Music Interviews
3:40 pm
Mon June 3, 2013

Authentic Early Jazz, From A 23-Year-Old 'WomanChild'

Originally published on Mon June 3, 2013 5:53 pm

Jazz musicians Cecile McLorin Salvant and Aaron Diehl, both in their 20s, have already racked up major industry prizes. But they took radically different paths to get there.

Diehl, a Juilliard-trained piano player, was performing church hymns at Mass from age 8. He says he was "that weird, nerdy kid" who loved classical music growing up. Salvant studied baroque music in France before a professor there persuaded her to try singing jazz.

Together, they riff like a pair of old souls who came together after years. But that's not really the case.

"Our first meeting was a 21st century [meeting] through Skype," Diehl says in an interview with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish. "So we didn't actually formally meet until several, several months later."

Diehl plays on Salvant's debut album, WomanChild. At 23, Salvant plucks tunes from the early days of jazz — a long way away from her own teenage fixation on grunge rock.

"I try to routinely go back to my 15-year-old self, and I try to make music that will also draw that type of person in," Salvant says. "All the while still being very authentic, and trying to be excellent at it."

"Yeah, I like how Cecile used the word 'authentic,' " Diehl says. "Because for me, I want to create an insatiable appetite for jazz, where the music can be accessible to a wider audience, but the music should always have a high level of quality and authenticity."

Diehl and Salvant may be young, but they evince great awareness of jazz history. Diehl also released an album this year, The Bespoke Man's Narrative, which draws largely from the work of pianist John Lewis and his band of many years, the Modern Jazz Quartet. And Salvant elected to record songs that might be seen as controversial today — songs like "Nobody," by the black minstrel performer Bert Williams, and a number called "You Bring Out the Savage in Me."

Salvant says she first heard "Savage" while listening to Valaida Snow, a female trumpet player, singer and bandleader who was popular in the 1930s.

"When I first heard it, I couldn't help but laugh, because I thought, goodness, how racist to be a black woman singing, 'You bring out the savage in me / You can be my ape man,' " Salvant says. "And I just immediately wanted to sing it, because it was so completely absurd and outrageous. And I wanted to be able to laugh about it, too."

So are songs like this part of reclaiming a legacy?

"I feel that it's important to capture as much of the language of jazz as possible in order to create my own unique identity," Diehl says. "And so, even more so than the social connotations associated with certain pieces, certain periods, I think about the music as a language, and how I can study and use the evolution of the language to my benefit. And distill that in an emotional way that reaches the listener."

In studying that history, Salvant and Diehl found themselves affected by the personal predicaments of their jazz heroes — people like Bessie Smith or Charlie Parker or Bud Powell, who created under immensely different circumstances.

"When you read about some of these musicians' lives, and the context in which they were playing and learning and studying the music, it's pretty amazing, and it's pretty sobering and humbling," Salvant says. "Just hearing the amount of stress and difficulty in which they were playing inspires me to work even more."

"And what they sacrificed in their lives," Diehl adds. "It makes the responsibility for me even greater to be a steward of the tradition of jazz."

On WomanChild, historical memory doesn't trump other considerations.

"For me, choosing songs that were maybe written in the '20s, '30s and '40s — I choose them because they're good songs," Salvant says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. And now we're going to introduce you to a pair of rising stars in the world of jazz. They riff like a pair of old friends, but they only met a couple of years ago.

AARON DIEHL: Our first meeting was 21st century, through Skype.

CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT: Oh, yeah. I forgot about that.

DIEHL: So we didn't actually formally meet until several, several months later.

CORNISH: So my imagination that you met in a smoky jazz club somewhere. I'm making that a little too romantic. It was Skype.

DIEHL: It was Skype.

SALVANT: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SALVANT: (Singing) I didn't know what time it was when I met you. Oh, what a lovely time it was...

CORNISH: Cecile McLorin Salvant and Aaron Diehl have both racked up major industry awards, but they traveled radically different paths to get there. Diehl, a pianist, was performing church hymns at mass from age eight. He went on to Julliard. McLorin Salvant studied baroque music in France before a professor there convinced her to try singing jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SALVANT: (Singing) Grand to be alive, to be young, to be mad, to be yours alone.

CORNISH: Aaron Diehl plays piano on the new album by Cecile McLorin Salvant. It's called "WomanChild." At the ripe old age of 23, she plucks tunes from the early days of jazz, a long way away from her own teenage tastes.

