Music Commentary Series: Jazz and the Piano Concerto — The Zebra in the Room

This post is part of a multi-part Arts Fuse series examining the traditions and realities of classical piano concertos influenced by jazz. 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


By Steve Elman

Can art heal?

Did Beethoven’s ninth symphony advance universal brotherhood? Did Émile Zola’s “J’accuse” end anti-Semitism in France? Did D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance lessen cultural prejudice in the US? Did Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” dethrone any Deep South governors in the sixties? Did John Lennon and Yoko Ono move world leaders to give peace a chance? Did August Wilson’s cycle of plays generate cross-cultural dialogue in Pittsburgh or anywhere else in America? Did David Simon’s The Wire prompt better relations between Baltimore’s police officers and the city’s underclass?

If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” it has to be a very qualified “Yes.” The answers to some of them might be “Maybe indirectly.” And, for some of them, the answer is simply “No.”

As this series discussing jazz-related piano concertos comes to a close, there is absolutely no point in my broadening focus to comment on the cultural strife in the US that has returned to a boil over the past months. Too much has already been written and said on this topic, most of it fatuous and uninformed. But my discussion cannot be rounded properly without some observations on the ways in which African-Americans and Americans who do not share their heritage engage or fail to engage in this very narrow field I’ve chosen to explore.

When I started this project, I foolishly thought that the jazz-influenced piano concerto would provide some insight about cultural communication, and possibly demonstrate how some artists had found ways to extend a hand across the cultural divide. I found that JIPCs fall on a spectrum ranging from a fastidious cherrypicking of musical tidbits from various cultural streams to a committed confluence of those streams. But out of all of them, I found only one work that even made an attempt to bridge the gap between people descended from American slaves and everyone else in US society. Only Duke Ellington’s “New World A-Coming” actually addresses the healing of cultural wounds – and with the passage of time, the optimism of Ellington’s work has come to seem more and more sadly naïve.

Nonetheless, the history of the JIPC offers a lot of cultural illumination, if you know where to look.

Just 117 years separate 2015 from 1898, the year that George W. Johnson recorded “The Laughing Coon,” the first hit record by an African-American. Blackface minstrel shows were a staple of US stages in the late 1800s, and they didn’t die out completely until the 1920s (In fact, the term “minstrel show” is still alive in America, notably in Boston’s own Brighton neighborhood, although that 112-year old tradition is now a harmless community revue). D. W. Griffith made the Ku Klux Klan heroes in his 1915 film Birth of a Nation. Al Jolson sang in blackface in a hit movie (The Jazz Singer) in 1927.

The few precursors of the JIPC reflect the cultural caricatures of their times; for example, John Powell, a white supremacist, wrote his “Rhapsodie Nègre” for piano and orchestra in 1917, and there is no attempt in the work to portray African-American culture as anything other than a primitive curiosity.

As I’ve noted earlier, George Gershwin pioneered the use of African-American influences in his works (“Rhapsody in Blue” comes from 1924), but Gershwin and the composers influenced by him in the US and elsewhere deliberately extracted the exotic and novel elements of early jazz and used them for color (pun intended). Arthur Benjamin, who premiered Gershwin’s Concerto in F in England in 1926 and wrote his own Gershwin-influenced piano concerto in 1927, separated what he was trying to do from the “nauseating noises and the blatant rhythmic devices which are the unpleasant side of modern jazz music.”

English composer Constant Lambert, whose “Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments” (1931) shows notable jazz influences, demonstrated that African-American culture had taken a tiny step up by 1934, when he wrote, “Though popularly regarded as being a barbaric art, it is to its sophistication that jazz owes its real force. It is the first dance music to bridge the gap between highbrow and lowbrow successfully.” Lambert’s concerto and Morton Gould’s “Chorale and Fugue in Jazz” (1934) may be the first classical works for piano and orchestra to use African-American cultural influences without irony, but those influences are purely musical. The composers who matured in the 1930s appear to have set aside the social aspects of the African-American cultural revolution of the 1920s; perhaps they considered those aspects passé or old-fashioned, but, in effect, they washed the color out of the music they chose to appropriate.


In 1955, Dana Suesse became the first composer to put distinctive elements of African-American musical culture – walking bass and the trap kit – into a classical piano concerto.

