1:33 AM / Wednesday June 7, 2023

11 Apr 2023

Aaron Diehl and The Aaron Diehl Trio will perform Mary Lou Williams’ “Zodiac Suite”with The Philadelphia Orchestra

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April 11, 2023 Category: Local Posted by:

By Kharisma McIlwaine

ABOVE PHOTO: Aaron Diehl by Maria Jarzyna

Mary Lou Williams is widely respected as one of the greatest jazz pianists, composers and arrangers of all time. Donned “The Lady Who Swings The Band,” Williams contributed greatly to the ragtime, swing and bebop eras of music. Her fresh take on arrangements and her original works caught the attention of jazz icons such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. She later became a staff arranger for Ellington, tasked with revamping the arrangements for popular songs.

One of Williams’ most complicated compositions was the “Zodiac Suite,” which features a series of 12 pieces inspired by musicians she worked with and the stars signs they fall under within the zodiac. The work was originally performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1945. Critically acclaimed pianist and composer Aaron Diehl and The Aaron Diehl trio will pay homage to Williams by performing the “Zodiac Suite” with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Diehl spoke with The SUN about his excitement for his upcoming performance and the importance of sharing Williams work.

Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Diehl was born into a musically inclined family. His grandfather Arthur Baskerville was a pianist and trombonist and served as Diehl’s first musical inspiration.

“My grandfather played the trombone and piano and at a young age I got to experience music through him specifically.” Diehl said. “On weekends there was a Saturday brunch in my neighborhood, where local musicians including my grandfather would play jazz. He also sang in the church choir, so when I went to church every Sunday, I would hear him in the choir. I was constantly around music. My parents loved music, so I was really fortunate to be exposed to music of all kinds from a young age.”

At the age of six, Diehl’s parents noticed his interest in music and the piano specifically. He began his formal training with the piano at age 7. His ambitions to become a professional musician happened during his teenage years, after meeting a musical icon.

“Music is something with many of us where we don’t choose it, but it chooses us. I was fortunate to be around a lot of supportive people including my parents and Todd Stoll who is the director of a youth jazz ensemble called The Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra. He introduced me to Wynton Marsalis. I was probably about 14 at the time. After I met Wynton, Wynton really encouraged me to look into jazz music on a deeper level.” He said.

Marsalis’ encouragement resulted in Diehl auditioning and being accepted into the prestigious Julliard School. While attending Julliard, Diehl met Father Peter — the man who introduced him to many of Mary Lou Williams’ compositions. 

“Mary Lou Williams was such an influential figure in the context of jazz music and American music in general. She wrote the “Zodiac Suite” in the mid 40’s. I knew about it because when I was in college, I met a man, a Jesuit priest — his name is Father Peter O’Brien. He was the manager of Mary Lou Williams for the last quarter century of her life. After she died in 1981, he went on to be an advocate for her music and he started The Mary Lou Williams Foundation as the executive director.” Diehl shared. “When I was in college, we did a Mary Lou Williams concert. A couple of years later, I was playing at a Catholic Church in Harlem, and he was the guest priest. He said, ‘I remember you from Julliard. Mary Lou Williams wrote some sacred hymns for the Catholic Church; would you be interested in looking more into them?’

The chance meeting with Father Peter and a previous relationship that Diehl began cultivating with The Philadelphia Orchestra during the pandemic eventually led Diehl to perform the “Zodiac Suite” with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Although Williams never had the opportunity to perform the “Zodiac Suite” in a way that satisfied her, Diehl saw the greatness in the arrangement and decided to dedicate the time and work into fully bringing this piece back to life.

“During the pandemic, there was an opportunity to play with The Philadelphia Orchestra to play “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin. Then they invited me back the following year, I believe it was in 2021 when we streamed it. Then fall of that year, I came back to perform in person”, Diehl said. “There’s a recording of the “Zodiac Suite” called the “Town Hall Concert” I believe. You hear what the premiere sounded like. You can tell that the orchestration had potential if there was more time given to the ensemble and to the arrangement in general. My idea over the pandemic and during lockdown, was what could be developed in this and who would be the right collaborators to work on this with?” Diehl continued, “We started playing with The New York Philharmonic. We started with four movements for their streaming platforms. I also partnered with the Knights Foundation and we recorded it and spent ample time doing that. From the initial piece that we did with the New York Philharmonic, there was interest with other major orchestras to give this piece a shot… including The Philadelphia Orchestra who really put in a lot time and resources to make it as good as it could be.”

Mary Lou Williams dedicated each movement in the “Zodiac Suite” to musical friends and their respective zodiac signs. Diehl, who is a Virgo, spoke about his love for all of the movements in general, and for the Virgo movement specifically.

“Aries is for Billie Holiday and Ben Webster. Taurus was for Duke Ellington. Some movements include jazz soloists. So, for example, tenor saxophone is on Cancer and you can hear Webster play on the recording I mentioned. I love Virgo, my zodiac sign, and that movement. It’s the one real jazz movement in the whole suite. The reference is really Kansas City Swing. Virgo is a really fun movement to play.”

He added, “This weekend you’ll hear a marvelous saxophonist named Nicole Glover. We also have Brandon Lee on the trumpet and Alicia Hall Moran, who is a wonderful mezzo-soprano, is going to be singing the last movement which is Pisces. This is all going to be supported by my trio Aaron Kimmel and David Wong and of course The Philadelphia Orchestra. We’re very excited about it!”

Diehl shared his excitement for the performance and his hopes for the audience.

“I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to play this piece with musicians of the highest order. Musicians from The Philadelphia Orchestra are astounding and they’re really great people to work with. I’m also looking forward to people’s reaction to the suite and being able to play the suite in its entirety with the soloists.”

Diehl added, “I also feel like whether you know about Mary Lou Williams or not, everyone can relate to the zodiac signs… so there’s a general reference people can have. If you don’t know the world of Mary Lou, maybe this will be a really nice introduction for them to further investigate her contribution and her music.”

Be sure to follow and support Aaron Diehl on his musical journey by visiting his website The Philadelphia Orchestra’s “A Celestial Odyssey” featuring Aaron Diehl and The Aaron Diehl Trio performing “Zodiac Suite” will take place on Thursday, April 13th, Friday, April 14th and Sunday April 16th at Verizon Hall at The Kimmel Center.

For more information on tickets and showtimes visit

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