Like the late legendary jazz pianists Dave Brubeck and Marian McPartland, regional pianist, composer, and bandleader Eric Mintel wants to bring people together through jazz.
That will happen when he presents “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on Sunday, December 10, at the acoustically superb 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing.
And while the concert features Vince Guaraldi’s famous score created for the beloved 1965 animated TV special featuring characters from the “Peanuts” comic strip, Mintel says the program also includes original work, jazz standards, and compositions by his primary influence and mentor, Brubeck, who died in 2012.
“We’ve reworked some holiday tunes,” says Mintel about the concert from his home in Morrisville, Pennsylvania. “We do a Latin jazz version of ‘Jingle Bells’ and a funk version of ‘Little Drummer Boy.’ People will recognize the melodies, but let’s face it, these tunes have been done to death. You’ve got to freshen them up so people hear something new in them.”
Mintel feels the same way about classic jazz compositions. “The standards are great, but I’m always one to try to change it up a little bit,” he says.
Though he was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, home to legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans, Mintel, 50, was raised in Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania, and lived in other areas of Bucks County. By the time he graduated from Pennridge High School in Perkasie in 1985, he knew he wanted to pursue the business of being a piano player and eschewed college.
His mother, now 77, was a first-grade elementary school teacher, and his father,78, worked as a jeweler, piano tuner, and piano restorer. “I was fortunate to always have a piano in the house, and my parents could always find me at the piano trying to make up my own melodies,” he says.
He says his introduction to jazz occurred in 1982. “I was about 14 and going through my parents’ record collection one day. I was listening to Ray Charles and all kinds of R&B at the time. Then I found an old 45 of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and I put on ‘Take 5’ and the flip side ‘Blue Rondo.’ At that point I knew that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” says Mintel.
He then started listening to everything by Brubeck and broadened his tastes to other jazz piano masters: Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, and Art Tatum.
But Brubeck was the spark. “I just had that instant connection. I’m in high school, and I’m coming to music class and playing ‘Take 5’ and ‘Blue Rondo’ for the other kids. I took piano lessons for about a year just to get the basics down. The piano teacher was trying to teach me basic stuff, and I was playing all this obscure Brubeck stuff. Finally he said, ‘You’re going to have to find your own way, you’re already so advanced.’”
Mintel’s first job out of high school was as a piano player for a lingerie fashion show. He then set out to do a tribute concert to Brubeck.
“I got some guys together from the University of the Arts (in Philadelphia), and we did our first concert on November 12, 1993, at Delaware Valley College. It was a packed house. We had 500 people in the audience. That solidified it. I said, ‘This is what I want to do. I’m not turning back.’ ”
“Now two marriages later, here I am, still doing this,” says Mintel, who handles the quartet’s bookings at New Jersey and Pennsylvania clubs, colleges, museums, and cultural venues, and school concerts and assembly programs. “I do talks on being an entrepreneur in music. We’ve come across some really great jazz students in high schools and colleges. I talk to them about how to get the gig — a business approach to music.”
For the 1867 Sanctuary performance, part of the series co-sponsored by the New Jersey Jazz Society, Mintel will be joined with his band mates of the past 15 years: Jack Hegyi on bass; Nelson Hill on saxophone and flute; and Dave Mohn on drums.
Mintel met his hero, Brubeck, for the first time in 1990. “I met him at the Keswick Theater. I said, ‘Mr. Brubeck, I’m a real big fan of yours, and I hope you’ll listen to some of my piano jazz.’ I gave him a couple of tapes. He took the time to listen to them and from that point on we had a friendship,” Mintel says. “In 1999 he invited me to his house in Wilton, Connecticut, and I sat at his piano. Dave even said to me one time, ‘You play my music better than I play my music,’ which really was an honor.”
Mintel, who has released 12 Eric Mintel Quartet CDs, brings up two important moments of his career.
One was when he played at the White House in 1998. “I wanted to take my music to another level so after I saw the White House on TV, I said, ‘Let me call the White House and see if they have anything I could do there.’ I called and a woman told me I should send my information to the social secretary. So I sent a CD and a loose press clipping from a story that came out about me. Clinton was president at that time.
“About a week later I got a call on my answering machine: ‘This is the social secretary, we would like to invite the Eric Mintel Quartet to the White House for Christmas.’ I was like, holy shit! I thought it was a joke at first. (But) I called back, and we played a holiday dinner reception for President Clinton and various other political people. I got a chance to meet him at the end of the night, and I said, ‘Mr. President, you and I have a mutual friend in Dave Brubeck.’ And he said, ‘I just gave him the National Medal of the Arts last year, I was the only elected official who could hum the bridge from ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk.’”
Mintel and his quartet went back to the White House in 2011 to play for President Obama at a similar holiday dinner. When he met Obama at the end of the night, “I said, ‘Mr. President, you and I have a mutual friend in Dave Brubeck,’ and he said, ‘Dave Brubeck was the very first jazz concert I ever saw, I went to with my dad.’ ”
Another high point was being a guest on the NPR syndicated program, “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz” in 2005. The British-born jazz legend had heard of Mintel’s prowess as a jazz piano player from Brubeck and called him the next day. “I was out in the yard one day, and my wife came out and said, ‘Marian McPartland is on the phone.’ I came in, picked up the phone, and she said: ‘Are you hiding from the bill collectors, too?’ I busted up laughing.”
About going to the New York studio to record “Piano Jazz,” Mintel says McPartland “was phenomenal and put me in a very relaxed studio atmosphere. Here I thought I was sitting down with this very prim and proper British woman, but every other word out of her mouth was f this and f that when we were off-mike.”
Five years after his death, Brubeck — known for his warmth and friendliness to everyone and support of up-and-coming musicians — has been an ongoing source of inspiration for Mintel.
“To be able to do what he did, not only with music but with other things too, the civil rights movement and everything else, that’s still really what I hope to do, to continue to bring people together through jazz.”
Eric Mintel Quartet, 1867 Sanctuary, 101 Scotch Road, Ewing. Sunday, December 10, 3 p.m. $5 to $20.
Other holiday events:
Ewing Sings! Sing a New Song of Christmas, Friday, December 15, 8 p.m. Free.
Le Meslange des Plaisirs: Classic piano trios on historic instruments, Sunday, December 17, 7:30 p.m. Free.
Carols by Candelight by the Riverview Consort, Monday, December 18, 8 p.m. $5 to $20.
Richie Cole Christmas! Saturday, December 23, 8 p.m. $5 to $20. 609-392-6409 or www. 1867sanctuary.org.