Jack Reilly: Making the Most of the Gift of Life


Sign in to view read count
The goal is to get beyond, go to something fresh and new. I think you have to walk through the eye of the needle to do that.
Jack ReillyAfter nearly three-quarters of a century, Jack Reilly's career is hardly in need of queries from one more interviewer—questions about his past associations, his musical history or his previous recordings and accomplishments. These have been fairly well documented. The accomplished and well-traveled pianist/composer, though undeniably obscure to the general public, has made an indelible mark in both the classical and jazz worlds—especially through his ability to marry two seemingly disparate musical styles, classical and jazz, in ways that continually bring out the best of both traditions while creating an exciting new music greater than the sum of the constituent parts.

While the record attests to what the man has achieved as a musician, composer and educator, it gives sparse insight into the human being, and it does little to add to our knowledge of what drives this enigmatic yet extroverted, energetic artist to create and keep on creating. His body of work is a virtual kaleidoscope of musical choreography, moving tonal pictures that dance from one brilliant idea to the next. That his musical reputation remains a surprisingly well kept secret seems more an injustice to the listening public who care about creative music than an insult to the music's maker.

Reilly's musical pedigree boasts an impeccable lineage that includes studying with the iconoclastic Lennie Tristano, as well as studies and a tour with the master of modal music and the Lydian concept, George Russell. Both innovators have obviously left their mark on Reilly, who is quick to credit their influence on his own music as well as the unique vision of each. As a young man growing up in the New York area, he was also strongly influenced through his first-hand observation and close associations with such seminal jazz giants as Bud Powell and Ben Webster.

Like most pianists of the "late" bebop period, his exposure to the work of Bill Evans added another dimension to his playing as well as to his approach to harmony and chord voicings. Reilly recounts with relish his meeting Evans as a fellow serviceman at the military music facilities at Washington, D.C. School of Music. He also reveals that his music is equally the product of his love of classical music of all eras and of his never- ending quest to thoroughly understand the intricacies the musical language of all major idioms. From jazz and classical traditions, Reilly blends two distinct styles into a seamless stream of musical ideas that follow logical and yet delightfully serendipitous, unpredictable paths. His performances offer the listener excitement without pandering, his concerts tending to play more like dance performances than a ponderous concerto or portentous jazz improvisational work.

Jack Reilly

Reilly's recent bout with life-threatening prostate cancer (2002) proved a life and career-defining moment that he used as the source for yet another musical journey. His recent Innocence - Green Spring Suite (Unichrom, 2007) is a series of compositions that Reilly wrote as a tribute and expression of gratitude to the team of medical and spiritual people who helped him through this most difficult time of his life. Despite this singular achievement, Reilly continues to be a man in motion, as though determined to maximize the potential of each of the extra seconds that has been given him. In 2002 he was commissioned by the Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra to write and perform his piece "Orbitals," a concerto for jazz-piano trio and symphony orchestra. He also continues to record in the traditional solo piano, jazz trio and jazz quartet formats—both in the studio and in regular live performances throughout the United States and Europe.

As his role educator, Reilly has created a three-part lesson plan, Species Blue: A Method for Jazz Piano (Unichrom), which by one student's account is like a "musical conservatory education in a book." Additionally, he has gone further than practically any other musician with the music of the last half-century's most influential pianist, methodically analyzing the techniques of Bill Evans in a book titled The Harmony of Bill Evans (Hal Leonard, 1994). Over the years Reilly has taught countless students including contemporary pianists Bill Charlap and Kevin Hays.

Ralph A. Miriello spoke with Reilly at his southern New Jersey home via telephone.

All About Jazz: Well, Jack you have certainly had a long and illustrious career. Were you a child musical prodigy?

Jack Reilly. Prodigy is not the word. I took to music...I did not resist music lessons. My mother was a teacher. She graduated a conservatory of music and was quite accomplished.

AAJ: Did your parents encourage your musical development or was it self motivated?

JR: I had heard jazz early on maybe eight or nine years of age. We always had the radio going, it was an oversize RCA Victor. There was much jazz played on the stations. When we had dinner as a family the music was going and I heard early jazz; I was born in 1932, so the Swing Era was hardly underway then. I heard a lot of Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong and that kind of settled in my ear. There was one particular [song].... I think it was Beiderbecke, and ran from the dinner table, tripped over a chair, broke my nose and made my way to the piano and was glued to a till the song ended!

AAJ: You grew up in Staten Island in the shadows of lower Manhattan. Did the proximity to the Mecca of jazz have any early influence on you?

