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Aaron Diehl

Sometimes it's possible to catch a rising musician at the very start of his career before he becomes better known to the general listening public. Such is the case with jazz pianist Aaron Diehl. Diehl is already making a name for himself in New York in joint concerts with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Eric Reed, Marcus Roberts, Wess Anderson and Jonathan Batiste at various clubs, at The National Jazz Museum in Harlem and at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Ironically, Diehl's first CD was produced in Japan and isn't generally available in the United Stated. Still, Marian McPartland has already included him on Piano Jazz, and Diehl is touring around the world to perform in various venues. Diehl admits that he first turned down the opportunity to tour with Wynton Marsalis before he moved to New York, but he was able to turn around that decision to learn about the rigors of the touring regimens of professional jazz musicians. Now that Diehl is carving out a career in jazz, he is working on writing jazz in a liturgical context as part of his objective to incorporate jazz into community and religious activities. We caught up with Diehl after a concert in his home town of Columbus, Ohio.

Jazz Review: I enjoyed your recent concert at The King Center, but I was surprised when you brought out the horns in the second half.

Aaron Diehl: The reason I did that was because it is difficult to play as a piano trio for a long period of time. You have to keep things interesting. I decided to have a quintet in the second half. I've played with Wess Anderson a little bit, and he just suffered a stroke a few months ago. I know he has been practicing to get things back together again. He really brought the concert up to a completely different frame of mind. Wess wasn't planning on going anywhere that weekend, and he said he would do the concert. So, I was really happy that I would be able to play with him. I went to school at Julliard with Dominick [Farinacci], and he graduated a couple years before I did. But he and I have been playing together for four years, as have Carmen [Intorre] and Yashushi [Nakamura]. We had a rehearsal before the concert, and then we went right into it. We had a lot of fun.

Jazz Review: Did the promoters know you were going to add the horns?

Aaron Diehl: No, adding Wess and Dominick was a bit of a surprise. I think [the promoters] thought it would be a trio concert. Hopefully, the audience got more out of the concert than it would have from a trio. But then again, I feel that it is hard to pull off quality trio playing for two hours.

Jazz Review: How did you meet Yashushi and Carmen, the two other members of your trio?

Aaron Diehl:We went to Julliard together. I started there in 2004, and Carmen was already there. Yashushi was in the grad program and didn't come to Julliard until my second year. The three of us and a couple other students from Julliard did a gig in San Jose, Costa Rica--a kind of residency, if you will. That was our first gig. Then we've played at school and in venues outside of school. Sometimes Dominick uses the three of us in his group. Dominick and I played a duo at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, and we'll do another one in May. All of the members of the trio have something to bring to the table, and we all get along well. In addition, I have played quite a bit with two other guys who are on the recording I did in Japan, Mozart Jazz [on Pony Canyon Records]. Thats David Wong, an extremely gifted bass player who plays with Roy Haynes' Fountain of Youth Band. Quincy Davis is a wonderful drummer. I try to get in contact with as many musicians as I can, but of course, time only allows so much contact.

Jazz Review: Did you sell the CD's at the King Center concert?

Aaron Diehl: I have to order them from Japan, and sometimes I have trouble getting them over here. Which is fine. I really did the concert to come back home and play for people I have known for years. It was wonderful to play at The King Center. I used to live not too far from there. So, I went to events there when I was a kid.

Jazz Review: What were the circumstances behind the recording of your first CD, Mozart Jazz.

