In 1985, the 92nd Street Y introduced a premiere summer music festival to New York City audiences. Twenty-five years later, Jazz in July scintillates with one-of-a-kind performances featuring the brightest stars in jazz. We sat down with Bill Charlap (pictured above), series artistic director and one of the world’s premier jazz pianists, to get his insight on this year’s programs.
92Y: What makes Jazz in July unique in New York?
Bill Charlap: First of all, there’s 92nd Street Y’s concert hall, which is one of the most beautiful halls in New York City.
Another element are the brilliant musicians who come together in such unique combinations, like the masterful American saxophonist Phil Woods with Brazilian drummer Duduka da Fonseca, or singer Freddy Cole with a great organ trio. These sorts of pairings just don’t happen every day in New York.
And Jazz in July is a real New York festival. In New York you have a certain energy. The audience is very savvy, and our artists are the cream of the crop of New York musicians.
92Y: Tell us about your first appearance at Jazz in July.
BC: I was 20 years old, it was 1987, and I was one of four pianists: then-artistic director Dick Hyman, Roger Kellaway, Marian McPartland and myself. Boy, I was terrified. I was in awe of these people, and I still am. But it was such a dream to play in such a beautiful hall with people that I admired and respected so much.
92Y: How do you assemble your Jazz in July programming?
BC: It’s all about creating a balance that makes all six concerts work together, yet lets each one of them represent something singular: perhaps a different composer or a different way of approaching this music, or celebrating a very special musician, like in the case of Jimmy Heath this year. It’s also a matter of letting the musicians be themselves. One of the joys of programming Jazz in July is getting to play with and listen to some of my favorite musicians in the world.
92Y: Tell us about this summer’s concerts. The first is Opening Night, “Horray for Hollywood,” on July 20.
BC: We’re celebrating the memorable composers who wrote for Hollywood, starting with Harry Warren and George Gershwin and continuing through people like Johnny Mandel and Henry Mancini. Their songs are part and parcel of the repertoire that jazz musicians play. Plus you’ll hear players like Ken Pepolowski on the clarinet, Byron Stripling on the trumpet, and vocalist Carol Sloane, who’s perfect for this kind of music.
92Y: The next concert is a salute to Jimmy Heath on July 21.
BC: Jimmy Heath is not part of jazz history, he is jazz history. He’s one of the premiere tenor saxophonists of all time, and he’s one of our finest composers and arrangers. Jimmy is also a great wit with a very effervescent personality, so I know the audience will welcome his warmth as well as his brilliant musicianship.
92Y: July 22 honors Lester Young and Billie Holiday.
BC: Lester Young changed the way that people played the saxophone, and Billie Holliday practically invented jazz singing—there was nobody like her. Together, Lester and Billie had a chemistry that was magical. The songs they performed, like “Lady be Good,” “Ghost of a Chance” or “These Foolish Things,” have become the standards of standards.
Paying tribute to them will be artists like NEA Jazz Master Frank Wess, who is a real exponent of Lester Young’s school of playing, and vocalist Mary Stallings, who is very influenced by Billie Holiday in her phrasing and the depth of the way she approaches a lyric.
92Y: July 27 is a tribute to Jerome Kern.
BC: For American popular songwriters, Jerome Kern is the angel at the top of the tree. He’s the writer that taught all the writers how to do it. Kern marked something new in American music, the American popular song, creating masterpieces like “All the Things You Are,” “The Song Is You,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Singing his songs will be Sandy Stewart, one of my favorite singers, who also happens to be my mother.
92Y: July 28’s “Postcard from Brazil” has a particularly eclectic roster of artists.
BC: We have two musicians who are true masters of Brazilian music: vocalist Maucha Adnet and drummer Daduka da Fonseca. They’re both as authentic as it gets. There’s also Jazz Master Phil Woods, who plays with such passion and lyricism and love for Brazilian music, and cellist Erik Friedlander. You don’t usually think of the cello in jazz, but there’s so much lyricism in Brazilian jazz that the cello is perfect.
Plus this concert will offer an important premiere for me and my wife Renee Rosnes, who is also arranger for several concerts; we’ll debut some of the music we’ve just recorded on our newly-released CD for two pianos, Double Portrait.
92Y: The festival ends July 29 with “Ballads and the Blues.”
BC: The blues is the center of American music, so this should be a perfect type of summer concert, giving everyone a warm and soulful feeling. We’re going to play beautiful ballads like “Willow, Weep for Me,” or “Stormy Weather,” songs filled with the blues, which is the essence of American music.
You’ll hear some of those great combinations I mentioned, like an organ trio led by Pat Bianchi; and saxophonist Houston Person with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. Plus my trio--Kenny Washington, Peter Washington and myself—will be joined by vocalist Freddy Cole. He always makes everybody feel like they’re putting on a comfortable pair of slippers.
92Y: One other event that deserves more attention is the jazz piano master class on July 26.
BC: In our annual master class, you will hear the future of jazz. Our participants aren’t just students, they’re that close to being professionals. They’re really brilliant players, and Ted Rosenthal and I, who will lead the class, often learn from them as we listen to them play.
[Jazz in July]