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!"
AAJ: Let me ask a question to get a sense of your musical tastes. It's the infamous desert island question: If you were to go a desert island, which jazz recordings would you bring with you?
MM: Sarah Vaughan, Live in Tokyo. She plays piano and sings on this double CD. A Frank Sinatra recordI couldn't tell you which one. It would be like giving up a first born to pick one of them. Sonny Rollins, Tenor Madness. Early Brubeck.
AAJ: What other jazz artists turn you on?
MM: Oscar Peterson. [Go to www.oscarpeterson.com for one of the finest jazz websites, replete with writings by Oscar himself.] Like him, I'm Canadian. We're both from Montreal. Oscar Peterson did the opening night for our second season at the Kimmel. We had Cecilia Bartolli, classical singer in the afternoon, and Oscar at night. And somebody said, "Oh the greatest European mezzo-soprano and the greatest African American jazz pianist!" African American? No! He's Canadian. And very loyal. Still lives in Toronto.
AAJ: Is he still playing?
MM: Only occasionally. He's not in great health. When he was here, he told me that when John Lewis died, he didn't touch the piano for over eight months, he was so devastated. When he came to Kimmel, he unveiled a new piece called "A Prelude for John Lewis," a beautiful ballad, and Oscar was weeping at the piano. Oscar is a great pianist who took us from Errol Garner to where we are today with Herbie Hancock and so on. A giant man in every sense of the word, he has great integritythat's the word that best describes him. Everybody calls him Mr. Peterson, including his band. When he walks on stage, all chit chat stops. And not because he's a task master or anything of the kind. He just carries that respect with him. And you can feel it in his playing- there's such depth of emotion, and he's got the chops to beat just about anybody.
AAJ: When I was studying music in New York many years ago, I asked my teacher, Alan Raph, who I should listen to- and he said without a moment's hesitation, "Oscar Peterson." And Alan and I were trombonists. But he perceived Oscar as one of the truly great creative forces.
MM: We're talking about some of the elder statesmen, but there are the young players out there whom I really and truly admire. They're taking risks and playing new things. Jason Moran is one of them. Danilo Perez. Obviously we have a great relationship with Danilo here at the Kimmel Center [Perez is coordinating several of the Kimmel jazz seriesEds.], but I've known him for many years as a performer, a teacher, a side man with Dizzy, leading his own band, playing with Wayne Shorter now. The guy can play anything and is universally respected by his generation and older folks as well. When we've done curated concerts that we put together, Danilo picks up the phone and calls Jon Faddis, and he says "Yes" and Gary Bartz says "Yes" and James Moody says "Yes" and here's no arguments or discussion about fees, etc. They say, "Oh, Danilo's's doing the thing in Philly, let's go!"
AAJ: What is it about Perez that gives him this influence?
MM: I think he's a nice guy. Also, he can play anything. He's very respectful of their music. And he's very adventurous. I mean, he put this series together last year called "Take the Coltrane." It was all Coltrane's music but seen from the eyes of Latin jazz musicians from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Panama, most of whom are not known names in particular jazz circles. Claudio Roditi is known among those who really appreciate jazz, but the man on the street probably doesn't know his name. But Claudio put together an evening of Brazilian jazz musicians playing Coltrane, and it was phenomenal. They all jumped at the chance to do that series. And we're in the midst of putting together next year's series now. Exciting.
AAJ: Can you tell us who's going to be in it?
MM: No! Not even close! (laughter)
AAJ: OK. I thought I had a scoop.
MM: We'll announce it on March 1. Call me on February 28th and I'll give you the scoop before it hits the Philly papers.
AAJ: All right. To change the topic, which are your favorite jazz clubs?
MM: I go to Chris' and Ortlieb's fairly frequently. I tend to go to clubs where the music is at the forefront, rather than the food, drink, or chit chat. I think some jazz clubs have failed because it's not been about the music. But the Jazz Showcase in Chicago was always a favorite place. I heard musicians there for the first time. That's where I first saw Danilo, David Sanchez, a lot of younger musicians that came through there. And they get to play for an entire week. In New York, I go Birdland all the time. And then the Lincoln Center's new home for jazz is pretty exciting.
AAJ: What's the name of that club, Dizzy's?
MM: Dizzy's Club Coca Cola. They took a lot of grief for it when they named it that. But, you know what, you've gotta pay for it, so I have no problem with any sponsor if they're coming to the table for the right reasons. We at Kimmel could not do without Mellon as our sponsor.
AAJ: Dizzy's Club has some great events. I reviewed Bobby Watson and Horizon there. It was a terrific experience. And the spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline certainly adds a dimension.