Aaron Diehl:That was a project that happened kind of at the last minute. For a couple of years, I've known Todd Barkan at Jazz at Lincoln Center a little while. He gave me a call in March of 2006 to see if I could do a trio recording. I said, "Fine. What is it?" And he said, "It's all Mozart's music in a jazz trio context." I said, "Let me think about this a little bit." I was thinking it sounded like oil and water. Dominick has done several recordings for Japanese labels. They normally have an outline or format that they want the musicians to work within, and then the product is delivered. The reason [for Mozart Jazz] probably is related to the Japanese market, and the labels may be trying to sell to a certain demographic. I had to think about Todd's request for a second because I didn't want to record it if I didn't think I would do well. But recently, The Modern Jazz Quartet has been an influence on me, and I really like John Lewis's work. So I kept some of his compositional techniques in mind. I decided I would give a shot at arranging something in that kind of realm. I recorded the album in two weeks, and I think it came off pretty well. I thought the whole process of doing a record was a good experience for me. I would like to get the album licensed in the U.S. sometime; that's in the works. I also want to put something out myself, to be quite honest, although that's a little bit down the line. For Mozart Jazz, I think I was substituting for someone who couldn't do the recording at the last minute. There was a lot of pressure under a short amount of time. I recorded it in SoHo, and it went to Japan to be mastered.

Jazz Review: Have you toured in Japan?

Aaron Diehl:I did a tour in Japan last year with a Japanese trumpet player I went to school with: Satoru Ohashi. We might go over there again. I thought about touring there with my own group, but I have to consider the logistics of putting a tour together. I don't speak Japanese. I have to contact people I can work with to make it feasible for my own group to go over there.

Jazz Review: Where did you play over there?

Aaron Diehl: We went to Tokyo, Osaka--we were up and down the whole country. New Orleans musicians were in the band during that tour, and I don't typically get to play with many New Orleans musicians. It was a good experience in that respect.

Jazz Review: Speaking of musicians from New Orleans, did you establish some connections with Wynton Marsalis when you went to New York with The Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra with Todd Stoll?

Aaron Diehl: Todd is one of the most extraordinary arts educators in the world, in my opinion. I think he met Wynton at one of Wynton's performances. Todd is an outgoing guy, and they hit it off pretty well. They've been in touch ever since. They met twenty years ago or so. When I was in the Orchestra, we went to the finals for the Essentially Ellington Competition in 2002, which was a great achievement and a lot of fun. The competition enlightened all of us to Duke Ellington's music. I think everyone playing there understood the importance of his music. There were 13 to 15 other bands playing in the same event. It was a moving experience and one of the reasons why I decided to go into a music career. Jazz at Lincoln Center sponsored the competition, and I got a chance to meet Wynton. There was a little question-and-answer session before the competition that weekend, and Wynton sat down and spoke to everybody about things other than music--about life and about being a young musician in today's society.

Jazz Review: Did you join Wynton's septet right out of high school in 2003?

Aaron Diehl:I had been speaking to Wynton for a while, and he had been a mentor to me. Actually, I got a call from Wynton out of the blue, literally, when I was practicing in the living room at home. He asked me to come and play with him in Europe. Initially, I told him "No." Wess Anderson's wife called me and said, "Are you crazy? Why would you say 'no' to Wynton Marsalis?'" I had been scheduled to play at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass because they needed a piano player. I thought it would be the right thing to do. So I said, "I'm sorry, Wynton, but I have this other commitment." To make a long story short, I was able to get out of the Aspen engagement and go out on the road with Wynton. Playing with Wynton's septet enlightened me to how difficult and how much work it is to be an exemplary jazz musician. I mean, I was really left in the dust with those guys. It was a completely different experience from playing in Columbus, Ohio. There are some great musicians in Columbus, but the excruciating travel schedule from city to city opened my eyes. I was in a bus for 24 hours. I was traveling with the same guys, plus some of their kids, on the bus. I was only seventeen at the time, and you can imagine what it was like to be on the road with 42- and 43-year-old men. So, the tour was a wake-up call for me to decide if this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was a great experience, but it was hard at the same time. Wynton was as hard on me as he was with everybody else in his band. He required the best from his musicians. You can imagine what that was like for a seventeen-year-old from Ohio.

Jazz Review: Did you know his repertoire?

Aaron Diehl:I knew some of it from his CD's. But even if I had studied note-for-note what Marcus Roberts and Eric Reed played from the recordings in the late eighties and early nineties, Wynton's band had developed over the next ten or fifteen years.

Jazz Review: Who else was in his septet for that tour?

Aaron Diehl: It included Reginald Veal, Herlin Riley, Wess Anderson, Ron Westray and Victor Goines.

Jazz Review: What countries did you see?

