By Steve Sears
For Bill Charlap, William Paterson University Director of Jazz Studies since 2015, being nominated for a Grammy award is not unfamiliar territory. In fact, neither is winning one. He has been nominated for five, his mom, singer Sandy Stewart, has been nominated for one, and he was awarded one in 2015 for his work on The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern, when he collaborated with the legendary Tony Bennett (“Tony IS the American popular song,” says Charlap of Bennett).
His current nomination is as an artist, arranger and co-producer for the combined effort of Bennett and popular Jazz singer, Diane Krall, titled Love Is Here to Stay. The categories are of nomination are “Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album”, and “S’Wonderful,” a tune from the offering, was nominated in the “Best Pop Duo/Group Performance” category. The Bill Charlap Trio, his band of 21 years – Charlap on piano, Peter Washington on bass, and Kenny Washington on drums – perform on the album.
The 61st Grammy Awards will be held on February 10, 2019, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Charlap’s accolades being what they are, you get a sense while in discussion with him that they’re not the most important thing. Keeping great music alive is. “Entirely true,” he agrees. “I think it’s very important to remember that’s it’s lovely to be recognized by your peers and by the industry. Music is and the arts, for someone who lives a life in it, it’s about your contact with each other, and a spirit that’s greater than all of us. It’s why you’re here and why we do this. It’s nice to be recognized, but that’s not why we do it.” He continues. “We’re here to elevate each other. I think if you want to find God in other people and nature, we try to elevate each other. That’s what we’re here for and that’d where we can bless each other with that gift.”
Charlap also says, for example, that if he’s playing “S’Wonderful”, “I can feel up in a high shelf in the room the Gershwins, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, and all the people that you love, and all the people you may have touched or have touched you, they’re all in the room all the time. They never leave. So, I think that’s part of what we’re doing when we’re playing.”
There is a thrill working with Bennett and interpreting the songs of great songwriters and composers, especially with the above-mentioned albums. “Jerome Kern really was the first really prolific and important musical theater composer, and all of the other composers looked to Kern for inspiration. Kern was born earlier in 1885, and the Gershwins were (born) at the turn of the century. Kern was most definitely Gershwin’s greatest influence as a songwriter. You know, there’s a sort of Mount Rushmore of songwriters when it comes to the American musical theater, and they are in my opinion Kern, (Irving) Berlin, (George) Gershwin, (Richard) Rodgers, (Cole) Porter, Harold Arlen, and Duke Ellington. Those seven, in terms of the theater, because they’re the most prolific and the most innovative.”
“But Kern and Gershwin are really right at the center of American popular music, and of jazz – and the lyricists that they wrote with.”
Charlap has been enveloped in musical theater since childhood. His dad, Moose Charlap, was a Broadway composer, his credits including Peter Pan. He passed away when his son was just seven years old. His mom, who toured with Big Band leader Benny Goodman and was also a regular on the Perry Como Show, earned a Grammy nomination in 1963 for her recording of “My Coloring Book”. “It was just natural for me,” says Charlap of his interest and love of music. “Nobody steered me towards anything; it was always central to my life. I was always a musician for as long as I can remember. I just imitated my father on the piano, just expressing myself there as long as I can remember.” Charlap’s mom still performs with him, singing beautifully still. “She’s still a great vocalist, and we’ve made a number of records over the years, and we’ll be performing this summer at 92Y, as part of a concert series that I am director (for 13 years) of. So, she’s doing great.”
Charlap works in partnership with William Paterson University Jazz Studies coordinator, Dr. David Dempsey, bringing as much of a comprehensive approach to what it is to be a creative, improvising musician as he can, and any experience he has, his relationship to great jazz artists he’s worked with, such as Joe Woods and Wynton Marsalis, and vocalists like Bennett and Barbara Streisand. “I try to give them (his students) as comprehensive an approach to understanding the repertoire and jazz musician’s imprints on that repertoire.” Charlap also points out that every student is so individual and each one needs to be listened to as an individual. “You find that you can help them discover who they are for themselves,” he says. Per Charlap, creativity is not the most important aspect of music, but imagination. “And then, simply the discipline of developing a full box of tools. Imagine and craft.”
Charlap states that music is the most central thing is his life, but there is another important component that make that life a full one. “Next to my family, and my family is music too, at least part of it. My wife, Renee Rosnes, is one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists and composers; my mom, Sandy Stewart, is a singer; my brother Tom is a bass player – a very fine one. So, music has always been very central to my being.”
Charlap sings the praises of his Bill Charlap Trio partners of 20 years for both their talent and support. “Oh, in a very, very big way,” he says of their contribution to his success. “They’re family to me first of all, and second they’re both virtuoso musicians, they’re both giants on their instruments, they know the music very profoundly in terms of their own instruments, and the chemistry of them just together is an unbelievable chemistry. Then, there’s something that happens with the three of us. So, its 33 1/3 (each, we all contribute equally to the group. Perhaps I’m the general who decides which path we might take at any given time, but I listen to my partners. It’d be silly to waste all that intelligence. They contribute in a very, very big way. I can’t say enough about how important they are to me.”
Visit Bill Charlap’s website, www.billcharlap.com, for more information and a complete schedule of his upcoming performances.