By Sabina L. Lilly
Hailing from Toronto, Ontario, and calling Chicago home by way of Bloomington, Indiana—where he earned a master’s in jazz studies from Indiana University—pianist Chris White has been a rock-solid presence in the Chicago jazz community since his arrival in 2000. His output includes CDs as a bandleader, working with notable jazz musicians in a variety of settings, and university-level teaching since earning his DMA from University of Illinois in 2010.
Chris is also known for his Vince Guaraldi Christmas shows, which will be performed in various Chicagoland venues in the upcoming weeks. We think it’s the ideal time to ask him 10 Questions!
CJM: Talk about your early exposure to music growing up in Toronto. Is your family musical?
Although my parents were not professional musicians, I grew up in a household that greatly appreciated the arts. My mom played violin and piano, my dad played clarinet and some piano, and my brother played trumpet and guitar. We often had the classical radio station on in the kitchen, and jazz, folk or classical records were played in our family room. I studied drums and saxophone when I was young but piano became my primary instrument.
CJM: How did you come to play piano?
When I was five years old I asked my parents for piano lessons. I liked the sound of the piano and wanted to learn. I started out studying classical music, playing music of the greats like Bach and Beethoven, and that really helped develop my technique and musicianship. My teachers used the Canadian Royal Conservatory of Music method, which is a widely known and excellently structured system. I also spent a lot of time learning pop music by ear, especially Beatles tunes, because I didn’t have the sheet music.
CJM: Was there a specific recording, performance, or moment that first ignited your interest in jazz?
In high school we had a jazz band and I held the piano chair for three years. I distinctly remember playing an arrangement of Chick Corea’s “Spain” and being thrilled by the sound of that chart as well as the groove and energy our band was creating. It was difficult to learn, but exciting. Our director, Paul McGoveran, encouraged us to listen to great music, not just jazz, but also master composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. Somewhere along the way I heard about Miles Davis so I went out and got the album Relaxin’. It was a turning point for me. I wanted to sound just like Miles’ pianist Red Garland; I thought he was so swingin’!
CJM: Your undergrad degree is in English. How and when did your focus shift to music as a career?
Although I practiced and continued to take occasional lessons during my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, I did not perform on a regular basis. I was in the college big band and played in the musical City of Angels. When I graduated with an English degree I wasn’t sure if continuing my education in literature was the direction I wanted, nor was I sure if a career in music was the best idea. The turning point came when I took a chance and applied for a master’s degree. My first choice was originally Rutgers in New Jersey to study with the great Kenny Barron. I didn’t get in, but things turned out for the best because I was accepted to Indiana University in Bloomington; it was amazing to be totally immersed in the study and performance of jazz under great teachers like David Baker and Luke Gillespie. It was here that I truly caught the jazz “bug.” I’ve never turned back since and have never regretted that decision.
CJM: Who are your significant teachers and/or mentors?
I have had many wonderful mentors but my first jazz piano instructor was Mark Eisenman in Toronto. He taught me a lot about learning the jazz language, specifically bebop vocabulary. He is a disciple of the great pianist and educator Barry Harris, so it was through Mark that I learned Barry’s insightful and systematic methods.
David Baker at IU was another very significant figure in my life. He was a pioneer in jazz education and a huge influence on my playing and teaching. David was a true jazz historian and master teacher and he influenced countless musicians. Like Barry Harris, David’s methods were methodical and systematic. I worked as his TA and used to play duets with him at his house. We worked mostly on learning tunes by ear, like Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare.” There I was in his basement, surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands of albums on shelves, learning jazz from someone who was friends with Freddie Hubbard, Quincy Jones, and Wes Montgomery. It was surreal.
David also brought me to the Steans Music Institute at Ravinia the first year they had the jazz program. I worked closely with Rufus Reid, James Moody, Ramsey Lewis, and Russell Malone, all of whom were great inspirations. Rufus, who used to live and work in Chicago, recommended that I move here. Chicago has treated me very well.
CJM: Can you talk about one or two jazz artists, as well as a specific experience, that helped define your playing?
I mentioned Red Garland earlier, but the great Oscar Peterson was my biggest early inspiration. In Toronto, where he lived, it was easy to find any of his recordings, and I had many of them. Meeting him in person as a teenager was a dream come true. Night Train was my favorite OP album and he signed my cassette at a record store opening in downtown Toronto. Not only that, but I gave him my business card and told him to come out to one of my gigs—a bold move to say the least!
Another great pianist I admired and continue to be inspired by is Mulgrew Miller. My senior thesis at IU was to transcribe ten of his solos, both left and right hand! It was a real challenge and it took months, but I was able to complete it. Learning all the specific voicings and note choices in those solos was invaluable. The countless hours of careful listening and transcribing taught me a great deal about phrasing, language, articulation, and harmony. It was incredible ear training.
CJM: Tell us about your teaching at North Park University, North Central College, and Lake Forest College.
I mostly teach individual jazz piano lessons. I also direct combos at North Park and North Central and have taught jazz history, jazz arranging, and music theory courses at North Park and Lake Forest. I enjoy teaching and learn so much from my students.
CJM: Your ongoing performances include solo engagements, accompanying top-notch vocalists, and working in various band configurations as a leader or sideman. Is there a common thread or philosophy that you bring to each gig or setting?
I enjoy the diversity of my career and accompanying is something I am very committed to. I try to develop it with the same tenacity as learning improvisation. My basic philosophy for any musical setting is to listen intently, interact appropriately, and to give it my 100% every time. Playing jazz well takes a great deal of concentration. You can’t zone out for one second!
CJM: Do you or have you done any composing or arranging?
Yes. My second album Tributaries featured all original music. I continue to compose, arrange music for concerts and recordings, as well as teach courses in jazz arranging.
CJM: What performances, recordings, and/or projects are on your horizon?
Since 2016 I have been performing the nostalgic music that Vince Guaraldi wrote for the Charlie Brown specials with my trio. Since then, the number of shows has grown significantly. This year we have sixteen performances of the Christmas show throughout the Chicago area! We’ve even performed a baseball show featuring vocalist Wayne Messmer. This month you can catch us performing A Charlie Brown Christmas at Café Brauer at Lincoln Park Zoo, the Friendly Tap in Berwyn, The Gorton Center in Lake Forest and Winter’s Jazz Club in Chicago.
Also, I just finished a fun recording session with my jazz piano duo, Firm Roots, on two beautiful Bösendorfer pianos at the Grand Piano Haus in Skokie. We (my duo partner and wife Lara Driscoll and I) love performing and traveling and we have done concerts in the States, Japan, and Thailand. We co-write and arrange the music and we’re hoping to release our first album in the spring.
Lately I’ve also enjoyed collaborating in a trio with Terry Bartolotta (guitar) and Mark Sonsken (bass) and performing often with the Greg Dudzienski Quartet. We just finished recording his new album. I look forward to more projects with these groups and many others.
For the latest news, including the Charlie Brown Christmas shows, follow Chris on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or visit www.chriswhitepiano.com.
Chicago Jazz Magazine content manager (and sometime-contributor) Sabina L. Lilly has been a professional musician for over three decades. Contact Sabina at email@example.com.