Music Commentary: Jazz and the Piano Concerto — Ave Sine Vale

This post is the last in 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

Thomas Oboe Lee: one of the sunniest characters on the New England scene – with more than 100 accomplished classical works to his credit.

Thomas Oboe Lee: one of the sunniest characters on the New England scene – with more than 100 accomplished classical works to his credit.

By Steve Elman

For three years, I’ve been compiling a chronology of jazz-influenced classical pieces for piano and orchestra and musing on the implications of that tradition. Along the way, I’ve encountered composers I knew only by reputation, composers who were complete unknowns to me, and composers who turned out to be delightful rediscoveries. And, as I worked, the inexorable tick of time took away three of the most eminent of the composers I wrote about – Dave Brubeck, William Thomas McKinley, and in just the past few weeks, Gunther Schuller.

As a way of wrapping up the series, I’d like to tell you about three of these encounters.

In the early 1970s, when I was hosting jazz radio shows on WBUR, I got to know quite a few talented local players and I had the opportunity to host live broadcasts of their performances. One of these musicians was a flutist named Tom Lee – one of the sunniest characters on the scene at the time, a consistently witty improviser who had a knack for composing clever and memorable tunes. A decade later, when I was hosting classical radio shows, he had become Thomas Oboe Lee, classical composer, a founding member of that iconoclastic band known as the Composers in Red Sneakers. His gift of melody was intact, but now it was on display in more organized and varied contexts. I was glad to say I’d known him when.

This year, as I was working towards the conclusion of the JIPC project, I was ashamed to realize that I hadn’t thought to ask Tom Lee whether he’d tried his hand at a piano concerto. Soon enough, we were back in touch and I owned a copy of a CD by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project that contained six of Tom’s concertos, including his “Piano Concerto . . . Mozartiana” (Opus 118) from 2007. It had no specific jazz references, but its insouciance and directness showed a kind of jazz spirit beneath the obvious reverence for the classical concerto and for Mozart specifically. Tom and I subsequently shared a very pleasant afternoon listening to his music; he brought along a stack of privately-recorded CDs so that I could hear some of what he’d been up to, and he left them for me so that I could hear them at my leisure.

I had been missing a lot. Here was a composer I knew, a person I liked, and I had almost no knowledge of more than a hundred pieces he’d written in the twenty-five years between Then and Now. Not that Tom had any need of my help. He won first prize at the Kennedy Center Awards in 1983, snagged the Rome Prize, and won fellowships from Guggenheim and NEA. He’d been commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund, and the Aaron Copland Fund. The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra had played his pieces. And he’d been teaching at Boston College, just a short distance from where I live, since 1990.

Every piece I heard reinforced my sense that I had been appallingly remiss, and that Tom’s music ought to be heard more often in concert halls. His work has vitality. It is immediately approachable. It is beautifully crafted and carefully orchestrated. It has transparency and elegance and grace. Lee occasionally nods to jazz and to Brazilian music, always with respect and understanding. His gift of melody never fails him, and I can almost hear his irrepressible smile in every bar.

Have I persuaded you to listen? Just try out his flute concerto, “Flauta Carioca,” readily hearable on Spotify (where it is misspelled “Flauta Caricoa”). It will take 17 minutes out of your life, tops. And I think you’ll love it.

As Tom told me in our conversation, music just keeps coming to him and he has to write it. But the marketplace has eased him aside as it has so many others. Talent has to have Luck in order to become Fame. While he waits for the business to catch up with him, he’s funding the recordings of his own music, and you can hear fourteen of those on Spotify as well. When you have another quarter-hour to spare, sit down and listen to his piano quintet called “Pq2 ….”

Thomas Oboe Lee turns 70 this year. He’s spent decades now in the great middle ground of art, the space between Promising Young Talent and Eminence Grise. I’m sure he believes, as I do, that his day will come (again). His career path is like that of so many others; he will probably have to live and compose for another five years before he again becomes “newsworthy” to the arts press, along the way getting his primary income from sources other than composing. (I can hear an editor now: “Still composing at 75? My, my, how interesting.”) Will he have to wait longer? That would be a great injustice to him and a loss to all of his potential listeners.

