The great musical master Dick Hyman, pictured with an array of some of his coolest vintage albums, visits the area this Sunday in an encore appearance with Doctor Jazz himself, Art Topilow.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit October 24, 2009)
Dick Hyman! Who wouldn’t get excited at the mention of the name?
If, like us, you’re a recovering record hound and seeker after auditory oddities, you get excited at the thought of all those groovy instrumental LPs he recorded in the 1960s and early 70s for the Command label — a series of elegant envelope-pushers featuring the Lowery and Baldwin organ (fantomfingers, The Man from O.R.G.A.N), his Provocative Piano or his pioneering work on the early Moog synthesizers (The Age of Electronicus, Electronic Eclectica). Each one a fantastic find from an era when musicians on both sides of the Generation Gap were discovering new and crazy sounds on a daily basis.
If you’re a more traditional jazzbo, you surely get excited at the many musical milestones in a career that stretches back more than half a century — performances with Benny Goodman and his own hitmaking combos; dozens of scholarly swinging recorded tributes to giants from Scott Joplin and Fats Waller to Duke Ellington andGeorge Gershwin. All this plus a long stint as artistic director for the esteemed 92nd Street Y.
If you’re a film buff — particularly woody for Mr. Allen — you’ll know Dick Hyman’s scores for some dozen or so features, ranging from 1980’s (largely filmed in Ocean Grove) Stardust Memories and Zelig to Hannah and Her Sisters, Sweet and Lowdown and a whole lot more. TV triviologists can cite his years of service with such alternately famous and forgotten figures as Mitch Miller and Arthur Godfrey.
Even the egghead set can get down with the classically trained Dick, via his many original concertos, cantatas, ballet scores and acclaimed lectures on the history of jazz piano. At the age of 82, with several professional lives already notched on his Yamaha, Dick Hyman shows no indication of slowing down the pace. In fact, he seems forever poised on the cusp of some new direction, some additional adventure — an artist still just hitting his stride.
A man of some pretty formidable accomplishments himself, Dr. Art Topilownonetheless gets as excited as an autograph-seeking fan when the subject turns to Mr. Richard Hyman — a friend, colleague and mentor that the good doctor describes as “one of the absolute greats…a man who’s still vigorous, still playing great, well into his eighties.”
Topilow, for those who haven’t encountered the veteran keyboard soloist, accompanist and theatrical music director in his public performances (the majority of them occurring at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal Park), is also highly regarded in his daytime gig as director of hematology/medical oncology at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune (where he serves as chair of the Axelrod Research Section).
In addition to all that, he’s a retired Army Medical Corps Major who used to supervise the hospital at Fort Dix, an authority on radar navigation — and, reportedly, an expert on the hunting of rare and exotic frogs, though who knows when and how he finds the time for that.
This Sunday afternoon, Hyman visits the Axelrod auditorium to join the man they call Doctor Jazz (as in “Hello Central, Give Me Doctor Jazz,” a King Oliver oldie that he’s adopted as something of a signature) in a jazz piano concert duet. It’s the third time that they’ve teamed up in the two-piano format — and the third time’s a charm for Topilow, who finds in these occasional collaborations a “thrilling opportunity” to continue an association that dates back to the aforementioned 92nd Street Y.
Topilow (who performed recently with his brother, classical clarinetist and Cleveland Pops Orchestra conductor Carl Topilow) first met the famous Hyman during the legendary musician’s tenure at the Y, where the classically trained doctor got himself accepted into Hyman’s master class in jazz piano.
After awhile, Hyman invited Topilow to play in the Y’s highly regarded Jazz in July concert series, with the simple pronouncement “You’ve graduated.” Eventually, the student got up the nerve to ask the master if he’d care to take part in a show down at the JCC.
“He said I’d love to do it, but on one condition,” recalls Topilow. “You’re going to need to get two pianos.”
While the doctor had never been one to shy away from a personal or artistic challenge — he realized a goal back in 1985 when he got on stage with the Garden State Orchestra to play Schumann’s Piano Concerto — the chance to perform as an equal partner with Hyman was as much of a thing of honor as it was of horror, given his anxiety over not having sufficient time to rehearse together.
“He told me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s jazz’,” says Topilow, quoting a line that should rightfully go down in the books alongside ‘Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.’
“He said ‘Jazz never comes out the way you plan it — if you make a mistake, just embellish upon it’.”