Music Commentary Series: Jazz and the Piano Concerto — French Threads

This post is part of a multi-part Arts Fuse series examining the traditions and realities of classical piano concertos influenced by jazz. The articles are bookended by Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts: the first features one of the first classical pieces directly influenced by jazz, Darius Milhaud’s Creation of the World (February 19 – 21); the second has pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performing one of the core works in this repertoire, Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G (April 23 – 28). Steve Elman’s chronology of jazz-influenced piano concertos (JIPCs) can be found here. His essays on this topic are posted on his author page. Elman welcomes your comments and suggestions at

Arthur Honegger -- his "Concertino" does a lot with a little, and takes jazz along for the ride

Arthur Honegger — his “Concertino” does a lot with a little, and takes jazz along for the ride.

By Steve Elman

The first JIPCs were not written in the US, and they precede Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by at least a year. By the time Gershwin wrote his Concerto in F, French composers had been incorporating jazz elements into their work for at least two years, and the trend continued among French composers and composers influenced by them for thirty more.

Why France? The French JIPC is part of a long, intense conversation between our cultures that has persisted for centuries – the Marquis de Lafayette leading troops in the American revolution; Benjamin Franklin’s nine-year tenure as ambassador to France; French neutrality during the US Civil War; US neutrality in World War I from 1914 – 1917; La Liberté, holding her torch above New York Harbor; An American in Paris, with its indelible auto-horn imitations; French restaurants, the “fine dining” paradigm in the US for more than five decades; 1200 McDonald’s in France since 1972; “Nous sommes tous Américains [We are all Americans]” (editorial headline from Le Monde, 9/13/2001); “Je suis Charlie” rallies in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, etc., 2015; EuroDisney; French fries; Freedom Fries; French kisses.

One still hears that Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde, Op. 81a (written in 1923), is the first classical work to incorporate jazz elements. Création isn’t anything like a piano concerto, so it’s marginal to the discussion here. It’s the score for an African-themed ballet choreographed by Jean Cocteau, and uses just 17 instruments. The piano is one solo voice among many, equal in stature to the saxophone, the clarinet, the trumpet, the oboe, the violin, and the flute.

But the claim of “first to use jazz” is certainly not true; jazzy piano pieces by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff and even Schulhoff’s piano concerto preceded Création. Milhaud has overshadowed Schulhoff because Paris had the best vibe and the best press agent. He was part of cultural Big Town; he probably never heard of Schulhoff, and it’s likely that he wouldn’t have cared about the Czech’s work if he had.

When Milhaud was writing Création, Paris was a bubbling cultural potage, and the scene there had far more important players and far more impact than the activities in a relative backwater like Prague. Paris was home to Picasso, Miró, Dalí, Stravinsky, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Josephine Baker, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Cocteau … Paris was the distinctively French counterpart to New York, where the cultural mavens approved of the vibrancy of Manhattan, but sought to refine it. New York and Paris both respected innovation, but Paris demanded that the new have a certain style.

Into the midst of the action came a group that was dubbed Les Six by Jean Cocteau. It was a gang of like-minded young composers who hung out at bars like Le Boeuf sur le Toit, where they listened and danced to novelty rags and hot tunes played by duo-pianists Jean Wiéner and Clément Doucet. Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Arthur Honegger are the best known members of the group today, but they all enjoyed the sizzling music, and their successful socializing (and self-marketing) had a disproportional impact on music to come. Just as Gershwin captured and froze the spirit of the twenties in New York, Les Six and their friends did the same for Paris.

Francis Poulenc - two of his concertos have soupçons of jazz.

Francis Poulenc – two of his concertos have soupçons of jazz.

Right on the heels of Milhaud’s Création arrived Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano & Wind Instruments (1923 – 24), a fascinating and innovative piece, but again, less central to this discussion. It’s not exactly jazz-inflected, but the piece would be much different without the jazz trappings that lurk just behind some of the music.

It was one of Milhaud’s acquaintances, that bar pianist Jean Wiéner (whose name is also spelled “Wiener,” without the accent), who takes cordon bleu for the first French JIPC. A couple of Wiéner’s piano duets with Clément Doucet are available on YouTube they provide ample proof that Wiéner knew how to play with a pulse. (Check out their arrangement of Walter Donaldson’s “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” from 1927.) His Franco-Américain Piano Concerto (probably 1924) is contemporary with Création; it might even have preceded it. This JIPC is one of the best-humored pieces of the time, much more sophisticated than you’d expect from a guy making his living in gin mills. Woefully neglected, delightful in every way, the composition shows the imprint of early jazz in every movement.