In 1955, Dana Suesse became the first composer to put distinctive elements of African-American musical culture – walking bass and the trap kit – into a classical piano concerto. Her “Concerto in Rhythm” reflected another small shift in perception among classical composers, another step towards acceptance of jazz forms as standard tools in the concert hall. Nonetheless, this growing engagement with jazz proceeded in formal rather than cultural terms, from that time to the present.

There have been a few notable exceptions to this trend. Among the most important, despite the fact that not one of them is a true piano concerto, are the Third Stream works by Gunther Schuller, which shine with a special glow as our appreciation for the composer grows year by year, and his respect and love for jazz come to seem ever more prophetic.

Another set of exceptions are pieces by four Soviet-era composers who may have ostensibly saluted jazz as American “proletarian” music while slyly admiring it as part of American (read: anti-Soviet) culture. Nikolai Kapustin was the first to wade into these waters in 1957, at the Sixth International Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow, when he was around 20. Works with a similarly complex relationship to jazz followed from Boris Tishchenko (1962), Rodion Shchedrin (1966), and Zinovy Binkin (1974), along with more from Kapustin himself.

Two more exceptions are worth noting: Paul Schoenfield’s “Four Parables for Piano and Orchestra” (1982 – 83), where the last movement portrays (according to pianist Andrew Russo) “a jazz club in ‘Dog Heaven,’” and John Adams’s “Century Rolls” (1996? – 1999), which shows the composer’s understanding of jazz as a cultural as well as a musical phenomenon.

But, for the most part, classical composers from the mid-1950s to the present who have written JIPCs have followed a familiar path. Their works engage with jazz in ways that show greater and greater appreciation for its forms and varieties, but they leave out the African-Americanness.

The dashikis, Black Nationalism, and open improvisation of the jazz avant-garde in the late 1960s and 1970s had no perceptible impact on the JIPC, but that period marked another kind of change: ambitious jazz composers began to make serious long-form statements for piano and orchestra that stand toe-to-toe with compositions by contemporary classical composers. In chronological order, they are David Amram’s Triple Concerto (1970), George Russell’s “Living Time” (1972), and works by David Baker (especially his Concerto for Two Pianos, Jazz Band, Strings and Percussion from 1976), all of which set the stage for piano concertos by Chick Corea (1983 and 2006), Michel Camilo (1998 and 2011), and a second concerto by Amram (2009).

The last significant JIPCs from “pure classical” composers are Yehudi Wyner’s “Chiavi in Mano” from 2004 and David Rakowski’s piano concerto from 2005 – 2006. Every one of the notable JIPCs from the mid-2000s to the present comes from a composer with at least one foot in the jazz tradition: Corea, Camilo, Iiro Rantala, Brent Edstrom, Thomas Oboe Lee, Donal Fox, Jussi Lampela, and Nadia Charmaine Burgess. Their JIPCs have one thing in common: they all accept jazz as a given in the world of what used to be called “serious music.”

Much more work could be done fertilizing the fields of cross-cultural music, sowing seeds collected from the great touchstones of American culture – innovation, integration, risk, reward – and harvesting the unpredictable crops that could result.

This overview cannot reflect the richness of the tradition of JIPCs, or the striking personalities of the individual works in that tradition. To reiterate things I’ve said before: almost all of the JIPCs I surveyed offer very satisfying and approachable music that rewards repeated listening. The fact that few of these works have received multiple performances deprives them of the audiences they deserve and the depth that comes from frequent reinterpretation. When we consider that these works are conversations between African-American culture and the dominant culture around it, and that those conversations offer opportunities for understanding and learning, this neglect is deplorable.

Is the neglect because of the cultural friction we shorthand as “racism,” or is it because art music in all its forms is losing whatever grip it used to have on popular consciousness, or is it because self-absorption is a natural human tendency and contemporary technology is simply making it easier than ever to be self-absorbed?

Art is a tool that helps pry an individual away from his or her mass identity. As we engage more deeply with an artist’s work, we engage with that artist as an individual rather than as “an African-American composer” or “a Mexican muralist” or a “downtown choreographer” or a “transgender performance artist.” Conversely, the same tool, the same act of engagement, helps us pry ourselves away from our own self-imposed identity and helps us grow. When we leave such a tool unused, we diminish our humanity.

In February 2015, in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, FBI Director James Comey said, “It’s hard to hate up close.” Somehow, we manage to do it anyway.

Can art heal? Can we afford to let it rust away in the toolbox unused?

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 , a tentative conclusion to the Jazz and the Piano Concerto series: Coda without Finale

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.

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