s and '50’s. I was fortunate to have experienced remnants of the neighborhood's heritage through small block parties and festivals on Mt. Vernon Ave., one of the area's main thoroughfares. They often had jazz music there, and sometimes my grandfather would play with local musicians like Gene Walker or Raleigh Randolph. Trombone was his primary instrument, but he later switched to piano. My family also attended a Catholic church in the area, and my grandfather sang in the choir. Music was always around.

JW: Tell tell me about your grandfather, pianist and trombonist Arthur Baskerville. How did he influence you?

AD: He was a singular influence. My parents bought a piano when I was a toddler, and my grandfather often came over and played standards. He also had a variety of portable keyboards in his basement, including an 88-key Fender Rhodes and a small Casio. He taught me my first standards on that Casio, including Girl From Ipanema and Take the ‘A’ Train. Later, I discovered that he and Elvin Jones were good friends, along with bassist Willie Ruff. They served in the Air Force band together at Lockbourne Air Force Base. Unfortunately I never got a chance to know Elvin, but Mr. Ruff has invited me a few times to perform at Yale University.

JW: How did you wind up playing piano and jazz, specifically?

AD: It was a gradual transition, but my interest did not really pique until my sophomore year in high school. A former band director, Linda Dachtyl, sent me some information about a jazz ensemble featuring students from all around central Ohio. That was the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra. It’s director, Todd Stoll, is now the vice president of education at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I auditioned for CYJO, and to my astonishment, I was accepted. I wasn’t an exceptionally strong player, but Todd had a knack for nurturing students who he believed had a sincere desire to play. CYJO also provided me with an opportunity to develop with peers who had similar goals.

JW: What’s the first jazz album you purchased?

AD: I can’t even remember, but I definitely had an obsession with Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, especially Peterson. My teacher, the late Mark Flugge, asked me not to listen to O.P. for a while and explore other pianists like Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. Art Tatum was equally impressive, but I think listening to him requires more advanced ears, and I don’t believe I had those ears then to fully enjoy his contributions.

JW: How does a jazz great like yourself practice each day?

AD: Haha. Jazz great? Hardly. Practicing jazz can be one of the most intimidating disciplines, especially for someone like me, who likes to have the answers immediately. If I say I’m going to learn a piece by Chopin, the music is right in front of me and I learn that piece. With jazz, there are so many references musicians must absorb just to sound remotely mediocre. This isn't to say that similar references aren't required in classical music or other genres. But because improvisation is such a critical component with jazz, musicians must derive their material from a labyrinthine and vast musical language. That’s a lifetime mission to conquer.

JW: From your perspective, is jazz struggling for survival in the U.S., and if so, why?

AD: Art appreciation is struggling. I suppose it has something to do with the proliferation of technology; less focus on arts education in school; and less investment of “cultural equity,” as Alan Lomax would say. Art is a product of our identity as human beings. We often look for innovation and what is new, but the human spirit has never really changed. Maybe this is a good time to reevaluate our priorities and look at the treasures that have been bequeathed to us by our ancestors.

JW: What will you be performing at 92Y?

AD: “The Art of Tatum” is being curated by Bill Charlap. I’m honored that Bill invited me, as I’ll be joining some formidable pianists, including Bill, Roger Kellaway and Harold Mabern. I’ll honor Tatum by attempting to tackle his rendition of Tiger Rag, and also a few other compositions he was known to play including You Took Advantage of Me and Goin’ Home. Tthere won't be a shortage of excitement.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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