Music Preview: Navigating the Headwaters of the Third Stream

The NEC Wind Ensemble’s ingenious program celebrates the immense contributions of Gunther Schuller, affording him an opportunity to write a new work honoring Dave Brubeck for an ensemble very similar to the one he conducted in the 1960 recording of Charles Mingus’s Half-Mast Inhibition, which receives its first performance as well.

By J. R. Carroll

Charles Mingus in 1976.

Charles Mingus in 1976. Photo by Tom Marcello.

Third Stream Headwaters, NEC Wind Ensemble conducted by Charles Peltz
Thursday, February 13, 7:00 p.m. (Pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m. on “Unearthing Mingus’s Early Masterpiece.”)
Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory
Boston, MA

NEC is closed tonight but much of the repertoire on this program is also scheduled for a concert on March 6.

Hats off to NEC Wind Ensemble director Charles Peltz for assembling the most ingenious concert program that I’ve seen in a while. The evening is centered around the first performance (in its original 23-piece orchestration) of a major composition by bassist Charles Mingus, Half-Mast Inhibition, which former NEC president Gunther Schuller conducted when it was first recorded in 1960. Schuller, wishing to pay tribute to the late pianist Dave Brubeck, has composed a new work, From Here to There, for an ensemble similar in size and instrumental configuration to the one that will perform the Mingus piece.

From that core, Peltz has built a program incorporating an early, jazz-inspired ballet, Le creation du monde, written by Brubeck’s teacher, Darius Mihaud. Schuller, of course, introduced at a concert at Brandeis in 1957 the concept of a Third Stream of music that bridged jazz and classical music; one of the works on that program was Milton Babbitt’s All Set, and Peltz will conduct this piece as well. Finally, the evening will explore the amalgam of rock, jazz, and contemporary classical music that guitarist Frank Zappa brought together, here in the guise of his Dog Breath Variations.

Darius Milhaud first encountered jazz (sort of) in 1920 on a visit to London where he heard Billy Arnold’s Novelty Jazz Band, a British group that emulated the frenetic style of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who had taken London by storm the previous year. Two years later Milhaud had the opportunity to hear the genuine article when he traveled to New York and, in the company of the Belgian-born cabaret singer Yvonne George, attended performances in Harlem nightclubs. (They were the only two non-African-Americans in the house.)

We can only hazard a guess who Milhaud heard; Sidney Bechet, ironically, was in Europe, and Louis Armstrong had just moved from New Orleans to Chicago to play second cornet with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. From Milhaud’s description, it could have been Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds (with a very young Coleman Hawkins), or Ethel Waters and her Jazz Masters, or Edith Wilson with trumpeter Johnny Dunn’s band—it’s not difficult to imagine Milhaud being impressed by Dunn’s elegant “Hawaiian Blues”:

Or, might he have heard Eva Taylor singing “Original Charleston Strut,” which she would record later that year with husband Clarence Williams and his Blue Five?

(James P. Johnson’s more famous “Charleston” didn’t make an appearance until the following year’s premiere of the hit revue Runnin’ Wild.)

By 1923, Milhaud was hard at work on a new, African-inspired ballet, Le creation du monde. For this collaboration with writer Jean Cocteau and painter Fernand Leger, Milhaud fused Baroque musical procedures with the blues scales and syncopations he had encountered in Harlem, bitonally weaving together an atmospheric ostinato and a contrasting Charleston flanking a boulevardier episode that prefigured Gershwin’s An American in Paris:

Flash forward to 1957 and a landmark event at Brandeis University. Composer Gunther Schuller delivered a lecture introducing the concept of a Third Stream of music bridging jazz and classical music, and to make his point he commissioned works demonstrating this intersection from three composers from the classical world (Harold Shapero, Milton Babbitt, and Schuller himself) and three coming from a jazz background (George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, and, yes, Charles Mingus).

Milton Babbitt had recently attained an undeserved and unwelcome notoriety when the magazine High Fidelity published an article of his under the provocative title, “Who Cares If You Listen?” (Babbitt’s original title, “The Composer As Specialist,” more accurately reflected his belief that composition was an advanced field of study in much the same way as, say, modern physics.) Babbitt later wrote that “We’re talking about degrees of association through pitch and interval, which are, if you wish, the stimuli. The responses to this would involve nothing more than a capacity to perceive, to remember, to apprehend relationships which are relatively traditional. We assume people can understand pitch and intervallic relationships in any music whatsoever. If not, then Mozart and Brahms would be just as unintelligible…”

Yet Babbitt also had an intense interest in American popular song and musical theatre, which he shared with, among others, his student Stephen Sondheim. Babbitt’s contribution to the Brandeis event, All Set, was scored for a very typical jazz ensemble of the period: trumpet, trombone, alto and tenor saxes, piano, vibraphone, bass, and drums/percussion. (The title, like many of Babbitt’s, is a sly piece of wordplay referring to the all-interval set of pitches that the piece is built upon.) The general layout of All Set contrasts instrumental solos (and even more so, duos) with passages featuring the full ensemble, giving the impression of improvisation even though the work is precisely notated throughout:

While Babbitt took a strong interest in popular music and even wrote a few Broadway-style songs in his early years, it’s unlikely any of them included a lyric like “Fuzzy dice, bongos in the back. My ship of love is ready to attack.”

Concert music in America long was fraught with ambivalence about the comparative merits (not to mention assumptions about lifestyle) of the European classical and the American popular traditions. (When asked what instrument he played, American musical pioneer Charles Ives once responded, “Shortstop!”) Like Ives, Frank Zappa sometimes seemed caught in the the paradox of wanting to be taken seriously while not wanting to be seen as wanting to be taken seriously. Many of Zappa’s recordings (with the Mothers of Invention early on and later with a shifting configuration of musicians depending on the nature of a particular project) put intricate compositions cheek-by-jowl with humorous and often outrageous incursions by popular culture at its weirdest and/or cheesiest, effectively kicking the legs out from under his own self-perceived pretentions.

For example, on the 1969 Mothers album Uncle Meat (originally intended as a soundtrack to a film that was aborted and later salvaged in the 1980s), Zappa followed the main title theme with a belch-accompanied monologue by the redoubtable Suzy Creamcheese—and then segued directly into the abstract “Nine Types of Industrial Pollution.” (Living in Los Angeles, Zappa was only too aware—well before the first Earth Day—of the mayhem we’ve been wreaking on our environment.) The relentlessly goofy first half of “Dog Breath” took a “serious” turn midway through, and, a few tracks later (following up a performance of “Louie Louie” on the Royal Albert Hall organ) carried “Dog Breath” further with an elaborate set of variations on the song’s “big tune”. Years later, for concert performance by a large ensemble, the “Dog Breath Variations” were appended by a similar elaboration of the “Uncle Meat” theme itself. (This, presumably, is the version that will be performed at the NEC concert.)

All this retrospection has an ultimate purpose, both to celebrate the immense contributions of Gunther Schuller and to afford him an opportunity to write a new work for an ensemble very similar to the one he conducted in the Mingus recording. No one is better suited for such an undertaking, and it will fascinating to hear the confluence of all the aforementioned “headwaters” in Schuller’s latest creation.

Note: Watch for a review of this event by Steve Elman in the days to come.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts