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Jack Reilly: Making the Most of the Gift of Life

By Published: January 14, 2008
[David Frost's show] was a challenge also. I love theater and I love actors who are creative. His troop, most of them were from England, and they [would] come over here and I worked at what is now the Bottom Line, [or what] used to be. I came in to relieve Ray Bryant who was the regular pianist, who just didn't want it. Sheila [Jordan] recommended me to the actors and I came in and it was fine.

AAJ: How did you transition from being a jazz pianist, a studio musician and a teacher to being so prolific as a composer who tackles the challenges of composing for a full orchestra?

JR: Composing sort of filled in when I didn't practice or when I was inspired. I wasn't like, say, Elliott Carter, who gets out every morning and writes for four hours, has lunch and writes another four hours. There are composers like that. The piano was my expressive instrument and I'd compose, maybe like Chopin, through the piano. So I would be practicing, then I would suddenly get an idea and maybe I'd write it out. The larger works started in 1968, when I wrote my Requiem mass. I had Sheila in mind to do certain parts of the mass. I was just drawn to the larger works only because [of] being a classical musician. All those large choral works from Mozart to Verdi; Brahms, especially Brahms, my whole body shakes when I hear a certain part of the Brahms Requiem, so why not a jazz Requiem? The oratorio was a commission by the National Endowment for the Arts and the orchestral and piano concertos were commissions. It's exhilarating.

AAJ: If you could turn back the clock would you have concentrated more on the composition of classically oriented pieces at the expense of the jazz, or are the jazz and improvisational aspects of your work inseparable?

JR: Inseparable; a one word answer. There were incredible periods when I hated jazz, then I went all out the [other] way and I stopped classical music and played the jazz, but I never hated classical music. It's a schizophrenic period that I went through. I actually threw away all my old 78 Dial records of Parker [and others]. I don't know what to call it—a stage of depression? Being an artist in a society that doesn't appreciate it, I don't see that as a limitation anymore.

Jack Reilly AAJ: Your concerto for jazz piano trio and orchestra, as well as the commission to create "Orbitals"—and even the Innocence - Green Spring Suite, that you wrote and performed as a tribute to the people that assisted you through your bout with cancer—all have a decidedly classical flavor to them. They play like a dance to music .Is this forging of styles what you find most intriguing now musically?

JR: I kind of did that from the beginning and I wasn't conscious of it. Everything influenced me, and if the classical is more prevalent or more obvious it's because that's where my heart is. I love the larger forms and in jazz there's no [equivalent] to the piano taking its place in the symphony orchestra, like the piano concerto. In a sense, I tried to—I was inspired to—eventually do something like that, where it was coming from my whole jazz background and my whole classical background to make it work; as they say in Günther Schuller's sense, a Third Stream music. It wasn't conscious; I just wrote the music where I knew how to break out into the musical improvisation, but it grew out of the music as I wrote it. It was not forced at all.

AAJ: As you mentioned, others have tried to create a Third Stream, as Gunther Shuller coined the term. Bird with Strings (Columbia, 1950); Gary McFarland and Steve Kuhn's The October Suite (Impulse!, 1966), done with a string quartet; and recently Bill Mays and Marvin Stamm's Fantasy (Palmetto, 2007), with piano, trumpet and cello. Have you any favorites that you feel do a noteworthy job in this cross genre?

JR: No. Maybe Mingus's "Revelations," from the great Brandeis University concert. The reason I say that is because I don't think anyone you just mentioned is a real composer in the terms of classical sense. I don't think [Duke] Ellington was one, although he had his own way of writing for the big bands. His choral work, I didn't like it at all. I thought it was patchwork. You might say the same thing about some of my choral works.

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Download jazz mp3 “Oncological” by Jack Reilly
  • Oncological
  • Jack Reilly
  • Innocence: Green Spring Suite