Tom Warner: Honoring the Legacy

Victor L. Schermer By

Sign in to view read count
We'll be honoring the legacy of Billie Holiday. We're very excited about this because it's time we highlighted the jazz singers, so next year we'll have five vocalists in individual concerts.
Tom Warner recently replaced Mervon Mehta as vice-president of programming for the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, when the latter took the head position at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Among his eclectic musical tastes, the accessible, warm and articulate Warner has a strong interest in jazz.

The Kimmel Center is the major venue for jazz concerts in Philadelphia, and All About Jazz has covered many fine events taking place there. It seemed important to find out how Warner's vision for jazz is similar to and different from that of his predecessor, since it will affect the listening experience for jazz fans during the next several years.

All About Jazz: We'll start out with the warm-up question that I ask the musicians; and let you as an administrator have a shot at it. If you were to go to the proverbial desert island, which five or six recordings would you take with you?

Tom Warner: Omigosh, that's a hard one! Well, I guess if I had to make that choice, I'd probably start with a collection of Mozart's late symphonies, say 36 through 41. I'd need a copy of a big band LP compilation that my father had when I was about 8 years old. It had that amazing sound of the big bands, from "Sing Sing Sing" to "Woodchopper's Ball" and so on. I'd need some James Taylor Quartet, maybe an early one like Mud Slide Slim. And there's a singer from West Africa, Rokia Traore, whose CDs I love. I don't think I could do without a copy of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. So there's five or so right there—that's a good start.

AAJ: Who are a few of your favorite jazz players?

TW: Well, of course there's our artistic adviser for jazz here at the Kimmel Center, Danilo Pérez. I love his playing. I was a trombone player all through college, and when we had Wycliffe Gordon here a couple of years ago, I couldn't believe the sounds he got out of that trombone. When you get to vocalists, Kurt Elling and Dianne Reeves—I think they're both at the top of their game.

Chapter Index

  1. Background and CV
  2. Warner's Work at the Kimmel Center
  3. Jazz at the Kimmel
  4. Jazz Education Programs
  5. Working with Finances and the Musical Community
  6. Values and Musical Tastes

Background and CV

AAJ: How did you become interested in music?

TW: I had parents and friends who loved music and loved to sing, and I was fortunate enough to play an instrument at a young age, in the D.C. suburbs. I went to college at the College of Wooster in Ohio and grad school at Indiana University, Bloomington. I was fortunate enough to be in one or another jazz band, orchestra and chorus all through college and beyond.

AAJ: Do you remember your family listening to recordings or taking you to concerts as a kid?

TW: We listened to everything in our house from Dave Brubeck to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Paul Simon and Garfunkel.

AAJ: About the trombone, did you initially intend to make a career out of it?

TW: I'm not sure I ever planned to do that, although I could play pretty decently, and loved doing it.

AAJ: Who was your trombone teacher?

TW: The main teacher I had growing up was Larry Wiehe, the principal trombonist of the U.S. Air Force Band in D.C. He had the sweetest sound, and he would just mesmerize me. He introduced me to listening to people like Bill Watrous, who was a friend of his.

AAJ:Tell us a bit about what brought you to the Kimmel Center. You came on board in another position even before it opened in December 2001. What brought you here? What was your career like before that?

TW: You're right. I've been working for the Kimmel Center ever since it was a hole in the ground and the building construction was just under way. Prior to that, for six years, I was the operations manager for the Philadelphia Orchestra. I was managing their international and domestic tours, radio broadcasts, CD production, on-stage rehearsals, and such. That was a great job. I got to travel the world with them on tours, and that was terrific. Before that, I worked for two other orchestras: the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Baltimore Symphony.

AAJ: Did you work with their former conductor, David Zinman?

TW: I did work with him. He's really terrific—whenever he's here in Philadelphia guest conducting I make sure to hook up with him.


Warner's Work at the Kimmel Center

AAJ: What job did you have at Kimmel at first?

TW: Well, since we hadn't started concerts, I used my operations background to put together many of the policies and procedures, as well as working with the architects and designers. Once the place was up and running, I sort of slid over to the Programming Department.

AAJ: So you were Mervon Mehta's sidekick while he was VP?

TW: We did an awful lot in the first seven years of programming together. We decided on the various series. It's a nice luxury to work with a boss who thinks along the same lines and has similar tastes. We worked together very well.

AAJ: One of the reasons for doing this interview is to find out where the Kimmel programming is going to go now, since you took over from Mehta. How would you compare and contrast each of your passions in music?

TW: Let's see if I can pick this apart a bit, because it's somewhat difficult since we did see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. Both of us often go to clubs and concert halls to see what's happening. We both have a tendency to look at what's going on overseas in addition to what's happening here in the U.S. I've been fortunate enough to get some travel grants to check out the music and dance scene in different places, but I want us to continue our focus on what's going on right here in Philadelphia as well. But it's hard to distinguish my own preferences from Mervon's. I was asked that when I interviewed for the position, and I said I really would expect, at least initially, to continue what he did because it's been very successful.

We've got a nice group of loyal subscribers for all our series. Danilo Perez has ideas for our "Jazz Close Up" series just oozing out of him. Regarding classical music, we both love the great master musicians and recitals that we've had all along. I was probably more inclined than Mervon to push the "new music" series, "Fresh Ink" in the Perelman Theater, and coming up, a couple of them will be in the Innovation Studio here. I really can't get enough out of the new music that's happening these days.

AAJ: Do you have any thoughts about how you could incorporate more jazz into the "Fresh Ink" series?

TW: "Fresh Ink" started out as a contemporary classical music series. It has morphed, in a good way I think into, say a downtown music kind of series. We're bringing in groups such as the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Absolute Ensemble, which are actually incorporating from the jazz vocabulary. I wouldn't be surprised if we include some avant-garde jazz musicians and composers in the series, such as Uri Caine, who participated a couple of years ago. So I could easily see some mixing and matching.

AAJ: That would be great—to feature some of the more experimental kind of jazz, since "Fresh Ink" is all about the cutting edge. What is your vision for jazz programming at the Kimmel Center over the next few years?

TW: It's to make sure we do at least as much as we've been doing, if not a little bit more. Our various concert halls are in the same boat right now—it's not the best economy. On the other hand we have to come through, because if we don't, we run the risk of seeing this great American musical form not being exposed to the larger audience, and we need to have that happen. So we'll do everything we can to have our "Jazz Up Close" and "Jazz Fridays" series continue. If we can increase our shows, or do something to reach a wider audience of concertgoers, we will do so. We can't just say, "Jazz isn't the most popular art form," and not support it 100 percent.

It's important. And I think our audiences bear this out. Just last week, we had Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and we had a just about sold-out house in Verizon Hall. Coming up is a "Jazz Up Close" concert with saxophonist Bobby Watson, who is going to be honoring the legacy of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, who were the sax players on Kind of Blue, and we're almost sold out. So, people are looking for this kind of thing.


Jazz at the Kimmel

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. Lizz 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 musicians—you 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, 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 right—it'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 J. 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.


Shop for Music

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

Related Articles