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NPR's Long-Running 'Piano Jazz' Gets A Makeover


For decades, the great Marian McPartland illuminated public-radio airwaves with her duets and conversations as the host of PIANO JAZZ. Since 1979, she spoke and played with established artists like Herbie Hancock, Alice Coltrane, Carla Bley and - of course - Dr. Billy Taylor. Next week, a new kind of PIANO JAZZ launches on NPR. The show will feature young talents who shine through their energy, innovation and artistry.

If you're a jazz musician, how and where did you learn how to play? Give us a call, 800-989-8255; email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jon Weber is the host of NPR's PIANO JAZZ RISING STARS, and he knows a thing or two what it's like to be a musical protege. At age 19, he'd already opened for Pat Metheny and Stanley Turrentine. Jon Weber joins us now from our bureau in New York. And Jon, nice to have you with us here on TALK OF THE NATION today.

JON WEBER, BYLINE: Neal, it's a pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: And how did your experience as a youngster influence the vision for this new version of PIANO JAZZ?

WEBER: Well, I recognized by the time I was 16 years old that jazz was the music for me. I was playing heavy metal guitar at the time. And I think a lot of teenagers go through this, where they hear something that's - they want something more. They want something more than the simple chords. And they hear jazz and they say wow, listen to this. So I heard some fusion artists at the time. And the - I guess it wasn't that - it was the gateway drug into playing jazz...


WEBER: ...which - and eventually, big-band jazz and eventually all forms of jazz.

CONAN: And so where do you go now? Do you go to disgruntled heavy metal players to look for new performers?


WEBER: Oh - well, you never know where the next source material is going to be for jazz. It comes from everywhere. That's one of the wonderful things about jazz, is that we welcome everything into the melting pot.

CONAN: Yet I looked at the list of performers that you have in this upcoming, new season of PIANO JAZZ, and several of them - it surprised me - started out as classical performers.

WEBER: Yes, I know. That's the thing. I mean, it's - nothing wrong with having wonderful piano technique. For example, Aaron Diehl is one of my guests. He's a wonderful pianist who was born in 1985, but is still steeped in the tradition and all the discipline from the Harlem Renaissance, which happened at least six decades before he was born. For some reason, he understands that - or studies that.

So yeah, classical technique always helps. But sometimes, you just want a little something where you want to be able to change things - because, I mean, how many people - how many times have you listened on your iPod to a song and you thought, oh, change a note here or a word here, and I'd like that better? So I mean, that's - then you're doing jazz, really.

CONAN: But it raises the question of where young people these days learn, and should we consider jazz now a concert - conservatory music?

WEBER: Yes. And the thing that is unique about jazz as a concert music is that you can change things. In other words, if you're going to perform Mozart's "Piano Concerto in B Flat" or Beethoven's "Sonata in C Minor," you know what you're going to get. But if you do a jazz show, you don't know what you're going to get. But it's going to be cool; it's going to be improvised; it's going to be imaginative. We've had 11 decades of jazz, if you believe that Jelly Roll Morton invented it in 1902 - which he claims...

CONAN: One afternoon when he had nothing better to do.

WEBER: Nothing better to do. But that's - they discovered that just taking a series of chords and improvising and - improvised music is - it's really found its home in jazz, and I think it's here to stay because there's endless variations. You can go all over the world for new sources to absorb into jazz. So why not?

CONAN: Well, let's hear some - we'll hear a couple of tracks from some of these rising stars you're going to be featuring. We'll start with Grace Kelly - of course, not the actress and princess of Monaco but a 19-year-old - 19-year-old - alto saxophonist and vocalist.


CONAN: And that is young Grace Kelly in a duet with Jon Weber, pianist and host of NPR's PIANO JAZZ RISING STAR. So obviously, one of the traditions of piano jazz, that collaboration - that sustains.

WEBER: I love that Marian had such a original idea in 1979, when she started the show - because there was no such thing as a jazz show, where you brought on an artist to talk about jazz and to improvise with the host. But Marian was perfect for that because she - her general knowledge is so tremendous; her musicianship is so wonderful; she's so personable. And she is the artistic director of PIANO JAZZ RISING STARS, the show that I'm beginning next week.

And she loves Grace Kelly, by the way, who just is - at age 19, listen to her swing. That song, I believe, is called "Philosophical Flying Fish." And she swings like she's been doing it all her life, and I guess she has. At age 19, she also sings really well.

CONAN: We're going to hear some more of that later. But tell us a little bit more about, how does somebody - now a senior at, I think the Berklee College of Music, up in Boston - how does a person like that become quite as accomplished as she is? She's got - what? well, a lot of albums out.

