Pianist, organist and composer Louis van Dyke (1941) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease more than a year ago. Van Dyke’s delicate playing will probably be heard from time to time, but nowadays he only plays because he likes it, not because he has to. In the Autumn of 2018 I had the privilege to talk to Louis van Dyke (his wife Aleid was present in the background) in their Amsterdam home, which is completely filled with visual art and music.
You were educated in classical music at the Amsterdam Conservatory, why did you choose to play jazz after graduating?
I was interested in jazz from an early age, but in those days it was not possible to study so called ‘light’ music. It was even forbidden for conservatory students to play jazz in public. When I had won an Edison Award for the album The Louis van Dyke Trio / Quartet, the Conservatory’s director called me. I had to stop playing jazz or leave the conservatory. “Then I’ll go,” I answered. The man opted out at the last moment with the words: “Well, everyone has a hobby, after all, neither can I prohibit you from playing chess .” This meant that he compared jazz to something extra-musical.
But later you started to play classical music again.
It was a difficult time for jazz clubs. An impresario brought me into contact with Daniel Wayenberg in the early eighties and we became close friends. We influenced each other: I started to study classical again and Daniel tried to improvise. I really had to do my best. We played difficult pieces by Stravinsky and Brahms.
Do you still study?
Not that much. Actually, I mainly improvise these days and then you have to be careful not to study too much. I still have my natural technical skills and if you focus too much on them, you run the risk that you will no longer make music, but that you merely show some virtuoso tricks.
Do you run that risk? You usually play very modestly
I prefer to do so, yes. That is why I have always enjoyed playing with other musicians. Then you have to play at least half towards the other, in a helpful way.
Which album are you most happy with?
I am especially proud of the recordings that my trio made with trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie. We recorded that music in the 1970s for the radio show Metro’s Midnight Music, which was produced by Joop de Roo. The pieces with Dizzy were later released on a CD by the North Sea Jazz label. Toots Thielemans was also a giant of course and it was always a pleasure to play with him. I also considered it a great privilege to record an album with the Danish bass player Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. He died from the effects of alcoholism at a fairly young age, but you could hardly tell that from his playing. That was always crystal clear.
How did you survive in an environment where alcohol and drugs were available in huge amounts?
I was afraid of losing control. But in my younger years I used to paint the town red now and then with Ramses Shaffy, until the next morning we listened to Fauré’s Requiem weeping crocodile tears.
Was Ramses Shaffy a good friend?
As far as you could be friends with Ramses. He acted his whole life. We worked together for ten years, but you never knew whether or not his affection was sincere.
You have played in many musical styles. Do you rank these different genres?
Absolutely not. Miles Davis’ choruses when he performed Porgy and Bess with the Gil Evans Orchestra are world class. What Miles played there is as moving as the music that Bach composed.
In the time that you performed with your Grand Piano Friends Pim Jacobs and Pieter van Vollenhoven, avant-garde artists like Willem Breuker and Misha Mengelberg sometimes talked in a patronizing way about you. What effect did that have on you?
We just giggled when we heard their comments. In those days you had many modern jazz cats who weren’t even able to play a decent blues. Audiences were not very fond of their music either. So they had to find other channels to get their money. Those guys were especially good at talking to the right people in order to receive all kinds of subsidies. It probably bothered them that I had a decent income from making my music, without compromising on its quality. This was only a small minority, by the way. I enjoyed working with people like Han Bennink, Eric Vloeimans and Anton Goudsmit. If someone suggests that I might not be a real jazz musician, I sometimes tell an anecdote about Thad Jones. I once made radio recordings with this American trumpet player and band leader. As a gesture of gratitude I presented him a bottle of wine, which he emptied on the spot. He asked me to play an intro for one of his pieces. When I had done that, he thought it was so beautiful that he sat down on my lap. Well does that make me a jazz musician or not?
What do you try to achieve on stage?
If I play for an audience, I hope that the people who listen, love me.”
How would you like to be remembered?
As someone who, when it came down to it, used his talent honestly.
You recorded a series of albums with religious music. Did you do that for nostalgic reasons or did this mean more for you?
When I had left my parental home, I worked as a church musician for many years at the Reformed Youth Council in Amsterdam. But I also composed a considerable amount of church songs. At Michel van der Plas’ request, I wrote the music for fifty or more religious songs, the lyrics of them were written by Michel. With Hans Bouma I also composed some twenty church songs. And now I am finally included in the canon; one of my compositions has become included in The New Church Songbook (Het Nieuwe Liedboek).
Louis van Dyke rises enthusiastically and looks for evidence. He returns with the Songbook in his hand and holds it up triumphantly. Finally! ‘Now The Heavens Open’ (Nu gaat de hemel open) Song 499. It’s almost time. I hope they will let me in.
‘Blues In G’ (2018): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMs2CNYMW2Y