I am fascinated by lines....musical lines. And more interestingly, how these lines can be crossed, fused and blurred. The boundaries between jazz and classical music have been probed and tested continuously by everyone from Ravel to Shostakovich to Gershwin. Which brings me to Joe Cartwright. Joe is a jazz pianist who has been helping shape and define the jazz music scene in Kansas City for over 30 years. I met Joe when he was a guest soloist with the Independence Symphony several years ago. He played Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. As I have explained in a previous entry (I Heard Violins) the fusion of jazz with strings really turns me on. Rhapsody in Blue is an iconic work, and as I learned during this concert, it is a very demanding work for any pianist. I was immediately impressed by Joe's technique and musicality. He seemed to be very comfortable in both the jazz and classical world. We sat down to talk recently at Twisted Sisters Coffee in Mission, KS. I wanted to learn more about his artistry and his personal relationship with jazz and classical music.
TH: I know you have played in the classical realm because I was there when you played Rhapsody in Blue with the Independence Symphony…that work in itself is what I call a “boundary spanner”. Gershwin in general is that way.
JC: Absolutely one of the better examples of crossing genres.
TH: There was a great article in the NY Times about the Hollywood String Quartet who was founded by Felix Slatkin (whose son Leonard later became Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony) and how they became famous as the backing for Frank Sinatra in his legendary Capital years. I love the fusion of strings and jazz.
JC: The Charlie Parker with Strings recording is a great example of fusing jazz with strings. One of my favorite jazz recordings with string arrangements is Shirley Horne’s Here’s to Life. Another really great string arranger is Dave Grusin. I really admire his work.
TH: How do you classify yourself?
JC: It says Kansas City jazz pianist on my website…that’s what I am putting out there. My business card just says pianist on it. So…pianist works.
TH: Have you studied classical music?
JC: Yes, I have a Bachelor’s degree in piano performance from UMKC.
TH: That serves you well in any kind of music you play I would think?
JC: I guess (smiling…modestly).
TH: So do you enjoy playing classical music? Do you ever sit down and play a Chopin prelude or something like that?
JC: I do! I don’t really keep a repertoire up. But for example, I had a job last weekend where I was asked to play a program of all Scott Joplin music…which isn’t really classical or jazz…it’s kind of in the middle. So I found that my sight reading chops are still good, and I read through half a dozen pieces and played them for a memorial service. The thing with Joplin….a lot of pianists try to play it too fast…. It’s really more stately.
TH: And Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is a big staple of the classical repertoire.
JC: I performed the solo version as well as with the ISO…and I am going to be creating an arrangement of it with the music director of the KC Jazz Orchestra, Clint Ashlock. We are going to collaborate on an arrangement that will be some sort of adaptation of the Ferde Groffe arrangement with maybe some extra sections. You may not know that on the original recording of Rhapsody in Blue that Gershwin made, a lot of the sections were improvised…then later transcribed. He just didn’t have it all fleshed out when he got the commission. That’s really a credit to his skill as a pianist.
TH: Jazz musicians live in that world of improvisation whereas classical musicians play what is written on the page…they are not often trained in improvisation.
JC: That’s a shame. In the world of piano, especially in the 19th century, improvisation was expected as part of the concert. The pianist would ask the audience for a melody and then improvise on it. It seems that pianists today are intimidated or afraid of that. For me, with my classical background…it’s about applying all the rules of theory to come up with an alternate melody. That’s basically what improvisation is…coming up with an alternate melody based on the chord changes…. and then you employ whatever devices you have access to…scales, modes, arpeggios etc. And baroque devices like sequencing, inversion, retrograde inversion…all that stuff. Those are technical terms for a way to play a group of notes. In the baroque era these rules were very strict. I use a sort of a looser interpretation of those rules. Plus, applying elements that are not necessarily musical elements to draw creative inspiration from, like numbers for example. If I look into the audience and I see a group of 4 people, then I think of the number 4, then I decide what does that number mean to me in relation to where I am in the song? It might allow me to think out of the box. I might think of the IV chord for example, or a group of 4 notes. Or maybe I see two people wearing hats in the audience…so that’s kind of the process, besides just musical devices.
