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Interviews

James Lent: The Man at the Piano

By Published: March 2, 2011
AAJ: How long did you work with him each day?

JL: We worked for two hours a day for the week. And then the day before the shoot, he was starting to panic, so we had a four-hour session. He's definitely one who thrives on biting off more than he can chew, and I don't know how he doesn't let the stress get to him.

It was interesting to be part of his puzzle during that period because I could tell that there was a part of him that embraced the challenge, but there was a part of him that was like, "I'm never gong to be a pianist [laughing], so why am I doing this??

AAJ: Was he intimidated by you?

JL: Oh, no. First of all, he had been working with Jonathan, who recommended me. Secondly, I didn't play anything for him until the very end of our time together. I kind of taught him the way you'd teach a 12 year-old.

There's a certain methodology you use with younger students to keep them from fearing the instrument. If you set the bar too high, they freak out. So I kind of had to use those teaching techniques with Woody Harrelson. I do remember that at the very end of our time together, I started to notice that his own psychology was getting the best of him. At that moment, I knew I needed to somehow clear his head of whatever garbage was pulling him down.

I said, "Woody...sit on the couch, I've got something to play for you." So I pulled out the "Pink Panther Variations." My introduction to this was the Cheers theme. So I got him to laugh. And suddenly his attitude changed. It was like he was thinking, "Well, if you can do that, I can do this." So we got him there.

AAJ: Now, in the movies, don't they prerecord the music sequences?

JL: Yes. They used professional recordings for the movie and the shoot. So I had to teach him the precise hand movements. Now they could've used hand doubles, but they wanted a much more authentic look for this. So it was challenging.

AAJ: Let's go back to Gershwin for a minute. It's been said that the only composer in popular music to equal him is Richard Rogers. Do you share this sentiment?

JL: [thinking about it] Rogers has never been my favorite composer, but I would put him in the top three. He's given us some great melodies.

AAJ: His association with Lorenz Hart is akin to the Gershwin Brothers in that there's a crudeness in the lyrics which complements the sweet melody lines. Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics aren't nearly as sardonic. Yet the Rogers and Hammerstein shows have endured with greater popularity. Do you have a preference for Hart or Hammerstein?

JL: I would say the Hammerstein association, as their shows, and therefore their songs from these shows, have withstood the test of time better. But as far as intricate melody, Gershwin stands alone in popular music.

AAJ: Last year we lost two jazz legends: Lena Horne
Lena Horne
Lena Horne
1917 - 2010
vocalist
and, more recently, Billy Taylor
Billy Taylor
Billy Taylor
1921 - 2010
piano
. Taylor made a name for himself alongside Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
and Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
. He was among the first to erase the image of jazz performers as ignorant and uneducated. Any influence for you there?

JL: Oh, yeah, I've got one of his books on piano transcriptions. Only about 10 years ago did they print out the transcriptions so that someone like me could read the music of what those jazz greats were doing. I would say that was one of the important parts of my jazz training...just going in and playing transcriptions by Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
, Art Tatum
Art Tatum
Art Tatum
1909 - 1956
piano
, Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
and, of course, Billy Taylor.

AAJ: Horne was accused of singing "white" in her early career before finding her ethnic voice later in life. Yet she's never been held in the same regard as, say, Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
1924 - 1990
vocalist
, Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
or Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
1917 - 1996
vocalist
. Do you think she was viewed as a sell-out, especially after marrying white arranger Lennie Hayton?

JL: Yeah, she was never looked at as the "black singer." It's like, early on, she wasn't viewed as authentic. And I think when it comes to jazz singing, our public expects it to be a "real" black performer. And I think the fact that she waited so long to embrace her ethnicity was against her in that field.

AAJ: Your website lists quite an array of musical styles—everything from classical to jazz, to ragtime to top-40. You seem to embrace all kinds of music. And you appear to genuinely enjoy this variety. It's more than being practical. For instance, you've said that two of your all-time favorite songs are Donna Summer's "Last Dance" and the pop ballad "Since I Fell for You."

JL: Yes. They're both pop songs, but there's a great contrast in flavor and mood within those songs themselves. It's just good songwriting.

AAJ: You shocked me when you told me you like rap and hip-hop.

JL: I like it for the rhythmic interest...I like it because...there was a time when I had this whole trajectory of trying to sing and could not sing. I mean, I went on this journey at the piano bar from not singing at all to singing a fair amount. And part of that journey required my finding comedy songs that I could pull off that didn't require a lot of singing voice. Even now I don't try to do what I know I don't do as well as others.

For me, rap was a really easy way to bridge that gap of fear I had about singing. I've always thought that rap is an intermediate ground for the person who's afraid to sing. And it's part of our culture. It's easier to start rapping than it is to start singing. And people relate to it. Rapping is sort of like the first steps towards singing. And the really bright rap music can get a crowd going.


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