Fuse Music Commentary Series: Jazz and the Piano Concerto — A Real Tradition, but of What?

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 steveelman@artsfuse.org.

Saxophonist Johnny Hodges --

Saxophonist Johnny Hodges — jazz master of ethereal magic.

By Steve Elman

When I began this project, I hoped to find some common elements among all or many of the jazz-influenced piano concertos, something that would constitute a tradition. There is such a tradition, but it is harder to define than I thought it would be.

What is a musical tradition, anyway? If you’re looking for a generational thread among JIPCs like the familiar handoffs of mainstream classical music – Mozart learned from Haydn, Beethoven learned from Mozart, Brahms learned from Beethoven, etc. – you will be disappointed. In fact, so many of the JIPCs exist in a musical vacuum that their isolation becomes a kind of tradition in itself. Only the Gershwin Concerto in F and the Ravel Concerto in G had any measurable impact on the concertos that came after. Instead, nearly every JIPC, even if influenced by Gershwin or Ravel, stands as a personal encounter between the composer and jazz as he or she understood it. Even though many of these works qualify as first-class music, there is no indication that subsequent composers even knew that others in the genre existed, much less heard them. Most composers thought of their JIPC as a one-off even within their own works; very few wrote any more than one piano concerto influenced by jazz, and only a handful wrote pieces in other genres influenced by jazz.

So there is no tradition of influence or cross-reference among the composers themselves, even among the composers whose primary identity is as jazz musicians. But if we step away from that lack of continuity, something else begins to manifest itself: call it a tradition of identities.

Taken as a whole, the dozens of JIPCs illuminate the essences of classical music and jazz. This is perfectly logical as soon as it becomes clear that a composer must confront these essential qualities in order to hybridize them. As I listened to each of the pieces and tried to connect with the composer’s intentions, some of these elemental qualities became clear to me for the first time; this process of engagement has changed my view of both classical music and jazz.

Sometimes the best way to learn about the essential nature of your own culture is to leave it behind, to hear what people on the other side of the border, or the mountain range, or the ocean, have to say about what you think you know. I’m a citizen of the Federated States of Jazz, and I’ve carried that passport since I first took a Thelonious Monk LP out of the library in 1964 or so. Even so, I’ve had quite a few adventures in other lands. I’ve toured Electronicania extensively and learned to speak its language fluently. I’ve vacationed in Ragastan and Africapolis and gotten to feel quite comfortable with their non-Western ways of thinking. But my deepest extra-cultural adventures, the ones that have left me with the strongest impressions and the most vivid memories, have been my visits to the Classical Republic, a place of extraordinary variety. It has never been home for me, exactly, but I learned how welcoming and enriching it can be, and I know it well enough now to pass myself off as a guide for those who are only occasional visitors.

For me, classical music has shone new light on jazz. It would be misleading to say that simple dichotomies illuminate every aspect of these two great streams. But I think that defining several of the polarities I’ve observed can be useful in thinking about these separate traditions and the attempts to bring them together.

Jazz is a moving target. It is music of constant evolution and restless appropriation of influences from its musical neighbors. Its innovations have a way of reframing the music that’s gone before – as just one example, I’d offer the way in which Louis Armstrong’s first virtuoso improvisations were viewed by his antecedents (King Oliver disapproved of them as showoffy and he discouraged Armstrong from “figurations”), his peers (Coleman Hawkins’s style smoothed markedly after Armstrong began working alongside him in Fletcher Henderson’s band; together they defined what would come to be understood as “the solo”), and the next generation of players (Miles Davis once said that Armstrong had played everything there was to play on his horn).


Composer Claude Debussy — classical master of ethereal magic.

Classical music creates still lifes. Each composition seizes its cultural moment and preserves it for the understanding of future generations. Examples: there is perhaps no better way to feel the formal, artificial nature of the court of the last kings of France than to hear the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully or that of Francois Couperin. The same can be said of the expression of the raw excitement of the age of European humanism in the music of Beethoven, or the slightly debauched sophistication of twenties New York society and the music of Gershwin.

