Mervon Mehta: The Inside Story of Concert Hall Jazz
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.