Mervon Mehta: The Inside Story of Concert Hall Jazz
“ For most musicians and people in the business, music is not an accessory to life, something you have on Saturday night. Music is there all the time. I can ”
I've been reviewing jazz concerts at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia for the last two years. Each concert is introduced by a distinguished looking gentleman named Mervon Mehta, the VP of Programming and Education for the Center. It dawned on me that he is the one who arranges all these outstanding jazz events, and thus he might have an interesting story to tell. So I sent his press liaisons, Erin Palmer and Paul Marotta, an email asking if I could interview him. They told me he'd be delighted. I took my cassette recorder and a few questions I'd written down to his office near the Kimmel Center. Mr. Mehta came out, introduced himself, and put me immediately at ease. The interview, held in his sunlit office and surrounded by computer and sound equipment and various papers on his desk, was casual yet very informative.
Administrators like Mervon Mehta play a tremendous behind-the-scenes role in the evolution of jazz. Think of impresarios Norman Granz and Orrin Keepnews and Village Vanguard owner Max Gordon, and how they nurtured the music and the musicians. Their preferences became the tastes of whole generations of listeners. Today, concert halls, with their potential for large audiences, are playing a significant role in bringing jazz to the attention of the public. The concert hall jazz "series," as opposed to an occasional concert, is the wave of the future. Mervon is at the center of this development. What he does and does not do and think will powerfully influence this and the next generation of jazz performers and audiences.
I decided to have an informal interview ranging from topic to topic, as I do with the musicians, so readers could get a "feel" for the man and his work, rather than just a dry list of facts. The Kimmel Center website has an excellent interview with Mr. Mehta by Paul Marotta that is loaded with basic information about him and his background. You can read that interview if you wish to get filled in on all the details. I wanted to home right in on what Mervon is "into" jazz-wise, both personally and professionally.
Jazz Interests and "Favorites"
The Jazz Scene
Running the Mellon Jazz Festival at the Kimmel Center
The Dobson Organ and Jazz
Philly Jazz Musicians and the Kimmel Center
The Classical-to-Jazz Connection
Mervon's Life and Work
All About Jazz: It's an honor to interview you. I've been reviewing Kimmel jazz concerts for All About Jazz for two seasons, and have been very impressed and actually learned a great deal as a listener. Now I have the privilege of meeting the head honcho! Although you are responsible for classical and popular programming as well as jazz, for our readers, we'll focus on jazz.
Mervon Mehta: Jazz is what floats my boat. The other music is fine and I enjoy it, but I'd be just as happy to just do jazz.
AAJ: I understood, though, that you have a classical background.
MM: Most people assume that. I have classical family roots. My mother is a retired classical voice teacher. She taught at McGill University, Northwestern, and Chicago's Roosevelt University, for a total of almost fifty years. She studied at the Vienna School of Music. She was going to be a performer, but then had kids. We ruined her performing career! (Laughter.) But she became a top notch teacher. My dad, Zubin, is a conductor.
AAJ: Your father is the famous conductor, Zubin Mehta?
MM: Something new you've learned here already! (Laughter.) My grandfather is also a classical conductor. My uncle is the administrative head of the New York Philharmonic. My cousin Bejun is a countertenor at the Met, the City Opera, and Covent Garden Opera. I have another cousin who is a violinist with the San Diego Symphony. My sister is a not-for-profit fundraiser for classical music. And my brother runs restaurants. He's the only one who is not in the music business. And- my wife, Carey, is the marketing director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. So there's a lot of classical music running around in my family.
AAJ: So how did you get interested in jazz?
MM: Well, I was blessed with my mother who had wide-ranging tastes. She didn't just put on Bach and Mozart, she also put on Ella Fitzgerald, and we listened to Sinatra all the time. So I built from that. But I also listened to Indian classical music- Ravi Shankar. In the sixties and seventies, I was a big Beatles and Rolling Stones fan, and continue to be. So I always had a very well-rounded musical life around me and was blessed to have parents who took me to concerts. And since they're in the business, I met people like Pinchas Zuckerman, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Leontyne Price. I don't mean to name drop, but I was always around first rate musicians. And my parents felt that in every genre there is quality, so you listen to Pavarotti, but you also listen to Sinatra. And as for my mother, a classical teacher, Ella Fitzgerald and Deitrich Fisher-Dieskau are probably her favorite singers. And Sarah Vaughan.
AAJ: I appreciate that kind of openness.
MM: I never felt I should pigeon-hole music, whether classical, jazz, world, or pop. My grandfather was a classical conductor, but he came and visited me in New York when I was a theater student . I wanted to go see a play, and he took me to see Liza Minelli. So I saw her and "Forty-Second Street" with my 90 year old grandfather who never knew anything but classical music. He loved those big Broadway musicals.
AAJ: So you had early exposure to a wide variety of music. Similarly, the jazz musicians tell me that they were exposed to a variety of music very early in the game.
MM: For most musicians and people in the business, music is not an accessory to life, something you have on Saturday night. Music is there all the time. I can't imagine not having music in my life. It's part of who I am. I go to five or six concerts a week. I love sitting there in the dark theater with a couple of thousand other people.
AAJ: You're part of the listening audience- and that must facilitate your work.
MM: I think as a programmer, you have to pay attention to what the audience is responding to. So I go to every concert that we do, and I sit in different seats- the orchestra, the third tier, behind the stage- I want to feel what other people are feeling. Are they gettin' Ornette Coleman up in the third tier?
AAJ: Do they?
MM: I think more so in the third tier than in the expensive seats! (laughter). And I also listen to what people are saying in the lobby: "That was terrible! Why'd they book that?" or "God, that was the most amazing thing I ever heard!"