MM: The musicians get a chance to play there for a week. Many of the jazz clubs can't afford the great players like they used to. In the old days, you'd go one night to see Sonny Rollins, the next night to see Coltrane. That doesn't exist any more. The major players now play concert halls. You see them once every year or two in any particular locale, which is kind of a shame. And there's not as many clubs. You talk to some old timers in Philly, and in 1958, '59, '60 there were five or six jazz clubs from where the Kimmel is now to North Broad Street, and you saw the greatest big bands, and you saw Oscar Peterson and Marian McPartland, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis. You could go five nights in a row to five clubs and see great players.
AAJ: I was talking with vibraphonist Tony Miceli, the other day. He started out in Philly in the '60s. And he named seven or eight jazz clubs off the top of his head, and now there are two or three. The venue for jazz has changed quite a bit.
AAJ: Now let's focus more specifically on your work here at the Kimmel Center. First of all, tell me, what is the connection between the Mellon Jazz Festival and the Kimmel Center?
MM: It's actually not a very complicated story. Mellon has a twenty year history in Philadelphia with its jazz festival. Its height was perhaps a 10 day festival they had at the Mann Center, the night clubs, and all over town, which was fabulous and was supported by local audiences. When I came here in 2002, that summer was the last summer festival of Mellon. There was one concert at the Mann Center with Chuck Mangione and Natalie Cole, and others. There were events at Chris' and at the Clef Club.
And that was it. And then Mellon announced they were packing up their bank branches and leaving Philadelphia. I said to myself, "Let me just call the contact person there and see what's going on." I met this wonderful woman who was a great jazz lover and the force within Mellon for jazz. We met, and I encouraged the festival to stay in Philly, and I guaranteed her that jazz would be a big presence at the Kimmel Center. And I think we've proven it. But we can't do it alone. We need corporate help. So, instead of an occasional festival, why not have Mellon here all year long, with all of our ads and radio? We can do five or six concerts in the big theater, and the same number in the little theater, and call it "The Mellon Jazz at the Kimmel." She took it to her people, and we formed a fabulous relationship which continues, and we do ten to fifteen concerts a year all for Mellon. We did initially take a lot of flack from the jazz community. They said we "stole" the Mellon money from other organizations. In reality, the money was gone, and we got it back to Philly.
AAJ: How do you go about selecting jazz artists for your concerts?
MM: The main thing iseveryone has a definition of what jazz is, and more importantly what it's not. You can have traditional jazz, Latin jazz, Dixie, swing, blues-influenced, gospel-influenced. What we haven't done is any "smooth" jazz or "crossover," "fusion" stuff. I still to the bottom of my soul believe that musicians like Sonny Rollins, Keith Jarrett, and Oscar Peterson deserve to play, and we've found our audience. Soquality, quality, qualitythat's number one.
Then, we have two different series, one is in our big Verizon Hall, with 2,500 seats, and we need to fill most of those seats to make it work, so we're looking at the big names. There are all sorts of other people that we'd like to have, but they don't fill the room. So, as Program Director I've got to be looking at the Sonny Rollins' and the Dave Brubecks and the Nancy Wilsons and so on. Then, there are people with projects. They're doing interesting things, they're touring, they're putting collaborations together. We rely on some of our agents to tell us about these things. We bitch and moan about the money, and hopefully we put together five or six concerts, but they aren't necessarily tied together. That's the big theater. That's where we have Sonny, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and those folks.
In the smaller Perelman Theater, we only have to sell 600 seats, so we can afford to be more adventurous and creative and daring. We hope our packages work, but not all of them do, and it's fun to try some things. In the first season, before I came on board, it was the same philosophy as the big hall- who's touring but on a smaller level. So we had Nenna Freelon, Terence Blanchard, Stefon Harris, all great musicians who were touring because they had a new record out and were on the circuit. I thought we could be more creative than that and have someone curate something for us.
I had worked with Danilo Perez in the past, and I remembered how in a master class with some kids, he had the audience beating out clave rhythms. He taught and entertained in a way that engaged the audience so thoroughly, and got them all into Latin jazz in 45 minutes, and the kids all learned something new that day. So I said to myself, if I can get him to come in and advise us on a concert series, and bring in his fellow musicians to play, and also to teach with our middle school and high school jazz ensembles who rehearse here every second Saturday and play a couple of gigs, that would be the ideal creative partnership for both of us!. Danilo teaches them when he can, as do others like James Moody, Victor Wooten, and others.
