"I’m standing in the middle of a shopping mall with a list right now.” As he spoke on the phone, jazz musician Bill Charlap was doing what most people do around this time of year. He was Christmas shopping. At Short Hills Mall, not far from his home in West Orange.
Charlap and his trio will perform on Sunday, January 9, at the annual benefit for the Mercer County chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) at the College of New Jersey’s Music Building. The trio will give a special concert, “Jazz Classics, American Composers, and the Healing Powers of Their Music,” at the gala. Charlap’s performance will include jazz classics based on the works of renowned American composers such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Leonard Bernstein — all of whom were affected by mental illness.
According to a NAMI statement, throughout his life, Gershwin was a boy always in trouble and today his diagnosis would most likely be conduct discorder and possible ADHD. Throughout his life, Gershwin was intrigued by fast-clipped sounds (consider “noise” by others), which he incorporaed into his music. “I think he heard themthat way in part because of his hyperactive nature,” said Richard Kogan in an interview for “Psychiatric News” on April 18, 2003. When Gershwin was 36 and at the peak of his career, he became severely depressed. It was at this time that he wrote his most famous work, the folk opera “Porgy and Bess.” Bess’ “My Man’s Gone Now,” said Kogan, “is probably one of the most anguished songs of the 20th century.”
In 1937 Cole Porter suffered a tragic acident when the horse he was riding threw him and then fell on him, crushing both of his legs. Over the next 20 years, Porter endured 30 surgeries. In spite of his pain, depression, and growing addiction to alcohol and narcotics, Porter continued writing some of his best songs.
As for Bernstein, Kogan interprets his wild behavior at the conductor’s podium as a form of personal therapy. He seemed to have super-human energy and an enormous ego. Psychologists would call his euphoria “hyperthymic temperament,” but at times, Bernstein also suffered from real depression, says Kogan. Throughout his life, Bernstein was conflicted about his sexuality and spent many years in psychotherapy.
The selection of Charlap for the January 9 gala is appropriate because he is well-known for interpreting the American songbook, and that, of course, includes all three of these composers. One of Charlap’s Grammy-nominated records, in fact, is titled “Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein.”
NAMI board member William Hayes, a psychiatrist who practices in Princeton, writes via E-mail that NAMI provides support for families of artists, and others, with mental illness and that it is as important as the support the people with mental illnesses receive. “The support of knowing you are not alone and others are having similar problems is one of our most valuable services,” he writes.
He points out that the word “nami” means “me, too” in Swahili, and that the connotation with collective shared experience helps those in medicine and laymen alike understand the special problems, and often, even gifts, mental illness presents to artists. “Many artists who have been touched by a mental illness are often aided by their own personal experiences of intense despair, panic, depression, or mania excitement,” he says.
Charlap’s regular trio includes drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Peter Washington, who are not related. The group has been together for more than a decade. But Peter Washington is not available for the NAMI concert because he has gigs in South America, so bassist Sean Smith, who has known Charlap since high school, will appear.
Charlap is effusive in his praise for his regular trio. “Playing in this group is one of the great joys of my life,” he says. “There is none better. We have a great chemistry, and we’ve had that for a long time. It’s something that continues to be a thrill for me, every time we sit down and make music together.”
With Sean Smith, the nature and dynamic of the trio necessarily changes. But Smith, who knew Charlap even before the Washingtons did, is also a valued collaborator. “Our musical relationship goes back so far. He’s one of the great bass players in the world today,” he says. “He’s played with everyone from Tom Harrell to Peggy Lee to Jacky Terrasson, and he’s a wonderful composer who leads his own group. So in certain ways, the chemistry changes a bit, but it’s just another version of the Bill Charlap Trio.”
With both versions of the trio, Charlap says, the creative process unfolds naturally. “After being together for so long, I think the process is one of us just us challenging ourselves personally and musically. We never ‘phone it in,’ and we never feel like there’s just one set way to do things. The longer we play together, the more intuitive and the more expressive it gets, not less so. If it were less so, it would be a good reason to discontinue, but it’s always more so.”
