The Making of a Legend Bill Charlap



The Making of a Legend Bill Charlap

Making Music Magic You can look in the dictionary and find the definition of a legend: a famous or important person who is known for doing something extremely well. Or you can simply listen to the music of award-winning artist Bill Charlap. As Bill hits his 50th birthday, he also hits a major milestone: winning a Grammy® Award for The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern with legendary Tony Bennett. It should really come as no surprise that Bill grew up to be a talented musician. His father was Broadway composer Moose Charlap, whose credits include Peter Pan, and his mother is noted singer Sandy Stewart. Bill started playing the piano at the early age of three, and not just banging on the keys like a typical toddler. According to his mother, he approached the piano very deliberately, striking only one key at a time. When asked about his early beginnings his mother said, “Bill was always extremely curious about music. His father was a composer, and I’ve been in show business since I was 10, so he was surrounded by music 24/7. We played Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland.” Sandy also recounts that Bill’s first love was magic. “I bought him a black silk top hat and a magician’s cape, and he proceeded to work at children’s birthday parties, investing his earnings in bigger and better tricks. He even came in third place at a magic competition.” Bill is still making magic, but now on a much larger stage as pianist, accompanist and producer, the making of a legend, Bill Charlap.

Musical Beginnings F50+:

When did you decide to become a professional musician? BC: I don’t ever remember a time that I didn’t play the piano. I always gravitated toward music and it has always been central to my life. I was actually always an improvising pianist. Whatever I played I learned by ear. Whether it was Classical, Theatre Music, or Jazz. My parents were professional musicians, so they recognized that it was natural, and it chose me. My parents saw that from the get go. So it was never really a question, I was always a musician and that was it.

The Collaboration:

When Charlap was about 20 years old, a friend brought Tony Bennett to hear him play solo piano at a jazz club on the Upper West Side. Charlap recalled that fateful day saying, “I was amazed to meet one of my all time heroes!” A number of years later he was playing with a band at the Blue Note when between sets the Maitre D’ came to his dressing room and said, “Tony Bennett is here, he’d like to speak to you.” Honored and humbled, Bill went to speak with Tony. He asked Bill if he would do a number of dates with him.

BC: I jumped at the chance to play with him. I was honored to fill in for Ralph Sharon, Tony’s long time pianist and musical director. Sharon was with Bennett for over 40 years and was the one who discovered “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”.

F50+: How did the Jerome Kern collaboration for the Silver Lining come about? BC: Through the years and collaborations Tony and I have become good friends. He has said for years that we should do something together, perhaps with my trio or my wife, Renee, who is also a great jazz pianist. He said he’d like to do Jerome Kern’s music. I thought that was perfect, since Kern is the major figure of American Popular songwriters. He was the first, and the one that Gershwin, Berlin, and Rogers all looked to as the paradigm of popular songwriting. Tony and I have a natural chemistry. It was instant, from the moment that we first played together. We simply went into the studio and listened to each other. We worked on the music and then we recorded. And that’s how it happened… Just like that!Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap-Grammy

Winning the Grammy® F50+: What was it like winning a Grammy® with Tony Bennett for The Silver Lining?

BC: As Jerome Kern said about Irving Berlin: Tony Bennett is not part of American Popular Music, Tony Bennett IS American Popular Music. Tony Bennett is like a great chef, he always delivers a great meal! Winning a Grammy is the most prestigious award a musician can receive, It was truly an honor! And of those Jerome Kern songs speak for themselves. When I was right out of high school, my mother had done an album of those songs with jazz piano giant, Dick Hyman. Those songs were so much a part of my gut-level feeling about music. To do them with Tony, my wife, and my trio, was the most organic and natural thing in my life. It feels like it was spiritually guided.

Tony Bennett Shares From The Heart

F50+: What did you enjoy most about working with Bill?

TB: Working with Bill on an album was something that I have wanted to do for years as he is a master musician. It was a true labor of love for us to work together to recognize the songs of Jerome Kern. For me, it was a bit like reaching “the silver lining.” I also have to acknowledge Renee Rosnes, Bill’s wife, as she is also a magnificent pianist. Having them both on board was as good as it gets.

F50+: This was your 19th Grammy win, what made this Grammy so special?

TB: It’s always a thrill to win a Grammy Award. But being honored for this particular album, with Bill by my side at the podium, was something special.

Other High Notes From Charlap F50+:

What other musical artists have you performed with?

BC: Oh, so many…and each one teaches you something special. Jerry Mulligan, Phil Woods, Benny Carter, Wynton Marsalis. All of them are giants, and all of them are able to appeal to a wide listenership.

Fab50+: What is it like playing with you wife, Renee Rosnes?

BC: The chemistry just happens. We know how to listen. We hear each other and are able to express ourselves. It’s a real give-and-take.

F50+: Where do you perform when you’re visiting South Florida?

BC: My mother Sandy Stewart and I have done a couple albums together. She spends her winters in Palm Beach and we enjoy performing together at The Colony in Palm Beach. I have also performed at the Harriet Himmel Theatre in West Palm Beach and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale with my Trio.

F50+: What are your latest projects?

BC: I just recorded a new album with my trio, which includes bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. It came out on April 1, Notes from New York. For the past eleven years I’ve been the artistic director of New York City’s Jazz in July Festival at the 92nd Street Y. I’ll be back there again this summer. I’m also the Director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. There I’m able to guide students towards developing a complete command of their instruments and the tools of improvisation, and ultimately to help them on the road to achieving their own personal vision.

F50+: How does it feel turning 50?

BC: I like it. I feel good, now I can relax a little more. I enjoy working with the great masters, but I find that I learn just as much from my peers. And now when I teach my students and play with the next generation – musicians in their 20s – I also learn from them. That makes turning 50 worthwhile. Bill’s passion is evident when he speaks about his wife, music, his mentors, his projects and his students. His peers and fans agree that watching Bill play and listening to his music are truly a one-of-a-kind experience. Tony and Bill gave an eloquent acceptance speech at the 58th Grammy Awards during which Tony Bennett said, “Bill Charlap is one of the greatest musicians and greatest artists I’ve ever met.” We can’t wait to see what this “Magical Musician” pulls out of his high silk top hat next.