Playing It Straight With Bill Charlap

Ella Fitzgerald’s cut of “Fascinating Rhythm” was blasting through the hallways when 35-year-old jazz pianist Bill Charlap let me in the door of his cheerful wood-frame house in Maplewood, N.J.

“That’s a big entrance,” I said.

“Didn’t plan it, but it works,” replied the super-affable Mr. Charlap, who was nattily dressed in a cream-colored summer suit in anticipation of a night out with the missus at the Oak Room.

Then, suddenly, the arrangement of the Gershwin song prompted him to race over to his record collection and slap on a Duke Ellington track, “Daybreak Express,” replete with full band introduction and uncanny train sounds. The song’s unstoppable forward momentum sent Mr. Charlap into a full-body sway that stopped just short of finger-snapping accompaniment. “That music is just so joyful, so rich, so swinging,” he said.

At times, Mr. Charlap can seem like he’s caught in his own exquisite private time-warp, yet he is quite possibly the most talked-about and widely admired younger pianist on the New York jazz scene today. Consider his rapturously reviewed gigs last December at the Village Vanguard and in April at the Jazz Standard, and then his new album of Hoagy Carmichael tunes, Stardust (Blue Note), which-along with Richard Sudhalter’s biography, Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael , and Will Friedwald’s paean to the American popular song, Stardust Melodies -seems to be leading a Carmichael mini-revival.

Even in these postmodern days, when generational time seems to have collapsed upon itself, a rare talent is required to become jazz’s piano man of the moment. Mr. Charlap’s gift is his self-restraint and discipline. Though he favors rich chords and slow tempos, his music never throbs with rhapsodic emotion the way that, for example, a Bill Evans’ or a Brad Mehldau’s work does. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Mr. Charlap’s playing is so scrupulous, so utterly in the service of the song, that he seems to become invisible-as if, perhaps, he had taken to heart T.S. Eliot’s dictum, “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice; a continual extinction of personality.”

Mum On The Minivan’

Mr. Charlap’s personality reasserted itself when his very cute wife, Sandra, and their two very cute daughters, ages 3 and 5, returned to the house from the girls’ ballet class, and Ms. Charlap handed off the family minivan to her husband.

“You’re not gonna mention the minivan, are you?” the pianist said before he got in to drive to the local sushi hangout.

On the way, Mr. Charlap said that Hoagy Carmichael is merely a red herring and not really the key to his musical character. Hoagland Howard Carmichael, of Bloomington, Ind., was the master of such loose-limbed faux-Southern charmers as “Rockin’ Chair” and “Georgia on My Mind.” But unlike the songwriters who comprise what Mr. Charlap calls the “Mount Rushmore of American popular songwriters”-the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern-Carmichael never wrote for the Broadway of early to mid-century, a revved-up, mostly Jewish world of songmakers and takers. As a result, he never had to submit to the relentless commercial discipline that enabled the Rushmoreans to produce such huge and varied oeuvres .

If Mr. Charlap feels a connection to those prolific Broadway greats, it’s because he comes from that world. He is a second-generation musician who grew up on the Upper East Side. His mother, Sandy Stewart, was a jazzy singer of the 50’s and 60’s with one Grammy-nominated album, My Coloring Book , to her name. Moose Charlap, his father, composed most of the songs for the Broadway production of Peter Pan , including “I’m Flying” and “I Won’t Grow Up.”

The world of Mr. Charlap’s parents made its mark on the son. In the minivan, without warning, the pianist channeled a one-sided New York showbiz conversation of another era: ” We need a tune for this subordinate character ,” he said in a George M. Cohan–style voice. ” It has to push the plot along; the subordinate character doesn’t have a big range, so it can’t be a very rangy song, but it has to be the type of song we can use for a dance number which we’re gonna have our dance orchestrator write for the third act, and the thing about it is that Buddy Greco is going to record it next week, so it’s got to be something that’s appropriate for Buddy-and we also need it by 6:30. Make it great! “

Man Out of Time

It’s pretty funny to listen to Mr. Charlap going on in this vein. For starters, he makes an unlikely old-school Broadway impresario. Though he does have a tendency to talk fast, his unfailing politeness, boyish angular features and conservative taste in clothes and hairstyle all play against type. But more fundamentally, his “man out of time” quality is an artifact of jazz history.

