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Across the generational spectrum: Aaron Diehl on programming the Jazz in July series in NYC

Aaron Diehl
c/o the artist
Aaron Diehl

For Aaron Diehl, who was recently chosen to succeed Bill Charlap as the artistic director of the prestigious Jazz in July series at 92NY, the appointment brings things full circle. Because the pianist moved to New York City in 2003, around the same time that Charlap took over the reins from series founder Dick Hyman, who started the program in 1985. Over the last 20 years, Diehl has both attended shows at the series and later performed at Jazz in July. “It’s really been part of my whole experience in New York City,” he explains. “I’ve had the opportunity to hear some spectacular artists, across the generational spectrum. From Eddie Locke and Ernie Andrews to Peter Bernstein, Peter Washington, Kenny Washington, Wynton and Dianne Reeves, to name few.” When Diehl got the invite to perform, it was with artists such as Harold Mabern, Roger Kellaway, Kenny Barron and Hyman. “It’s really been a privilege to be part of the series and of course now taking over for Bill as the artistic director,” Diehl says.

Looking at that list of performers and the past programs of Jazz in July, you can well see the prevalence of a multi-generational approach to the series. “I think it's vital in terms of the continuation of the musical language to have older musicians mentoring younger musicians, who are learning from the elders,” he says. “I've been fortunate to spend a little bit of time with progenitors of the music—people like Hank Jones and Cedar Walton. There are a lot of people that I missed unfortunately but having some contact with those types of people really homes in on the importance of that type of collaboration.”

For his part, Diehl hasn’t done much large-scale curating of events and series in the past. “I definitely feel the weight of the shoes to fill,” he says. “In my role, I think about Jazz in July and what Bill and Dick built. I think about the blueprint that they developed over the decades. Whether it's like Dick's kaleidoscopic journey through the piano language. Or Bill's passion for the Great American songbook. They both emphasize very powerfully theme programs, and so working off of these foundational visions, I intend to expand the collaborative possibilities of this series and with an intimate, reflective, and nuanced experience around each concert.”

Bill Charlap, Noriko Ueda, Lewis Nash and Aaron Diehl in performance on July 21, 2022 at Jazz in July series at 92NY
Richard Termine
Bill Charlap, Noriko Ueda, Lewis Nash and Aaron Diehl in performance on July 21, 2022 at Jazz in July series at 92NY

Diehl joins the growing ranks of young or middle-aged jazz artists who have taken on the elevated role of artistic director for jazz at high-profile organizations and events, including Wynton at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Jason Moran at the Kennedy Center, Christian McBride at the Newport Jazz Festival, and, most recently, Terence Blanchard at SFJAZZ. Diehl admits that he hasn’t yet contacted his esteemed colleagues, but certainly plans to reach out. He has formulated a few basic concepts. “One thing I always realize, and it's the same with Bill of course, that in the series as it stands now there is a communal feel to Jazz in July. There are people that are recurring in terms of their involvement, but there are also other people that may pop up on the program who are new to the series and maybe even new to many of the audiences out there. I think it's just vital to have a combination of artists with whom many people are familiar and know their music and then to also have artists who are still burgeoning in their careers. I hope to have that kind of combination moving forward with this series.”

Having attended performances in the Jazz in July series at 92NY, I can attest that the audiences are devout, knowledgeable and attentive. There isn’t a lot of fiddling with cellphones or talking during the music. Diehl is very aware and appreciative of that aspect. “I think any musician is appreciative of audiences, in enjoying finding value in their music,” he explains. “Certainly a place like 92NY has diehard music fans around the spectrum. whether it's classical or jazz. These people go to the concerts because they want to have an experience that's meaningful to them and that speaks and communicates to them. I think, it is important in my own role to try to find unique, intimate, reflective, and nuanced experiences that, speak to people who are there for the journey.”

Diehl is embracing the challenge of programming this series with its long legacy and he’s not too concerned about how to whittle down the choices of artists for what amounts to about six concerts. “The beauty of it is that it's not just one season. It could possibly be another season. I think those types of challenges are fun, how to incorporate programming that makes sense and that peaks people's interests and at times even challenges them with what their expectations are.”

His predecessor has nothing but high praise for Diehl in this new role. “Aaron Diehl has the artistry and vision to bring Jazz in July into a brilliant new era,” Charlap said in a press release received by WBGO. “With the appointment of Aaron Diehl as Artistic Director, Jazz in July is in great hands.”

Learn more about the concerts here.

Schedule of Jazz in July performances in 2023:

Tuesday, July 18, 7:30 pm

Thursday, July 20, 7:30 pm

Tuesday, July 25, 7:30 pm

Wednesday, July 26, 7:30 pm
BILL CHARLAP, solo piano

Thursday, July 27, 7:30 pm
Bill Charlap, John Pizzarelli, Renee Rosnes, Steve Wilson, Ken Peplowski, Jeremy Pelt, Nicole Glover, David Wong, and Dennis Mackrel

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”