The man behind Jazz at the Bechtler
If fifth-grade bands had harmonicas, would the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art have a jazz series today?
Ziad Rabie, the Charlotte saxophonist whose quartet anchors the monthly program, thought he’d play the mouth organ at Pinewood Elementary School in the 1960s. Music teacher Willie Gillon, himself a sax player, set the 10-year-old straight.
“He told me, ‘We don’t have harmonicas in the band,’ “ Rabie recalls. “I said, ‘Saxophone, then.’ I had a terrible overbite, and he looked at that and said, ‘How about strings? We really need string players.’ I said, ‘Saxophone or nothing.’ He smiled and said, ‘OK.’ “
Half a century later, Rabie programs the city’s longest-running monthly jazz series, described by the Bechtler as “mid-century art meets mid-century music.” Latin jazz concerts set for June 7 define what he does best: Import specialized musicians to explore sounds not always heard in the Queen City.
“We’ve got Nelson Rios from Brazil on bass, Al Strong on trumpet, Keith Davis up from Greenville (S.C.) on piano, Jim Brock on percussion, drummer Rick Dior, who’s played with the Charlotte Symphony….” He doesn’t have to mention himself. He’s always there, whether the quartet becomes a sextet or plays bop or honors Miles or Trane or Monk.
He doesn’t mention first name, assuming you know he means Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. The latter two were born in Hamlet and Rocky Mount. Throw in Nina Simone from Tryon and Dizzy Gillespie from Cheraw, S.C., and Rabie grew up near the center of a loose quadrangle of jazz masters.
Jazz takes root
The music moved him right away. He remembers the Pecan Grove Supper Club, a nightclub his poet father Diab ran on Highway 29 North in the ’60s and early ‘70s. Count Basie came through and gave Diab Rabie a watch his son still has today. Ziad Rabie remembers going to Raleigh at 17 to see Basie’s band in another club — “I never saw any band swing that hard” — and sitting for an hour at the pianist’s table afterward.
Yet the idea of playing music for a living didn’t take root at first.
Rabie went to Wake Forest University, expecting to follow a pre-med path. “My dad thought I should have a traditional profession, but that was not where my head was at,” he recalls. “I’d always been raised to express myself about current affairs, so I majored in political science and philosophy. But I was playing in a jazz group all along.
“I tell parents who ask if their kids should pursue music as a profession, ‘If your child reaches a point where they feel they can’t live without music, maybe they should.’ I reached that point.”
A musical motto
At 61, the philosophy major still emerges. He’ll say, thinking of Basie’s minimalist style, “One definition of professionalism is that you pick and choose. You don’t play everything you know on one song.”
About creating a personal style: “You’ve got to spend (a lot of) time finding yourself. You have to feel what you’re playing 10 times more than you expect the person listening to feel it, in order to pull them in…. If you’re playing with sincerity, most of the time we will hear that. But if it’s all about (your ego), I’m not interested.”
Or about spontaneity, the essence of his art: “Jazz lets you be who you are in the moment, on that day. And that will change…. It requires you to surrender, mentally and emotionally. Children don’t have trouble doing that. They don’t censor themselves.” He smiles, hearing someone quote the musical motto of Kannapolis native George Clinton: “Free your mind, and your ass will follow.”
Rabie freed his mind by filling it with history. He played a New Year’s Eve gig on Dec. 31, 2009, at the Bechtler a few days before it opened. Christopher Lawing, the vice president for programming, wanted to start an upscale, affordable jazz series. (Tickets still cost just $16.) The first gig drew perhaps 30 people. As word spread, sellout crowds reached 400.
Lawing and Rabie selected a different theme each month. Rabie says today, “I learned so many things I wouldn’t have known about jazz history, if I hadn’t had to delve into it.” But he’d already been gathering wisdom, whether from Charlotte pianist/mentor Bill Hanna or the University of Tennessee’s Jerry Coker. (He spent three and a half years commuting back and forth to Knoxville to hear Coker expound on advanced jazz improvisation.)
That’s why quotes from Sonny Rollins or tidbits about Carlos Santana flow from Rabie as rapidly as eighth notes from a horn: “Santana said he went to sleep listening to Trane on headphones. He was trying to recreate that intensity by absorbing it into his subconscious. So I started doing it, too.”
Booking big names
Rabie has expanded the Bechtler program by booking bigger names: drummer T.S. Monk III (son of the pioneering pianist), vocalist Nnenna Freelon, multi-instrumentalist Chris Brubeck. (The son of pianist Dave Brubeck will come in October.)
He was surprised at first by his audience’s savvy. He introduced a lesser-known Herbie Hancock song and saw an excited woman mouth “Dolphin Dance”! Says Rabie, “I was amazed people knew that. I am humbled by the support of the audiences and the musicians, who are all as good as I am — or better!”
Not all jazz at the Bechtler includes Rabie: He and his group aren’t part of the day-long “We’ve Got the Jazz Fest” celebration June 2. But he thinks about jazz there year-round, and he’s currently nailing down the fall-to-spring roster for 2019-20. He’ll bring Joe Gransden’s Sinatra tribute back in November and honor Miles Davis’ “Milestones” album in April.
And of course, he’s always ready to wail or whisper on sax, wanting to project the kind of joy Dizzy Gillespie gave people. At the same time, he heeds the trumpeter’s admonition about their profession: “Dizzy said, ‘Every day, I look into my trumpet case. And the trumpet looks back at me and says, “Today, I’m gonna get you!” ‘ “
Jazz at the Bechtler: Latin Jazz
When: 6 and 8:15 p.m. June 7
Where: Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, 420 S. Tryon St.
Tickets: $16 general admission
Details: 704-353-9200 or bechtler.org
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.