Jazz in July Celebrates 30th Season at 92nd Street Y
The emblematic image of Jazz in July, the tried-and-true concert series at the 92nd Street Y, would probably be a pair of grand pianos facing each other across the stage. A New York City summer institution about to begin its 30th season, the festival has always found good use for that setup, drafting an impressive roster of jazz pianists into the service of musical dialogue. Among them are Dick Hyman, who founded Jazz in July and programmed its first two decades, and Bill Charlap, his handpicked successor.
“Between the two of us, we’ve greatly expanded the two-piano presentations,” Mr. Hyman said last week, in a small conference room at the 92nd Street Y.
“That may be,” Mr. Charlap replied. “And the experience of playing two pianos is very telling.”
The two men were seated at a table with no piano in sight. But their rapport felt as alert and magnanimous as it often has onstage. Mr. Hyman, 87, who lives near Sarasota, Fla., had agreed to a joint interview with Mr. Charlap, nearly 40 years his junior. The subject at hand: the history of Jazz in July as well as its current edition, running Tuesday through Thursday, this week and next.
The legacy of Jazz in July, which extends well beyond piano colloquy, has a lot to do with the exaltation of the American songbook. It also has something to do with the execution of jazz repertory, the veneration of jazz elders and the endorsement of young jazz talent. More than anything, it has reflected the personalities of its artistic directors, each in his time an eminent jazz pianist with a humming career.
Mr. Hyman was known as a virtuoso of encyclopedic insight and peripatetic interests — a regular collaborator to the filmmaker Woody Allen and the choreographer Twyla Tharp — when he began the festival in 1985. He was also known for bringing recorded jazz history to life in concert, as a former musical director of the New York Jazz Repertory Company. With encouragement from Hadassah Markson, then the director of the 92nd Street Y’s school of music, he made Jazz in July a kaleidoscope of his tastes.
The early programs featured celebrations of ragtime and stride piano; a tribute to the 1920s cornetist Bix Beiderbecke; and a foray onto the tentative meeting ground of jazz and classical music, with orchestral works by James P. Johnson and George Antheil. For all his erudition, Mr. Hyman tried to keep the concerts nondidactic in tone.
“Not to be too blunt, but the music takes itself too seriously now,” he told Jon Pareles of The New York Times in 1986. “I don’t think that there shouldn’t be newer music, but what this festival is not about is music that is somber, perplexing, hostile or boring. It’s a festival of hot jazz, not any of the opposites.”
That mildly contrarian ethos helped define the series as a bastion of conservatism — what the critic Whitney Balliett once called “a paean to old practices, old principles, old joys” — even though it was also an occasional platform for new music, and always a showcase for living musicians. Jazz in July started a couple of years before the earliest stirrings of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which has endured similar criticism under the leadership of Wynton Marsalis.
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The conservative rap doesn’t seem to bother Mr. Hyman half as much as it does Mr. Charlap, whose assumption of duties at Jazz in July had the feeling of a smooth inevitability. A distant cousin of Mr. Hyman’s (they have a great-grandfather in common), he spent his youth tagging along to recording dates and rehearsals, soaking up information. His father, the Broadway songwriter Moose Charlap, and his mother, the singer Sandy Stewart, both worked with Mr. Hyman.
But Mr. Charlap’s own track record, including several well-regarded albums on the Blue Note label, underscored his qualifications for the role. “I didn’t have anybody else in mind to take over,” Mr. Hyman said. “It just seemed Bill was a natural.”
The last decade of programming at Jazz in July has validated that hunch, with a steady, sensible diet of songbook elucidation and jazz-historical homage, along with that signature emphasis on pianism. The offerings this season are true to form, beginning with explorations of the music of Hoagy Carmichael (on Tuesday),Leonard Bernstein (Wednesday) and Miles Davis (Thursday).
Next week will bring “Three Generations of Piano Jazz,” with Mr. Charlap, Mr. Hyman and the up-and-comer Christian Sands (July 29); a salute to Sarah Vaughan featuring one of her brightest contemporary heirs, Cécile McLorin Salvant (July 30); and “I Won’t Dance: The Fred Astaire Songbook,” with vocals by Sachal Vasandani and tap-dancing by Randy Skinner (July 31).
The audience for Jazz in July is loyal, drawing from jazz and cabaret constituencies alike. But it has never been a magnet for younger listeners, a stubborn reality that the 92nd Street Y has tried to address with target marketing and 35-and-under discounts. Mr. Hyman and Mr. Charlap were quick to agree that the aging demographics presented a challenge. A recent upswell of youthful enthusiasm for hot jazz in New York might seem to hold some hint of a solution, but both pianists were surprised to hear about it.
“This is, in many ways, a very New York festival,” Mr. Charlap said, eliciting instant agreement from Mr. Hyman. That designation derives, he clarified, from the musicians, a cream-of-the-crop arrangement of available talent.
At times, Mr. Charlap has seemed insular in his choice of personnel — his mother is a series regular, as are his wife, the accomplished pianist Renee Rosnes, and the members of his longtime trio — but he has presented dozens of players from outside his immediate circle. Along with a murderers’ row of pianists, they have included the guitarist Jim Hall, the singer Freddy Cole and, at least on one occasion, Mr. Marsalis.
Mr. Charlap, like Mr. Hyman before him, seems keenly aware of Jazz in July’s mandate to serve a core audience without becoming stale. “Every summer, I have a thesis, in a way,” Mr. Charlap said. “There’s really a lot of work to do. I’ve learned a lot by necessity. There’s all this music that we’re presenting, and I may have an idea for a concert. But after that, it’s about finding a way to make everyone comfortable being themselves.”
That feeling begins, it would seem, with the artistic director and his own ambitions. “There’s a reason why I wanted to play Hoagy Carmichael and Leonard Bernstein again,” Mr. Charlap said. “Not just, ‘That’s going to sell tickets.’ I wanted to look at it a little deeper. Those previous concerts were successful. But I feel like it can be better now.”
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