So Danilo is an educator and also a player and someone who has relationships with various musicians, and someone who crosses genres too. He not only plays Latin, but he can play Wayne Shorter's stuff, Dizzy alumni stuff with James Moody and Gary Bartz, and Paquito d'Rivera. And then he can play straight ahead trio music as he does with his own group. He lives in Boston, teaches at the Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory. So I called him and said, "Do you want to come down and work with us on this?" So he came, walked into the Perelman Theater, and said "Lemme play the piano." And he loved the piano. He loved the feel and intimacy of the room. He said, "Really, this could be my sandbox, I could create things here." And I said, "If you'll commit to us, we'll commit to you." There was no contract, just a done deal. And we're starting to do our fourth season together. He's put together some amazing concerts. All of them, by the way, have been recorded by FM station WRTI. We have all the master tapes, and we hope to put together a compilation CD of moments from those concerts.
AAJ: I think it's great that you have the tapes. Keith Jarrett, when he played at Kimmel, pointed out that we only hear a jazz concert once; it will never be done the same way a second time. But we can hear the recordings again and again.
MM: Absolutely true. What an incredible mind Keith Jarrett has as a composer and a pianist. And two collaborators that have been "lock step" with him (Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette) for twenty-seven years now. I could kick myself for not getting to his fall solo concert at Carnegie Hall, which I hear was phenomenal.
AAJ: Do you have plans to release some of these live recordings?
MM: Well, we now are beginning to have a bank of really special things, and at some point, Danilo and I will sit down and pick out some of the highlights, like those Brazilian musicians playing "My Favorite Things," or Faddis and David Sanchez playing a Dizzy tune with Danilo on piano and Adam Cruz on drums. And we had a night where we had two pianists, Mulgrew Miller and James Williams (who passed away). And two vocalists, Luciana Souza and Janice Segal. Janice scatted the Dizzy parts and Luciana scatted the Charlie Parker parts, with Dizzy tunes done by two vocalists and two pianists in a couple of numbers that blew people away. When Ellis Marsalis was here a few weeks ago, he played his encore, "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?" the poignancy of that in a solo piano, with seventy years of his soul and his life and his history in his fingers, you can't manufacture that in a studio.
AAJ: Do you have a recording company that could release such a compilation?
MM: We haven't begun that yet, but eventually we'd love to do it. There are performance and rights issues that are there but aren't insurmountable. Danilo releases his CD's now purely on his websitehe doesn't contract with a record company, and seems to be doing well.
AAJ: I attended the press conference for the Dobson Organ installation, and wrote a report of it. I ran into you and asked you if you plan to use this magnificent instrument for jazz concerts. At the time you said that it would be hard to find a jazz organist to play it. You told me that the instrument is not of the type they ordinarily use. What's going on with that these days?
MM: Well, the organ will debut in May, 2006. We probably won't have a jazz component for the opening, because it's already booked, and there are other inaugural events with movies, kid shows, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. I can't yet specify a date, but I will guarantee you that in our Jazz Festival 2006-07 season, there will be a jazz organ component. I have the player in mind...
AAJ: But you're not going to tell us who...
MM: No, but I will tell you that I've spoken to two or three jazz organists, Hammond B-3 players, one from Philadelphia, I sent him all the specs for the organ, and he said, "You know what, I wouldn't have a clue what to do with this thing! I'd love to do it but I'd need a month and a half of time to play on it first." There are four ranks, three hundred levels of memory, seven thousand pipes. Also, classical pipe organists are used to going from one organ to the next with every concert that they do, but the jazz guys take a Hammond B-3 with them and that's that. So we have to find a jazz organist who really plays the pipe organ. I know who that person is, and we just have to figure out the date. My secret wish is that we open our Mellon Jazz season next fall with a jazz organ concert. I think we're going to do that.
AAJ: That's exciting.
MM: Yeah. I can't wait to hear it. There are pieces of the organ that are now working. It'll be finished in May. But it already sounds phenomenal even though they've got five more months to tune it and voice it. So, in any case, the difficulty is that there are many great jazz organists out there, but not many of them are pipe organists. Especially the young players, they've never sat at a pipe organ.
AAJ: Do you know if Jimmy Smith played pipe organ?
MM: You know, I'll bet he did way back. But we've got somebody who really plays the pipe organ.
AAJ: You're not going to tell me who?
MM: I could, but then I'd have to embargo you to keep it confidential until March 1st.
AAJ: One purpose of my writing is to encourage some of the local Philadelphia jazz musicians. You've expressed interest in bringing Philly musicians to the Kimmel. You've had guys like Mickey Roker, James Moody, Ravi Coltrane.
MM: His mother, Alice has a new album, Translinear Light. They're traveling next year. Ravi, Alice along with Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden.
AAJ: What a group!