WEBER: Seven. She started young, and she was exposed to it. And as Stefon Harris has said, there are just - there are no wrong answers on the bandstand. You just take risks, and you let the chips fall. As I said with Taylor Eigsti, who was also on the show - a great pianist - you just let the chips fall. You just let it happen. And if there's a mistake, or something that's perceived as mistake, you follow that. And Frank Zappa used to do this on the bandstand. He'd - wrote very difficult arrangements. And sometimes somebody would make a mistake, and everybody would follow the mistake. And that became the cool thing to do.

CONAN: We're talking with Jon Weber, pianist and host of NPR's PIANO JAZZ RISING STARS. We'd like to hear from the jazz musicians in our audience. Where and how did you learn how to play - 800-989-8255; email: Josh is on the line, calling us from Minneapolis.

JOSH: Hi. I just want to say that it was my band teacher at Tech High School in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Mr. Gary Zwack, took - as a freshman, took me under his wing and really taught me everything there was to do - everything that there was to jazz, and music in general. And I really need to call out all the teachers and music teachers out there, who really do a fantastic job.

CONAN: And what did you do after high school?

JOSH: I actually went into the military. I actually broke my tooth, and I cannot do justice to my trumpet anymore, unfortunately.

CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry to hear it.

JOSH: So all - I still love listening to it. But thank you for doing this, and a huge call-out to all the music teachers, who are doing a fantastic job. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Josh. And Jon Weber, I'm sure you would - we'd hear a hearty amen.

WEBER: Hear, hear, Josh. Gary Zwack, God bless you. I love everything you're doing. I had a gentleman like that named Mark Kleckey(ph), turned my life around. I would probably be a heavy metal guitarist in some garage band, or 6 feet underground, if not for him. He turned me onto jazz and yes, a big shout-out to all the jazz teachers.

CONAN: Jazz - all right, this may be controversial. Jazz used to be popular music. I don't think it's fair to call it that anymore.

WEBER: No. One time, jazz was popular music; the big bands of the day, the - it was theater music. Something happened in the mid-'50s, where it just suddenly, kind of branched off. But in a way, I guess us jazz musicians are kind of proud of the fact that we're not popular music. We kind of enjoy being iconoclasts, or being just a little bit off the beaten track, or being special in that way.

CONAN: Let's go next to Tim. Tim's on the line with us from Detroit.

TIM: Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi, Tim. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

TIM: Yeah, a longtime listener. I like it. Yeah, when I was playing drums - never had a lesson - very young - in my late teens, early 20s - but playing rock and roll with the regular guys was, you know, I'm just keeping beat. But I met some older gentlemen, and I was - they played horns and such, took me around to jazz bars. And like your gentleman said, you could just learn so much more and do so much more. And somebody said - I said, I should get some lessons. I didn't think I was any good. And he said nope, nope. Just - you got your own style. Do your own thing.

CONAN: And do you still play?

TIM: No, no, nope. I sold my third set of drums many years ago, when I started working a regular job, unfortunately.

CONAN: And do you still hang out in piano bars?

TIM: They're hard to find. There used to be - all around, where anybody could go in and maybe sit in. We had a bar there, where we played at in Dearborn, and they had clubs around. People would come over after like, a wedding hall would close, and there'd more musicians just sitting in, having a good time, you know...

CONAN: And Jon Weber...

TIM: ...and just doing whatever.

CONAN: ...I think Tim's right about that. There are fewer and fewer of those kinds of clubs.

WEBER: Fewer, yes. It seems - every generation, we bemoan, oh, no, it's going away. There's no more - the clubs are gone. And then, for example, in Minneapolis, where I play maybe five or six times a year, there's a bunch of musicians who just hang out in a basement and play. And it's - it looks like a club. So just - there's always hope, and there's always musicians who just have outgrown the ordinary and they just - they can't stand the fact that there's no place to play. They need an outlet to play. And they - we've - they find one, by hook or crook, and it develops into something bigger, without fail. So I have great optimism that clubs will be around. I mean, people have said this for years - they all, they're going away - but they always come back.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Tim. Hang in there.

TIM: Yeah. I was just going to say, about the piano bars, yeah. You can sit in a lot of bars and play guitars and such. But as far as playing jazz goes, you know, that's sort of gone, I think.

CONAN: Well, Tim, thanks very much.

WEBER: I don't know, you know? It's something - on the show, on PIANO JAZZ RISING STARS, I am astonished at the number of young people - 20-somethings, 30-somethings - who know so much about the music that preceded them, and they're into jazz. They're - they respect rock, and a lot of times - I mean, I had Taylor Eigsti on the show, and we had a nice discussion about Coldplay, the British band. Most of those guys were born when I was in high school. And we started talking about the song "Daylight," and he said, I think I'm going to play that. And he did.

