[JPL] An ode to Studs Terkel – conceived in jazz
drjazz at drjazz.com
Mon Jan 17 21:18:21 EST 2011
An ode to Studs Terkel – conceived in jazz
9:04 AM CST, January 17, 2011
Studs Terkel loved jazz.
He wrote about it poetically in his first book, "Giants of Jazz" (1957),
and in one of his last, "And They All Sang" (2005).
In the decades between, Terkel's celebrated radio show illuminated our
understanding of jazz musicians, as well as their brethren in blues,
gospel and other distinctly American folkloric sounds.
So perhaps it's not surprising that a promising Chicago jazz pianist,
Josh Moshier, has composed an epic work exploring Terkel's connection to
a music as indelibly associated with Chicago as Terkel himself.
Next Monday night, Moshier will present the world premiere of "The Studs
Terkel Project," an extended suite for jazz quintet inspired by Terkel's
writings but, Moshier hastens to add, not tethered to them.
"We're not going to be reading Studs in between the movements," says
Moshier, of the forthcoming performance in the Chicago Cultural Center.
"And I didn't transcribe his speech and represent it rhythmically in
music," adds Moshier.
Instead, says Moshier, he studied Terkel's texts to learn how the oral
historian structured themes and emotional narrative, how Terkel built
dialogue and sustained a sense of spontaneity.
If all this sounds a bit ephemeral and only tangentially linked to
Terkel's works, it's worth remembering that Terkel's prose – whether
spoken on the radio or printed on the page – itself embodied the spirit
of jazz. Read or listen to a Terkel soliloquy, and you're beholding what
jazz musicians try to do: state a theme and develop it in headlong
bursts of energy, one phrase often tumbling urgently onto the next.
Terkel's words were jazz, complete with rhythm and pitch when he was
speaking, and Moshier's jazz suite aspires to capture some of the
character – if not the sound – of Terkel's artistic voice.
What's surprising is that Moshier, at 24, has focused on the work of an
author-broadcaster several generations removed.
"That never was a barrier to entry," says Moshier, whose suite was
commissioned by Chamber Music America.
"I think his work speaks for itself, it's compelling and there's a
reason why so many people are drawn to it, why it's a reference point to
"I just came late to the party."
Not that late, considering his age, but not very long ago, either.
Moshier recalls that he was doing some canvassing in Iowa during the
2008 presidential campaign, and on the way back to Chicago he picked up
a newspaper and read that Terkel had died, at age 96. The people Moshier
had been riding home with had known Terkel well, and their passion for
Terkel proved contagious.
"They started to tell me a lot about who he was and what his loss
meant," says Moshier, "and that was the trigger for me, my curiosity in
learning more about what he meant to Chicago."
Naturally, Moshier expressed that interest in music, the commission
enabling him to articulate his thoughts on a grander musical scale than
he otherwise might have been able to do.
"I think that this project was a chance for Josh to take on a more
ambitious chunk, to try to create a whole statement," says saxophonist
Mike Lebrun, Moshier's partner in the Moshier/Lebrun Collective and a
colleague since both were students at Northwestern University's Bienen
School of Music.
"He's very interested in Chicago culture," adds LeBrun.
Moshier grew up in St. Charles and as a student drew inspiration from
saxophonist-composer John Wojciechowski, one of the more accomplished
jazz instrumentalists in this city. When Moshier wasn't taking classes
at NU, he was studying somewhat less formally at Pete Miller's
Steakhouse, in Evanston, where he savored performances of Chicago pros
such as guitarist Bobby Broom and pianist Ron Perrillo.
Following next week's premiere of the Terkel homage, the Moshier-Lebrun
Collective will perform the suite at the Jazz Showcase in February and
in the San Francisco Bay Area in March, with further shows to be planned.
Though Moshier regrets that he never met Terkel, he has his own theories
as to why the author was smitten with jazz.
"I think he was drawn to the fact that in jazz, you have to listen,"
says Moshier, indeed referring to a world-class listener.
"I think he was drawn to beauty. And I think that there might have been
a little bit of a subversive quality in jazz that he took pleasure in."
More than a little.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
hreich at tribune.com
The Moshier/Lebrun Collective will perform "The Studs Terkel Project" at
6:30 p.m. Monday in the Claudia Cassidy Theater of the Chicago Cultural
Center, 78 E. Washington St.; free; 312-744-6630 or
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