Mervon Mehta: The Inside Story of Concert Hall Jazz
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.