Meet the Music Makers: Aaron Diehl

Aaron Diehl standing next to an open grand piano

By Landon Hegedus, UChicago Presents

In conversation with Aaron Diehl:

UChicago Presents: I understand that you were a classically trained musician at the very outset of your musical career. What was your initial exposure to jazz music?

Aaron Diehl: My initial exposure to jazz music was actually from my grandfather, Arthur Baskerville, who primarily played trombone and also a little bit of piano. When my parents purchased a piano when I was about four or five years old, he would always come over and play. I was always mesmerized by the sound of the instrument and by his playing, and I remember trying to fiddle around on the piano a little bit and just experiment with the instrument. At a certain point, around the age of seven, my parents said, Let's get him piano lessons. I had my first lesson, and from then on, I was just hooked to music. My original interests did lie in classical music, but as I got older, I became much more fond of jazz. Obviously, that's where I ended up today.

UCP: The Modern Jazz Quartet is essentially the subject of this program you’re performing for UCP. How did you first get hooked on the Modern Jazz Quartet?

AD: My first introduction to John Lewis, who was the pianist and music director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, was an album called Evolution. It's a solo piano record that he released in 1999, toward the end of his life, and it was recommended to me by my teacher in Columbus at the time, the late Mark Flugge. I was probably in my mid-teens at this point, and at that time, I was listening to a lot of Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum — a lot of virtuosi jazz pianists. So when I started listening to John Lewis, I wasn't that enthralled, just because the familiar sound of the virtuosity wasn't there. He’s a very sparse player, uses a lot of space, and had a very soft, velvety sound that was all a bit foreign to me.

Fast forward to a few years later, the historian Loren Schoenberg introduced me to Mirjana Lewis, who was John Lewis’s wife. John had passed away in 2001, and when I met Mirjana it was around 2008. At that point, she was trying to get her husband's archives and manuscripts organized, and so I spent the good part of one year working with her at the Modern Jazz Quartet office, and also at their home, in organizing all the scores, manuscripts, tapes… and that's when I really started to gain an interest in the music of John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. With my classical background, I was fascinated to see how John had fused elements of classical music, particularly of the baroque style, into the sound of the blues and the feeling of jazz, especially through swing.

UCP: Those who know the music Modern Jazz Quartet may be familiar with the term “Third Stream,” which describes a kind of music championed by the MJQ and some of their contemporaries. How would you explain the music of the Third Stream to the uninitiated?

AD: Gunther Schuller has a great description – I can't remember verbatim, but he had a list of maybe four or five points about what about Third Stream is not: he says it’s not “a little bit of jazz mixed with classical”; it’s not a fusion of jazz and classical – It's kind of a synthesis born from the points where jazz and classical intersect, and the common grounds between the two genres. Of course, even when we talk about “classical music” and “jazz music,” there are all kinds of subsets involved underneath each of those, so it's hard to just put a blanket term to a very broad form of music.

UCP: How do you feel that the MJQ represents Third Stream music, and how do they fit into the history of jazz as a whole?

AD: First of all, the Modern Jazz Quartet was the second-longest-running ensemble in jazz behind the Duke Ellington Orchestra – I think that the MJQ were together some 40-plus years. And besides their unique sound – what some people would describe as “chamber jazz” – what really makes them so identifiable is the members of the organization: Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Percy Heath, Connie Kay, and how each of those members contributed to the ensemble, even inside of the compositions that were written primarily by John. Milt Jackson was a virtuoso vibraphonist, and he was a really earthy player, very rooted in the blues. From what I understand, he wasn't always very fond of playing these complex contrapuntal pieces with their fugues and baroque affectations, but he had a photographic memory; if you see some videos of the MJQ in performance, he never has sheet music. I think some people believe that he didn't read music, but what I understand from the people that knew him, he could read music, but he just had everything memorized. John Lewis, on the other hand, was a much more reserved player. Again, if you look at the videos, you see him with the full scores of the music out in front of him. Pieces like his arrangement of the Concierto de Aranjuez, or In Memoriam, or Kansas City Breaks – you know, these extended works. He would always have music up front of him, and Milt Jackson, not at all. They really were like yin and yang; their personalities were very different, from what I’ve been told, and Percy Heath and Connie Kay really just sat in the middle of all of that and provided a beautiful canvas for these musicians to work off of – just a nice foundation groove and rhythm and bass movement. And so the MJQ’s compositions are just as important to their legacy as the members of the band were, and vice versa.

UCP: Your 2013 debut album for Mack Ave Records, The Bespoke Man’s Narrative, as well the piece you wrote for the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival, titled Three Streams of Expression – which was dedicated to John Lewis – reflect the influence of the Modern Jazz Quartet on your own style. How do you feel that the MJQ’s influence has manifested in your own writing and improvisation?

AD: Once I started to study a bit of John Lewis’s writing, I started to really understand the importance of structures and forms All kinds of forms: twelve-bars forms, like a blues; 32-bar forms, which is the standard A-A-B-A “song” form; or the extended forms that he would employ. But he really showed his brilliance in how he didn't make the music sound predictable, which can be very easy in jazz. What I mean by that is, you might have a form, and that form goes in a cycle. So it's just repeated, however long the form is, and then there's sort of an unwritten protocol in how the improvisation unfolds: you have a melody, then you have musicians who improvise – if you have a horn player, like a trumpet or saxophone, they'll play a solo for a few choruses, and then the pianist and the bass, and maybe you'll trade with the drums, and finally you'll take the melody again, like a recapitulation.

