When jazz pianist and Columbus native Aaron Diehl performs George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend at Blossom, he'll be giving his original take on the famed work.

"George Gershwin found out he was gonna write the piece I think in a magazine or a paper and he had [five] weeks to do it,'' Diehl, 33, said of the famed composer, who was commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman.

The composer, who had originally turned down the commission due to time constraints, found out in the New York Tribune on Jan. 4, 1924, that Whiteman nevertheless said Gershwin was working on a jazz concerto for his all-jazz concert in New York the next month.

Gershwin, who had quick work to do, created much of the piece as themes written in sketches. The composer himself said the complete construction of the rhapsody, whose themes he had already worked on, came to him during a train ride to Boston.

Diehl, who recently saw Gershwin's original "Rhapsody in Blue" manuscript at the Library of Congress, said his handwriting was impeccable, no small feat after creating the score in just weeks.

"Parts of the piece, George Gershwin himself improvised on the debut. So being a jazz musician, and improvisation being one major component for performance practice of jazz music, my approach has always been to take the cadenzas [improvised solos] and improvise the cadenzas on the themes that George Gershwin set in place originally,'' he said.

The key, through theme and variation, is to seamlessly connect the material between the cadenzas and the orchestra.

The "Rhapsody in Blue" concerts will run at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, conducted by Roderick Cox in his Blossom Festival debut. "Rhapsody in Blue" is orchestrated for symphony orchestra by Ferde Grofé.

Also on the program will be Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Suite from "On the Waterfront," Stravinsky's Suite from "The Firebird" and Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture. Fireworks will follow the Friday and Saturday concerts, weather permitting. For tickets, which cost from $25 to $89, call 216-231-1111 or see www.clevelandorchestra.com.

Diehl said he's not the first to improvise "Rhapsody in Blue" themes. Marcus Roberts was one of the first jazz musicians to be recognized for going beyond the written score for "Rhapsody" and embellishing its established themes.

"How can I embellish Gershwin's themes in my own, unique, original way,?" Diehl asked.

 

Harlem influence

Gershwin was heavily influenced by the Harlem stride pianists of the 1920s, including Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Art Tatum. The style, which Diehl describes as "ragtime on steroids,'' features a consistent left hand playing bass notes on the strong beats and chords on the weak beats, with the right hand playing a florid, heavily syncopated melodic line.

"One of my goals in this piece and some of Gershwin's other works is to bring more of that into the mix,'' said Diehl, who promises audiences will hear a healthy dose of the African American stride tradition in his cadenzas.

Diehl last performed with the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom in July, 2017 with Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major, conducted by Jahja Ling. He also played the work with the New York Philharmonic for the opening gala performance of their 2016-17 season. He's looking forward to returning to Blossom.

"The Cleveland Orchestra's one of the best orchestras in the world,'' he said. "I just remember when I first played with them in 2017, I was just blown away by the balance of the orchestra, the sound" and how well everyone listened to each other. "As a jazz musician, that's like one of our required skills, to be acute listeners, because when we're playing together, we're improvising many times together."

Diehl, who wants to see more compositions from the jazz genre introduced into orchestras, has a goal of one day writing a piano concerto. He began studying classical piano at age 7 and counts his grandfather — pianist and trumpeter Arthur Baskerville — as one of his first influences.

 

Passion for jazz

Pianist Diehl is the son of funeral director Richard and education administrator Estelle, a former Olympic high jumper. They still live in Columbus.

Diehl's passion for jazz began when he attended Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan as a pre-teen. By age 15, he was playing in the Columbus Jazz Youth Orchestra.

Diehl was a finalist in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition, where he was noticed by Wynton Marsalis at age 17. Soon afterward, Marsalis invited the teen to tour Europe with his septet the summer before Diehl began his music studies at the Juilliard School.

Marsalis famously referred to the young jazz pianist as “The Real Diehl.”

"It was great but it was also very scary,'' he said. "Wynton's a demanding band leader and at that age, he expected a lot of me. I think it was sort of like a trial by fire. ... I think it's always good to play with musicians who are better than you. No matter what level or what age, that always pushes you to the next stage."

Diehl's been a staple of the New York jazz scene since 2007 and has toured the United States and Europe with jazz vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant and their trio. He was winner of the American Pianists Association’s Cole Porter Fellowship in 2011 and served as music director for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s New Orleans Songbook series in 2014-15. Diehl also performed in the 2014 New York premiere of Philip Glass’ complete Etudes at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

He has this advice for young musicians: "Find the music that really resonates with you and enjoy it and dig deeper into it."

Jazz pianists Erroll Garner, Tatum and Johnson have always resonated with him: "I always find it fascinating, the music, and very rewarding to imitate their style and try to find my own unique voice through the lens of their sounds."

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.