“It’s such a luxury to do something that you love. If you’re fortunate to pick a vocation, something that you’re called to do, and make a living doing it on any level, I think that is a supreme privilege.”

By Elizabeth Schwartz

Aaron Diehl digs deep. He reflects intensely on the music he plays, the music he composes, and how it connects to the American musical landscape, particularly the vernacular elements of American music that originate in jazz. This month Diehl will make his Oregon Symphony debut with George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, an audience favorite. It’s safe to say, however, even if you know the Concerto in F well, you will hear this familiar music in a wholly different light when Diehl is at the keyboard.

Diehl, an award-winning jazz pianist and composer, has caught people’s attention with his interpretation of the Concerto in F, because he improvises his own cadenzas and includes brief improvisatory phrases in featured piano sections, even when he’s playing with the full orchestra. For Diehl, this approach is neither provocative nor inappropriate; improvisation, an integral aspect of jazz, belongs in works like the Concerto in F, which is built on jazz idioms. “George Gershwin did not consider himself a jazz musician,” Diehl remarked in a recent interview. “He would have been the first to say that, but he was very influenced by the folks who were the progenitors of what I call the two-handed [stride] American piano tradition, like Fats Waller and Art Tatum and many others. So when playing a piece like the Concerto in F, for example, which has a cadenza in the second movement, I’ve gotten comments, like, ‘Well, you know, it’s pretty bold that you’re embellishing these sections or improvising this and that.’ [Ironically], many people don’t realize that Rhapsody in Blue’s solo piano sections were originally improvised [by Gershwin].”

Diehl’s bio remarks on “his love affair with rub and tension, [which] prompted a yearslong immersion in seemingly disparate sound palettes he found to be similar in depth, resonance, and impulse, from Monk and Ravel to Gershwin and William Grant Still.” The concept of tension is a basic facet of music’s ebb and flow, building up and then releasing tension primarily through the resolution of dissonance. Rub, however, is a less common musical idea; what does “rub” mean to Diehl? “Well, for example, I think of a 1940s radio broadcast of [pianist] Erroll Garner playing his improvisations on Clairde Lune,” he says. “It was just something impromptu that the radio interviewer asked him to do. I don’t think Erroll really wanted to do it – he was a very young man, probably 18 or 19 at the time. What’s interesting is to hear someone like Erroll Garner take a piece by Claude Debussy and create his own sound world out of the sound world that’s already present. How do you layer a sound world on top of another sound world and still allow it to have the intent, the original integrity of the piece, and respect for what the piece is?” As Hamlet might have said, “There’s the rub.”

Diehl also finds rub and tension in the ways Gershwin’s music is thought of today, as opposed to 30 or 40 years ago. “I remember growing up in Columbus, oh; when I went to the symphony, I would never hear the Concerto in F, or certainly not Rhapsody in Blue on a standard subscription series concert – only on Pops or outdoor summer performances. So the opinion we have now about Gershwin is very different from how Gershwin was perceived in the classical world decades ago. That brings me to my next thought, this whole idea in much of the classical music world that everything on the score has to be interpreted verbatim.” There is a musical framework for improvising in any genre, which is based on the stylistic qualities of the music being composed in a particular time and place. To improvise authentically, the performer must be conversant with those qualities. As Diehl points out, Mozart and Beethoven improvised their own cadenzas when they performed their piano concertos. “It was a moment for the performer to present a little bit of themselves through the melodic and harmonic material of that piece,” says Diehl. “There’s a language and discipline to that kind of improvisation; it’s not random. These are very refined skills that unfortunately had been lost.”

“I think Gershwin’s improvisational language is more relatable today because it connects to the language of jazz and a musical idiom that we can actually listen to,” Diehl continues. “We can hear recordings of Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton and we know what they and their performances actually sounded like, which is not something we can do with Mozart and Beethoven. So when I hear Gershwin, I think, “Here are these references – to the blues, for example, or to the sound of the banjo, which you hear at the opening of the third movement. I think those references are closer to our own sound experiences today than something like Mozart or Beethoven.”

Diehl also laments classical music’s obsession with flawless, pristine performances; he believes the overemphasis on precision means other aspects of music – what jazz musicians call the vibe, or the intent – are lost in the relentless pursuit of perfection. “I always caution people to remember that as great as all these composers were – whether you’re talking about Mozart or Gershwin or whoever – their music was very organic, and it wasn’t pristine and note perfect,” he explains. “One of my favorite classical pianists is Alfred Cortot. There’s a video online of him talking about Schumann. And as I listened to him play, I thought, ‘This is what we should all go back to, this intent.’ And I think that’s where a lot of the rub comes from in terms of the different approaches between an art form like European classical music and an art form like jazz, where really divergent objectives emerged.”

Diehl’s expansive, cosmic view of music evolved in part from his parents’ eclectic tastes. “When I was a kid, my mom and my dad had CDs galore,” he remembers. “I would be curious and put on a CD and it might be [vibraphonist/composer] Milt Jackson’s Sunflower. Or it would be all six of the Brandenburg Concerti, or it would be Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or R&B, or maybe even some early hip hop. Also, my grandfather was a jazz musician; he played piano and trombone. I was just really lucky to have that exposure to music from a young age. I think makes all the difference.”

Diehl also credits both his parents, who were what he terms “music appreciators,” with encouraging his passion for music. “It’s such a luxury to do something that you love. If you’re fortunate to pick a vocation, something that you’re called to do, and make a living doing it on any level, I think that is a supreme privilege.”


This article was written by Elizabeth Schwarts and first published in In Symphony. It is published here courtesy of Oregon Symphony. Click here to explore the full magazine.