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Aspen Institute pairs Jazz & Democracy

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Jazz pianist Bill Charlap participates in the panel discussion, Jazz & Democracy, Friday at the Aspen Institute. Charlap follows with an evening concert at Harris Hall. (Donald Dietz)
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ASPEN Jazz and democracy share this: Both are, almost by their nature, in constant threat of being diminished, of being overrun by blunter and more commercial forces. A small number of vigilant advocates of jazz and democracy does not seem to be enough to keep either in vigorous health; both seem to require a groundswell of public support to stay vital, as opposed to merely surviving. Without this attention from the masses, jazz and democracy fade not disappearing entirely; they are too well-rooted (at least for the moment) for that. But they lose their energy, and their manifestations in new, emerging forms. They become more difficult to find.On the democracy side, we felt its absence nowhere more than when the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Bush v. Gore, the 2000 case that terminated the recount of the presidential vote in Florida, thus handing the office to George W. Bush. We experience a similar feeling of public events, matters of grave importance, being out of our hands; of being left without the voice we are promised by the U.S. Constitution when our country goes to unpopular war; when corporations are handed tax breaks and other advantages, resulting in the super-wealthy becoming super-wealthier; when regulations on health, food and safety are relaxed to the benefit of the few and the detriment of the many.We ask: How did that happen? What about our birthrights as Americans? What about my say in the matter?Regarding jazz, we have a near absence of the music from our commercial airwaves. We have Britney Spears becoming the punching bag representing the abysmally low place we set the bar for our popular culture. We ask: Why dont they make music/movies/books/food like they used to and then we consume Alvin & the Chipmunks and Arbys, Bud Lite and Sheryl Crow in mass quantities, and the latest fad diet book tops the bestseller lists. It is celebrated as a quasi-miracle that jazz pianist Herbie Hancocks River: The Joni Letters gets honored with the top award at the Grammys. (It would have been a full-fledge miracle had River been an all-instrumental album, and not featured guest contributions from Norah Jones, Tina Turner and Joni Mitchell herself.)Jazz often called Americas art form, as the music that came from the bottom, from black slaves; the style that best reflects democracy; the music in which everyone is allowed a voice is a tiny slice of the visible, audible pie. We barely play it, we barely listen to it, and we sure dont buy it.

Obviously, commercially, its completely undervalued, observes Bill Charlap, a 41-year-old pianist who grew up in New York City surrounded not only by jazz music but by jazz musicians. How many radio stations are there devoted to jazz? How many television programs? The answer is, not many at all. Its taken for granted in this country, absolutely.It is not only the musicians who are getting the short end of the stick. Charlap says audiences, largely unaware of what is available beyond the most heavily promoted music, miss out on more significant music.Some of the most important achievements in art of the 20th century, Charlap said, responding to the question of what has been overlooked with the marginalization of jazz.Beyond the appreciation of art, there are other reasons to embrace jazz. In cherishing the music, we recognize the most essential components of democracy its ability to give opportunity to the disadvantaged, the possibility of a voice, a platform, for anyone regardless of who they are or where they have come from. The success of jazz, at least as an artistic expression, if not so much a commercial venture, should be celebrated as one of the greatest of American triumphs. Black slaves primarily in New Orleans, where they were allowed to gather on Sundays in Congo Square, to play music took their history of African drumming and chants, wedded it to their experience in America their hardship, their yearning for freedom and made a new form of music. That style was based on respect for both individual expression and group interaction, rather than pontification. Notably, jazz lacks a remote composer who dictates the precise notes to be played from miles and centuries away. It also lacks a conductor whose primary purpose is to impose order and structure on the music. Instead, it is built on the foundation of the African-American experience.Its a celebration of the history of the people who brought the music to us, said Charlap, whose decade-old trio features an African-American rhythm section of drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Peter Washington. Its a great celebration of the achievements of people who had to fight a great deal for their dignity. As to why that celebration has been muted, Charlap says with conviction: It goes back to stone-cold racism. And commercialism.Despite