Tom told me that he owes a lot to Gunther Schuller, who inspired him with teaching and advice and influenced his career path. I owe a lot to Schuller as well; in 2011, I wrote an appreciation for the Arts Fuse which describes some of the ways I’m in his debt. Schuller surely does not need another obituary. But his death at 89 leaves a personal gap in my life that I fear will never be filled. A couple of years back, I had a chance conversation with him and told him about the JIPC series I was working on. I noted that he had never written a formal concerto for piano and orchestra that incorporated jazz elements or improvisation, and I wondered what chance there might be for someone to commission such a work. He smiled and said, “Steve, I don’t think I’m going to live long enough to fulfill the commissions I have already.” I said, “Gunther, I hope you live forever.” He was right and I was wrong.

What I admired most about Schuller was his uncompromising confidence. He had vast knowledge, consummate skill, and a deep understanding of music and of the challenges life presents to an artist. He was never afraid to demonstrate those gifts, even when it meant that he ran afoul of the tastemakers.

Tom Lee provided me with a copy of a letter Schuller wrote to him in 1982, and I am humbled by the chance to make some of those words public as a valediction to him and a postscript to some of the issues I’ve raised in earlier installments of this series. Schuller wrote:

“[In regard to making a living as a composer], there is . . . no easy answer or advice – particularly in these difficult times. . . . taking part-time work detracts from one’s primarily creative time and energies . . . My solution was to play the [French] horn but, believe me, playing fifteen years at the Met [Schuller played in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in the 1940s and 1950s] with the unbelievable schedule that an opera orchestra has, it took heroic efforts to find the time to compose . . . There is a philosophic side to this question, which is: who the hell needs or wants our new music? Except for a tiny minuscule minority, we really don’t have an audience and therefore we don’t have a useful function in our society. . . Given the attitudes about music in general and contemporary music in particular as irrelevant and peripheral activities in our society, we composers must learn to face those realities maturely and philosophically . . . The question of the validity of one’s [own] music doesn’t even come into this generally, because the final verdict on a composer’s contribution usually does not come in until well after his death. The history of music is rampant with examples of composers who were overrated and over-praised in their time only to be forgotten later and, the reverse of that, neglected composers finally discovered after their time . . . One final sobering thought: there are between 30,000 and 40,000 composers in the United States alone, not, I hasten to add, counting jazz and pop composers. Nearly 40,000 ‘serious,’ ‘classical’ composers!!! They are all trying to find a place in the sun, all believing that their work is tremendous and worthy of support by the world. But if you think about the fact that in the less than three hundred years since Bach’s time only about fifty composers survive in our staple repertory, then you begin to realize how high the mortality rate, artistically speaking, is amongst composers, and to how few it is given to reach true levels of greatness.”

The last of these encounters occurred solely through a recording.

Camargo Guarnieri: an unsung craftsman whose first Piano Concerto brings Gershwin, Brazilian music and atonality together in a fascinating stew. 

Camargo Guarnieri: an unsung craftsman whose first Piano Concerto brings Gershwin, Brazilian music and atonality together in a fascinating stew.

Camargo Guarnieri (1907 – 1993) is still waiting for that recognition Schuller referred to, more than twenty years after his death, and it seems clear that life’s gone on without him. In his day, he was supposed to be the Brazilian composer who would take up the mantle of Heitor Villa-Lobos, and I never would have thought of him in relation to my survey of jazz-influenced concertos if it hadn’t been for the redoubtable Doug Briscoe, who’s been sleuthing out concertos and bringing new ones to my attention for some months. Briscoe pointed me to Guarnieri’s first piano concerto from 1931, another of the many pieces illuminated by the glow of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F.

Guarnieri’s style went through a number of transformations as he engaged with and came to terms with serialism. Like Schuller, he solved the “problems” of atonality without sacrificing a personal voice or imitating any of his peers. His first piano concerto is an object lesson in what can be done without tonality. No key is ever established, but, even so, it manages to be Gershwin-like and distinctively Brazilian (with a beautiful saudade-ish slow movement) at the same time. In the last movement, there is even an appearance of a cuica, the Brazilian percussion instrument that produces those rhythmic hiccups and groans in samba. Guarnieri has put all these pieces together in a way that sounds sober in any one moment, but somehow leaves you uplifted as a whole. The more I heard his concerto, the more I liked it.

