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James Lent: The Man at the Piano

By Published: March 2, 2011
AAJ: Do you recall your first performance?

JL: It was some version of "The Entertainer" in some piano recital in Arizona. I also remember playing "The Winds of War" theme, which was my mother's favorite. I played it in a choir concert in middle school. I was accompanying the choirs. And as a reward for this, I got to solo a few times in those concerts. I remember doing some strange things, like a medley of TV themes and other off the wall stuff.

AAJ: Were there any other musical instruments that fascinated you?

JL: I had six months of guitar before I started playing the piano. But the calluses were killing me! I was miserable.

AAJ: Did you know at the age of eight that this was what you wanted to do in life?

JL: [laughing] Nah, I was just looking for an escape!

AAJ: As a child, were you introverted or extroverted? I'm envisioning "Schroeder" from Peanuts.

JL: I was pretty introverted during my formative years as a pianist. But when I got into junior high school, I was enrolled in choir to sing. I wanted to work on my voice. In a matter of weeks, my teacher put me into piano and kept me there.

Then I started playing for every choir, then he had me playing for every student in solo and ensemble. I was already making money at the piano at the end of my sixth grade year. I started doing these summer theater productions, which became winter theatre productions—kid and teen shows, with like 60 different musical numbers for each. I was getting paid to this—and paid very well.

Then I realized there wasn't anywhere to buy snacks for the rehearsals for these shows. So I had my parents buy snacks in bulks. So not only was I making money at the piano, I had my own concession stand! [laughing] This was seventh grade! That whole experience brought me out of myself.

AAJ: Houston's High School for the Performing arts must've been something—all those talented kids.

JL: That's when I started to get a more rigid kind of training. I had a real diversified experience. I had a very intense classical program. I was playing for musical theater productions. I was playing talent shows. The orchestra in the jazz band would use me—it was a little bit of everything. And I would've never excelled in one category had I not gone all the way through the doctorate in classical piano.

AAJ: Was classical your initial passion in music?

JL: I hated classical as a kid. I started to appreciate it as a listener my sophomore year in high school. But the thing that always baffled me about it was it took so much more effort to learn a classical piece of music. And most people in the world didn't seem to care. Whereas I could play these show and jazz tunes for these kids and get all this attention and make money! It was so backwards in my head.

I would have to struggle and practice to produce a three-minute piece of classical music nobody really cared about and no one would pay for. And I saw this at age 13! But my teachers told me if I was going to make it, I'd have to get the classical thing down. And my parents couldn't have cared less—they hated classical! But they listened to my teachers.

AAJ: In your liner notes, you mention your affinity for Aaron Copland. When did you first discover him?

JL: When I was young, I really didn't like Copland. But in high school, I got to play the ballet suite, "Rodeo," in a brief piano solo. I thought Copland was kind of cool then. But all other Copland bored me to tears.

But when I was teaching in South Carolina, a student named Kathryn chose the "Four Piano Blues" for a competition. And something magical happened to me. I still remember getting goose bumps hearing her play that movement. And I remember thinking, "how did I get a doctorate at Yale and never stumble upon this piece?" And when I was preparing my CD, Blue, I knew I had to record it.

I remember there was a time problem. I was finishing my course work at Yale, I was about to go on tour and I needed a product to sell to audiences I was performing for. And Sprague Hall was about to be closed down for about nine months for renovation. And I wasn't the only person who wanted to record there. And I realized that I'd better grab it if I was going to have a product. And it had better be a product people would want to buy. And I thought "Rhapsody in Blue" would be the best-selling thing I could produce. And I knew I had to include the Copland piece.

AAJ: In your own words, describe what you think is Gershwin's greatest influence on jazz?

JL: In terms of totality, he really didn't write all that much, at least compared to many other composers. He has a handful of musicals, he has Porgy and Bess, which is either a musical or an opera, depending upon how you look at it. He was one of the first people to blur the lines between classical, pop and African rhythms. He was really the first person to hybridize music, which became the trend forever after.

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