Pianist Aaron Diehl explores the influence of Black composers in jazz – and classical, too

by | Mar 29, 2022 | Arts and Entertainment | 0 comments

Take a glance at the works pianist Aaron Diehl has planned for his Corvallis concert – piano pieces by Roland Hanna, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, among others – and you get the idea that Diehl plans an exploration of the huge role Black pianists played in the development of American jazz.

And that certainly is part of the picture Diehl plans to paint when he performs at The LaSells Stewart Center at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 2. (See the story at the bottom for ticket information and other details.)

Aaron Diehl, an acclaimed jazz and classical pianist from New York City, performs Saturday night in Corvallis. (Courtesy photo by Maria Jarzyna.)

But Diehl, a New York-based pianist who’s earned acclaim in jazz circles for his recordings and performances, also wants to broaden the picture. So his Corvallis program also reaches into unexpected corners for a jazz concert, with pieces by William Grant Still, considered the dean of African-American composers, and Nathaniel Dett, a Black Canadian-American composer who drew on the 19th century Romantic tradition as well as African-American folk music and spirituals.

“One of the points I always try to make, in American music especially and with African-American composers, is that it’s really not a monolith,” Diehl said in a recent interview for Corvallis-OSU Piano International, the sponsor of the April 2 concert.

Pieces by Still and Dett, which bookend the concert, help make Diehl’s point.

Still arguably is best-known for his symphonic works, most notably the Afro-American Symphony of 1930. For his Corvallis concert, though, Diehl is performing Still’s “Seven Traceries” from 1939, a work of seven “free-form, mystical, abstract pieces that are just great,” Diehl said. If you listen carefully, you might hear references to African-American folk vernacular, jazz or blues – but you’ll also hear elements of French tonalism as well, he said.

And Dett’s “Juba Dance,” which closes out the recital, is the final movement of “In the Bottoms,” a five-piece suite from 1914 inspired by African-American life in the river bottoms of the American South. “Juba Dance,” Diehl said, is “really sort of a prelude to ragtime,” but Dett also created music in the style of European Romantic composers that incorporated elements of spirituals.

Diehl’s program also includes pieces by Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith – three masters of the East Coast style of jazz piano playing called stride. In stride piano, the player performs large intervals with the left hand, allowing the pianist to function as a one-person band, playing bass accompaniment and melody at the same time. The style also features highly syncopated rhythms.

Stride can be brutally difficult to play – one of Smith’s stride compositions is called “Finger Buster.” (Diehl is performing the somewhat more reflective Smith tune “Fading Star” in Corvallis.) But there’s one constant to all of the stride pieces, he said: “With any of the syncopated music, the key first of all is always to swing. … (At) the very start, at the very foundation, it has to feel right. So that’s where the challenge really lies, I think.”

Diehl’s program also includes “Century Rag,” a piece by jazz pianist Roland Hanna that Hanna recorded in 1987 and a solo piano version of Duke Ellington’s “New World A-Comin’,” the rhapsody that Ellington originally wrote in 1945 for piano and band. (The title comes from a 1943 book of the same name by Black journalist and author Roi Ottley, who documented the lives of African Americans in Harlem during the 1920s and 30s and their hopes for a better future.)

All in all, Diehl said, it makes for “a pretty laid-back program,” and it’s one that draws on Diehl’s musical loves, from the young pianist who was enthralled by the “absolute brilliance” of Bach to the teenager who was thrilled by jazz pianists like Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. “They really knew how to play the piano,” Diehl said. “To me, that’s just fun, the challenge of it. It’s simply just a lot of fun.”

“There are so many different sources of influences that many of these composers drew from,” Diehl said. “It’s very easy from the marketing standpoint to put labels on genres and things like that, but it really is a melting pot when it comes to music, if you look under the hood.”

Bonus content: Diehl on improvisation

During the Piano International interview with Aaron Diehl, the pianist talked about the responsibility that goes along with improvisation. Improvisation, of course, is an important part of jazz – but it’s part of classical music as well, and Diehl talked about how, at times in performance, “written music should sound improvised and improvised music should sound written.”

“You can’t just become a great improviser out of a vacuum,” he said, and elaborated: “Being an improviser doesn’t give me a license to do just anything. It’s a great, great responsibility to improvise and to be able to tell a story through that. In order to tell a story, you have to have some kind of arc, some kind of structure, something to hold onto so that the listener can hold onto it. And so I think in terms of the pedagogy and the tradition of pedagogy in the conservatory, more should be stressed on both of those ends.

“I don’t feel like the music of the 18th and 19th century in Europe is dead and shouldn’t be considered museum music. It’s definitely a very rich language … the only downside is that there no recordings of it, really, until the very late 19th century. Have you ever heard those Debussy piano rolls of him playing his piano music? … If you listen to his music – I mean, they are piano rolls, but it still gives you a good idea of how it sounds, and it’s wow, it’s so natural and free, there’s a freedom to it that I do sense sometimes in the culture of classical music is not necessarily embraced. And I think that’s only going to hurt it more because there’s so much life and energy to the music that all these great composers left.”

If You Go

WHAT: Pianist Aaron Diehl in concert, presented by Corvallis-OSU Piano International.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 2.

WHERE: The LaSells Stewart Center, 875 SW 26th St. on the Oregon State University campus.

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $25 in advance, $28 at the door. Students get in for free; college students must show ID. Click here to buy tickets.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Click here to check out Aaron Diehl’s website. Click here to go to the Corvallis-OSU Piano International website.

UP NEXT: Armenian-American pianist Sergei Babayan performs at 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 8 at The LaSells Stewart Center. Click here to learn more about that concert

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