CONAN: Well, as it happens, we have that cut queued up. Let's hear...

WEBER: Are you serious? This is great.

CONAN: ...Taylor Eigsti, playing a little Coldplay.


CONAN: Taylor Eigsti, from PIANO JAZZ RISING STARS. And Jon Weber, a little bit older than our previous artist that we heard from, Grace Kelly. He's - well, mid- to late-20s now.

WEBER: Twenty-seven. I know. Well, the thing is, Taylor pointed out something on the show that - a very astute observation - that jazz musicians have always borrowed from the pop music of the day. If you look at Bill Evans' recordings from the '60s and '70s, he's always playing something from the latest Broadway show. Listen to Miles Davis. He's playing Cyndi Lauper in the '80s. And you notice it all the way along, so why not now?

I mean, I heard Kris Bowers, the winner of the Thelonious Monk Piano Competition - he's going to be a guest on the show; at age 22 - he'd play some things holding onto the strings inside the piano as he plays, using the entire instrument as a percussion instrument, which it was intended to be. And it sounds like a hip-hop groove under what he's doing. And it's cool, and it sounds like jazz.

CONAN: We're talking with Jon Weber, pianist and host of NPR's PIANO JAZZ RISING STARS. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Here's an email from Erish(ph) : I studied jazz guitar in high school because I wanted to learn all aspects of guitar. In retrospect, I think learning music is like learning a language. Learning jazz is like learning conversational music. Every kid should be exposed to it.

By the way, he notes that he's a big fan of piano jazz - even though I now play rock.


WEBER: That's great. It is very conversational. It's very much like baroque music, in a way - inasmuch as you have an idea, then something else answers that idea, and then you work and you weave sort of a fugal message and a statement that's from the joined instruments together, if there happens to be more than one.

CONAN: Email from Patrick in Cincinnati: I mourn the retirement of Marian McPartland, to whom I've listen to - to whom I've listened for decades. In her later years, she was often reminiscent and backward-looking - not a bad thing. But I'm delighted by the forward-looking approach Jon is now taking. It's crucial to show jazz can be a young person's genre. I'm 46, and often find myself on the young end of jazz fans.

That's a demographic that's not going to work in the music's favor.

WEBER: You'd be surprised how many young people are playing and listening to jazz. I cannot believe the bumper crop we've got right now, coming out of the music schools, which is one of the reasons for the show. It just - there were so many young, innovative people who are willing to take a lot of risks and are also really familiar with the pop music. I mean, many people stop listening to new music when they hit 25 or so. But we're catching people right at that point where they have all this energy and creativity, and they're willing to take music in from all parts of the world.

And, you know, I adore - Marian is just my idol. I used to transcribe pieces that she would have on her show, when she'd have a guest and they'd do some improv. I would transcribe it, and I'd write it out for wind ensemble or string quartet. It's very, very musical. And she was forward-looking as well. She had, sometimes, very, very young artists on there as well, and she was never afraid to learn things from a young person.

CONAN: Let's go next to Conner, Conner with us from Eugene, Oregon.

CONNER: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

CONNER: Oh, yeah. I just wanted to give a shout-out to Dr. Ed Christianson, rest in peace. I love that man dearly. And I am just one of the many, many people whose life was touched by him. He was a young man growing up in Harvey, North Dakota. And when the jazz band came through town, he jumped on the train with them and took off, and toured across the nation and made his living as a jazz player; and eventually came back to North Dakota and taught at Fargo North High School, and was just an inspiration. He was an amazing man and a brilliant teacher. And I just think of him all the time. He recently passed away, and I know there's, literally, thousands of us out there that are affected by him, and just his passion for big bands and his extreme displeasure with the karaoke movement and...


CONAN: Well, he's got a lot of company there.

CONNER: Indeed. As a music teacher - not in the schools, but as a private music teacher and jazz musician, I think back daily on the lessons I learned from Dr. Christianson and...

CONAN: And we've gotten a lot of emails about - well, yours is the first call to mention Dr. Christianson - but about other teachers in elementary and high schools, all of whom touched people's lives tremendously as they taught them jazz. Conner, thanks very much for the phone call. Jon Weber, good luck with PIANO JAZZ RISING STARS.

WEBER: Thank you very much, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: PIANO JAZZ RISING STARS premieres next week, and Jon Weber joined us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin and I go on the road to Des Moines, to take stock of the race for the Republican nomination for president. Join us for that. We'll leave you with some singing by the alto player Grace Kelly we heard from earlier. This is "Bye Bye Blackbird."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.


GRACE KELLY: (Singing) Oh, what hard luck stories they all hand me. Pack my bags and light the light. I'll arrive late tonight. Blackbird, oh, blackbird, blackbird, bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.