In John Lewis’s pieces, it’s never like that. There’s all kinds of interplay going on inside of the pieces where you really didn't know where things were going to go. I think that was a very important lesson for me just as a musician in general: even if you're playing a very familiar form, how you can make an arrangement that’s not easily anticipated and that keeps people on their toes. The great pianist Dick Katz, who was a friend and an apprentice of John's, once told me that John would always say that the most important aspect of jazz music is the element of surprise.

UCP: In this performance, you and your trio are joined by vibraphonist Warren Wolf, who is the Milt Jackson to your John Lewis, so to speak. How did you meet each other and begin playing together?

AD: I met Warren Wolf, actually, a very long time ago. It was 2003, and I was playing with Wynton Maralis in a piece he wrote for orchestra and jazz ensemble called All Rise. I was just subbing for the regular pianist, Eric Lewis, this particular weekend in Boston at Symphony Hall. Anyhow, after the gig, we went to this dive bar in Boston that had a jam session, and Warren Wolf was there. He wasn't playing – and he always reminds me of this story, which I forgot about because it had been so many years – and he had introduced himself and we spoke a bit. But then we didn’t see each other for years, as he was going to Berklee School of Music at the time.

Fast forward to about ten years later, around the time I started working for Mrs. Lewis, I saw him playing with Christian McBride's group, Inside Straight. I said, Warren, I have this project of playing some of John Lewis's compositions, would you be interested in doing this concert with me? And after hearing him with Inside Straight, I was like, This guy's absolutely phenomenal – a virtuoso – and he could read really well, and had a very strong classical background. So I thought he’d be interested, and he was; we had our first concert in a place in Forest Hills, Queens, called Church in the Gardens. And that was the first MJQ concert of sorts.

From then on, it kind of developed and blossomed. Every concert we did, I tried to bring a new music. Unfortunately, Mrs. Lewis passed away in 2010, so I didn't have as much access to the music as I did when she was around. So I did a lot of transcribing, and later on, her son, Sasha, helped me a lot with getting the music that I had helped archive. So we would just try to add new pieces to the repertoire, try to expand our understanding of the MJQ and John Lewis.

The thing that was interesting about the MJQ is it was so popular from the ’50s through the ’90s. I mean, the MJQ was very big; for a lot of musicians that was one of the coveted gigs, because they were touring constantly. There was a break at one point, in which the MJQ disbanded — actually, I think they disbanded twice – but in any case, it was definitely a very desirable gig, and one that was sort of that gig that people felt was really dignified. They were playing concert halls; not that there's anything wrong with playing jazz clubs, but there was a certain kind of like cachet to playing in these big concert hall venues. But for whatever reason, their music – I don't know if it's a matter of access, or just that people have lost touch with the style, or what – but you don't hear many of Lewis's compositions, which are quite strong, played much anymore. There are classics like you’ll hear occasionally, like “Django” or “Afternoon in Paris” – these are simpler pieces that you could almost play at a jam session. But what intrigued me about doing this project was finding these compositions that are more involved, some of his fugues that he wrote, like Versailles or Concord or Vendôme, and bringing those compositions back into the public eye.

UCP: Speaking more to the idea of continuing this legacy of Third Stream and of John Lewis’s influence — you mentioned how Lewis mined concepts and ideas that were essential to baroque music and music of the past as a way to structure his own compositions. Are there any composers, from say, the past one hundred years through the present, who you’re really inspired by, or whose compositional styles you might even synthesize in your own music?

AD: I don't know if I necessarily synthesize his approaches in my own music, certainly, but one musician that I find very fascinating is Tyshawn Sorey. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, known largely as a drummer, and he’s fantastic. He has a complete, encyclopedic knowledge of music – period. It’s just astounding. I follow him on social media – on Instagram, he'll take questions from his followers sometimes, and when people ask him about his influences and what he listens to, and it's everything from Morton Feldman and Milton Babbitt to Elvin Jones and Billy Higgins, and anything in between. I'm just really fascinated by those types of people who have just disparate influences and how they're able to synthesize those influences in their own music. I think that's just very interesting.

UCP: Although this will be your debut on the Jazz Series, you’ve actually performed on the UChicago Presents series, as part of the Philip Glass Retrospective concert in 2015. Is there anything about returning to UCP that you’re particularly excited about?

AD: I'm just excited about coming back to Chicago! I'm not excited about playing here in February – hopefully it's not snowing! No, but I'm ecstatic. The last time I was here, as you mentioned, was with Philip Glass as part of his Etudes Project, and that was a lot of fun. But I'm just excited to be presenting the music of John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet, and hope people will enjoy it and gain something from it.

UCP: What have you been listening to lately?

AD: Lately, I've been listening to a lot of orchestra pieces, like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra… actually, on the topic of Third Stream and “synthesis” between two genres Wynton Marsalis just came out with this violin concerto that he wrote for the virtuoso violinist Nicola Benedetti, who’s wonderful. All this afternoon, I was listening to the great pianist Cedar Walton – so yeah, it’s a little all over the place.

I actually just started reading this book by Patti Smith called Just Kids, so I’ve been listening to some Patti Smith. I wasn't really familiar with her music; I was more familiar with her writing and her overall artistry, but not with her music. It’s great book – I highly recommend it, especially for people who are just moving to New York. I think anybody who's moving to New York for the first time should be given that as a gift, and then follow the story through all the landmarks and references. It’s just a great “New York” book, in that way.