TH: Is it a struggle for you to play a classical or “legit gig” with an orchestra accompaniment, where each note is required to come together in a precise way , and you aren't free to add notes and improvise at will?
JC: No, I don’t think about that...I mean whatever the parameters of the gig are, that’s what I adhere to.
TH: Do you have a favorite type of setting or ensemble to work with?
JC: I do…piano, bass, and drums….the classic piano trio.
TH: What is it about the trio you like so much?
JC: It’s intimate, and I think it allows for a lot of interplay, especially with musicians that you’re comfortable with and that I have performed with for a number of years. It takes a while to build up the interaction and the trust...the rapport. I look to them for inspiration too. The more comfortable you are with each other, the more extended the boundaries become of what you can do and where the music can go.
TH: Who are your top 5 jazz pianists?
JC: There are probably 20! But Oscar Peterson, Cedar Walton, …(I like the way his trio works)….Herbie Hancock, Michel Camilo….and Jay McShann.
TH: What style of jazz would you say you enjoy the most?
JC: My style of jazz playing is more bebop oriented…with a strong right hand. I’d like to develop my left hand more.
TH: What other things interest you? Do you listen to a lot of music?
JC: I am a huge tennis fan…I try to play 3 times a week…and I subscribe to the tennis channel. So that’s a passion. But to address your question, I am required to do some listening on a weekly basis. I am the Music Director at Unity Village Chapel in Unity Village, MO where I arrange several new pieces of music a week. I also write charts for artists that want to get their music published but don’t know how to put their music into a format that any musician can read. Then I have music I listen to for the radio show on NPR, 12th Street Jump, which is heard on 120 stations…syndicated nationally. We get played on stations from Alaska to Florida. Our local affiliate is KCUR 90.3 FM. I have a backlog of CD’s from artists I have never heard but I want to listen to because I want to keep up with new music that’s coming out. I like to listen to music actively…not passively.
TH: That’s almost a lost art these days.
JC: It requires concentration to listen actively.
TH: Do you have any composer in the classical world you enjoy the most?
JC: Absolutely. I like composers that write for piano, like Chopin for example. Debussy. Ravel. I’m a big fan of the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera….very interesting and rhythmic, Latin influenced. I really like Bach…love to play Bach.
TH: How did you get your start?
JC: I used to sit on the piano bench and watch my grandmother.
TH: Are you from KC?
JC: I grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas. One set of grandparents lived in Kansas City, and the other set of grandparents lived in St. Joseph, MO. And so we split times on weekends between one place and the other. My maternal grandmother…actually both of my grandmothers played piano. And my mom and dad played piano. We had a piano in the house all the time. I started taking piano lessons when I was 8. Once I started showing some promise my parents bought a baby grand piano, but they couldn't afford to keep it. So they traded pianos with some neighbors up the street so we wound up with this upright, converted player piano….the mechanical parts had been removed, but these pianos were made with heavy duty frames, so it added a huge amount of weight to these pianos, and they were really hard to move. My parents moved from Iowa to Florida and were going to sell it, so I told them I would come get it. I rented a U-Haul and went up to Iowa and brought the piano back to the carriage house I was renting at the time. I ended up selling it to a student who lived on the second floor of a house in Hyde Park. It cost more to move it up there than the piano was worth! That piano is still up there…and this was 30 years ago. I know the guy that owns the house. He still says, “oh yeah, your piano is still up there. Come over and play it sometime”.
TH: What pianos do you play at home?
JC: I have 2 Yamahas...a 5’7” Yamaha and a 6’8” Yamaha. I purchased a Yamaha G5 grand from a former student of mine. It became available right after my wife and I had decided to downsize and bought a condo in Mission, KS with a finished basement, so I converted that into my studio. When this piano became available, I had to figure out how to get it into the basement. And that required knocking out a wall, for which I had to petition the home owners association!
