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New York Jewish Jazz Genius Bill Charlap Channels Beauty and Truth in 88 Keys

Starting a two-week stand at the Village Vanguard, the lyrical master interprets song for his own purposes

David Yaffe
November 03, 2014
Bill Charlap.(Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)
Bill Charlap.(Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

It’s hard to pass up listening advice from a virtuoso—especially when that virtuoso is Bill Charlap, giant of jazz piano, whose two-week residency at New York’s Village Vanguard begins tomorrow—you want to believe that a recommendation is not just some sort of consumer report, but a tonic for the soul. We were talking about Leonard Bernstein, whose oeuvre he had already committed to a Blue Note CD 10 years ago (on Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein, among my top albums of the new millennium), and whom he would be revisiting in his capacity as music director at the 92nd Street Y on an evening called “Leonard Bernstein’s New York.” On that album, Charlap not only did “Maria” and “America,” he did dance numbers like “Jump.” And when he plays “Cool,” he’s not just playing the melody and soloing—which would have been enough—he plays all the underlying rhythms and counter-rhythms that make it have the spontaneity of a great jazz performance and the mighty precision of a great classical performance.

And so, in our Bernstein discussion, he asked me if I had heard his recording, with the New York Philharmonic, of Debussy’s 1911 Le Martyre de saint Sébastien. “The writing in The Martyrdom of St. Sebastien is so wonderful and so hip,” he marveled. “It’s so timeless, if a jazz writer could have written it today, it would be the hippest thing going.” I wracked my brain. I had it sans narration with Charles Dutoit, I was sure. But Charlap said I had to hear the Bernstein and especially had to hear the narration. It was easy to hear why. Bernstein nails the orchestration, of course. But that narrative! Lenny was a natural performer, but this recording took exhibitionism to a whole other level. We hear St. Sebastien pierced with arrows for two hours, each palpable hit another occasion for shameless melodrama. Bernstein is the narrator. His wife, the long-suffering Felicia, played St. Sebastien with great conviction. Bernstein emotes Gabriele D’Annunzio’s libretto like he was narrating a low-budget horror movie. “In the center, a bed of fiery coals. On one side of it, the prefect, enthroned among his engines of torture. On the other, two young Christians … lashed to twin columns, face to face. At the moment, the prefect is trying to persuade the martyrs to recant, for they are beautiful … ”

This sort of thing goes on for about 75 minutes. It sounded as if Ed Wood was fooling around with Catholic iconography. I imagined a Charlap transcription for piano with Bernstein’s voice booming from the speakers, resurrected to moan in agony about arrows and beauty and noble suffering. Would patrons of the Hebrew Y be listening to the voice of our eternal Lenny of sorrows performing a truly bizarre act of assimilation? And would Charlap’s scintillating and swinging piano bring the whole thing home? After I listened to the Bernstein Martyrdom, I asked Charlap if he would be performing part of it on piano it at the Y. “No, no,” he said. “There wouldn’t be time. I just wanted you to hear it.”

Unlike his generational piano siblings Ethan Iverson, Jason Moran, or Brad Mehldau, Charlap did not try to transfigure any kind of pop past the 1950s. “I don’t believe that they will be playing Radiohead in the way they’ll be playing Berlin, Kern, and Gerswhin five hundred years from now,” Charlap says. “Or a thousand years from now.”


Bill Charlap grew up on on East 51st Street in New York City, where he was born in 1966. His father, Moose Charlap, was a musical theater composer best known for writing the Peter Pan musical; he died at the age of 42, when Charlap was 8. His mother, the singer Sandy Stewart, had a 1962 hit single with “My Coloring Book” and eventually recorded an album with her son. “I never wasn’t going to be a serious musician,” Charlap explained. “As long as I remember being cognizant, that’s what I did. Music was central in my life. My dad was sitting at the piano and composing and singing, and my mom was singing. My life was music. It was never a question of not knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

Charlap was a natural ear player, with a natural feel for swing, the blues, and improvising. He studied classical for the chops—and to round out and deepen his musical passions—but he already knew which way he was headed. “I’m not a classical musician,” he stated bluntly. “When I was 11 years old, I could play things by ear, before I learned and studied.” Charlap bypassed the Berklee College of Music and other jazz conservatories for SUNY Purchase, where he took his lessons with Jack Riley and didn’t pay much attention to the jazz program. “I could continue to study with Jack for credit, and I was close enough to the city that I could take a train in to hear Kenny Barron,” he recalled. “But I only stayed there a couple of years, and I realized that school was in the way of my study. I needed to be with Bud Powell and Art Tatum all the time.”