MM: We've had Gerald Veasley, Pat Martino, Joey DeFrancesco, Khan Jamal, Christian McBride, all with roots in Philly.
AAJ: So what are your future considerations for bringing in some of the guys that regularly perform locally?
MM: We will always have local players. Besides our two main stages, we also have our lobby stage, where we often feature local players. Tony Miceli, Warren Orrie. We'll continue to do that. There are two sides to the equation. One is that they're great players and we'd like to give them the opportunity to play on the big stage. But we also have to sell tickets. Quite frankly, we've done three All-Philly nights. The first year was Pat Martino, Jim Ridl, and Joey DeFrancesco. We had McCoy Tyner and Gerald Veasley. This year we had Odean Pope and Christian McBride. Unfortunately, those have been the least well sold of any of our concerts, which has been really disappointing. The Philly community is not coming out as much as we would like them to. So we're in a place where we want to do more for and with the Philly musicians, but if we don't sell tickets, it's not good for them or us. So we've got to choose carefully.
AAJ: What about the lobby stage, which doesn't require a large audience?
MM: Every time we have a big performance, we have a prelude with a local musician in the lobby space. For example, Warren Orry and his Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble performed before Christian McBride. Odean Pope played when Ornette Coleman was here. We'll always have local people involved.
AAJ: Have you considered some of the local regulars like John Swana?
MM: Sure. John's played there. And John was a staff member of our summer teen jazz camp. We use local musicians more than people might imagine. Marc Johnson, a local pianist and former trombonist, is the leader of our jazz ensemble.
AAJ: OK, so you are keeping this local focus.
MM: You know we're only three-and-a-half years old. But I think we'd rival any place in town. We're very committed to the Philly jazz community. There's a lot of work to be had here. We can't have jazz every weekend. We have other groups, like the Philadelphia Orchestra here. We're not a nightclub.
AAJ: Speaking of the Philadelphia Orchestra, do you happen to know which if any of the musicians are interested in jazz?
MM: There are a few. There's a jazz French horn player. The principal trombonist, Nitzan Haroz, plays salsa fairly frequently. Zach Depue, the violinist, has a group called Time for Three, which is a kind of blue grass, jazz, rootsie triotwo violinists and a bassist. And there are others who appreciate jazz. But some of the orchestra's musicians are much more conservativeone day we had our high school jazz ensemble playing in the lobby, and I saw a Philadelphia Orchestra member, an older one, with his hands over his ears, shaking his head in disgust! (Laughter), and I found that to be quite disturbing. They were playing some tricky stuff like "Giant Steps," and here's a musician who told a security guard that "This place was not built for that kind of crap!" So we just shake our heads.
AAJ: Does your dad, the conductor Zubin Mehta, like jazz?
MM: I think he appreciates jazz, but he's never been schooled in it. A lot of classical musicians think they can play jazz, but they don't do it well. My dear friend, Daniel Barenboim, one of the greatest classical pianists and conductors, did a jazz album with some guys in the Chicago Symphonyand there's a really good jazz clarinetist in the orchestra. Barenboim had an arranger put together all this Ellington and Gershwin music. Barenboim played it note for note perfectly, but you know, it wasn't great playing. The audience loved it when they performed it in concert, but jazz musicians that attended weren't excited. The classical guys could play the notes but not the music.
AAJ: There aren't many musicians who can cross that divide.
MM: Branford can do that. Branford Marsalis is a great jazz player. And he's performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra soon. Wynton used to cross over, but doesn't play classical anymore. But very few people can bounce back and forth. The local violinist Diane Monroe can do it. She's a classical violinist who performed with James Carter in his Billie Holiday tribute show. James Carter's quartet with eight string players. Diane got them together, rehearsed them, and it was terrific.
There aren't many who can cross over successfully. Yo-Yo Ma once told me that one of the most difficult musical experiences he ever had was playing with Mark O'Connor on Appalachian Spring. The nuances of bluegrass were very difficult. It's like trying to play a Viennese Waltz if you've never been to Vienna and had a sacher torte. Yo-Yo had to live and breathe bluegrass with Mark before he got it.
AAJ: It's like asking Miles Davis to play the trumpet part on "Thus Spake Zarathustra." But a guy like Christian McBride has phenomenal technique that any classical bassist would envy.
MM: Incredible. But remember what he said on stage. He learned to play classical bass. One of the interesting things about bass players is that when they pull out the bow, you can really find out if they play bass. Because the intonation of plucking versus bowing a string are two different things. When you're bowing a long, sustained note, if it's not perfectly in tune, we all get squirmy. McBride can play anything. When he was in a high school dance band, they were playing "Havah Negilah," "Giant Steps," "C-Jam Blues" all in one night.
