Home » Jazz Articles » Meet Bill Charlap



Meet Bill Charlap


Sign in to view read count
As an improviser take a look at 'My Funny Valentine.' It's the perfect ballad chorus. You couldn't play a better or purer chorus on those changes.
From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in March 2001.

Songwriter Moose Charlap (father) and show business childhood

He wrote lyrics to some things, not too many. He mainly wrote music, played piano, and sang. He wasn't a pianist per se—he sort of demonstrated his own music. I wasn't like a "show business brat." I just did what came naturally—some people I'd perform in front of, and some I wouldn't. Nobody ever forced me to play my cute piece.

Interest in show music

That's the central part of my musical being. It's also a strong, central part of what jazz music is. Jazz, to me, is the blues, music from American popular theatre, and the great jazz composers, some of who straddle a very wide swath. Ellington is very special, a class by himself. Then you have the jazz writers like Monk, Gigi Gryce, Thad Jones, Kenny Dorham, Benny Carter, lots of others. The songwriters, the reason that's so key for me—it's not like I'm trying to play something that's old or anything. It's just timeless in the best sense. It sounds sort of like any other profound music—like the composer sort of uncovered it. It doesn't sound like they even had to work at it. There are all the technical reasons I like them. They're very attractive as vehicles for improvisation, but they're much more than that. They're melodically profound. They're great and brilliant developments of small melodic cells (and sometimes larger ones). Stravinsky said that it's through constraint and parameters that we achieve freedom. I think there's a great freedom in the discipline of the masters who wrote those songs.


You can hear the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960's play "Stella by Starlight," and it's completely wild or you could hear Sarah Vaughan sing it with a great string orchestration. Those simple forms are both simple and complex at the same time. And the other thing about the type of compositions that interest me as an improviser—Jule Styne told me something once about writing a popular song: "The secret to writing a great popular song is that it be melodically simple and harmonically attractive." Easy for him to say. I love his words because he didn't say "harmonically interesting" or "harmonically complex." That's it—it's attractive. What makes you think somebody's beautiful? It's her hair and her nose? I don't know. It's the whole thing. It's all together in that music. The blueprints are all there. You can learn anything you need to learn. As an improviser take a look at "My Funny Valentine." It's the perfect ballad chorus. You couldn't play a better or purer chorus on those changes.

"You're Sensational"

These are all love songs, except "It's So Peaceful in the Country" which is a love song to the country (no girl!). They're about all the very adult feelings of love although some of them are very childish. This morning I was listening to Sinatra sing "You're Sensational" by Cole Porter. I don't know the exact words, but he's saying people say you're more or less aloof, and a lot of people don't think so much of you, but I think you're sensational. You get a lot of pictures in your head. Maybe it's somebody who has something deep inside that is sensational or maybe it's someone who really doesn't have something sensational, but she's such a fox you're in love with her, and she's sensational. Maybe that's a childish feeling. Or maybe that childish feeling's pretty adult, too. There are all these different types of adult love in there. But, yes they are all pretty much love songs.

Greatest song writers

If you list six composers: Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Richard Rogers you've covered the top of Mt. Rushmore. Then you get to Frank Loesser, Burton Lane, Lerner and Loewe, DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson, Schwartz and Dietz. There's not that many more. You're talking about maybe thirty-to-fifty composers when you get it all down. It has to do with everything. It's the African-American experience, the classical music experience. I'm a Libra so I'm always looking for some kind of delicate balance.


There's also the lyrics of course—a whole other world, the beautiful poets of feelings that wrote those lyrics seamlessly. All of it coming together to create a rich palette to draw on as an improviser and as an American musician. I know all the lyrics to all the songs I play from listening to many records and from playing with many singers over the years. Having them in the air around me when I was young.

The end of the era

I know why it ended. It had to. Nothing can go on forever. Beyond that there were sociopolitical things that had to happen. You had some serious racial uprisings in the 1960's, which had to happen, and thank God they did. They're not finished happening. You had a lot of anger, a lot of kids frustrated with their parents' stiffness who needed to express their feeling for the changes they wanted. They needed to express it in the very direct ways that rock 'n' roll expressed it. American popular culture was no longer in musical theatre—it was in rock 'n' roll. That had to happen. To me it's good that it happened. There's always value in any movement that happens in music. It just takes some time to figure out what that is sometimes.

