Across the generational spectrum: Aaron Diehl on programming the Jazz in July series in NYC
By Lee Mergner
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
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.”