Ever since the 40’s and 50’s, when the mass popularity of Swing Era jazz gave way to the drug-addled demimonde of bebop, the cultural and often racial divisions that separated the wealthy, worldly Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths from the jazz musicians who improvised on the former group’s songs have been considerable. A generation ago, jazz fans, caught up in the “outcat” bohemian mythology of the music, routinely dismissed “standard” show tunes as corny dross turned into gold only through the alchemy of Charlie Parker’s or John Coltrane’s instrumental genius.

Today, in the “it’s all good” era, that sort of parochialism doesn’t fly. It is generally recognized that the Dead White Men who wrote the American songbook must have been doing something right, if only because so few modern compositions have taken their place alongside them as preferred “blowing vehicles” for jazz virtuosos.

Still, most of the current under-40 generation of jazz musicians didn’t spend their formative years listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra sing Gershwin and Kern. For a lot of them, “All the Things You Are” is simply an intriguing collection of chord changes.

“A lot of them don’t know the actual melody of ‘All the Things You Are,'” said drummer Kenny Washington, who with bassist Peter Washington (no relation) comprises Mr. Charlap’s ace trio rhythm section. “They’re all hell-bent on playing substitute changes and sounding so fresh and new, but there really is nothing new.”

To be sure, Bill Charlap isn’t the only younger pianist who knows from standards. Two comparably gifted peers come to mind, Brad Mehldau and Uri Caine. On his 1999 album, The Sidewalks of New York (Winter & Winter), postmodern meister Uri Caine turned curator of early Tin Pan Alley, retro-fitting Berlin and Kern and their immediate predecessors with period arrangements and street-noise sound effects. And Mr. Mehldau, the earnest romantic, delivered a gorgeous if eccentric reading of “All the Things You Are” on 1999’s Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard (Warner Bros.) that oscillated from bop to Baroque for 13 and a half minutes.

Playing It Straight

Mr. Charlap, as is his wont, plays it relatively straight-never boring, never less than inventive, but straight, with a command of touch and tone that seems to whisper a song’s lyrics in the ears of people who would otherwise never remember them.

In his work, it’s possible to hear not only a reverence for the songs, which is not unique among younger players, but a reverence for the faded musical culture that produced them, which is. Mr. Charlap is Moose Charlap and Sandy Stewart’s kid, after all, and songs are what he knows.

Mr. Charlap was only 7 when his father died of a heart attack, but his memories of Moose composing at his piano in the family’s apartment in the East 50’s are still vivid, imprinted by repeat viewings of family home movies as well as the suddenness of the loss.

“I watched him,” Mr. Charlap recalled. “I saw what happened when he had a phone call, a deadline, the intensity of it. I also saw the joy of ‘Oh, I just wrote this,’ and ‘What do you think of this?’ And sharing it with my mom, and them performing it together. I even have a 16-millimeter film of the two of them doing a sort of backers’ audition.

“I knew my mom was a professional singer, even though she had sort of dropped out of the business to raise children,” Mr. Charlap continued. “But I have kinescopes of her with Perry Como and Bing Crosby. She was a popular singer of her generation, like a Rosemary Clooney or a Tony Bennett. Later on, she was doing demos for composers like Meredith Willson and Richard Rodgers-no bums. Every child loves the sound of their mother’s voice. It just so happened that my mother had a world-class voice.”

By all accounts, Moose Charlap’s death at 42 shattered his son’s musical idyll of a childhood. “Losing my father so early stood my life on its head for a good 20, 25 years,” Mr. Charlap said emphatically and without elaboration.

“He idolized his dad,” Sandy Stewart told me a few days later, speaking on the phone from her home in Palm Beach, Fla., where she lives with her second husband, the trumpeter George Triffon. “There could be no replacement. When Moose died, Bill was angry and confused. He had nightmares.” Eventually, music would help fill the void. He had always been blessed with a great ear. His father would knock out something on the piano, Mr. Charlap said, and then he would hop on the bench next to his father and reproduce it by ear.

But dexterity of another sort was young Bill Charlap’s preadolescent passion. He was a magic buff, and when songwriters E. Y. (Yip) Harburg, Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Jule Styne would drop by the apartment, Mr. Charlap would dazzle his parent’s colleagues with advanced card tricks and other sleight of hand.

Bill Evans Epiphany

But according to Ms. Stewart, that all changed when her son was 12. One day, she said, Mr. Charlap’s stepfather brought home a Bill Evans album, Bill Evans from Left to Right , on which he’d played the trumpet, and magic immediately took a back seat in her boy’s life. “He listened to it, and then he came into the living room and played ‘Someday My Prince Will Come.’ He blew us away. That’s when we got him piano lessons.”

