Billy Crystal says by the age of 5 he was "doomed" to be a comedian. The earliest laughs he got were for his imitations of people — and the people he knew happened to make jazz. His father Jack owned a record store and produced jazz concerts in New York. His Uncle Milt Gabler started Commodore Records, America's first independent jazz label. Crystal grew up hanging out with such jazz legends as Gene Krupa, Eddie Condon and Billie Holiday.
"The house smelled of brisket and bourbon. That's the music I grew up on," Crystal says.
For Intersections, a series on artists' influences, Crystal tells NPR's Susan Stamberg that those early encounters helped shape his comedic style. Crystal says being around "these great, colorful characters" taught him important lessons about the art of improvisation: "That's the thing about jazz: it's free flowing, it comes from your soul," he says. " I think when I feel I'm at my best is when I'm on stage, and it's my version of jazz because it's just riffing or something."
Rubbing elbows with maestros of musical improv prompted Crystal to start riffing on his own at an early age. "Even when I was in school shows, in elementary school doing plays, I'd always go off book and start improvising. Kids dressed as flowers would just look at me and think 'What is he doing?'"