Jazz pianist Aaron Diehl comes from a musical family. His grandfather, Arthur Baskerville, was a trombonist who also played the piano. He had several electric keyboards in the basement and he took his grandson, then about 5 years old, downstairs to teach him some “simple” tunes from Duke Ellington, “Satin Dog,” and “Take the A Train.” “He understood early on that I was interested in music,” Diehl said. “When I was 4 or 5, we went to church every Sunday and they had a big pipe organ. I wanted to go to the choir loft to see it. From a very early age, I loved the sound of music and the feeling it gave me.”
The accomplished Diehl, who made his New York Philharmonic debut in 2016, a day before his 31st birthday, attended the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan, a place where he really learned to love jazz. He was a finalist in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition and was named Outstanding Soloist. At 18, he toured with Wynton Marsalis before attending Juilliard. The Marsalis tour was a formative experience for the young artist. “I was like a fish out of water,” he said. “It was a critical moment. Wynton wanted to show me what it was like to be a travelling musician, night after night, at a high level. He wasn’t easy on me. It was trial by fire. After, Juilliard was kind of a breeze. For a lot of musicians, it’s a vocation, not a job. Even passion is not a strong enough word. It’s a calling and it’s how much you want it.”
Diehl has released several albums on the Mack Avenue label. His first, 2013’s The Bespoke Man’s Narrative, reached No. 1 on the JazzWeek Jazz Chart. In 2014, he was the Monterey Jazz Festival Commission Artist, one of the youngest to receive the honor. He has won numerous other awards, including the 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship from the American Pianists Association and the 2012 Prix du Jazz Classique from the Académie du Jazz. In an effort to nurture young artists, he was named the first director of the Catskill Jazz factory.
Diehl is known for his fascination with seemingly disparate sound palettes in which he finds similarities, from Monk and Ravel to Gershwin and William Grant Still. Still, in particular has inspired Diehl’s ongoing curation of Black American composers into his own programming. He has also worked with composer Philip Glass for several years. Of his work with Glass, one of the most influential composers of the last 50 years, he said there was a lot to absorb. “It was a nice learning curve to understand his tone and sound,” he said. “I wanted to figure out how to adapt it to jazz. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of music and how to take unusual sources and apply it to his own language. It’s a lot of fun exploring and improvising and taking key components of his composing style and applying it to an improvisational style.”
A pilot, Diehl has had a long fascination with flying. “My father flew for several years,” he said. “When I was young, we flew all the time. He had a single engine and then a twin engine. I flew a lot and it always fascinated me. A lot of my passions originated from my childhood. I love cloud chasing and coming out to blue skies.”
The New York Times has said he plays “magnificently,” and DownBeat said that he “gracefully melds two worlds, merging the improvisational spirit of jazz with the compositional intricacies of Western classical music.” That’s probably why he is known by audiences and critics alike as “the real Diehl.”