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Music: Bill Charlap, scion of musical family, centers jazz trio
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Music: Bill Charlap, scion of musical family, centers jazz trio

‘Black music, Jewish music at center of American culture’

Pianist Bill Charlap, flanked by drummer Kenny Washington, left, and bassist Peter Washington — a performing trio with a “special rapport”. Photo courtesy Bill Charlap
Pianist Bill Charlap, flanked by drummer Kenny Washington, left, and bassist Peter Washington — a performing trio with a “special rapport”. Photo courtesy Bill Charlap

Now 51, jazz pianist Bill Charlap said he cannot remember a time when he was not playing music.

As a young child, he would sit down at the keyboard and imitate the tunes he heard his father, Morris “Moose” Charlap, compose for Broadway musicals. (The elder Charlap’s best-known works are several songs, including “I’m Flying,” “I’ve Gotta Crow,” and “I Won’t Grow Up,” for “Peter Pan,” which played on Broadway in 1954, starring Mary Martin.)

But, the younger Charlap told NJJN, his favorite work in those early years was not from the Great American Song Book, but Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, which he first heard on a children’s record performed by Sparky’s Magic Piano.

But that doesn’t mean he had an ear only for classical music; growing up, he listened to all genres of music. “I was never geared toward being a concert pianist,” he said, looking out at a panoramic view of his hometown from a conference room at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC). He and his trio — including Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums — will present the Songs of Leonard Bernstein: A 100th Birthday Celebration on March 16 at 8 p.m.

But with two parents on the music scene — his mother is vocalist Sandy Stewart, who in the 1950s and ’60s appeared on TV variety programs and was a regular on The Perry Como Show as part of the Kraft Music Hall Players — it was no wonder that Charlap’s musical inclinations were ultimately oriented toward jazz interpretations of the pre-rock ’n’ roll American songbook of pop and jazz standards and Broadway show tunes.

He grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, attended the private Town School, then the High School of Performing Arts, which was the setting for the 1980 film “Fame.”

From there Charlap spent two years in college at SUNY Purchase before receiving an offer he found impossible to refuse: He dropped out of school to play piano with famed jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Their meeting was arranged by pianist Bill Mays, from whom Charlap inherited the gig as Mulligan’s pianist. The 60-something-year-old Mulligan launched 20-year-old Charlap into performing with the first tier of American jazz musicians.

But even before that fortuitous get-together, Charlap was performing at jazz festivals, mentored by fellow jazz pianist and composer Dick Hyman, a distant cousin. He succeeded Hyman in the position of musical director of jazz programs at the 92nd Street Y, a leading Jewish institution in New York.

Another Jewish institution, Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side, also played a significant role in his life. Charlap was only 7 years old when his father died of a heart attack at the age of 45 in 1974.

During that difficult time, Charlap said, “the temple was particularly important for me. There was a great rabbi there, Philip Hiat, who took a lot of time to be there for me. I had a lot of conversations with the rabbi. He really helped me out.”

Although most of the music he plays has its roots in African-American blues, Charlap can’t help observing that most contributors to the American songbook happened to be Jewish. The main exception was Cole Porter, who was born a Baptist in Indiana. When Porter discovered the ethnicity of his Broadway musical colleagues, he reportedly told Richard Rodgers, a Jew, “I’ll write Jewish tunes.” In many Porter songs — “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine,” “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” — you can hear musical roots from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, Charlap noted.

“Black music and Jewish music are at the center of American culture,” he said. But in all his years of performing in multi-racial settings, he has never experienced tensions or culture clashes with musicians over ethnic identity.

“I feel musicians look beyond all that stuff,” he said. “It is about being proud of who you are and celebrating who each other is. It is a special thing to be a musician. We ultimately celebrate each other’s individuality.”

He said the influences on his playing include “any giant who has made an imprint,” among them Sonny Clark, Wynton Kelly, Teddy Wilson, Nat ‘King” Cole, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, and Chick Corea.

Charlap said he finds special rapport when he performs with Kenny and Peter Washington, who share the same last name but no family relationship. They have been a performing trio for the past 20 years.

“I knew their combination was great together and they would be hand-in-glove in understanding the songs I wanted to play,” the pianist said.

Another of the major joys of his life is performing with his wife and fellow pianist, Canadian-born Renee Rosnes, whom he had admired from a distance before they met in 2003.

“I would hear her play on the radio and think, ‘That guy plays good. I like that guy.’ I didn’t know who she was.” Then Rosnes and Charlap went on tour in Japan with eight other pianists “and that’s when we got to know each other personally and found out we cared about each other,” he said.

“With my wife the chemistry was always there. We have very similar rhythmic feel to each other and our esthetic works very easily together automatically,” he said, even as he noted that “we come from different places. Renee plays great beautiful songbook music, as well as the blues, and simple to complicated improvised jazz compositions. It is like speaking with different accents.”

They have three children. Two are college-age daughters. The third is his stepson, Dylan Drummond, whom he describes as a “stone-cold rock guitarist.” He is majoring in popular music at William Paterson University in Wayne, where Charlap is director of jazz studies.

He has no worries about whether jazz will thrive in the future.

“There is so much talent and there are all kinds of original artists,” he said. “As for the kids who are now attending jazz programs at William Paterson and Berklee and Juilliard, some of them are so good that I could study with them.” Charlap has performed all over the world with many of its best-known jazz performers, but there were times when he had to scuffle to earn a living.

“It was a long time ago, but I have played at weddings and bar mitzvahs,” he confessed. “You do what you have to do.”

Charlap considers himself a fortunate man. “I have been able to do what I wanted to do,” he said. “How lucky is that?”

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