There are a billion pieces of music I would have liked to include that aren’t here. No Brubeck, no Benny plays Bartók, no Duke Ellington. But, with the familiarity of that material bordering on the ubiquitous, I thought it was time to draw attention to some lesser known routes into that same jazz-meets-classical-meets-jazz territory; a playlist in 10 YouTube clips that traces the narrative of the article I’ve written for Gramophone’s January issue.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is where the history books tell us that the culture of jazz/classical crossover began and, yes I’m aware that no Gramophone reader needs to have its existence pointed out, but my article was partly promoted by wanting to unpick the Rhapsody’s moving parts – what styles of jazz did Gershwin draw on and how does his piece function as a structure?
One thing’s for sure. The Rhapsody’s popular success made jazz artists like James P Johnson and Duke Ellington sit up and take notice. There were apparently riches to be made by fusing jazz with classical forms. Johnson – the Harlem stride piano guru and composer of The Charleston – hoped that his extended 1927 piece Yamekraw for jazz piano and orchestra might emulate Gershwin’s success, which turned out to be a forlorn hope, but Johnson’s compositional mastery shows Gershwin a thing or two about structure and orchestration.
Leonard Bernstein looms large in my article and discovering footage of Bernstein conducting Larry Austin’s Improvisations for Jazz Soloist and Orchestra with the New York Philharmonic and a starry cast of avant-garde jazz musicians, including trumpeter Don Ellis and saxophonist Eric Dolphy, helped clarify what sort of article it should be. The very idea of Bernstein sharing a stage with Dolphy, then working with John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, is the stuff of fantasy. But listen to the hardcore reality as Bernstein brings the sounds of free jazz to an audience of young people at Lincoln Center in 1964.
All ideas about jazz and composed music, I argue, begin with Jelly Roll Morton, the New Orleans-born pianist and composer and self-anointed ‘inventor of jazz’. Black Bottom Stomp, recorded by Morton’s Red Hot Peppers in 1926, uses a six-piece ensemble and his ear for instrumental colour and register combines with carefully plotted interactions between soloists and ensemble to create a compositionally cast-iron masterpiece.
Morton’s successors as true jazz composers – as opposed to jazz musicians interested in composed beginnings only as vehicles for improvisation – included Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. Monk’s labyrinthine Brilliant Corners is one of his most mind-boggling compositions, requiring musicians to negotiate a leapfrogging, high-velocity melodic line spelt out with melodic intervals seemingly guaranteed to trip them up – and then they must play that same line again at double-tempo before the floor is opened up to improvisation. In 1956, Mingus’s Pitecanthropus Erectus stirred things up by fusing tightly organised compositional material with pockets of harmonically open-ended improvisation.
Ornette Coleman and George Russell are rare beasts – jazz practitioners and theorists whose theories about harmony (Coleman calls his theories ‘Harmolodics’; Russell’s are published as The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization) would likely blow your mind. Coleman’s wind quintet Forms and Sounds was written in 1965 to overcome union restrictions on his entry to the UK as a performing musician. Sidney Fell played clarinet! George Russell’s Concerto for Billy the Kid was written for pianist Bill Evans and puts his harmonic theories into practice: notes spill everywhere but are held together by free-floating harmonic gravity.
And, in 2014, here are two examples of where this tumultuous cross-fertilisation of ideas has left us. Bassist, composer and improviser William Parker, now 52, is New York City’s most progressive jazz thinker: an improvising guru who is also a composer of extended-form pieces rooted in Ellington and Mingus. Meanwhile Jessica Pavone and Mary Halvorson, both in their 30s, represent a new generation of musicians who are rooted in jazz. And composed music. And rock. And folk. And pop. And they’re playing music and no one knows what to call it. And how exciting is that!