Hear: Grant Llewellyn on big band and jazz

photograph by Michael Zirkle

North Carolina Symphony music director Grant Llewellyn, who divides his time between his North Hills apartment, his 600-year-old Welsh farmhouse, and gigs across the globe, is famous for sophisticated, imaginative interpretations of classical scores and accomplished conducting of opera. He has led dozens of top U.S. symphonies, and for a time served as music director of America’s leading period orchestra, the Handel and Haydn Society.

But Llewellyn has a musical love that fits none of those genres. From an early age, big band music and jazz, not classical music, inspired Llewellyn, and he says they continue to delight and influence him today.

It goes back to the boisterous, musical household of his 1960s childhood in what he calls “the wilds of west Wales,” where popular music was celebrated and shared. The second of four children, Llewellyn has fond memories of gathering around the family piano. “Both parents loved to sing, and Dad was a bit of a crooner. He was always serenading us with show and big band era songs. The Welsh, I’m afraid, they love to sing.”

And so Llewellyn learned to play the piano as a young child with the sheet music he dug out of the piano bench, mostly Rodgers & Hammerstein classics like Carousel, The King and I, and South Pacific. By the time he was 10, Llewellyn had graduated to the cello, which would become a lifelong instrument, and was on his way to music school in Manchester. There, he discovered something he’d never before seen: A music shop that sold sheet music from musicians of every kind. “It was a revelation.” The discovery enabled Llewellyn and friends to play the music of Fats Waller and the Dorsey Brothers, and when he got to Cambridge University a few years later, Llewellyn was invited to join a friend’s 11-piece dance band that played in the splendor of the Savoy ballroom in London.

When they weren’t playing jazz, Llwellyn says he and his friends would gather to listen to 78 rpm records of Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and the Dorsey Brothers. His girlfriend at the time was the granddaughter of groundbreaking jazz orchestra leader Stan Kenton, “so she got me to listen to him, too.” Other favorites were Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald.

He kept busy playing traditional jazz ensemble performances, the odd wedding, and gigs around Cambridge. “I don’t honestly think I was much good,” he says. “But it earned me a few pennies, and I loved the music.”

Those gigs also cemented friendships that have stood the test of time. Roderick Thomson, the bass player whom Llewellyn remembers playing Fats Waller’s Honeysuckle Rose alongside in a wedding marquee one rain-soaked evening 30 years ago is his manager today.

And jazz is with him still. He’ll bang out the odd tune on the piano from time to time, he says, and listens to older band recordings. More modern recordings of good friend Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. are also on the playlist, as are local bluegrass, folk and country bands like the Red Clay Ramblers, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Tift Merritt.

But for “pleasure and relaxation,” Llewellyn is more likely listen to big band music. “If Branford hears this, he’ll never talk to me again,” he jokes.

What does he listen to in the car? Not music. “It’s impossible. I can never listen to music in the car, I’d drive off the road. It’s too important.”

Talk radio and NPR fit the bill. “I love nothing more than Prairie Home Companion,” he says, and its All-Star Shoe Band. When he’s with one of his four children, who range in age from 17 to 24, he might listen to popular music, but “they are perpetually embarrassed by my lack of knowledge.”

Summers at his farm in the vale of Glamorgan near Cardiff with all four kids, his wife Charlotte, and rescue dogs Pippa and Raleigh recharge his batteries, Llewellyn says, musical and otherwise. “The farm is just about isolated enough for the kids and all of their wacky instruments,” he says, including drums and saxophone. And so Llewellyn’s musical heritage – a family of six making joyful music of their own in the wilds of Wales – comes full circle.

Back in Raleigh, Llewellyn’s plans for this 80th anniversary of the North Carolina Symphony are more classical in nature. This month at Meymandi Concert Hall, he’ll conduct a concert of Haydn and Mahler on Nov. 2 and 3, Mozart’s Prague symphony on Nov. 9, and Mozart and Handl’s Messiah on Nov. 30.     

For more on Grant Llewellyn’s schedule with the N.C. Symphony, go to ncsymphony.org.