Like many a smoky solo, the Historic Lewiston Jazz Festival started quietly. Over the years, the crescendo grew. The festival began inviting musicians from New York and beyond, as well as featuring an ever-increasing array of regional talent.
This year the 11th annual festival, being held today and Saturday, hits a new high. Tonight culminates in a concert by Cyrus Chestnut, one of the world's top jazz pianists with a unique, gospel-tinged sound. Saturday night brings Diane Schuur.
"We spent more on our headliners this year," says Sandy Hays-Mies, the festival's artistic director. "It's worth it. It started out as a little festival and now it's a premier festival. I'm so proud of where it's been in 11 years."
The festival is free, as it always has been. More than 150 musicians will be playing jazz throughout the weekend (see accompanying story) on five stages. There will also be food and wine tastings, and a classic car show.
We had a chance to speak with Chestnut and Schuur over the phone. They struck an interesting balance.
>Spirituals to swing
In the variegated world of jazz piano Chestnut is unique. He can play like a gospel pianist. Rocking Edvard Grieg's "The Hall of the Mountain King," he sounds like Thelonious Monk.
Most importantly, he can play like himself. That was a lesson he learned years ago, from the intense, iconoclastic jazz singer Betty Carter. Chestnut toured with her as a young man for a couple of years.
"It was mentally and physically exhausting at times," he admits. "But it was one of the greatest experiences I had in my musical life. I learned a lot about myself, about the process of making music."
His watershed moment came during "If I Were A Bell." Chestnut quoted the famous introduction popularized by Miles Davis, Red Garland and Paul Chambers, imitating Big Ben.
"She came out on stage and looked at me with this look of death," he says. "She said, ‘I don't have you here to hear music played 40 years ago, 'cause I know it better than you. If you're going to play it, you're going to find a different way to play it.'
"That was the kick in the tushie … whooooaaa!" he wails. "She said, ‘I have to hear you think.'
"From that moment, it became necessary to tell myself, ‘I've got to figure out a different way of how to create things.' "
Chestnut's roots ran deeper than his training at the Peabody Institute and the Berklee College of Music. As a little boy in Baltimore, he was already playing in church. His father, a retired postal employee, was a church organist.
"My father started teaching me at the age of 3. By 5 or 6, I was playing in church. It's funny because I was playing the piano, and people be teasing me because I was sitting there, and my feet couldn't touch the pedals. I was so glad when I turned 10 and my feet could touch the pedals." He laughs.
While he can rock a piano with the best of them, Chestnut is uniquely known for a quiet, soulful quality. Singers seek him out. Chestnut appeared at "The Art of Jazz" series at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery with the great jazz bass-baritone Kevin Mahogany. In June, he played a stint in Birdland with soprano Kathleen Battle. Their set included spirituals as well as standards.
"If you think about gospel, one of the key creators, Thomas Dorsey was a blues player," Chestnut says. Dorsey was the author of the famous gospel anthem "Precious Lord." "He was known as Georgia Tom," Chestnut recounts in his soft, musical tones. "His ideology changed, and he switched from blues to the Good News, is what he said." He laughs. "However, he still used that same evidence. It was blues. And there is a YouTube interview where he talks about that.
"As you go through the history of gospel music, it has always paralleled blues," he adds. "The thing that makes the difference is the message, but if you look at it musically, you know, there's still evidence of the blues is right there."
Chestnut is a committed, churchgoing Christian and says so freely and frequently.
"I believe you have to, if you profess to walk the Christian way," he says. "It's not something you do just around certain people, or in a certain place, That's not what it's about.
"According to Scripture, we are to let our light shine. Who I am is who I am. You know sometimes, there are some that may say, if I'm going to play in the church, I'll play a specific way, if I play outside the church, I play another way. There was a time in my life when I thought, I don't know if it's appropriate to play a hymn in a club."
Now he feels free to play what he wants, when he wants.
"You never know when you're going to be a blessing to someone," Chestnut says. "It's not always in a church. It could be in a symphony hall. It could be in a smoky club."
