Mervon Mehta: The Inside Story of Concert Hall Jazz
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!