Believe it or not, when Grammy-winning jazz pianist Bill Charlap was young, he wanted to be a prog-rock keyboardist like his heroes, Rick Wakeman of Yes and Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
“Then I discovered Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson,” he says. “I didn’t have a choice.”
The New York-based Charlap may have avoided a lifetime playing basketball stadiums and wearing capes, but he did get to establish his name as one of his generation’s leading jazz pianists who has dedicated his career to instrumental interpretations of the Great American Songbook. His most recent album, “Uptown, Downtown” (Impulse!/Verve, 2017), features standards from Gerry Mulligan, Stephen Sondheim and Duke Ellington, among others. It follows his body of work that summons a time period when jazz interpreters, be-bop and big band musicians, and musical theater lyricists and arrangers naturally intersected to create music that was not of one genre but instead was signified by evocative lyrics, deft arrangements and strong melody.
Despite the material, he insists he is “not on any particular mission to keep anything alive.” “I don’t believe in that term,” he says. “It is alive. [Igor] Stravinsky is alive. Ornette Coleman is alive. The music is here. It does live with us, it does never die. Bach will never die. And Richard Rodgers will never, either.”
Charlap’s trio, featuring Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums, will headline an SCP Jazz double bill on March 9 with vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and her trio.
The common thread of the songs is ultimately the sound of his trio, a lineup that has not changed for 20 years. He is dedicated to the trio format because “the whole is greater than its parts.” Charlap’s piano is the melodic voice, but other than that role, the group is open to spontaneous rearrangements. “It can be a big band, it can feature pure rhythm, it can push the counterpoint between the piano and the bass,” he says. “It’s the sound of the instruments and particularly the sound we make individually and collectively.”
If Charlap sound particularly at ease with the material, it’s because he grew up within that world. His father, Broadway composer Moose Charlap, was often at the family piano working out songs that his son would witness come to life onstage, like the original version of “Peter Pan” in 1954. His mother, Sandy Stewart, regularly appeared on Perry Cuomo’s television show and toured with Benny Goodman, among others. Their home was often filled with theater and jazz artists of the day. Charlap remembers as an 11-year-old plunking a bass line on the piano along to jazz vocalist Helen Merrill as she sang “Autumn Leaves.” “I was lucky,” he says.
Charlap recorded a full album with his mother as well as Tony Bennett, with the latter a collection of Jerome Kern covers that earned a Grammy Award in 2016. Between his own trio, has he supported many of his heroes, including Mulligan, Phil Woods, and Dick Hyman, whom he considers a mentor.
Besides his home life, he was pushed toward Broadway by the High School of the Performing Arts, his former school on 46th Street between Sixth and Broadway Avenues, which just happened to have the greatest halls of musical theater at the front steps. His experience, which he credits for leading him to his career, is becoming rare as more municipalities continue to slash public school music programs. For instance, as part of a cost-cutting move, the Norridge School District 80 near O’Hare International Airport voted this month to eliminate its band program, starting next year. It was one of the most successful programs in the state.
Charlap believes decisions like this are “huge mistakes.” “It doesn’t matter if someone ends up a concert pianist or not, if they have music and art in their life, it is going to enrich them and make them deeper thinkers on spiritual and intellectual levels,” he says. “You lose your culture. And we have too great a culture in America to take that for granted.”
TOP: Bill Charlap and his trio mates, drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Peter Washington. | Photo: Philippe Levy-Stab/The Kurland Agency