TH: How is the jazz scene in Kansas City these days?
JC: Kansas City has a great reputation. Jazz just goes with Kansas City. I’d have to say that compared to just about any other major city except perhaps New York and New Orleans, Kansas City has a vibrant jazz scene.
TH: So one can be a working musician, playing jazz here?
JC: Yes…there are of course a lot of factors. You gotta be good, you gotta be a business person….and just because you are talented doesn't mean you are going to get a gig. I've done my share of studio work and recordings here as well.
TH: Do you tour?
JC: Yeah. I used to tour a lot. I did two tours as a jazz ambassador for the State Department and that’s taken me all around the world. It was really a lifetime experience. I played in 7 countries in Africa, the Middle East…..we were, I believe, the first US jazz band to do a joint concert with a Palestinian band in the West Bank. We also played in Thailand, Malaysia, and India.
TH: How were you received in these places?
JC: Most places we were really well received. The experience in the West Bank was pretty amazing because people have no hope there, and their music reflects that. A lot of it is sad. But we did several joint concerts with a Palestinian band…in Ramallah and Bethlehem. We went to a recording studio in Jerusalem and had a jam session and worked out what we were going to play together. I remember the concert we played in Ramallah. They played a program, then we played, then we did two songs together. When we started playing together, the audience went crazy. It was explained to me later…when they saw an American band with a Palestinian band, it transcended all of the politics…what they saw was two different cultures coming together. And if they can do this musically, we can do this politically. That’s the way they were thinking. So it gave them hope.
TH: That s incredible!
JC: Until I performed in some third world countries around the world, I didn't think about that. But once I did, it gave me a whole new perspective on how music can really bring people together.
TH: How do you keep fresh and stay interested gigging week after week?
JC: I treat every job as a professional. I play what‘s required of me to the best of my ability and try to find something that’s aesthetically pleasing and rewarding about every gig. When I’m the leader that means I have flexibility, and I hire musicians that inspire me. I try to find some form of inspiration to propel the music to a new place. That’s what keeps it fresh for me….to always be searching for that new place. Sometimes it happens as a result of interaction within the band. Sometimes it happens as part of the symbiosis between the audience and the band. In addition to playing, my two main jobs are putting together two new radio shows every month. I am also the Music Director at Unity Village Chapel every Sunday, so that keeps me busy too.
TH: What are some places you play around town?
JC: The Gaslight Grille at 135th and Roe. I play there with a clarinetist named Lynn Zimmer several nights a month. I play at the Blue Room, the Green Lady Lounge in the Crossroads District, Chaz on the Plaza in the Raphael Hotel. I also do some corporate gigs and recording sessions.
TH: Do you have an agent?
JC: I am not exclusive with an agency, but there are 3-4 agencies that have me on their call list who I work with. I've been involved with an organization that’s just getting started called Kansas City Jazz Alive. What we are trying to do is “float all ships” that are involved with jazz in KC. We are a support group. Its musicians assisting musicians…. dealing with things like how to find work and how to get health insurance. I am trying to help them develop a database of jazz musicians.
TH: I understand you had a chance to perform at the opening of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts?
JC: I had to turn down the opportunity to play at the grand opening about 3 years ago. Since I am the Music director of 12th Street Jump radio show, and we had a show that night and they can’t really do the show without me. So I had to turn down the opportunity to play at the Kauffman. But I have been hoping to get a chance to do something there ever since, so now I will with the KC Jazz Orchestra next season.
TH: I am also curious about the physical toll being a musician takes on the body….and the mind. How are you feeling these days?
JC: My energy is as high as always. Physically, the main area I have to deal with is my back. …posture and back support is critical. Every piano is different, so I take my own chair to gigs.
TH: Joe, thank you for taking time to speak with me. I really enjoyed it.
JC: Me too. Thank you too!
A link to Joe's website is here: http://www.josephlcartwright.com/index.html/. Do yourself a favor and go see him perform!