It wasn’t until Mr. Charlap was 16 that he was playing with the obsessive discipline that suggested to Ms. Stewart that she had a potentially important musician on her hands. She put in a call to a distant cousin, Dick Hyman, the dean of tradition-minded New York jazz pianists. “I told him, ‘This is not the Jewish mother telling you that her son is brilliant,” Ms. Stewart said. “He said, ‘Sandy, if you say he’s got it, send him over.'”

Mr. Charlap sailed through the informal audition and was delivered to the pianist and composer Jack Reilly, with whom he worked intensely for two years, above and beyond his studies at the New York High School for the Performing Arts and one desultory year at SUNY Purchase.

Next, Mr. Charlap worked with baritone sax legend Gerry Mulligan. Eventually Sandy Stewart got to watch her teenage son play with Mr. Mulligan’s band at Lincoln Center. “It was December 19, which would have been his father’s birthday,” Ms. Stewart said. “I thought, ‘Mulligan, with my little boy!'”

In his late 20’s, Mr. Charlap joined up with another estimable horn player, alto saxophonist Phil Woods, while simultaneously pursuing a career as a trio leader and chasing down any job he could find. A lot of restaurant gigs and good word of mouth led to his trio’s debut album, Written in the Stars (Blue Note), in 2000 and his current exalted station in commercially marginalized music.

Jack Jones & Leather

One thing his father’s premature demise may have deprived Mr. Charlap of was the chance to rebel, even temporarily, against his parent’s conception of good music. Holding the torch for the Moose Charlap aesthetic, adolescent Bill was strangely unmoved by his own generation’s popular music. Picture him with his well-earned angst, his long hair and his leather pants, contentedly listening to an album of Jack Jones singing love songs written by the Bergmans.

Not easy, is it? Today, when most of the pianist’s peers have caught up with his precocious appreciation of Tin Pan Alley’s hummable melodies and well-crafted harmonies, Mr. Charlap is still uncharacteristically dogmatic on the subject of modern pop and its limitations. I mention Brad Mehldau’s attempt to cover tunes by Radiohead. “It’s great when jazz musicians are au courant ,” the pianist said. “It’s just that I don’t think it’s … as good. It’s not about me not thinking it isn’t; it isn’t. There are criteria. It’s not ‘All the Things You Are,’ plain and simple.”

Mr. Charlap is speaking here not just as an uncompromising keyboard technician, but as a youngish man smitten with an older conception of American song-slangy, swinging, direct. “It’s what our culture has always been,” he said. “Get to the point, grab my attention, and leave the theater humming. The songs sound black and white and Jewish. They sound urban, which is sort of all of those things. That’s the great part of what we are. There’s plenty of lousy parts.”

Lest this strike the ear as a little too romancing-the-melting-pot, Mr. Charlap does have his own New York living experience to draw on. He attended the New York High School for the Performing Arts in the 80’s, not long after Fame , Alan Parker’s movie about the school, was released. And he said that, in many ways, life imitated art.

“At lunch hour, we were out there on 46th Street-kids from Russia, from Harlem, from Korea, from 62nd Street. You had some girl who could sing more gospel than you could ever hear in your life, and some kid who could play more violin than you could ever hear in your life. I played piano in the gospel choir when we went up to Reverend Ike’s church. Here I am, a Jewish kid with long hair, playing at the Reverend Ike’s church with a real gospel choir.”

Somehow, for Mr. Charlap, all the clamorous voices and cultures contained in this city and this country boil down to the Tin Pan Alley love song. “They’re all love songs,” he said. “‘My Funny Valentine’ is a love song. ‘It’s So Peaceful in the Country’ is a love song-it just doesn’t have a girl in it. It’s a love song to the country. Maybe that one is the exception.

“The point is,” he added, “there’s so many different types of love.” He began to recite the lyrics to Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “The Second Time Around”: “Love is lovelier the second time around … with both feet on the ground.” Next he delved into Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When”: “It seems we stood and talked like this before….”

“It’s almost the Carl Jung ballad,” Mr. Charlap said.

Our walk down Memory Lane concluded, Mr. Charlap dropped me off at the train station and, with a friendly wave, the man in the cream-colored suit and his minivan were gone. I thought back to the last time I’d listened to his version of “Where or When” on Written in the Stars , and how sad and unshakable it had seemed, as if it were the song that was doing all the work. Somehow, Bill Charlap-with his love of magic and of the judicious patriarchs of old Broadway-had learned how to make himself disappear.