AAJ: What is your life like outside of work?
MM: I don't have a life outside of work- that's the problem!
AAJ: So, you're a workaholic.
MM: I'm not a workaholic. I have a family. My wife's in the music business. When we go on vacation, the first thing we ask is "who's playing?" We went on vacation to Portugal last year, and we're asking, "Which great Portuguese artists are playing, which great fado is playing at a club, let's go. We don't just go sit on a beach and read a book. I'm not a great museum go-er. I go to concerts. I want to hear what people are reacting to differently there, here, or in the Middle East.
AAJ: You have a life in music.
MM: Yes. It's what I do. It's what I am. I feel incredibly blessed. And one of the things about programming for the Kimmel Center is that it's not just jazz or classical or world musicit's all of them. Tomorrow night we have something called Colonial Holiday, a step back in time with a chamber orchestra, and actors, dancers, and singers and video in the Perelman Theater. At the same time we have the New York Philharmonic in Verizon Hall. Saturday morning, we have the Vienna Choir Boys, Saturday night we have Jane Monheit, and Sunday we have Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. That's a lot of fun!
AAJ: What's your philosophy? How do you understand the meaning of life? Do you practice any spiritual beliefs or meditation? How do you get it together within yourself?
MM: You know, when I need spiritual uplifting, I put on a Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald record or a Mahler symphony. That's what I do. I wasn't brought up with any kind of religion. There's something that music can do for my interior that I find no other art form can do. As a programmer and a presenter, we've had our ups and downs. When it all comes together and we're successful, and we have a full house with a great performer like Oscar Peterson, and we feel that as administrators we've had something to do with connecting a great artist to an audience with all the pieces right, that's when I go home and feel that I have the coolest job in the world.
AAJ: What do you think of the "Mozart Reloaded" concert that you've got planned?
MM: You know, there's a show that has a potential to really blow the roof off this place. But it also could be a big disaster. Tony Miceli playing Mozart is going to be interesting to hear. A steel drum band playing Mozart is going to be interesting. But how can you tell in advance? I remember sitting at an Ornette Coleman concert with a pianist friend. Two hundred people walked out of the auditorium. Someone asked, "Were you disappointed?" I said, "There were still 1,700 people who sat through Ornette Coleman playing some pretty "out there" stuff with two bass players sometimes playing in different planets, him playing violin and sax, and his son Dinardo on drums. Here's a legendary figure in the music world, certainly not for all tastes. So I was ecstatic that only two hundred people walked out.
I turned to my friend who is a jazz pianist, and I said, "What did you think of that?" And he said, "They can't all be Dave Brubeck and George Shearing." And thank God! We got a few complaint letters from people who came to hear Ornette. One asked for his money back, and I said we don't refund concerts after the fact, but why don't you come to another concerts, and I gave him two free tickets to a show. He came to me later and thanked me. It was much better, he said, "than that Coleman Hawkins showI still can't understand it." He confused Ornette Coleman with Coleman Hawkins!
AAJ: Let's close with your wish list.
MM: I wish we can continue with as much jazz as we've been doing. I wish the audience stays with usso far they have. And I hope that the audience will start to throw their allegiances to some of the younger new players, because Brubeck and Sonny and Wayne and Herbie are still playing at the top of their game, but they're not going to be around forever. So people need to come around to see players like Danilo, and David Sanchez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and those folks. If the audience doesn't come, it will spell the death of concert jazz, and we'll go back to clubs, which isn't necessarily bad in itself, but there are not enough clubs out there. The really bad thing is the mediocrity that is competing for those listeners. So when you have a James Carter doing incredibly inventive things selling a fraction of the records that Dave Koz is doing, God bless James that he's still doing it, because I would be very discouraged. It's a difficult time to be a serious musician. And there's all these new players coming up out of school. That's what keeps me up at night, trying to figure out a place for all these new guys.
AAJ: We ought to be nurturing these musicians. Jazz is a truly American art form, and ought to be respected and honored.
MM: Well, there are hundreds of jazz festivals, but so many are blues and rock festivals with a little jazz thrown in. When Buddy Guy or Aretha Franklin perform at a jazz festival, they're great, but it's not a jazz festival. We're selling ourselves short. On the positive side, Penny Tyler at Ravinia books great jazz festivals. George Wien is still going strong. But we have to compromise at times. We've got to fill the hall.
AAJ: I can testify that Kimmel Jazz is the real thing.
MM: Thank you. Keep the faith, keep the faith! Long Live Jazz!
AAJ: It's a tough business, and it's hard to keep up the standards, but you've done it. Thank you for that and also for a great interview.
Victor L. Schermer