JR: It did in the sense that they had live musicians playing. I heard Art Tatum live, I heard wonderful DJs promoting the music; but the proximity was not as close as we think. I had to take a ferry to get to Manhattan when I was a teenager. That's when I started, at about sixteen, to answer your question about self motivation. The music took precedence over everything else.

AAJ: You have mentioned getting into jazz club galleries as a young man and seeing, up close and personal, the likes of Bud Powell and other legends. At what age did you start taking an interest in these live performances?

JR: Interestingly enough, on Staten Island they had Sunday afternoon sessions at club where you could sit as an underage [patron]...you wouldn't have to worry about being ousted because you weren't drinking. A friend, who lived around the corner from me, Joey Cetani was his name, played all styles that were prevalent at the time. From the early boogie-woogie style, to stride, all the way to the block chord style of [George] Shearing. Joey invited me over to his house to come and play and study, because I was taken with his playing. We both loved [Lennie] Tristano. In fact, Lennie Tristano, was the first major pianist that actually drew me in before [Bud} Powell and [Charlie}Parker, the bebop school, which was going on at the same time. I was fifteen or sixteen at the time.

AAJ : It is well documented that you took lessons with Lennie Tristano. What so intrigued you about what he was doing on the piano initially?

JR: I would have to define his style and that's impossible. It was esoteric, it wasn't the bebop school, it was somewhat more outside of the normal harmonic patterns when he improvised. He had an uncanny sense of rhythm that was different from the bebop players. [With] the quintet, of course, he was surrounded by [saxophonists] Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, who were influences in my teens.

AAJ: Tristano is often considered to have dissected the music into its most technical aspects and in doing, some say, it lost some of its spontaneity. Yet he is quoted as saying "It would be useless for me to play something I don't feel. I wouldn't be doing anything. If I played something that I'd have to impose on myself, I wouldn't be playing anything good."

As a former student what is your take on this apparent dichotomy of thought about Tristano's approach?

JR: That's a great question, because he used to say to me during lessons, "Don't play it unless you feel it." Feeling is connected to thinking. He was a thinker and to me it didn't come out intellectual or cold as some other listeners would define it. To me it had tremendous feeling and that's what attracted me in the very beginning; the unusual compositions that he wrote over standard songs, most of them, and also the freeform or spontaneous playing that they did as a group.

Jack ReillyAAJ: I was under the impression that even when they did that [freeform] they practiced it precisely?

JR: No, they didn't. I read several books on Tristano, one was a dissertation by Jack McKinney, who was on WBAI [radio] for years and worked for Savoy Records. Jack did his Ph.D. on Lennie, and he was nice enough to lend me a copy of his dissertation, which was about three hundred pages. He said in his book, and he talked to Tristano as well, [that] they would play gigs and do this [freeform improvisation] on the gig, not to work it out but to experiment with it. They would start something and just go from there. I don't know for sure, I never asked Lennie myself, as a freeform player I don't do that and I don't think Lennie would have either.

AAJ: Do you think Lennie Tristano is under-appreciated, and if so why?

JR: I think he is and I think it's partly because his style is esoteric. It's so unlike the music of the time or even of what we like to think of as jazz. It might be too subdued for some ears. To me it's not, it's very exciting. I guess you would say it takes a little willingness to develop a taste for it like good wine. For me I liked it right away.

AAJ: Its interesting that on some levels he is revered as a tremendous innovator and yet on other levels there are those who feel there is no soul to his playing. How do you account for this dichotomy of thought?

JR: I don't understand that at all. He worked out at the piano all kinds of chordal concepts; left-hand, he called them, constructions where the left-hand learned every possible chord in all their positions. [He would work on] inversions; every possible permutation of a chord that goes with jazz. There's nothing new he invented, he just worked out a system or way for him to become very free with that aspect of piano playing. The left-hand. That's also why it was so different from the bebop school.

AAJ: Why do you think he eschewed the rhythm section more than most pianists?

JR: That's a good question. I always wondered that. You mean make them just play time and didn't want to hear the drummer?

AAJ:. He apparently didn't look for them to interact with him. Scott La Faro would probably not be a good match for Lennie.

align=center>Jack Reilly Trio l:r Jack Reilly, Dave Green, Steven Keough

JR: No. In fact, when Paul Motian played—he played once and Lennie told him to stop all the other stuff and he was quite annoyed and I don't know if he lasted the week or not, it was at the Half Note, and he had come in to sub for somebody. He stayed a few days but I don't know if he was ever invited back to play with Lennie.


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles