Tom Warner: Honoring the Legacy
AAJ: I've been impressed by the large audiences for just about all of the jazz concerts I've reviewed at the Kimmel Center. There's been a lot of idle talk about jazz being "over the hill" as an art form. And, sadly, some of the jazz clubs in Philly have closed. But pianist Fred Hersch's "Jazz Up Close" concert had a full house, and while very popular these days, he's not what you would call a "household word." So there really is an audience out there.
TW: I think there is. And I think that Danilo Perez, with this year's series honoring all of the musicians from Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), came up with a great way to showcase these jazz artists. And we're really excited about next year's events, too, because we're going to be honoring the legacy of Billie Holiday. We're very excited about this because in the past we've had jazz vocalists, but frankly not too many, and it's time we highlighted the jazz singers, so next year we'll have five vocalists in individual concerts. Liz Wright will kick it off with Danilo Perez and his trio. Kurt Elling will do one of them. We have Sheila Jordan, a tremendous Chicago-based vocalist not yet well-known in Philadelphia. One of these concerts features Claudia Acuna and it's entitled "Lady in Satin Goes Latin." Furthermore, it isn't well known that Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia. So we'll have two vocalists from Philly, Denise Kingand Venissa Santi doing a concert together.
AAJ: You mentioned that Danilo has some ideas for future "Jazz Up Close" series. His record of curating these events so far has been sensational. What does he have in mind down the pike?
TW: You know, Danilo is very in tune with jazz around the world. He travels not only with his own trio, but with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, and he has a great interest not only in keeping the jazz tradition going but in creating a world jazz vision. He's a teacher in Boston where he lives, and he wants to bring everyone together. People talk about music being an international language and bringing people together. We hear about that in classical music. But jazz has spread all over the world.
You can sometimes identify by their music which musicians come from France or from Russia or the Caribbean, they all have their own influences and ways of being heard. Danilo is very interested in making their work known, and wants to bring musicians from different cultures together to create a sort of "world jazz." So I wouldn't be surprised if we see that influence in the future series we put together. He will be creating something like that next year in Verizon Hall. When he started his career, he was one of the youngest members in Dizzy Gillespie's United Nations band. Dizzy's acceptance of people everywhere really made an impression on him. So for this concert I'm speaking of, Danilo is putting together an ensemble of such musicians as David Sanchez, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Amir Elsaffar, Jamey Haddad, Ben Street, and Adam Cruz. It will be Danilo's 21st Century version of Dizzy's band.
AAJ:Are you going to be taking over Mervon Mehta's post-intermission conversations with the musicians at the "Jazz Up Close" concerts?
TW: Yes, I look forward to doing that. I've been doing something similar in the way of artist chats for the "Fresh Ink Concerts" and for all of our visiting dance companies. I enjoy it a great deal. The audience gets to know the performers more in depth and has a chance to ask questions. It gives them more of a chance to learn what the musicians are doing.
AAJ: It makes the audience feel part of the group. For instance, when Randy Brecker performed in the Kind of Blue series, there was a very warm interaction between Randy and Danilo in which Danilo acknowledged his musical debt to Randy, and Randy was obviously moved to hear him say that.
TW: And even though the Perelman Theater is in itself a small, intimate space, the conversations bring the human side out of the musiciansyou really get to know them.
AAJ: And WRTI tapes and broadcasts the "Jazz Up Close" concerts.
TW: Yes, and they'll continue to do that this season, and next season as well.
AAJ: Why aren't more of the larger-scale Verizon Hall concerts recorded for radio, TV, and/or CD purposes?
TW: A few of them have been recorded. We've been more focused on recording the "Jazz Up Close" series because they have ongoing themes. But we'll look at doing that in the larger "Jazz Friday" events in Verizon. It's not a bad idea.
AAJ: You've had smashing concerts with Sonny Rollins, the Count Basie Band, and on and on like that. Some of them would make terrific live recordings and broadcasts. By the way, is the Basie band on your list for a return visit?
TW: They're not on the schedule right now, but they're always on our list.
AAJ:Here's a tough question: how does someone in your position as programming director, balance out the events with the top drawers like Marsalis, the Basie Band, and so on, with the need to give a chance to the innovators who are less popular and the relative unknowns who are talented but not yet on the A-list?
TW: You're rightit's a tough question. And it's a big puzzle that we struggle with every year. And the economics are very important. There are 2,500 seats in Verizon Hall and they're pretty hard to fill up. However, we do know that some musicians and the icons who are living today like Sonny and Wynton will certainly bring in a large crowd. And we are in the position because of the big guns, so to speak, that we can balance out that series with a couple of other up-and-coming groups. If we're gonna bring in some younger musicians or groups that aren't quite as well known, one of the tricks of the trade so to speak is to put them on a co-bill with one of the more known musicians. We probably wouldn't program the new jazz pianist Hiromi in Verizon Hall by herself, even though she's terrific. But if we put her on the same show with Ahmad Jamal, then it will work. And since she actually studied and still works with Jamal, we can point up that connection in that way. So it will be the student and the teacher in the same concert.
AAJ: Now, how about the sound stage in the atrium lobby?
TW: The Commonwealth Plaza.
AAJ: And occasionally you have jazz there. I heard vibraphonist Khan Jamal there.
TW: Absolutely. I'd say we do about 50 or 60 concerts there every year. [These concerts are free, and typically occur before or after shows in the auditoriums or at times when folks are hanging out in the large plaza.- Eds.] They are scheduled from September through May or June. We often have jazz on that stage before and after the "Friday Night Jazz" events in Verizon Hall. The other night, when we had the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Verizon, we had the Sean Kennedy Quartet perform in the plaza before and afterward. They're a great quartet and established in the Philadelphia area, but they can perhaps get a broader exposure in this way. So it's great for us and for them. And some folks might come just to hear the Kennedy group or who are attending other events at the Kimmel Center. We've had everyone there from Mark Sweetman to Eric Mintel, and Ella Gahnt to Tony Miceli and many other local groups perform there.