Arthur Honegger probably knew Wiéner’s work, as well as Stravinsky’s Concerto. His Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1924) is only eleven minutes long but it packs a lot of punch. Its third movement has a lot to recommend it from a JIPC point of view – muted brass, a moment of “walking bass,” and even a hint of the “crime jazz” to come in the 1940s.

In the wake of these early JIPCs comes Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G (1929 – 31), which premiered in Paris three years after Honegger’s Concertino. It is literally a step up from Gershwin’s Concerto in F and represents a distinctly French reply to the earlier composition. Its craft and verve have made Ravel’s Concerto one of the most popular pieces in concert halls all over the world.

But the French thread doesn’t end there, and it spools along in surprising ways.

As Ravel was writing his concerto, English composer Constant Lambert was crafting a chamber concerto that’s more than a little French, and he got his piece to a London concert hall a couple of months before Ravel premiered his in Paris. Lambert’s Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments (1931) might as well be Parisian – it has French titles for each movement, quotes Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, and shows the influence of Stravinsky’s Concerto. Is there jazz? Mais oui, and quite a bit of it, plus blues and several dashes of Gershwin as well.

In 1932, one year after Ravel’s concerto, comes Jean Françaix’s Concertino [for Piano and Orchestra], a neo-classical miniature, on the same scale as Honegger’s, with ragtime and jazz just beneath the surface, and a good deal of Gershwin once again.

Also in 1932, one of Les Six, Francis Poulenc, wrote his Concerto in d minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which is marginally related to jazz. He came back to the territory in 1949, 17 years later, with a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with just as much iconoclasm and humor as pieces written in the twenties by his contemporaries, but again, just barely jazz-influenced.

Juriaan Andriessen: honorary French composer, from the Netherlands

Jurriaan Andriessen: honorary French composer, from the Netherlands.

In 1938, a young Japanese composer named Hisato Ohzawa arrived in Paris, fresh from studies at the New England Conservatory and Boston University. He played the first performance of his Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Salle Gaveau in 1935, and it draws on the same spirit as its French ancestors, using a number of direct jazz influences. By the 1950s, Ohzawa left classical composition behind for big-band jazz and film music in his home country.

Twelve years after Ohzawa, a Dutch composer named Jurriaan Andriessen came to Paris to study with Olivier Messaien, where he wrote his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1947-48), again significantly flavored with jazz and almost a direct hommage to Ravel. This work builds on the spirit of the twenties, adding more contemporary colors, notably the music of Bartók. It marks a shift from its jazz-influenced French predecessors, and might be seen as the first of the “modern European” jazz-influenced concertos, in which jazz is no longer included for its surprise value, or its humor, or as ironic comment, or as nostalgia. In Andriessen’s work and in many pieces that followed from others in Europe, jazz came to be recognized as part of a broad palette of modern colors to be used at will. Shortly after the concerto’s premiere, Andriessen left Paris to study at Tanglewood. After returning to the Netherlands, he had a successful career as resident composer for the National Theater in the Netherlands, peaking in his providing the music for the wedding and coronation of Queen Beatrix in 1980.

In 1951, Ned Rorem, who said that Ravel and Debussy changed his life when he first heard their music as a ten-year-old, produced his Piano Concerto No. 2 while in Fez, Morocco – on hiatus from his residence at the time in Paris. Like so much of his work, the concerto is sui generis, with Ravel and Gershwin standing in the wings, and a slight flavor of twenties jazz.

Twenty years later, long after composers had stopped remembering twenties Paris with affection or longing, a melancholy postscript was provided from one who was there. At 74, Jean Wiéner wrote and then recorded his second piano concerto, entitled Concerto pour orchestre et piano principal (1970). It is hard not to read into it a wistful look back at his salad days. It has some tiny feints at the rhythms of novelty-rag and stride piano, some clever twists of harmony, a couple of lovely melancholic themes, and some jokes and surprises à la Milhaud and Poulenc. But both the first and last movements come to sudden, almost brutal, stops, like the slamming of the doors of time.

More: To help you explore compositions mentioned above as easily as possible, my full chronology of JIPCs contains detailed information on recordings of these works, including CDs, Spotify access and YouTube links.

Next in the Jazz and Piano Concerto Series — Mavericks

Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.

He is the co-author of Burning Up the Air (Commonwealth Editions, 2008), which chronicles the first fifty years of talk radio through the life of talk-show pioneer Jerry Williams. He is a former member of the board of directors of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

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