being overwhelmed by rock, country and hip-hop, despite the challenge of selling a music that is complex rather than catchy, open-ended and unpredictable, it has consistently found an audience of the curious and devoted. It has been perpetuated by players black, white and in between, Buddhist and Jewish, African, Asian and American.Charlap will be featured Friday in a Jazz & Democracy seminar, part of the Aspen Institutes Arts & Ideas series. The seminar, set for 3 p.m. at the Institutes Koch Seminar Building, will be co-led by Jim Horowitz, founder and executive producer of Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and a former professional jazz pianist. The discussion will be followed with an 8 p.m. concert by the Bill Charlap Trio at Harris Hall. Its a slight irony that Charlap, who proclaims the democratic principles inherent in jazz, says that he had no choice in making the music a part of his life. It was thrust upon him, embedded in him. Charlaps late father was Moose Charlap, a Jewish-American composer known best for creating the music to the 1954 version of Peter Pan. His mother, Sandy Stewart, is a Grammy-nominated singer who toured with Benny Goodman and appeared on Mitch Millers TV show.It wasnt really a decision, said Charlap, of his career choice. Music was always part of my life. I was always in that place.Charlap was a willing participant in the musical swirl, remembering his upbringing as an exciting one. My father was always at the piano, writing songs or talking on the phone to producers, always under a deadline. It was very intense, an incredible amount of energy coming off the piano, he said from his home in West Orange, N.J., 10 miles west of Manhattan. And my mother would sing his songs. I knew her as a professional singer. We had great musicians coming to the apartment all the time.Contributing to the musical environment were Charlaps brother, Tom, now a professional bassist; their stepfather, trumpeter George Triffon, who died last year; and Dick Hyman, a noted pianist who was a distant cousin of the Charlaps, who took young Bill to recording sessions and performances. Charlap extended the immersion in music last year by marrying Renee Rosnes, another top pianist.Charlap began his career in his early teens, when he landed a job as accompanist with a New York improv theater group, the First Amendment Comedy Troupe. I was something like the silent movie pianist playing for improvised sketches, he said. I also played solo piano as people walked in, anything from Bud Powell to Scott Joplin. On the relationship between jazz and democracy, Charlap echoes the standard line that neither one is predicated on pure freedom. In a well-run jazz combo or democratic society, individual liberty must be balanced with responsibility and structure.We listen to each other and we respect each other, he said. But theres still a president in a good jazz group, who gives focus to the sound. He listens to what his cabinet has to say and often defers to them. Theres a president, but theres no king.Charlap emphasizes the responsibility of a jazz musician to train himself, expand his knowledge, and immerse himself in what others have contributed. In jazz, we develop our vocabulary or ability to listen, and then our ability to speak, he said. In that, there is a great sense of expressionism.Charlaps own style is consistent with that focus on respectful listening. Rather than a Coltrane or Monk, furiously expanding the bounds of the language, Charlap brings a traditionalist approach to jazz. As a younger man, he listened to a broad expanse of styles. But what seems to have influenced his most is what he took from his Broadway-oriented father. Charlap has made a reputation as one of the finest interpreters of mid-20th century standards, many of which came from the theater and film. He sticks to this theme relentlessly. His latest CD, Live at the Village Vanguard, released last year, includes The Lady Is a Tramp, from the musical Babes in Arms, and Its Only a Paper Moon. On 2005s Love Is Here to Stay, an album of duets with his mother, Charlap recorded Dancing on the Ceiling (from Evergreen), It Might as Well Be Spring (from State Fair), and Ill Never Go There Anymore, written by Moose Charlap for the show, Kelly.There was definitely an appreciation for what I grew up with, said Charlap. And an appreciation for song not just for the harmony, but for the drama and the melody, the story of the song.This backward glance at jazz history hardly recalls the practice of democracy in America, a place which seems to tumble ever forward. But perhaps we as citizens could take something from the Charlap model, and bask a little more in our countrys past, soaking up the original civic ideals of participation, responsibility and community.And, as any firm defender of democracy will agree, if Charlap wants to play a repertoire that was created half a century ago and more, it is his right to do so.Jazz & Democracy seminar, featuring Bill Charlap and Jim Horowitz, takes place Friday, March 14 at 3 p.m. in the Koch Seminar Building, at the Aspen Institute.Bill Charlap Trio performs Friday, March 14 at 8 p.m. in Aspens Harris Hall.stewart@aspentimes.com