Each jazz performance invests the present with the past. The performer builds what he or she has to say on what has been said before, on the millions of licks living in his or her head, whether the performance turns out to be emulation or contrast. There is no stigma inventing a new contrafact on the changes of “I Got Rhythm”; in fact, working and reworking the familiar is how the jazz musician arrives at his or her own individuality.

Each classical composition repudiates the past even as it stands upon it. The blank score is always a challenge to make something new and different from what has come before. The classical composer who imitates the harmonic language or the structural forms of Bach or Mozart is “derivative” or “unoriginal.”

In jazz, performers are the central actors, the ones who move the music ahead. Composers codify the past, amalgamate the present, and point to the future. But without sympathetic and brilliant interpreters, what they put on paper is lifeless.

In classical, composers define the territory and set the terms. Performers bring their music to life, and repeated performances are necessary for the proper “seasoning” of a composition. But a performer without a score has nothing to say.

Jazz tends to the fluid. To go beyond the limitations of traditional western harmony, George Russell developed (he would say “discovered”) the Lydian Chromatic Concept, a way of rethinking harmony that he urged each student to personalize. Jazz performers and composers using the Concept have made music in wildly divergent styles without any sense that they are being untrue to it.

Classical tends to the formal. To go beyond the limitations of traditional western harmony, Arnold Schoenberg and his colleagues pioneered serialism, a formal structure of mathematical precision. Among composers using serial techniques, there has been a constant tension about how rigorously the original formulas ought to be followed.

Jazz tries to find the eternal in the momentary. It challenges its listeners to live profoundly in each breath, to share in inspiration as it happens.

Classical seeks to make the moment eternal. It pushes its listeners to go beyond the boundaries of their days and years and connect with the timeless.

I have quite deliberately made these dichotomies stark. The last two are actually arcs of the same circle, as anyone practicing meditation would know. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Johnny Hodges’s interpretation of Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss float in the same suspension of the temporal – although, to demonstrate the dichotomy, no classical composer would try to imitate Debussy and dozens of jazz players have tried to equal Hodges.

The dichotomies illustrate how difficult it is to bring the two streams together convincingly. The two streams represent systems of disciplines that are almost impossible to reconcile. Composers who live and work in the jazz tradition write hybrid works that emphasize the qualities they know; the same is true for composers in the classical tradition.

There is no paradigm for the JIPC composer to follow. The real JIPC tradition is one of continuing adventures by musicians from each stream. For classical composers, JIPCs are flirtations with Ingenuity, Spontaneity, Informality, and Whimsy – qualities jazz is uniquely qualified to bring into the classical concert hall. For jazz composers, they are exercises in Big Thinking and Grand Design – qualities classical music has systematized and perfected.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet will be performing

Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet will be performing the jazz-influenced Ravel Concerto in G at Symphony Hall later this week.

But the tradition of hybrids is there, for anyone who chooses to use it. Our modern media world makes that tradition accessible in hitherto unimaginable ways. Without investing a penny, a twenty-first century composer can immerse himself or herself in these experiments via Spotify and YouTube, learn from them, incorporate what works, eschew what doesn’t, and move the tradition ahead. I hope my work of the past three years assists their efforts.

That work, exploring, enjoying, and codifying jazz-influenced piano concertos, has been filled with personal rewards: I feel as though I’ve made the acquaintance of dozens of creative minds I barely knew before, and gained much more insight into those minds I thought I knew. It has also been humbling: I know there are more composers whose work would enrich my understanding further, people whose names I don’t yet know. And it has been elevating: it has given me hope that there will be new music to take this tradition in new directions and that there will be more composers who will go down this path at least once.

If nothing else, I hope that I’ve given some new perspective to people who go to Symphony Hall to hear Jean-Yves Thibaudet play the Ravel Concerto in G in the coming days.

But the future of this tradition is in the hands and ears of others. I hope that my work will make their composing easier and their listening more satisfying.

Who will compose? Who will listen?

Consider this a heartfelt invitation to try.

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 — Ravel Comes to Boston, Again.

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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