When Charlap dropped out, he moved to the most affordable part of Manhattan—in this case, Inwood, on the northern tip—and set up shop. “I rented an apartment at 207th Street, rented a piano from Steinway, and I put acoustical foam on the walls, and built a second door,” he recalls. “It was cheap, a couple hundred dollars a month, and the piano cost a hundred dollars a month, so for about $400 a month I could live for a while, and I could study all day because I wasn’t bugging anyone up there. I was getting gigs—enough to get by.” Charlap was getting started (in the era when major labels were still in search of the next Wynton Marsalis) around the time I arrived in New York, in 1991. Charlap’s first big break was playing in a band with the great baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Charlap tolerated Knickerbockers, a “restaurant with jazz,” where some of the city’s finest talent—including his future wife, pianist Renee Rosnes—had to play accompanied by diners talking. But the club was a stone’s throw from Bradley’s on University Place, a ’90s casualty that was a favorite hangout for everyone from Charles Mingus (who wrote a song for the owner called “Nobody Knows the Bradley I Know”) to, when she was in town, Joni Mitchell. Thelonious Monk made his last public appearance there in 1976.

Among the listeners was Whitney Balliett, the soon-to-be-retired jazz critic for The New Yorker. One of his final pieces was on Charlap. Balliett quoted Charlap as saying, of the gig at Knickerbocker’s, “It’s a great place to practice when you’re not working that night.” But what Balliett heard didn’t sound like practicing, more like the earth moving. Soon after Balliett’s hymns of praise (in a magazine that was about to begin its practice of mostly ignoring jazz), Gary Giddins wrote a rave column in The Village Voice (another publication that has given up on serious jazz criticism), and Terry Teachout wrote admiringly of Charlap in the New York Times. Second-rate dives like Knickerbocker’s were suddenly in Charlap’s rear-view mirror.

A couple of years ago I went for four straight days to see Charlap at the Vanguard, just to see what he would do night after night. And so, for four nights of autumn in New York, I saw Bill Charlap, live at the Village Vanguard never repeating a single song except once (“Godchild,” arranged by his former leader Gerry Mulligan for Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool) and never showing the artifice behind the art, because there was no detectable artifice at all—all this during a cultural moment where artifice is rewarded on every screen. A portrait of Tommy Flanagan hovered over him, and he did not falter. The Village Vanguard has not changed substantially since Charles Mingus broke a spotlight and they never replaced it; its new piano (a shinier version of its old one) and recent acceptance of credit cards was a shock. It is a place where, against so many cultural trends, on the right week, depth, not surface, matters most. The Bill Charlap Trio, with a rhythm section, Peter Washington on bass, and Kenny Washington (not related) on drums, descended from two separate versions of the Tommy Flanagan trio, are used to a songbook as deep as the ocean and gradations of interpretation even deeper.

Although Charlap has delivered superb albums—yes, he still thinks in the endangered format—of the music of George Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael, his most stunning studio recording was the 2004 recording for Blue Note of the songs of Leonard Bernstein. On his overwrought Age of Anxiety, based on Auden’s poem but really about his own tsuris, its finest moment was a song written for Billie Holiday: “Big Stuff.” It was meant to be a throwaway jazz tune in the midst of a symphony. Instead, it was the tune, especially when sung by Lady Day, that contained multitudes:

So you cry
What’s it about, baby?
You ask why
Blues had to go and pick you
So you go
Down to the shore, kid’s stuff
Don’t you know
There’s honey in the store for you, big stuff

It was “Big Stuff” that was the big stuff of that symphony. Charlap begins with a sultry stride that then segues into a trio ballad, with Peter Washington’s repeated groove providing a trance. “Big Stuff” is just the right size. Charlap is able to embody Bernstein’s orchestral approach to a tune without squelching the swing; it only brings you deeper, teasing out every nuance that something resembling Talmudic study could produce. How many songs does his trio have this deep, far, and wide? When the occasion calls, Charlap can be at turns lyrical or titanic, swinging, suiting emotion to form, objective correlative on 88 keys.