SALVANT: I was in a group of friends, we used to listen to a lot of grunge, so that was a little odd, too, because it was kind of 10 years old already. We would go to Soundgarden concerts and things like that.

DIEHL: Funny enough, I didn't really listen to a lot of jazz until my teenage years. I loved classical music from when I started playing, which was about six or seven years old. So I was sort of kind of that weird nerdy kid who loved to listen to Bach and Brahms and Vivaldi. Yeah, no grunge music for me.

CORNISH: Wow. So do you think about that now as you are producing music yourself? Are you conscious at all of trying to do music that those kids might want to listen to, you know, to draw people in?

SALVANT: It's funny. I was talking to Aaron about this the other day. I actually try to routinely go back to my 15-year-old self, and I try to make music that will also draw that type of person in, all the while still being very authentic and trying to be excellent at it.

DIEHL: Yeah, I like how Cecile used the word authentic because for me, I want to create an insatiable appetite for jazz, where the music can be accessible to a wider audience, but the music should always have a high level of quality and authenticity. I really like that word, authentic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY")

SALVANT: (Singing) When life seems full of clouds and rain and I'm filled with not but pain, who soothes my thumping, bumping brain? Nobody. When winter comes with snow and sleet and me with hunger and cold feet, who says here's 25 cents, go on, get something to eat? Nobody.

CORNISH: It seems like on this album you're not afraid to kind of go back and reach for works that people may look at now as controversial. In particular, a song like "You Bring Out the Savage in Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU BRING OUT THE SAVAGE IN ME")

SALVANT: (Singing) My blood boils with the tropic heat and the rhythm of my heart has a tom tom beat. You bring out...

Well, I heard that song because I was listening to Valaida Snow, who was this great singer, bandleader, trumpet player. She was an amazing woman who was most successful in the 1930s. And she sang a bunch of novelty songs. She sang songs like "I Can't Dance, I've Got Ants In My Pants" and "You Bring Out The Savage In Me," which when I first heard it, I couldn't help but laugh because I thought, goodness, how racist to be, you know, a black woman singing, you know, you bring out the savage in me, you can be my ape man.

(SOUNDBITE FROM SONG, "YOU BRING OUT THE SAVAGE IN ME")

SALVANT: (Singing) Just like Tarzan, be my ape man. I'm getting so ferocious and I can't escape, man...

And I just immediately wanted to sing it, because it was so completely absurd and outrageous. And I wanted to be able to laugh about it, too, you know.

(SOUNDBITE FROM SONG, "YOU BRING OUT THE SAVAGE IN ME")

SALVANT: (Singing) My blood boils with the tropic heat. The rhythm of my heart has a tom tom beat. You bring out the savage in me. Primitive love gods move my ears with the pressure of a hundred millions years.

CORNISH: Playing a song like "You Bring Our the Savage In Me," you guys are both kind of reaching back into a sensitive time for black America. And you're both young, you're both black. What is it like for you to try and reclaim these works?

DIEHL: Well, I feel that it's important to capture as much of the language of jazz as possible in order to create my own unique identity. And so, even more so than the social connotations associated with certain pieces or certain periods, I think about the music as a language and how I can study and use the evolution of the language to my benefit and then distill that in an emotional way that reaches the listener.

CORNISH: For either of you, does it put you in the heads of these artists who were doing the same work you were doing but just under such different circumstances?

SALVANT: You know, when you read about some of these musicians' lives, and the context in which they were playing and learning and studying the music, it's pretty amazing and it's pretty sobering, you know, and humbling. You know, just reading about someone like Bessie Smith or, I don't know, Charlie Parker.

DIEHL: Bud Powell.

SALVANT: Bud Powell. Just hearing the amount of stress and difficulty in which they were playing inspires me to work even more.

DIEHL: And what they sacrificed in their lives. I mean, I feel like it makes the responsibility even greater for me to be a steward of the tradition of jazz.

SALVANT: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BABY, HAVE PITY ON ME")

SALVANT: (Singing) Just like a beggar, what can I do? Hungry for kisses and starving for you. Press your lips to my lips. Oh, have pity on me.

CORNISH: Pianist Aaron Diehl and singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. Diehl's latest album is called "The Bespoke Man's Narrative." And this song, "Baby, Have Pity On Me," can be found on the debut album by Cecile McLorin Salvant. It's called "WomanChild." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: