Jazz Through The Ages

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Freedom: the power to act, speak or think without hindrance or restraint.

The first time Christian Scheider ever felt it, musically, was at age 11, when he was seated behind a piano next to mentor Bruce Wolosoff at the composer’s home in Shelter Island.

“I’m not going to learn a Copland melody,” the young boy had said to his instructor, a longtime friend of his late father, actor Roy Scheider, and mother, Brenda Siemer. “I hate everything.”

“I think those things would be really good for you, Christian, but I’m not going to force you to do them,” Mr. Wolosoff responded calmly. “But have you heard about the blues scale?”

The composer was smart, the now 23-year-old Sag Harbor resident said, in retrospect, over a cappuccino during a recent interview in Sag Harbor’s Shopping Cove, bathing under the warm sun.

He smiled at the memory. “Very smart,” he said. The challenge had prompted the boy to ask Mr. Wolosoff, “No, what’s that?”

“Well, if you know the blues scale, you can then make up your own melody,” the instructor said.

And that was the beginning of a love affair, Mr. Scheider said. The affair included classical, contemporary, and, perhaps most of all, jazz.

“It was those 12 notes and that scale. To this day, when I sit down at a piano, I revert to my 11-year-old self and I revert to those C blues, baby,” he said. “Bruce showed me that was the key to freedom in music-making for me. And it’s that sensation of freedom that I think jazz is all about.”

Though trained primarily as an actor, Mr. Scheider—who recently wrapped on the Vancouver set of “Words and Pictures,” starring Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, and who plays the part of Leo in the staged production of “In the Next Room,” opening at The Bridge in Bridgehampton on Thursday, May 9—is a strong proponent of art transcending medium. Its most basic root is storytelling, he said, and jazz history has an incredible tale to tell, which he will present during two series programs, a six-part “The Life of Jazz: Early Female Masters” at the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor and the five-part “Alone at the Piano: A Survey of Landmark Piano Recordings in Jazz History” at Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton, both beginning on Tuesday, May 14.

“Nowadays, we’re open not just to books, but to electronic resources and face-to-face instruction, or face-to-face exchange of ideas,” John Jermain Director Catherine Creedon said last week during an interview at the library. “Christian suggested jazz and I leapt at the chance. Sag Harbor has a really vibrant music scene and it seemed like a really good fit for the history of Sag Harbor, with a lot of these classic jazz performers, who are just icons in American music history, coming from the Harlem Renaissance.”

“And how better than a punky white kid to be talking about them?” Mr. Scheider laughed. “I have absolutely no cred. But this is not a lecture to the community, this is not a dictation of my ideas. It’s a celebration of great American history that is all our history. Jazz, in its own way, is about dissolving barriers. This is something that everybody can enjoy and should enjoy. And if we don’t do this, who will?”

Morning sessions in Southampton will trace the evolution of jazz music from the rare, early recordings of 1910 through the modern era, through listening to the recordings and discussing them, Mr. Scheider said. The afternoon talks in Sag Harbor will focus on the rarely heard stories, and songs, of jazz’s pioneering women, such as Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Mary Lou Williams, Ethel Waters and Lil Harden Armstrong, wife of the great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, one of Mr. Scheider’s father’s favorites.

“I can tell you, when my father got ill, and when he got through his first serious transplant—he had multiple myeloma—there was always time for Louis,” Mr. Scheider recalled. “The whole track, from beginning to end. Not that there wasn’t before, but there was really time after.”

From his personal research on Louis Armstrong, Mr. Scheider uncovered the jazz great’s wife’s story, as well as those of countless other women, including Alberta Hunter—arguably one of the most popular live performing artists of her time, he said, who retired from the entertainment industry to pursue nursing, only to make her musical comeback at age 83.

“She’s just got this matronly elegance mixed with an undoubtable lewdness that was so her style in the early days,” Mr. Scheider said. “It’s so funny. If you listen to these recordings, she could put any of these rappers to shame with her sexual innuendos. Oh my god. We’ll play these songs, they are so dirty, but they’re all double talk. And it’s not overt. Just nasty, nasty sexual innuendos in these songs, and they’re hysterical.

“I love that jazz is always satire,” he continued. “Jazz is always satire of our human hubris, of our racism, of our hypocrisies, of our desire for civilization but our need for release. That tension is always present for me in jazz, especially at that early age between the ’20s and the ’40s. If only Freud could have been more of a scholar on jazz, he would have been really into it.”

Mr. Scheider’s second series, “Alone at the Piano: A Survey of Landmark Piano Recordings in Jazz History,” begins at that time with James P. Johnson—who was a model for Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and his more famous pupil, Fats Waller—leading all the way up to the modern era’s Keith Jarret.

It is the actor’s “absolute devotion” to Mr. Jarret that initially inspired the solo piano programming, Mr. Scheider reported.

“I was 13 or 14, and I remember never having been more ecstatic than when I heard Part C of the Köln Concert, which will be featured in the series. Just sheer exuberance. I feel like, if only he knew me, we would be best friends,” he laughed. “Now, of course, that’s absurd because I only know him through his music. But he’s an idol to me and I feel like when I sit down at the piano, I seek to have that same kind of freedom he has.”

A freedom that began with early 20th-century jazz, he said, and will continue as long as it is kept alive.

Christian Scheider will present “Alone at the Piano: A Survey of Landmark Piano Recordings in Jazz History” on Tuesdays, May 14, 21 and 28, and June 4 and 11, at 10:15 a.m. in the Cooper Hall boardroom of Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton. Later on those same days, plus Tuesday, June 18, Mr. Scheider will host “The Life of Jazz: Early Female Masters” at 3:30 p.m. at the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor. Admission to both programs are free. For more information, call 283-0774 or 725-0049, or visit myrml.org or johnjermain.org.

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