And so I returned to two sets a night, four days straight, a little longer than eight cumulative hours. How many moods can one have in eight conscious hours? How much can you listen to a head, hear everyone solo, clap in the right places, go from uptempo to ballad to Latin and so on? When the music is this rich, passionate, and alive everywhere you turn, the only thing one notices about time are the myriad ways the trio is keeping it. When Charlap plays “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” unlike the upbeat Nat Cole version, the song is almost a dirge, a lament for fakery, from someone who yearns to make things glow for real. His take on Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” had weathered many seasons for over a decade. The ebullience did not dim, but it was wiser. Charlap’s closing vamp made it seem like it could last forever.

Charlap was the maniac who conceived Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” as fast as a human being could play it and still mean something, which is the essence of what is remarkable about him. That is, many musicians in this town have chops, but few can give lasting and haunting emotions the most peripatetic interpretations. “The Way You Look Tonight” is a love song about one night! What will happen the next night? Or even the next morning? The song can be spun many different ways, keeping the dance going just by speeding it up and keeping us riveted. “Tonight” is a relative term, clearly lasting beyond 1937. And how long has “How Long Has This Been Going On?” been going on? Gershwin’s melodies were so confident even when they were crying salty tears. Charlap would lean into each note, confident in Gershwin’s robust melancholy. He was also alight when he segued into “The Lady Is a Tramp,” a familiar Charlap staple. This 1937 chestnut—made famous by Frank, Ella, and many others—is not of our time, and yet we are here, looking at the portraits of jazz royalty on the Vanguard’s wall, perhaps reveling in the escape from our own rotten times, listening to music written to escape from even more rotten times of their own. I brought friends with me each night, every time a distinct and fond memory. After one of the sets, one friend shared my ardor for Charlap, but wished he had heard him backed into a corner a little. But sometimes I like a look of ecstasy, and the sound of it buzzed in my brain long after the doors closed.

For Charlap, the Great American Songbook is always open and always fresh. In the days leading up to the performance at the 92nd Street Y in July, he was too filled with butterflies to concentrate on anything but the performance at hand. But after it was over, he knew he had conquered Lenny. “You couldn’t do what I do from a fake book,” Charlap said, referring to the books commonly used by jazz musicians, just containing a melody line and chords (often, as in the case of The Real Book, which has gone from bootleg to official publication without a correction of its many errors). “You’d have to dig a little deeper. You’d have to fight for it. It’s worth it.” The trumpet player Brian Lynch, the tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene, and the alto saxophonist Jon Gordon were there to augment what Charlap had done with his trio on his remarkable Bernstein album 10 years ago. The canvas broadened. “To do the Bernstein show, I went back to the score. I saw what the horns needed to do. When you’ve got the horns playing it, you can hear the difference. It wasn’t aping the score. It was informed by the score. By natural selection, we phrased it like jazzmen, and we had found the ways to make them swing more—for our purposes, anyway.”

These have been tough times for jazz. Fewer great musicians have major-label deals (and those who do are largely in hock to their record companies), jazz has been eliminated as a category at the Grammy’s, and more greats die every year (most recently the bassist Charlie Haden, with whom Charlap played a couple of nights of sublime jazz duos as part of Haden’s 65th birthday celebration at the Blue Note). Pluto, in other words, isn’t a planet anymore. But Charlap is unflappable. He has a show to put on, and it has to be new every single time.


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David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. He is currently at work on a musical memoir titled Seemed Like the Real Thing.

David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. Follow his Substack:

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