Later show music writers

Sondheim—I love his music. I think he's a genius. There's a young guy, Adam Guettel. This is the next step in musical theatre. There are some things like "The Night Waltz" that are playable as instrumentals. But this is of a different type of songwriting and musical theatre writing. I don't like when I hear someone say, "They just don't write songs like they used to." Well, you're damn right and they shouldn't. I'm not trying to do anything like it used to be done. I'm just trying to play it the way I hear it. When Kenny, and Peter, and I play together we're just playing honestly from our hearts. We don't sit there and discuss some kind of concept. I feel maybe people see that in me—I'm trying to project something because I like to wear a jacket and tie. I just believe in giving the human spirit some dignity, and I like to feel dignity. I feel the music I play has great dignity and also has great sensuality, visceralness, and primitivism, too. I'd like to focus on the better things we can do as human beings.

1930's chamber music

It's nice music. It's definitely got its place. I don't feel any more drawn to Alec Wilder's Octets, say, than I do to a Beethoven Sonata. Frankly I'm more drawn to a Beethoven Sonata just because I think it's more profound music. Right now I'm playing the music I care about playing, but I love all kinds of music and all kinds of players.

Jimmy Rowles

I heard Rowles from Sean Smith who's a dear friend and a great bassist. He writes very nice songs. Sean played me some Rowles with Red Mitchell—they were some kind of Corsican brothers in music or something—the expressionism they both got into. Bill Mays played me some Jimmy, and I heard it right away. He's all blood and guts. It's the true feeling of jazz—that real human feeling. Jimmy had that in spades.

Gerry Mulligan

Gerry was a profoundly original melodic voice. I learned a great, great deal from him. He was a very original thinker. It was a wonderful experience playing with him. I picked his brain a little bit. I'd say, "What did you do on this arrangement from Birth of the Cool?" He'd sit down and show me some of that stuff, and it was really nice to get it from the horse's mouth. It keeps getting passed on in jazz or in any great music. I got to hear where he was coming from, the bands he was listening to, what the popular music culture was like when he was young.

Written in the Stars (Blue Note)

It's about bands. I haven't talked enough about Kenny [Washington] and Peter [Washington]—they're very special musicians. Kenny knows about jazz history and the lineage of where his instrument fits into it maybe more than anybody else in the world—of his age group for sure. He really understands ensemble playing, small group playing, and he's a great big band drummer, too. He's such a great listener, and he has a command of his instrument—he's able to speak through it without anything getting in his way technically. And the most important thing—he swings his ass off. That's really where it's at—that swing feel. The same thing's true for Peter. He understands Oscar Pettiford, Doug Watkins, Ray Brown, Percy Heath, Paul Chambers, and so on. His combination with Kenny is so good. To have a band is where it's at. I don't just buy a Miles Davis record. I'm also buying Miles with Philly Joe, and Paul Chambers, Red Garland, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane. It's the combination that made those groups such classic groups: the trio of Ahmad Jamal, Vernel Fournier, and Israel Crosby; the trio of Oscar Peterson, Ed Thigpen, and Ray Brown.

Monterey Jazz Festival 2000

Thank you. We had a good time. Peter was previously engaged, and we had Ray Drummond—what could be wrong with that?

Touring with the trio

There's not a tour per se, but we've got quite a bit of work lined up through the year already. We're going to be in New York a number of times. We're going out to do the West Coast Jazz Party right now, Canada in June, Saratoga also in June, we're going to Chicago in July [sings] (Sorry, but we can't take you!). Luckily, we're very busy.

Jazz education

Yeah, I do some teaching. I teach pretty much what the student comes to me for and feels is needed. I teach improvisation: how to get your basic tools together and how to get deeper as an improviser; a lot of pianistic things—how to play the instrument, getting a sound; a lot of work with rhythmic concepts—get them to hear not just piano, but drummers, bass players, horn players, singers; a whole spectrum of music—not just have your eyes glued to your hands. Try to look out; draw your music from the outside.

Accompanying singers

I love to do it when it's a great singer. I've accompanied many, many great singers: Tony Bennett, Carol Sloane, Margaret Whiting, Bobby Short, Julius LaRosa, Sheila Jordan, Ethel Ennis. You learn so much from doing that. Do I do it now that much? Not really---I'm busy doing my own things, but I still enjoy it when I get the chance.

The gift of music

To me music is such an important thing. Why do people go out and pay money to hear some accomplished musicians play? They're searching for a moment of magic—some feeling or expression they can't get in words. I've had that feeling when it's really clicking up there on the bandstand. We're able to give something very beautiful to people as musicians and to ourselves. We're very blessed to have the gift of music. As a musician it's a struggle, too, to develop yourself and to be honest with yourself.

Post a comment

Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.




Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.