I’d had only the tiniest exposure to Guarnieri’s music before I heard this piece, but the experience of hearing it reminded me of all the other discoveries I’d made in the past three years, how many other delights I’d had in the hearing of “new music” – new to me, anyway. I realized that the research had helped me reawaken the joy of hearing anew, and I hope I never lose that joy again. All of that hearing reminded me of how much more there is to life than routines and schedules, of how much we need art to refresh our souls.

Thomas Oboe Lee and Gunther Schuller and Camargo Guarnieri. I know more about Tom Lee personally than I do about any single one of his works, but I got to know his “Piano Concerto . . . Mozartiana” pretty well, and it gave me a lot of pleasure. I came to Gunther Schuller’s music long before I made his acquaintance, and knowing the man enriched the experience of hearing his work, including the only one of his pieces that comes close to being included in the chronology of JIPCs, his Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra from 1959. I now know more about Guarnieri’s first Piano Concerto than I do about his life or personality or the rest of his music, but that one work provided yet another distinctive take on the way jazz can find its way into the concert hall.

A symphony programmer could do worse than to put the Lee and Guarnieri concertos together on the same night to see what they have to say to each other. Because of Lee’s debt to Schuller and the ways in which Guarnieri and Schuller developed personal takes on atonality, this unknown programmer might put in one of Schuller’s orchestral works as well. But I dream.

In modern life, many seek “authenticity” (whatever that is) in experiences outside their normal lives. They may not understand that these works and many of the other concertos I discovered and enjoyed provided me with experiences I consider just as authentic, genuine engagements with creative spirits. I think that any one of the best JIPCs can provide a similar kind of authentic experience to anyone who gives it attention and respect.

Gunther Schuller: an inspiration to younger composers and a passionate advocate for art – one of the few to reach “true levels of greatness.”

Gunther Schuller: an inspiration to younger composers and a passionate advocate for art – one of the few to reach “true levels of greatness.”

I am not saying that an encounter with a musical work allows the listener to “know” an artist. No one should mistake engagement with an artwork as a kind of communing with another soul. However, the process of listening (with both ears, please) is a kind of communication – you might think of it as a gift in which the giver hopes the recipient will find value. And even though the artist rarely hears the kind of feedback that reflects what his or her audience actually experiences, the internal, unspoken response of the listener or the viewer represents a vital part of the creative equation. Art must have audience to be art.

The great mistake we make as listeners or viewers is passivity. Music deserves and needs our active involvement. At the very minimum, it deserves the act of undistracted listening. On the next level, it deserves our financial support in the purchase of CDs or downloads of the music we really care about, or our direct support of artists through their websites. At the next level, it deserves our presence in concert halls – not just as a visceral pleasure, but as the most authentic kind of musical experience and as an investment in our own culture. At every level, it deserves our philanthropy – everything from our contributions to worthy crowdfunding projects to our annual gifts to our favored orchestra or musical institution to our donations to a groundbreaking center for music like SF Jazz in San Francisco or (following Paul Allen’s example with the Experience Music Project in Seattle) the founding of new institutions to help the understanding and appreciation of music. When Schuller wrote the words I quoted above, there was no world of new media. The instant communication of the 21st century permits us to engage with new music with unprecedented freedom; it also confronts us with the opportunity to support artists in a spirit of unfettered community. In short, we should embrace the obligation implicit in every musical experience using every tool available to us. Composers and performers give. We must give back.

In the past weeks, Bostonians have learned that Conventures, Inc., the new producers of First Night, have tentatively decided to forego free musical performances when 2016 rings in. We have also learned that Ted Cutler’s Outside the Box festival will begin on July 14 with a new environmental music work by John Luther Adams that anyone will be able to hear without paying. And the front page of the Boston Globe announced the possibility that Berklee and the Boston Conservatory might join forces, creating new avenues for musical conversation and collaboration. One hand takes away, but other hands give.

None of these developments ought to inspire passive acceptance. They ought to inspire action – whether it’s getting out on the street on December 31 to support what music there may be, or going to hear John Luther Adams’s new piece, or getting to the Berklee Performance Center and the new Boston Conservatory venues to hear what’s happening as it happens.

Those who love music must engage. Who cares? Do you?

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.

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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