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'You Should Study Jazz' Pianist Lynne Arriale on Following Her Inner Voice

R. Andrew Lepley

Every jazz musician has to start somewhere. Jazz great Thelonious Monk played church organ as a teen in New York. Miles Davis picked up the trumpet at age 12 in east St. Louis. But what makes these musicians fascinating to listen to is how they evolved and developed their craft over the years.

Milwaukee-born Jazz pianist Lynne Arriale has also been following melody ever since she was a child. Now a professor of Jazz Studies at the University of North Florida, she has toured and performed all around the world, including at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center and in the Montreux Jazz Festival. 

She was in Milwaukee in October to hold workshops at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and to perform at Blu at the Pfister, and she says that her story in the art form started with curiosity.

"When I was a little girl, we had a toy piano, made of plastic," Arriale says. "I would play melodies that I heard on the radio. For some reason I was able to translate what I heard into playing the melodies."

This led to her starting lessons with the local piano teacher. "[The teacher] would play the songs for me and I would come back and play them," she recounts. "Then she realized I was playing by ear and wasn't learning to read the music. She said 'I'm not going to play the pieces for you anymore, you have to learn how to read.' With resistance, I did learn how to read music."

Arriale went on to study classical music for the next 25 years. She earned a B.A. in music theory from UW-Madison and earned a masters degree from the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

"It wasn't until I was finishing my master's degree that I was literally walking down the street and the voice in my head said 'You should study jazz,'" she remembers. "We hear the voice in our head, our inner dialogue, all the time. Sometimes we listen, sometimes we don't. I did listen, and I sought out teachers. And that's how I started studying jazz." As she delved further into the music, she says she was fascinated by the ability to create variations and improvise.

These days, her influences, and her methods of coming up with original pieces, are varied. "I listen to all kinds of music, so I look for beautiful melodies...I often sing when I'm looking to come up with new tunes. Sit on the piano and hum different possible melodies."

Maayan Silver has been a reporter with WUWM’s News Team since 2018.