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Mervon Mehta: The Inside Story of Concert Hall Jazz

By Published: January 5, 2006

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. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

Running the Mellon Jazz Festival at the Kimmel Center

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 is—everyone 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. So—quality, quality, quality—that'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?

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