Jan 10, 2014 View All News

Jazz Songbook with Bill Charlap

Bill Charlap Presents Bird Lives!

By Will Friedwald

It's a devil's advocate kind of question, the kind that Bill Charlap knows well. "Why bother with old songs? Why not just have all jazz musicians write brand new material for themselves to play, like the rock stars allegedly do?" 

Because, the pianist and impresario answers without missing a heartbeat, "Those songs are the lifeblood of jazz."

He gives as an example one of the most famous events in the history of jazz: the legendary Massey Hall concert of May 15, 1953, which presented Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach all on stage at the same time.

"That show consisted of six pieces: 'Perdido' was from the Duke Ellington songbook, 'Salt Peanuts' and 'Wee' were variations on George Gershwin's 'I Got Rhythm,' 'All the Things You Are' is one of the all-time great Jerome Kern songs, 'Hot House' was Parker's take on Cole Porter's 'What Is This Thing Called Love,' and in 'A Night in Tunisia,' Dizzy nodded towards Arthur Schwartz.

"As many changes as have occurred in jazz over the last 60 years, we're still using the same kinds of songs – the so-called Great American Songbook – that ‘Bird’ and Dizzy were playing in 1953. These songs are so rich with possibilities, for variations, for interpretation, that we'll never run out of things to do with them, or uses to put them to."

To illustrate the limitless potential of the Songbook, and the specific works of three very great but very different American songwriters, the pianist is at the center of three upcoming concerts at NJPAC, titled Jazz Songbook with Bill Charlap

The series begins with Rhapsody in Jazz: George Gershwin (Feb. 15), as indeed it must. The lineup includes vocalist Mary Stallings, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Jimmy Greene, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, trombonist Steve Davis, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington.

"Gershwin is at the very center of American music, for a lot of different reasons,” says Charlap. “He is the first mainstream songwriter to write with a blues aesthetic. With 'I Got Rhythm' he gave the whole of jazz a template to work from. Within his own lifetime, Gershwin realized that he had provided musicians with what was essentially a tree, a framework for them to hang all their ideas on." 

Duke Ellington (Echoes of Harlem: Duke Ellington, April 5) was a very different case, even though he and Gershwin were approximate contemporaries. "People ask me what Duke Ellington did, and I have to say it's easier to ask, 'What didn't he do?' He was a bandleader, a pianist, a composer, a cultural ambassador. His own expression, which he coined to describe Ella Fitzgerald, was 'beyond category,' but he went even further than that." Charlap adds, "You can't say, Oh, Duke did this' or 'Duke did that.' He just did everything."

Joining Charlap for that special evening of Ellingtonia will be Peter Washington again on bass, vocalists Ernie Andrews and Renee Rosnes, trumpeter Sean Jones, tenor saxophonist Houston Person, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and drummer Lewis Nash.

Richard Rodgers (My Favorite Things: Richard Rodgers, May 9) was still another kind of writer. "Mr. Rodgers dwelt in two very different neighborhoods. The songs he wrote with Lorenz Hart, going up to 1943, are a completely different kind of thing than the shows he wrote with Oscar Hammerstein from 1943 to 1960. In both cases, Rodgers represents the pinnacle of American musical theater, but he never stopped supplying jazz musicians and singers with incredible songs for them to work with."

Charlap won't let the interview conclude without mentioning some of the venerated artists who will be performing these songs: alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, trumpeter Terell Stafford, trombonist John Allred, drummer Willie Jones, singer and pianist Freddy Cole, Peter Washington, and Charlap’s mother, the vocalist Sandy Stewart.

"They have all found their own personal relationship to the great songs,” Charlap says, “and that's what I look for, even when I'm just listening."

Will Friedwald is the author of eight books on music and popular culture, including the award-winning A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, Sinatra: The Song Is You, Stardust Melodies, Tony Bennett: The Good Life and Jazz Singing.