Aaron Diehl: We went all over western Europe. That was my first time in Europe. I got to see the Louvre, the Notre Dame Cathedral and historical sites in Berlin. On the chartered bus, I got to play Playstation and Xbox with a musician who was younger than I was: Francesco Cafiso. He's an extraordinary young alto sax player from Sicily. He went on the road with us as well. Wynton had him come out and play once in a while. I remember that Francesco's parents were basically delivering their son to Wynton before we left the first city. I could see the looks on their faces, but they were very happy their son could go on tour nonetheless. I don't know if I could have done that if I was a father. Francesco had so much facility on the instrument and a lot of knowledge of jazz vocabulary. It was great to see someone who was younger on the road with us and trying to get to a higher level of excellence.

Jazz Review: Did the tour help you decide to move to New York?

Aaron Diehl: I was accepted at Julliard before I went out on the road with Wynton's group. Moving to New York City was a big change for me. Of course, there is always an adjustment for anyone going from high school to college. Certainly, the level of talent and the excellence of the artists at the school are to die for. Julliard has some great artists: dancers, actors and musicians. Just being in that kind of environment was very exciting for me. I went to an academic high school in Columbus, St. Charles, and everybody there was very serious about getting into college and being well rounded. But at Julliard, everybody else loved the one thing that I loved. I never had that kind of environment before in my life.

Jazz Review: Did you meet Eric Reed at Julliard?

Aaron Diehl: I met him after I was at Julliard. I called him for a lesson, and he said, "Come on over." I had a lesson, and we stayed in touch from time to time. I remember that one time he called me and said, "I'm playing at the Vanguard. Would you like to sit in on a tune?" I said, "Well, sure." It was a Fats Waller tribute. That just shows his generosity of spirit. Not only is he an extraordinary teacher. He also knows so much about jazz literature, American popular song and the jazz standards. He is also a very giving person, and it was great to be around people like him. Same with Marcus Roberts. I didn't study with him at Julliard because he lives in Florida. But when Marcus came to New York, I took lessons from him. He's another one of those kinds of people who would help you any time of the day. He's very inspiring and encouraging.

Jazz Review: Another of your teachers was Oxana Yablonskaya.

Aaron Diehl: I studied with her for four years. I wasn't by any stretch of the imagination skilled enough in terms of my experience with the repertoire to do a hard-core classical music major, and I didn't have a lot of time because I was majoring in jazz. She took me on because she knew I still had in interest in classical music as I did in high school. During every lesson, I would play a little bit, and then she would play what she wanted to see in my playing. I wasn't playing big repertoire like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff. I played small pieces that accommodated my schedule so that I wasn't spending too much time on the classical music and not enough on the jazz. It was just enough to keep my knowledge of the genre and my facility up to snuff. It brought tears to my eyes when she would play a little bit of Chopin or Bach. She's just an incredible person.

Jazz Review: Did she hear your CD, Mozart Jazz?

Aaron Diehl: Yes, she has a copy of it. She likes it a lot. She had a lot of comments for me about interpretations of some of the Mozart melodies�some things critical, some things positive. She's an honest person. She doesn't hold anything back. That's what I like about her.

Jazz Review: you were involved in Julliard's outreach program to excite high school and college students in becoming professional jazz musicians.

Aaron Diehl: That's the mission of The Julliard School of Music in general--not only in the jazz program, but also in all of the other programs there. Joseph Polisi, who is the president there, wrote a book called The Artist as Citizen. The book makes the point that it is the responsibility nowadays for the artist to be more than just a performer. Rather, the artist should be somebody who is a working part of society as an educator in teaching people about the arts. It's not sufficient just to be a great performer any longer, as it may have been fifty years ago. Today, the performing arts are all struggling. I remember that when I was a student in the jazz program, we did workshops for students. We were very much encouraged to speak before a concert audience about what we do. It was like, "All right. We have to talk." He gave us the microphone, like "it's your show." He felt that being able to express yourself verbally was a very important and vital part of being a musician. Outreach has been the hallmark of the school, especially under Polisi. I did a community service fellowship for a couple of years. That involved going to nursing homes and hospitals. I performed for people who wouldn't normally get out and see performances. The people at the school were very much aware of the importance of reaching out to people in whatever form possible.

