Music Commentary Series: Jazz and the Piano Concerto — Mavericks, 1960 – 2004

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

Malcolm Williamson: Australian composer who reveled in bold shifts of harmony and seasoned four of his piano concertos with jazz.

Malcolm Williamson: Australian composer who reveled in bold shifts of harmony and seasoned four of his piano concertos with jazz.

By Steve Elman

This post continues my look at composers who followed their own distinctive paths when they incorporated jazz into their piano concertos.

This final group of mavericks includes five composers who are as different from one another as they are from the “mainstream” composers in the last years of the twentieth century. The sixth, John Adams, began his career identified as one of the three great minimalists, with Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and then struck out into new territory which has made him one of the most appreciated composers of the twenty-first.

Malcolm Williamson was an Australian composer who spent most of his working life in England. He seemed to revel in sudden turns and bold shifts of harmony – qualities that some listeners love and others hate. In his early pieces, notably his first piano concerto, he seems to be following a neo-classical path, but he soon changed course, smashing atonal music and tonal music together with abandon, and freely incorporating non-classical influences when he thought they were useful. Three of his piano concertos, and his two-piano concerto, use jazz in various ways. His Piano Concerto No. 2 in f-sharp minor (1960) is perhaps the least innovative and easiest to approach harmonically. The first movement has some raggy rhythms, and the third has a distinct jazz feel.

In Williamson’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in E-flat (1962), the jazz influences are marginal until the last movement, when the piece turns upside down for a wild melding of Stravinsky and Gershwin with a near-big-band conclusion. This is the first of his piano concertos to show off the stark contrasts that mark his mature style.

Between his third and fourth concertos, Williamson wrote a Concerto [in a minor] for Two Pianos and String Orchestra (1971), seemingly under the spell of Bartok, but with some notable jazz touches. Others also hear the influences of Stravinsky, Sibelius, Gershwin, Bernstein, and even Richard Rodgers. The third movement shows some serious syncopation, but jazz’s greatest influence is in the first movement. Its harmonic language is uncompromisingly atonal, but the spirit and energy of the rhythm makes that dissidence easier to take. The pianos set up a jazzy arpeggiation as one of the first motifs, and this propulsion continues until the last minute of the movement, sometimes strongly driven by clusters from the pianos, sometimes just pushed by the strings. There are moments that suggest what Cecil Taylor might have sounded like if he had ever made a record with strings.

In my opinion, Williamson’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in D (1993 – 94) is his best JIPC, and one of the most effective maverick pieces here. The first and last movement feature jazz touches – raggy rhythms in the piano and some moments of semi-swing that lighten the texture. In the first, there is an explicitly jazzy passage led by alto saxophone. But these are part of a many-colored collage – staccato atonal blasts, completely tonal sections that sound like modernized Vaughan Williams, a central movement with a big Rachmaninoff-style romantic conclusion, and, in the third movement, a near-quote of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.


Paul Schoenfield: “I don’t consider myself an art-music composer at all” – a liberal importer of non-classical influences.

Paul Schoenfield‘s own words show how much of a maverick he is: “I don’t consider myself an art-music composer at all. The reason my works sometimes find their way into concert halls is . . . there aren’t many folk music performers with enough technique, time or desire to perform my music.” His Four Parables for Piano and Orchestra (1982 – 83) hardly qualifies as a JIPC because it is so different in its intentions and form from the traditional piano concerto. On the one hand, the piece is programmatic, (that is, each movement corresponds to a particular story or incident that had a strong meaning for the composer), and it puts the piano in an unconventional role, cooperating with the orchestra in a joint adventure rather than contesting or conversing with it. On the other, Four Parables comes close to the fast-slow-fast form, with the addition of a second movement containing a variety of tempi. None of these points should be interpreted as negatives: the more comfortable you become with Schoenfield’s esthetic, the more worthwhile the piece becomes.

There are jazz influences a-plenty here and, despite the composition’s variety of inspirations, these influences give it an interesting coherence. Each movement has a section or sections in which walking bass and traps are explicitly used, and there are many moments where a swing feel or a syncopated fillip accent the music. I hear New Orleans in Four Parables again and again – not the nostalgic New Orleans of Spanish moss and juleps, but the musically polyglot New Orleans, where blues and ragtime and parlor piano and cakewalk and country and Cajun and brass bands and every genre of jazz coexist and cross-feed. The last movement is perhaps the most explicitly jazz-influenced, with piano figures that suggest Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys” (1921), tuba effects that underline the brass much in the style of early swing bands, an almost note-for-note quote from James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout” (1923), some rude trombone slides in the finale, and the presence of obvious Gershwinisms.