Charlap is a native of New York City whose family is Jewish, though nonreligious, and Christmas was a huge part of his growing up. He continues this with his wife, the Canadian-born jazz pianist Renee Rosnes (who just played a Christmas show at the Kennedy Center), and their three children. “When it gets right down to it, being from New York, the tradition of togetherness kind of lumps Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, any holiday of that nature. We always had a tree because we liked it — it smells good,” he says. “It really comes down to an opportunity for all of us to be together, and that’s a reason I’ve always celebrated at Christmastime.”
Christmas music, too, is special to Charlap, and he enjoys playing shows at this time of year. Of course, he is well-versed in the jazz canon or repertoire, and he has made a point to record and play several songs from the more limited but just as traditional Christmas jazz repertoire and canon. One of the musicians and composers central to this type of music is Vince Guaraldi, whose sweet stylings graced the soundtracks of the animated Charlie Brown specials.
“Guaraldi was a great jazz pianist,” says Charlap. “He became famous for his inimitable sounds that were part of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’” said Charlap. “The most well-known, of course, is ‘Christmastime Is Here.’ But there was also other Christmas music from that score, such as a piece called ‘Christmas Is Coming’ and some other songs that people don’t know the titles of, but they associate with that score. What connects them all is that the songs all have an uplifting, warm and wholesome quality to them.”
In addition to being married to a musician, Charlap is the son of two musicians. His father, “Moose” Charlap, was a composer who contributed to Broadway, other types of theater, and to film. “He was most famous for most of the music written for Mary Martin in ‘Peter Pan’ — ‘I’m Flying,,’ ‘I’ve Gotta Crow,’ and ‘I Won’t Grow Up,’” says Charlap. “He died very young, at 46, so he would have continued producing songs of this type and at this level. He was one of the last real theater composers.”
His mother, Sandy Stewart, he says, “is a great popular singer of her generation, like Tony Bennett or Rosemary Clooney, who sings the Great American Songbook but also swings. They straddle the thin line between pop and jazz singers. Are they jazz singers? Was Frank Sinatra a jazz singer? Some would say no; I would say both.”
Was it inevitable, then, that Charlap would become a musician? “I don’t know whether it was inevitable that I play music, but it was certainly natural to me,” he says. “I grew up in a home surrounded by music.” He says he can’t remember a time when he didn’t play piano. “I don’t remember when music was not a central part of my life, and I don’t ever remember thinking that I would do something else,” he says. “To be honest with you, it was never really a question. I didn’t grow up in the type of family that said, well, that’s a hobby and you should be a doctor or something, because they were musicians already. It’s obvious that this is where I was destined to be.”
Charlap attended New York’s famous and iconic High School for the Performing Arts and then went on to study music at SUNY-Purchase, but he only lasted a couple of semesters. “I went on the road with Gerry Mulligan. School for me was developing under masters like Gerry and Phil Woods.”
Charlap has recorded two CDs that represent collaborations with the women in his life. “Love Is Here To Stay,” a compilation of pop and cabaret standards,was recorded in 2005 with his mother. “When I first heard these songs, it was her voice that sang them,” he says. “So there’s a very spiritual connection that happens there. And whether she’s my mom or not, she’s a great musician on any level. It’s a wonderful collaboration, beyond description how it feels to me — a great feeling all the way around.”
In the living room of Charlap/Rosnes home, there are two pianos. The couple, who were married three years ago at a New York jazz club, play together at home and even on occasional gigs, and earlier this year released a duo CD, “Double Portrait.” “(The marriage) is also very special to me,” Charlap says. “Man to wife and son to mother are quite different, but with Renee there’s an automatic chemistry that happens. We leave space for each other, and it never, ever gets cluttered for us. It becomes orchestral in the sense that there’s no vying for attention or musical space. It really is a situation where the entire aesthetic is bigger than the two of us.”
Night Out with NAMI, NAMI Mercer, Music Building, College of New Jersey, Ewing. Sunday, January 9, 3 p.m. “Jazz Classics, American Composers, and the Healing Powers of Their Music” presented by Bill Charlap Trio. The program includes classics based on the works of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Leonard Bernstein who have been affected by mental illness, $49; concert and dinner, $165. 609-799-8994 or www.namimercer.org.