When Lynne Arriale was 25, she had an “epiphany.”
“I was walking down the street in Milwaukee when I was finishing up my Master’s degree requirements, and I had a passing thought, and that thought was, ‘you should study jazz,” Arriale recounted. “I have no idea where that came from.”
The University of North Florida (UNF) professor of Jazz Studies, Jazz pianist and composer listened to that “passing thought” and has since released 16 albums, touring internationally. Her latest album, “The Lights Are Always On,” was released in April and reached #3 on the JazzWeek radio chart.
Inspired by the healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the name of her latest album pays tribute to their services. ‘The lights are always on’ in the hospital, and doctors, nurses and caretakers are always coming to work.
“I thought, this is so remarkable,” said Arriale. “And I kind of expanded that to the light of humanity is always on. That, even in the midst of utter devastation and so much tremendous loss, there’s still a light of humanity, and people are heroic every single day, doing amazing things and keeping their hope.”
In the wake of the pandemic, Arriale connected with people who experienced sorrow through the passing of her own husband. While her husband did not die from COVID-19, her experience further connected her to others around the world facing the cost and heartache of the pandemic. She felt inspired by the strength of those who continued on despite the pain and channeled her feelings into her music.
The album is made of “musical profiles of courage,” Arriale explained, with tributes to people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Rep. John Lewis, as well as a song that reflects the best of America. While each composition follows a particular harmonic structure, every song in the album features improvisations in melody. No song can be played the same way twice.
The spontaneity of jazz is one of the reasons Arriale said she initially fell in love with the genre. Before her epiphany, Arriale studied classical piano at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. She began to take lessons playing jazz piano and was shocked to learn that the genre let her improvise new melodies as she played over a set harmonic structure.
“At that point, I knew I had to learn this language,” said Arriale. “And it was literally like learning a foreign language.”
Within a year or two of beginning to learn the new musical language of jazz, Arriale began playing professionally.
While she didn’t necessarily believe she was ready to play jazz professionally when she did, her gigs helped her improve her freestyle and spontaneity. Arriale has since traveled to play in China, Japan, Australia and many European countries, explaining that no matter where she was, she could connect and play with other jazz musicians through their shared musical language.
“We have a common language, and it is a language that is shared by people worldwide,” Arriale said. “I could go […] anywhere in the world where there are jazz musicians and say OK, let’s play this tune, count it off, and they would know what to do.”
While Arriale explained that jazz aims to be spontaneous, players must first put in many hours learning the foundation of the genre. Like learning a language, jazz musicians learn the grammar and conjugations of their music before they can “speak” it fluently.
“We are creating a new composition in real-time,” explained Arriale. “And people often ask me, well, do you just play whatever comes into your head? And I say, yes I do, after like 20,000 hours of practice.”
As a professor of Jazz studies at UNF, Arriale teaches this language to her students. She says she enjoys finding different ways to connect with and teach each student. Just like the genre itself, each student is different and requires a creative approach to instruction.
Often referencing left brain and right, she explained that jazz requires both simultaneously because it calls for a mixture of musical structure and creativity. When some of her students are more “right-brained,” they may be very intuitive with their impromptu playing but need to learn more of the structure to improve their “musical vocabulary.”
Arriale became a professor at UNF in 2006 after receiving a job offer from the school. She had never been in academia before and wondered what it would be like. She found she enjoyed teaching at UNF, loving the diversity of students and minds she got to work with.
She recounted one rewarding experience of having a student win the Jacksonville Jazz Festival Piano Competition. Contestants came from all age groups and international countries, and her student came in first out of everyone. Many of her other students have gone on to perform, win awards and record albums. While this brings her pride, just getting to share knowledge is something she finds rewarding.
“Every time a student grows, and I see evidence of their growth, it’s an inspiring moment,” Arriale said.
As a performer, Arriale draws inspiration from her audience. She explained how she could feel the “energetic exchange” in the room with a crowd as she played, comparing the experience to a conversation. Although she is the primary “speaker” compared to the audience when she plays, their energy and responses bounce back to her and she shares her non-verbal language.
In her most recent album, she uses her musical language to share a sense of hope in the wake of profound loss.
“It’s very gratifying to get the response, the response that got from people about this album,” Arriale said. “This particular time in history was so difficult for us.”
She is currently writing songs for her next album and plans to continue teaching at UNF for a “very, very long time.” She urged students to remember that the pandemic is not over and that wearing a mask is a small price to pay for health and safety.