Steve Rudolph – Jazz Pianist, Composer, Arranger and Educator

As a jazz pianist, composer, arranger and educator, Steve Rudolph has had an inspiring career in his 40 years of professional music making. Jazz Improv magazine states, “Rudolph is a savvy, swinging, glimmering heavyweight… …simply outstanding.” The winner of the Jazziz Magazine Piano Competition at the Seven Springs Jazz Festival in 2000, he was also awarded two Jazz Composition Fellowships from the PA Council on the Arts.

With eleven acclaimed CDs as a leader, he has served as producer, arranger and performer on many recordings including CDs with Johnny Coles, Bill Goodwin, Ali Ryerson, Matt Wilson and Vinny Valentino. HIs latest CD, “Day Dream” – released in 2010, is a trio recording from a live concert at Bucknell University with drummer Phil Haynes and bassist Drew Gress.

His vast experience encompasses concert performances with many jazz masters including Louie Bellson, Clark Terry, Terry Gibbs, Rufus Reid, Buddy Tate, Al Grey, Bill Goodwin, and Sal Nistico. He has toured throughout the U.S., India, Europe, Canada, Russia and the Caribbean.

When at home in Harrisburg, Pa., Steve, a Yamaha Artist, can be found performing regularly at the Hilton Harrisburg. Steve is presently in his twenty-first year playing six nights a week at the Hilton.

Born in Evansville, Indiana, Steve studied trumpet and composition under scholarship at Butler University. He switched his main instrumental focus to the piano at age 22 and was hired by Buddy Morrow to perform with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1977.

Since moving to Harrisburg in 1978, he has been largely responsible for the growth and development of the thriving jazz scene in Central PA.

His devotion to the art of jazz inspired him to found the Central PA Friends of Jazz, now in its 31st successful season of monthly concerts, youth band, jazz camp, and annual Central PA Jazz Festival.

Steve was the recipient of the 2002 Harrisburg Arts Award for dedication to the arts and community service. His detailed recording and touring information may be found at www.steverudolph.com.

Interview with Steve Rudolph

CPAG: You began your musical career as a trumpeter, but later switched your instrumental focus to the piano. Specifically, what was it about the piano that drew you?

SR:  I had already become familiar with the keyboard from my college days at Butler University’s Jordan School of Music and from playing in a few fusion/rock groups in the late 60’s where I would play arranged parts on synthesizers (no improvised soloing yet).  It also was an instrument that I knew could be used for solo work – not much call for that on the trumpet (except for “taps” at military funerals and yes, I did my share of those).  I also was living in a house at the time where there was a good piano – the sonority of the instrument and the ability to control the harmony of the music were the most appealing factors. 

CPAG: When did you know that jazz was your passion? Who were some of your early influences?

SR:  In my Junior High School yearbook I said I wanted to be a jazz musician and travel the world, but I think I really got enamored with jazz right after I began playing the trumpet, age 8, from early television shows that featured famous players like Harry James and Louis Armstrong.  I loved the swing bands and dreamed of playing in one of those groups – Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and singers like Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat Cole (I did eventually end up playing with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, the Mills Brothers and Louie Bellson, but on piano, not trumpet).  Growing up in rural Southern Indiana, there was no live music other than the school bands and church choirs.  The radio played all kinds of music, but very little jazz.  We didn’t even own a record player, so my first exposure to modern jazz came in college where some of my friends played recordings by Miles, Coltrane and Charlie Parker for me.   

CPAG: It’s been said that musical genres are like languages, each with its own specific grammar and vocabulary. In jazz, improvisation is one such key element. How is it different when playing solo versus playing accompanied?

SR:  Solo playing is ultimately the most freeing form of improvisation.  You are in control of all of the musical elements – harmony, rhythm, melody, phrasing, dynamics – and can change them on a whim.  It’s as if you are the author of a short story and can take the plot in any direction you can imagine.  When you play with other musicians, it becomes a conversation where you are sharing the direction of the subject matter.  It is usually less free, but often more rewarding when playing with another musician who really listens while playing.  The ability to respond in the moment to the sound of the other musicians around you is the highest level of the improvised art we call jazz.

CPAG: Can you tell us what it’s like to perform nightly on a Yamaha C-7 Grand? That’s a gorgeous instrument.

SR:  I have been blessed to be forced to practice on the Yamaha for the last 20 years, 6 nights a week at the Hilton Harrisburg.  At the age of 41, it was the first opportunity for me to have a great instrument to play on a regular basis.  Most of my work previous to the Hilton was on electric instruments and inferior pianos – that was all I could afford with the money I earned as a jazz musician.  When I was hired at the Hilton, they had already purchased a piano that was not from a good maker (to be nameless here) and had some structural problems that left it un-tunable.  I innocently informed the general manager of the hotel that I was in the market for a good instrument and would purchase one, put it in the hotel and keep it tuned if they would sign me up for 3 years so I could make the payments.  He graciously agreed and I found the C7 at an area store and purchased it thinking in three years I would be taking it home.  I found out after 3 years that if you own the instrument, they usually don’t fire you, and I’ve been at the Hilton ever since (Nov. 1990) – talk about dumb luck!  I am now sanctioned by the company and am a Yamaha Performing Artist as well.

CPAG: How has the resurgence and revival of older musical forms and styles affected how you write and play today?