Recently Chestnut, who still lives in Baltimore, played Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with the Chicago Symphony.
"What an experience!" he exclaims. "It's kind of neat, because I had the opportunity of finding where I fit in. It wasn't that I had to be one of the other musicians who played it just like Gershwin. It was a great challenge to figure out how I connected with it.
"The journey is not to be like everyone else, but to find your spot."
>Kissing Colin Powell
After the introspective Chestnut, Schuur comes as an amusing shock.
She is more extroverted, both in her playing and in her conversation. She has had the lifelong nickname of Deedles. Several years ago at Artpark, she treated the audience, between songs, to salty details pertaining to the years when she was involved with the late saxophonist Stan Getz. "I'm sure there are many of you gray-haired grannies out there scoffing," Schuur said, on that occasion. "If you don't like it, you can go home."
On the phone from California, Schuur is not quite so ribald. But she is entertaining, and you feel an instant sisterhood with her.
"I just moved into this really groovy house in the desert near Palm Springs," she says.
And the house has a groovy TV. "I was watching ‘The Young and the Restless' and ‘The Bold and the Beautiful.' You can tape them," Schuur breezes on.
At one point, she gets another call. "Can you hold on a sec?" she says. "Don't go anywhere." She pushes some buttons. "I'm sorry, honey," she tells the other caller. "I'm talking with this real cool gal, this journalist."
And the friend says: "Do your thing. Call me back when you're done."
Schuur always has "done her thing" – and an unusual thing it is.
Music was her life from the word go. Though her father hoped she would be a country singer, she worshiped Dinah Washington.
"She was a big influence in my career, style and phrasing," Schuur says. "What I love about her is, even as she sings a blues, there's a strident joyful kind of texture to her voice. She always had this attitude toward life. I mean, she was married seven or eight times. It was a trip. She would say, ‘I change husbands before they can change me.' "
Schuur is not the multiple-marrying kind. She has been happily married for 10 years to a fan she met on a jazz cruise. His last name is Crockett and she calls him Rocket.
But she emulates Washington's attitude. It has helped her through life.
"There's been a couple of times when even if I've been kind of sad about what's happening in my personal life, I try to not to let it get me," she says. "Most of the time I'm pretty joyful anyway. I've got a pretty good attitude about my life. I don't let anything get me down for long. "
A hospital accident shortly after birth left her blind. Her mother died at 31, when Diane was only 11. As an adult, Schuur had to fight to win battles with alcohol and weight gain. But triumph she did, and it is easy to imagine that she emerged a stronger artist.
People respond to the kind of openness and enjoyment of life that Schuur radiates.
Once, in Los Angeles, Schuur met David Helfgott, the concert pianist whose story was told in the movie "Shine."
"I went to the reception they gave for him," she says. "I sang, ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?' He had his hands on top of my hands as I was playing. When I got to the line, ‘Kiss me once, then once more,' he kissed me on the lips.
"And there was another episode!" she adds. "This one was at the Kennedy Center Honors. Afterward, there was a dinner reception. Quincy Jones was at the table, and Herbie Hancock, and Stevie Wonder, all this kind of stuff. And here comes Colin Powell. He comes over the table, and he said, ‘It's wonderful to meet you, Deedles, can I give you a kiss?' And I said, ‘OK, but in the European style.' You know how in Europe, they kiss you on both cheeks.
"But he kissed me on the lips!" Schuur roars with laughter, remembering. "My husband used to be in the Navy. And he said, ‘You damn GIs!' He said that! To Colin Powell! Everyone at the table just cracked up."
Later that night, the fun continued. "I started this tune ‘Giant Steps,' and then Stevie Wonder took over, and then Herbie Hancock took over," Deedles remembers, happily. "It was one of the best jams ever."
She loves improvisation.
"It is subconscious," she says. "It really does come from the subconscious, I think. A lot of improvisation does. It really is the best way to keep from future tripping or going into the past. It keeps you in the present."