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Music Feature
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Will his pair of upcoming appearances at The 2004 Savannah Music Festival be the first times Dick Hyman has ever played in our historic city?

The famed keyboardist takes a moment to think before answering.

“If it is not the first time,” he responds in a gracious and relaxed manner, “then I can’t recall when I might have been there before. If I have performed in Savannah it would have been many, many years ago.”

It’s not surprising that Hyman is unsure. Over a storied career that began in the early 1950s, the musician (who also arranges, composes and conducts) has released well over 100 full-length albums under his own name, and appeared on hundreds more as a sideman or uncredited session player.

He’s also seen two radically different singles hover near the top of the charts (one a mid-’50s instrumental take on “Mack The Knife,” and the other a bizarre piece of ‘60s Moog music called “The Minotaur”), developed a well-received educational CD-Rom (Dick Hyman’s 100 Years of Jazz Piano), and scored or helmed the soundtracks for close to 20 films, including Moonstruck, The Lemon Sisters, and nearly a dozen for Woody Allen.

While noted for a bold style which relies on a talent for off-the-cuff improvisation, he is also recognized as a jazz scholar in possession of a solid working knowledge of ragtime as well as the vast catalogs of Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin.

It was Hyman’s affinity for Gershwin which seems to have brought him to the attention of festival director Rob Gibson, who – in addition to booking Hyman to lead his own trio for an afternoon show at Orleans Hall – enlisted the pianist to take part in Gershwin For Lovers, a concert event at the Johnny Mercer Theatre that’s being described as an “unprecedented evening” showcasing that celebrated composer’s vast repertoire of standards, show songs and orchestral works.

The featured lineup for this show is breathtaking: pianists Hyman, Sebastian Knauer and Marcus Roberts, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, violinist Daniel Hope and the Savannah Symphony Players under the direction of Chelsea Tipton II.

When asked, Hyman (a 1995 inductee to the Jazz Hall of Fame at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies) professed little understanding of the mechanics or specifics of the program itself, which may seem odd at first, but in reality is merely a testament to not only the flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants balancing act that is top-shelf jazz, but also to the astonishing level at which he and his fellow musicians are operating – and the incredible amount of trust they must have in each other’s skills.

“I assume (Gibson) must have been aware that I had something to do with Gershwin music in particular,” offers a mildly perplexed Hyman. “I’m looking forward to doing whatever is asked of me, but frankly I’m not clear as to what’s on that show.”

However, don’t be fooled into thinking that a lack of specifics implies a lack of understanding of what’s required to pull off such a weighty assignment.

“I’ve done a large number of Gershwin concerts on my own or produced them at New York’s 92nd Street YMCA and elsewhere,” Hyman adds. “Just to satisfy my own interest, I’ve made sure that I know a large amount of his repertoire. I feel I know to some degree Gershwin’s working method and his antecedents and how our perceptions of him have changed. It’s a special little field that I’m fond of indulging myself in.”

The artist spoke with me at length from his home in Venice, Florida.

Connect Savannah: How would you describe Gershwin’s legacy to someone completely unfamiliar with his work?

Dick Hyman: Well, to limit it to the core, and stripping away all the myths, such as the idea of him introducing jazz to the classics – which is always debatable anyhow... For me, Gershwin altered American popular music harmonically. His notion of what was possible in the realm of the popular song was much more vast than anyone else of his time. The only comparable example – in my judgement – of an artist who has stayed around much longer than Gershwin, was Ellington. Ellington’s songs are not comparable to Gershwin’s for me, but his orchestral pieces that he did with his band went far beyond what anyone else even considered doing. My feeling is that the basic Gershwin songbook was light years ahead of any of his contemporaries’.

Connect Savannah: Have you played with any of these featured artists before?

Dick Hyman: Well, Bucky I’ve known for decades, and we just played together this past weekend at the Clearwater Jazz Party . We come from a similar background. I’m somewhat familiar with Marcus. I like some of his recordings quite a bit. I must say that I don’t know the other two.

Connect Savannah: Will you all be rehearsing much?

Dick Hyman: Well, this is curious. You may find it odd, but I suppose we’ll each just do our specialty and I imagine the producer of the program will have something in mind for us based on what he knows of our previous work. Perhaps there will be two or more pianos there, in which case I’d very much like to play with Marcus.

Connect Savannah: How do you divide your time these days between sessions and touring?

Dick Hyman: I record of course much less than I used to when I lived in New York City. Those were the days when some of us recorded two or even three sessions in a day, regularly! They weren’t all the type of things that are made for the ages, though. Often, they were just pop music of the time. But some of them were my own works. So, I do a bit less recording, but quite a bit of concertizing in America.

Connect Savannah: Since leaving New York City, are you still in great demand for session work?

Dick Hyman: Yeah. I guess you might say I pick and choose. I do go to New York fairly often because I’m still connected with the 92nd Street YMCA, where we’ve been doing the Jazz In July Festival for the last 20 years. I’m the artistic director, and I also do three other piano-based concerts for them during the winter and spring. Then in August I go out to Eugene, Oregon, and do a similar job for the Oregon Festival of American Music.

Connect Savannah: In the states, it seems that jazz has slowly gone from being popular music to a very niche-oriented alternative music.

Dick Hyman: Yes, this is very true. On the other hand, I grew up in a time when there was no such thing as jazz education. What we learned in those days was entirely on our own or in small groups of other guys who were into it. We bought all the reissues – on 78 RPM in those days – and we played with and for each other, and those of us who could, made it work. But there was no official interest. In fact there was much indifference and even discouragement in high schools and colleges about the mere notion of teaching jazz.

Connect Savannah: Doesn’t the genre risk becoming homogenized?

Dick Hyman: I suppose maybe it has become rather standardized. But in order to have any kind of a moment, you have to have some type of agreement on what the rules of the movement are. I don’t really see anything wrong with that, and there are now even jazz camps where they teach what is called ‘traditional jazz.’ I think that’s good. The greater problem is not whether kids are being prepared in a standardized way, the problem is, where does it go as a profession? In that way, there’s a bit of a negative prognosis for live music in general.

Connect Savannah: But as jazz becomes more institutionalized, doesn’t it begin to feel almost like classical music?

Dick Hyman: Well, that’s the irony. It’s become, as Billy Taylor puts it, “America’s classical music.” Most of the time, we’re now presenting it in rarified concert halls and festivals. At one time it was meant to be danced to or drunk to or for people to have a good time to. It’s now an art form. That’s not bad, but it certainly is a shift.

Connect Savannah: Mose Allison told me he bemoans the loss of supper clubs and doesn’t fancy playing in places that feel like libraries.

Dick Hyman: Well, I have no problem playing in libraries or concert stages. It’s just a different beast altogether. And, I had to stop playing regularly at clubs or going on tour long ago, because studio work in New York usually began at 10 a.m. and there was no way for me to go and play as well.

Connect Savannah: Your early studio grind had to be an intense form of training. How exactly did that shape the scope of your abilities?

Dick Hyman: There’s no question that it shaped what I did and what I still do. But I always considered it not only challenging, but great fun. I liked that rushing around and – in most cases – being able to handle what was put in front of me. I learned a certain amount of humility about a couple of things – which I’m not going to tell you about (laughs) – where I didn’t play as well as somebody else would have. But that’s part of the education. The answer is that you go home and practice, which is still what I continue to do.

The Dick Hyman Trio plays Orleans Hall Sat., 4 pm, while Gershwin For Lovers takes place Fri., 7:30 pm at the Johnny Mercer Theatre.

For tickets, call 525-5050 or go to