Jazz pianist Aaron Diehl comes home

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

The rising jazz pianist returns to his native Columbus to celebrate the youth orchestra that gave him his start.

In the jazz world,pianist Aaron Diehl is the man of the moment. The 30-year-old Columbus native followed an education at The Juilliard School-not to mention a teenage tour with trumpet player Wynton Marsalis-with four albums in six years, including last summer's acclaimedSpace Time Continuum.

New York Times critic Nate Chinen called the album "a jubilant, swinging outing," while praising Diehl for his "elegant pianism outside the contemporary mainstream." From his home base in New York, Diehl keeps an active performance schedule, having recently joined forces with Grammy Award-winning singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. This month, the musician will return to his old stomping grounds.

On April 23 in the Lincoln Theatre, Diehl's trio-also made up of drummer Lawrence Leathers and bass player Paul Sikivie-will perform on its own before teaming with the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ensemble. Diehl performed with the group from 2001 to 2003 while a student at St. Charles Preparatory School. "It's always great to be back, see family, friends," says Diehl, whose parents, Richard and Estelle, still live in Columbus, as does his sister Ingrid. The family's business is Diehl-Whittaker Funeral Services on East Long Street.

Music permeated Diehl's youth; he recalls impromptu performances by his maternal grandfather, pianist and trombone player Arthur Baskerville. "My parents got a baby grand piano when I was 5 years old or so," Diehl says. "I remember my grandfather coming over occasionally, playing for me."

Diehl was initially drawn to classical music, studying at the Capital University Community Music School with such teachers as Paula Radzynski. "She always kept me somehow engaged with the music, and not just the actual playing, but the love of the music itself-the human element of the art form," Diehl says.

Jazz did not enter the picture until Diehl was 14, when he participated in the Interlochen Arts Camp in northern Michigan and encountered pianist Eldar Djangirov-a student not as old as Diehl, but sophisticated about the genre.

By the time he was 15, Diehl won a spot on the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra. "Aaron was the most serious of the bunch," says Todd Stoll, who led the orchestra from 1990 to 2011. "It was nothing for him to practice six, eight hours a day."

Being new to jazz, Diehl immersed himself in its history. "When I met him, he really loved Oscar Peterson," says Stoll, now the vice president of education at Jazz at Lincoln Center." "And loving Oscar Peterson is great, but there are people who influenced Oscar Peterson that you need to study, and he went all the way back to ragtime music and Jelly Roll Morton."

Stoll says Diehl already had "impeccable technique," but became more artistically sophisticated during his stint with the orchestra. For example, Stoll recalls the piece Diehl chose to perform upon receiving the Hank Marr High School Jazz Award in 2003-an introspective and moving rendition of Duke Ellington's "The Single Petal of a Rose." For Stoll, that performance was a turning point: "That was kind of like when the lightbulb went off for me-OK, yeah, this kid's going to be something."

Wynton Marsalis also quickly recognized Diehl's talent. Through Stoll, Diehl met and performed with Marsalis, and the two remained in contact; one day, an invitation was extended to the high-schooler. "He just gave me a call out of the blue and said, 'Hey, I want you to go on the road,'" Diehl says, adding that Marsalis' usual pianist, Eric Lewis, was unavailable.

A five-week tour, including stops throughout Europe, followed. "Wynton put me there for a reason: He knew I wasn't really capable of playing with the men that were on the stage as part of the septet," Diehl says. "I think the lesson to be learned from all of this is how to persevere."

And Diehl has done just that-with the help of the city of his youth.

"I was very lucky because it's all dependent on time and place," he says of Columbus. "There was a sizable music scene, fairly robust music scene-and I had some incredible teachers." He adds: "If it weren't for people like Todd, people like Paula, I certainly wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today."