SR: Although I will sometimes do arrangements of tunes that I hear in movies or from the radio/TV world, I generally don’t write original music with anything in mind other than the sound of the project at hand.  All improvising musicians draw from the sounds that they have heard in their life’s experience – I have played classical, rock, Dixie, Polka, all types of jazz , country, a myriad of Latin styles, etc….all of which I use as influences in my improvisations and compositions.  However, I rarely listen to commercial music and am mostly unaware of the artists that are popular in today’s pop music scene.

CPAG: Jazz evolved out of the African-American and Caribbean black communities in the early Southern United States as a way to pass their cultures along to younger generations. To what extent do you believe today’s compositions are centered on story telling?

SR: I believe that jazz brought a new culture to music – an improvised form that included African rhythms, European harmonies and other world influences into an entirely original tradition.  It is an American democratic music where every player has the opportunity to “speak” his piece while collaborating with others to achieve group goals.  I don’t personally think that story telling was such a major function of early jazz except in the vocal renditions.  All cultures of music are now utilized in modern jazz and often the roots of the music are forgotten in the quest to find the “new sound” – I still think there are many opportunities to reside “in the tradition” and keep the music sounding contemporary.   

CPAG: Jazz isn’t just played. It’s felt from deep within. Can you give us a little insight into your own inward journey and the symbolism in your work?

SR: My playing has evolved over the years with the wealth of experiences that I have had.  I try to remain true to my roots in swing, bebop and the American standards while venturing into modern sounds and harmonies.  As improvisers we study rhythms, harmonic / melodic theory and try to weave the sounds we favor into a sound all our own.  All music that we have heard in our past can become part of our improvisations - as the old joke goes – good composers borrow, great composers steal – it’s the same for improvisers. I endeavor when improvising to give the music a sense of “spontaneous composition” – making the soloing sound as if it were through composed – really delivering a message.  As for the symbolism, I only try to find ways to express emotions in music – I don’t often seek to deliver a message that can be translated into words.   

CPAG: Throughout the years, you’ve played across the U.S. and internationally with the some of the biggest names in jazz. Would you share a few of your most memorable experiences with us?

SR: I have really been blessed to be able travel to interesting places and perform with some of the world’s greatest musicians.  I also feel that I have been able to perform music of the highest quality with musicians here in Central PA – Tom Strohman, Steve Meashey, Hassan JJ Shakur, JD Walter, Tim Warfield, Ron Waters, Jonathan Ragonese, Jim Miller, Andy Middleton, Sam Banks, Marko Marcinko, Joshua Davis, Bill Fisher, Phil Haynes and too many more excellent players to mention here who have lived in PA or grew up here and have blessed our clubs and concert halls with their musical magic.  The sessions at the Lucky Seven in Harrisburg were truly memorable – my first gig in Harrisburg (from ‘78-‘80) featured my trio hosting guest from here and afar for two years six nights a week – the Hilton Harrisburg, where I have been playing six nights a week for the last twenty years, has allowed me the opportunity to bring in guests from around the world and have many amazing nights of improvised fun. 

As for the road gigs:  touring every province of Canada with the legendary vocal group The Mills Brothers (’79); playing with Al Grey & Buddy Tate in Italy (‘85); being the American representative at a Russian Music Festival in the Freiburg Opera House in Germany (‘89); playing Carnegie Hall as part of the Jazz Cavalcade (’91); touring Russia and Siberia with my trio (‘08); and playing in India and Myanmar with violinist Holger Jetter and Indian musicians (’08) all have special memories of great music  and camaraderie. 

CPAG: The Central PA Friends of Jazz, which you founded in 1980, has become one of the most successful non-profit jazz organizations in the country. How can we in Central Pennsylvania support CPFJ in its mission?

SR:  This is a very difficult time for “art music” and organizations that promote and support it.  I would ask of those who are able, to attend concerts; become members of the groups we have in the area – CPFJ (jazz),  Market Square Concerts (chamber music), Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra (classical), etc. ; volunteer to help out in any way – any and all help these days is most welcome.  You can also help out by exposing your children and younger friends to the joys this music has to offer – we need inspired listeners as well as players for the music to continue.

CPAG: Your latest CD is “Day Dream”, with Phil Haynes and Drew Gress. Can you tell us a little about it and where you see the future taking you?

SR: I first need to thank Phil Haynes for imagining the project, getting Drew involved, and convincing Bucknell University to host the event.  We recorded live and had a recording engineer (Jon Rosenberg) come down from New York.  I chose the tunes and arranged a few of them, but most were just conceived “in the moment” as we often do.  Drew and Phil are exceptional musicians who really listen while they are playing and they made it very easy for me to stray from worn paths and feel free to experiment.  The Steinway, in the hall at Bucknell, is a very fine instrument and I think the recording is a very good representation of my playing at this time – not that I’m ever satisfied with any of my recordings – I often humorously refer to them all as the “evidence”.  The CD has actually found a following in Japan and is selling well over there – hopefully it could lead to a tour there in the future. 

In the near future, I have planned a solo recording, a quintet recording with woodwind master Tom Strohman, and will release another trio record – this one with Joe Hunt (drums) and Steve Meashey (bass), and a duo recording with violinist Holger Jetter  soon.