In a room full of people, are you part of a gang or alone in a crowd? The distinction between jazz and classical musicians, players, and composers, to their respective tasks, offers up an interesting question. The jazz musician has to adapt his playing to the boys-in-the-band, and usually on the fly, while the classical musician stays on task no matter what happens around him. Is there a musically definable middle ground?
With jazz, the focus is more often on what the player brings to a composition (consider old warhorses like Basin Street Blues, Cherokee, Body and Soul). Do you prefer Lester Young or John Coltrane, Chet Baker, or Miles Davis? Sometimes it doesn’t even sound like the same song as musicians apply their personal touch to a tune. The acknowledged jazz greats known for their orchestral compositions and arrangements, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones come easily to mind, specifically describe thinking about particular players when writing or arranging for large ensembles. Consider Ellington and Hodges or Jones and Sinatra.
It seems to work differently within classical music circles. Rarely do individual players achieve notoriety, such as Goldberg playing Bach or Yo-Yo Ma on cello. A specific orchestra like the London Philharmonic or Boston Pops (aka, the Boston Symphony Orchestra) is more likely referenced when discussing a classical performance than their famous conductors, let alone the first chair violin by name. For example, we tend to think of Mozart’s music in relation to the instruments (Flute Concerto #2 in D), but rarely associate that same composition with a particular musician.
An Intro to Classical Music from a Jazz Enthusiast’s Perspective
Jan Swafford’s terrific new book, Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music inspired me to create a playlist of exceptional classical music. The first surprise was how much of the music Swafford recommended was already in my collection. Recordings by David Munrow with the Early Music Consort of London and the Goldberg Variations on Bach had been, regrettably, gathering dust. Conversely, lots of music by Mozart and Stravinsky are in regular rotation on my daily soundtrack. The complete Beethoven symphonies, well, not so much.
Going in chronological order, I added works by Berlioz, Ravel, and Bartok. Not among the music mentioned by Swafford that made my list is a personal favorite, Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time (context is important to fully appreciate this work, composed in a Nazi death camp, so check out this link). Finally, though Swafford probably wouldn’t approve, I finished out my seven-hour survey of classical music with some Phillip Glass, the Saxophone Quartet Concerto – all movements. This playlist is an absolute delight to play, especially for friends not expecting classical music from a jazz enthusiast; and also another example of the intersection between elements of jazz and classical music.
So classical music was much on my mind as I recently watched an interview with Dizzy Gillespie from 1990 (during a made for TV documentary by Norwegian Jan Horne, To Bop or Not to Be: A Jazz Life).
A curious segue was provided by trumpeter Red Rodney as he explained why hard bop is the hardest form of jazz to play well (cut to Gillespie), “Because you got to think all the time.” Gillespie went on to observe that, “Classical musicians just play that (points to a sheet of music), period. No added notes, no nothing else.”
As Swafford closes his book, notable for being both erudite and entertaining, he describes recent American contributions to the classical canon as being predominantly in a minimalist and post-minimalist vein. I agree. Yet there is a line from the last page of Swafford’s book that shouldn’t go unremarked, “It (classical music) has also shown an ability to absorb into itself ideas and voices from around the world, and from popular music and jazz, while still remaining itself.” I disagree. After sampling far more of the classical music Swafford recommends than I finally ended up adding to my collection, in only one instance did I truly taste a flavor of jazz; Aaron Copland (with his magisterial Fanfare for the Common Man, a long-time favorite of rock fans). Not even Glass makes the cut here.
Jazz and Classical: A Gray Intersection
If we accept Gillespie’s distinction between technical mastery (classical) and improvisational excellence (jazz) what comes to my mind is the idea of an American Orchestral Music (AOM) distinct from Western Classical Music (WCM). Arguably missing from Swafford’s overview is the later orchestras of jazz icons like Duke Ellington, Oliver Nelson, and Gerald Wilson. With nothing in the real world simply black or white, I’ll suggest AOM occupies a definable, grayish intersection between jazz and classical. And what we hear is jazz showing the influence of classical music to a far greater degree than vice versa.
A stunning example of a straightforward intersection between AOM and WCM will be found listening to the relatively obscure 1960 recording by Duke Ellington (arranged by Billy Strayhorn) of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. The story is told that Ellington and Tchaikovsky met in Las Vegas where the classical guy gave his assurance to the jazz guy that a jazz treatment of his classical composition would be appreciated. No finer example of what classical music sounds like through a jazz filter is known to me.
Two other examples demonstrating remarkable fusions of jazz and classical are also worth a listen to for comparison. First, the album Creation, a 2001 release by Branford Marsalis performing with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Debussy, Satie, Ravel, and Milhaud, among others, get a gorgeous jazz-tinged treatment. Second, Nostalgic Journey: Tykocin Jazz Suite featuring jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker, the Wlodek Pawlik Trio, and the Symphony Orchestra of the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic in Bialystok. From 2008 we hear this moving and uplifting tribute to a family’s quest to reclaim their Polish heritage. We also hear a jazz soloist, a jazz trio, and a classical orchestra interacting in unexpected ways with modern compositions having clear WCM roots.
Jazz and Classical: Evolving Textures
In contrast to these suggestions, the extended suite A Tone Parallel to Harlem finds Ellington in a space uncomfortable for both jazz and classical enthusiasts. The music is daring and challenging as it moves over evolving textures inspired by the daily sounds of life in New York City. Frankly, this music is distinct even from other, more popular Ellington compositions for orchestra, such as The Liberian Suite. Harlem may most perfectly embody my definition of AOM. This is not background music, it is rarely played on the radio and never heard live, so again, another relatively obscure performance. The music here floats above any debate distinguishing the jazz and classical music chasm, comfortable in being neither. A circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.
These days the term Big Band is regularly used to reference orchestral performances in jazz circles. Heavy hitters like Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride have produced big band albums recently, and these recordings sound great as they carry on in the jazz tradition, but mostly without reference to classical music. With the compositions and arrangements created by Ellington and Oliver not so much heard these days, it is difficult to compare Big Band with AOM. Which is regrettable. The epic sweep of traditional classical music can most readily be found with a taste of jazz in the works of American Orchestral Music composers and arrangers, of which this millennium has not yet heard much from.