William Thomas McKinley was a working jazz pianist before he began devoting himself full-time to classical composition, so he knew both sides of the street particularly well. Although his life and work were well documented by Jeffrey S. Sposato in a comprehensive bio-bibliography published in 1994, there are another twenty years of work and life which deserve to be discussed fully. I have not been able to locate a complete list of his compositions on-line, and have not heard his first two piano concertos. His Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 (1994) is perhaps his most explicit attempt to bring jazz influences into a piano concerto. Each of the four movements has a title that points to jazz, and each one of those titles characterizes its music effectively: “Blues,” “Ragtime,” “Slow Blues March,” and “Struttin’.” However, the descriptions should not be taken to mean that the piece veers into non-classical territory. The listener should expect a sophisticated classical concerto, not a jazz work with orchestral trimmings. In my view, this is a deeply satisfying piece that repays many listenings.

McKinley’s Concerto in Two Movements, for Piano and Orchestra (1999?) is clearly a piece that comes from a composer with a jazz sensibility, but it seems to me that it is primarily a tribute to Leonard Bernstein.

Israeli composer Avner Dorman is perhaps the most approachable of the mavericks. His Piano Concerto in A is honest in its appreciation for jazz, and straightforward in the accomplishment of its goals: blending jazz and baroque music into a sensible whole. The concerto is written for piano and string orchestra, and it’s one of a series in which he uses baroque stylistic elements with obvious affection. Dorman says the piece is dedicated to Vivaldi, but it also alludes to jazz, “Nina Simone, The Police, The Cure, Stravinsky, and, of course, to Bach.” The first and third movements are very energetic; a listener can feel the pulse sliding towards a jazz vibration without the connection ever becoming explicit. The use of a near-walking bass in passages of the last movement brings the music as close to outright jazz as it gets, but the vigor and abandon of the entire piece are jazzy in spirit if not in letter. From beginning to end, it radiates an open-hearted and genial energy.

John Adams has never made a secret of his interest in jazz. His Century Rolls [for Piano and Orchestra] (1996? – 1999) was the result of a commission by Emmanuel Ax for a piano concerto. Ax received a glittering machine, much like a traditional concerto in its form, though here the piano serves as one of the major rotors. The title puns on the genre of player-piano music, manufactured on paper rolls during the early part of the 20th century. Each of the movements also has an ironic title. Adams says that “Hail Bop,” the title of the third movement, comes from his mishearing of a conversation in 1997 about the Hale-Bopp comet, and it’s the kind of mishearing that only a jazz fan could truly appreciate. The propulsion in the first movement is infectious, but not syncopated. There’s no jazz feeling – or it’s all jazz feeling, depending on how you read it. Movement III provides Gershwin-like syncopation that morphs quickly into an hommage to Conlon Nancarrow that works surprisingly well.

Yehudi Wyner: the first composer to win a Pulitzer for a jazz-influenced piano concerto.

Yehudi Wyner: the first composer to win a Pulitzer for a jazz-influenced piano concerto.

Perhaps it’s appropriate to conclude the survey of mavericks with Yehudi Wyner. His Piano Concerto, “Chiavi in Mano” (2004) is the first JIPC to win the Pulitzer Prize. It is tightly and ingeniously constructed, unfolding in a single movement which might be divided into seven sections – fast-slow-fast-slow-fast-slow-fast. It relies on a staccato pulse for the basic rhythm, which ebbs and flows and eventually turns into boogie-woogie at the conclusion. There is a constant flow of conversation among the orchestral sections and the piano with the orchestral colors shifting mercurially. It makes for a thrilling ride.

To note just a few highlights from the beginning, middle, and end of the piece: after a meditative piano introduction, high reeds, flute-led, present a bright, lively staccato figure which establishes the rhythmic backbone of the piece. In the fifth section, about twelve and a half minutes into the piece, low reeds and brass introduce a boogie-woogie figure; the piano quickly joins them and almost immediately transforms the boogie back into the basic staccato rhythm. In the work’s last two minutes, the piano brings back the boogie-woogie figure with percussion accents, supported by strings at first, and then with gradually thickening orchestration. The brass picks up the piano’s left-hand figures, there is a swell, and then the boogie gradually slows down. The staccato rhythm comes back in the piano with strings sounding underneath. High reeds and piano comment briefly, there is a brief brass flourish with piano, and the piece ends.

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 — Revisiting the Jazz Side

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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