Jazz Review: When did you graduate from Julliard?

Aaron Diehl: I graduated last May--May 25th [2007].

Jazz Review: So now you're making a living as a professional musician.

Aaron Diehl: Now that I'm out of school a little bit, I have a chance to breathe. I can create my own schedule to a certain extent. I'm playing at a church in Harlem, St. Joseph of the Holy Family. Brian Dickerson is the choral master. We're trying to build the program and get more singers from the congregation to join the choir. Four of the choir members are professional singers, and they lead everybody in song. I grew up playing in the Catholic church since I was eight. I also played for Saint Mary Elementary School in Columbus. So, playing at St. Joseph's is a good part of who I am. I'm looking at starting to write liturgical music in a jazz context. I need to do a lot of research before I start writing for the Catholic liturgy. In some respects, I think it's one of the last bastions of functional music, when it comes to jazz. In the 1920's and 1930's, jazz was primarily played for dance. With the revolution of bebop, everything changed so that everyone sat down to listen to the music. After the musicians finished playing, the people left. But the music of the church has some kind of functionality, and it isn't art for art's sake. I like doing something where I feel that I'm doing something greater than putting out music.

Jazz Review: Do horns play in the services too?

Aaron Diehl: Last Easter, we played the music of Mary Lou Williams, and we had a trio along with a trumpet come in and play. She wrote quite a few masses for the Catholic liturgy.

Jazz Review:How did Marian McPartland choose you to appear on Piano Jazz?

Aaron Diehl: I don't really know how she found me, so to speak. I remember that when I did a recital at Graves piano store in Columbus when I was a high school senior, I got a note from a lady that stated that Marian McPartland would like to speak with me. It suggested that I give her a call. So I called her and said, "Mrs. McPartland, you don't know me but I know you." [Laugh] That kind of thing. We talked about my being on the show, not to be interviewed but to see some other interviews. Taylor Eigsti at the time was being interviewed, as was Clint Eastwood, of all people. She and I kind of lost touch for a while, although I would see her playing in New York once in a while. All of a sudden, out of the blue last winter, she called and asked, "Would you come on the show?" I said, "Yeah, sure, but I don't know what you would interview me about. I mean, I haven't really been out here that long, but I'd be happy to be on the show." Basically, I was trying to figure out how to do the show because there wasn't much to say other than to say that I was still studying at Julliard. So I basically asked her a bunch of questions about her own experiences. She's seen everything. Hank Jones is the same way. You just want to pick their brains about all kinds of things. So, the Piano Jazz show went well, and I enjoyed playing with her. It's one of the experiences that I'll cherish for the rest of my life.

Jazz Review: How did you get to perform with Hank Jones?

Aaron Diehl: He and I performed at a concert at Julliard two years ago. He did a residency for a whole week, and the band played a concert at the end of it. I played "A Child Is Born" with him. That was a lot of fun. With Hank Jones, it was like, "Why am I here?" That was not the first time I met him. I did a master class with him a little bit before that. He's a great teacher. He was a disciple of Art Tatum, and it was good to speak with him about Tatum.

Jazz Review: I wanted to ask about your parents. What are their names?

Aaron Diehl: My dad's name is Richard, and my mother's name is Estelle.

Jazz Review: It seems that they have helped facilitate your development in jazz.

Aaron Diehl: My parents have always been advocates for culturalization, for lack of a better term. They wanted their kids to be well-rounded. My older sister, Ingrid, was a ballet dancer in high school and did African dance in college. My parents put a lot of emphasis on education and awareness of the arts. When I was eight or nine years old, my mother told me, "Are going to a concert to see Wynton Marsalis." I didn't know who he was, and at that point I didn't really care. I remember to this day that he was playing with his septet at the Wexner Center. I mean, I was kind of interested. I was playing piano by that time, but I was into classical music. So, I wasn't that interested in jazz, to be honest.

Jazz Review: At that age, you thought jazz was "old people's music?"

Aaron Diehl: [Laughs] Yes, because my grandpa played trombone and piano. His name is Arthur Baskerville. I remember going to hear him at a restaurant near the home. I think his playing became ingrained in me. I think that a lot of people with an interest in jazz music were exposed to it at a very young age, as with any art form. When I was learning piano, my grandpa taught me "Take the 'A' Train." He was a big influence on me concerning my interest in music. My grandmother used to take me to piano lessons, and she had Jimmy Smith playing in the car. My mom used to take us to pipe organ concerts, but she hated to go to them because she couldn't see the organist. She took me there anyway because she knew how important that was in being made aware of the music. I studied pipe organ with someone named Jim Hildreth at Broad Street Presbyterian. It's a wonderful instrument for improvisation too, which some people don't know. Someone named Cameron Carpenter did a master class at Julliard, and during the performance he asked people in the audience to pick any hymn out of the hymn book and give it to him. Then he would make an improvisation from the hymns they chose. He's a virtuoso on the organ.

Jazz Review: Your teacher at Saint Marys was Teresa Monds.

Aaron Diehl: She was my general music teacher. I played in the school musicals there as another performing opportunity for me, and she had me play for the masques. Before Teresa was Linda Dachtyl, a B-3 organist. She had an interest in jazz and gave me lead sheets and exposed me to certain recordings. We had some jam sessions even though at nine or ten I didn't know much about jazz vocabulary. She spent time with me after school too to help different aspects of my playing. Come to think of it, I had a really good music education in the schools, which some people unfortunately don't have.

Jazz Review: So you didn't take jazz seriously until you met Eldar Djangirov at Interlochen Center for the Arts?

Aaron Diehl: Wow! How did you know about this?

Jazz Review: Well, you wouldn't walk into a concert without preparation. Preparing for the interview is part of the job. So did you get to know Eldar?

Aaron Diehl: Yes. He has a lot of facility. He was thirteen at the time I met him at Interlochen. I went there actually to study classical music as part of a four-week summer program after eighth grade and ninth grade. I went there for two years. I saw that Interlochen had a jazz program, and Eldar was the pianist. There was this thirteen-year-old kid playing in a high school jazz ensemble, and I thought, "What is this?" He has a large jazz vocabulary too from listening to Oscar Peterson and other. We hit it off pretty well. He was younger than I was, but we talked about music. He played for me a little bit, and I played for him. At that time, I didn't know much jazz and certainly not enough to keep up with him. But he really inspired me to look into playing the genre. At the time, I was thinking more about becoming serious about playing classical music. Then Eldar played improvisations, in solo and trio format, and for big band. I thought, "Man, this is great!" He alerted me to what can be done with jazz music. After my grandfather, Eldar probably was the second biggest influence to appreciate jazz at an early age. Here was somebody who was a teenager playing jazz music. I thought that was phenomenal. So I looked into jazz a little bit more. The second year, I joined the jazz band at Interlochen. I didn't go there as a jazz major; I went as a minor. I took a jazz theory class from David Kay, saxophonist from Cleveland. I was in his ensemble, and that was one of my first experiences in a jazz ensemble.

Jazz Review:So that's when you joined Todd Stoll's jazz orchestra.

Aaron Diehl: Yes. Interestingly enough, Linda Dachtyl alerted me about the orchestra. I auditioned for it and got in. Going back to Todd, it would be a great blessing to see someone like Todd in every high school in America. Everyone I've spoken to says the same thing about him: He would help them any time of the day. He gives his students CD's or recordings. He'd probably give you his liver if you needed it. [Laugh] I've been wondering lately about what good is performing if there is no audience to play for. All of the interest in the arts starts in the schools through education. If we don't have the people who know about art, we might as well be playing to a brick wall. Sometimes great performers don't make the best teachers. I've always wondered, "Would I make a good teacher?" I teach a couple students now, and I'm trying so hard because I know how hard it is to be an excellent teacher.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Aaron Diehl
  • Interview Date: March, 2007
  • Subtitle: Starting A Jazz Career At The Top
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