Late to the Party: Jazz Meets Classical

Note: As a lifelong collector and listener, I’m always reaching backwards into the past to find more music to love. This article in the series moves forward in time from the beginnings of jazz over 100 years ago to present day, seeking out whatever European roots are entwined with the non-white sources of that great American art form, jazz music.

My mom took a Music Appreciation class in high school that not only changed her life, but subsequently mine as well. I may have inherited my musician’s ear from my talented father, but it was my mother who passed along to me her love of classical music. Among the many treasures I now have around me are the records each of my parents collected when they were young, my father’s heavy on cool jazz (Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton), and my mother’s a sampling of the great orchestral, chamber, and solo works of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. Either directly or by osmosis, I received the rare gift of great music as a child, jazz, classical, and more. And in my case, the effect was profound. 

Our family record player did get a lot of use and I was also dragged downtown to every installment of the Young Person’s Concert series of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, as well as Disney’s Fantasia. The rest of my education in “serious” music was filled in via piano lessons and Bugs Bunny cartoons, but by that time, I was already conversant in the vocabulary of classical melodies, orchestral colors and musical themes. So thanks, Mom. At the same time (late 60s, early 70s), live music was still a common feature of fine dining and in a great jazz city like Detroit, that meant occasionally on birthdays and special occasions being exposed to world class jazz pianists playing their night gig (Matt Michaels, Alex Kaleo, among others). I still remember leaning over to my Dad to have him identify songs I liked (I remember that “On Green Dolphin Street” was fascinating to me as a kid).

I don’t know that I would have developed into the appreciator of music that I am without the influence of my parents and the music I heard when I was little. I’m not big on counterfactuals. While I grew up to be a bigger fan of jazz, I still have an appreciation and love for classical music of all classifications (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, etc.). And with a lot of music, the crossover is where I think things get interesting. 

I’ve lately been on the hunt for those intersections between the two genres. Along the way, I’ve developed some new musical fetishes (among them, old Lee Konitz albums, Gunther Schuller’s “Third Stream” compositions, and more recent explorations by pianist Uri Caine). But as always, I’m late to the party, sifting through record bins and the digital recesses of the internet, finding past treasures along the way to thrill to in the ever-shifting present.

“Jazz Meets Classical”

Or, listen to the “Jazz Meets Classical” playlist in Apple Music

You’d think that there would be this enormous tension between white, European Classical music and jazz, which is deeply rooted in non-white sources but that’s just not the case. Countless jazz greats have had some classical training if not deep interest in classical music at some point in their lives, the impact of which is manifested in their art in various ways. 

The great harmonic jazz pioneer of the 1930s, Art Tatum who was schooled and fluent in classical piano derived much of his innovation with extended jazz chords from the Late Romantic era composers of Europe (leading directly to Charlie Parker’s expanded harmonic language –  Parker’s first job in New York was a three-month stint as dishwasher in the restaurant where Tatum played). In the early 40s, Duke Ellington devoted enormous energy to writing his jazz symphony, Black, Brown, and Beige. Oscar Peterson’s classical training is the foundation of his art at the piano. The Miles Davis large ensemble masterpiece collaborations with jazz arranger/orchestrator Gil Evans owe much to the sound and concepts explored in modern Classical music, and the influential post-bop colorist pianist Bill Evans’ ties to Debussy are well known. In fact, the modernist influence of Debussy can be heard throughout the modal jazz heard on Kind of Blue (the Miles album with Bill Evans on piano) and the modern jazz that followed. Miles himself was a classical trumpet major at Juilliard. Ron Carter majored in classical bass at Eastman. Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett both possess wonderful classical technique and have both released performances of classical works (detailed in the linked articles), as has Wynton Marsalis. Classical training is even part of the core requirement for a degree in most jazz programs today. Whatever distance exists between jazz and classical is easily bridged and there’s a lot of fun and great music to be had in the process.

Gershwin, “Rhapsody In Blue” (Leonard Bernstein piano/conductor, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, 1976)

The prototype for the jazz-classical genre bender is that cultural sponge and genius hybridizer, George Gershwin. The young American songwriter had already hit his stride by the mid-1920s churning out standard after standard for what would become known as the Great American Songbook when in 1924, he also composed the infamous groundbreaking concert work for piano and orchestra, Rhapsody in Blue. Unlike Richard Rogers and Jerome Kern who objected to jazz interpretations of their songs, Gershwin intentionally infused the blues in the most unlikely places (for instance, the bluesy melody of “Just one look at you/my heart grew tipsy in me” embedded in the otherwise stately “Embraceable You”). Despite his own fair complexion and Jewish background, Gershwin was hooked into Black American culture and deeply enamored of their music, an artistic affinity that eventually led to Porgy and Bess, his jazz opera introduced in 1935. It’s an anomaly of that nascent, transitional era that the jazz standards of the Great American Songbook were mostly written by uptight scolds that had the ear for the harmonic basis of jazz but lacked the requisite body parts that allowed them to swing. Among his songwriting peers, only Harold Arlen was similarly steeped in blues and jazz.

Gershwin’s adventurous ear also was fascinated by the new colors and textures he heard in the contemporary world of classical music, an interest that led him to live briefly in Paris where he met with Maurice Ravel among other composers and where he would write his ballet, An American In Paris (which ended up sounding more like jazz-inflected Prokofiev than anything particularly French). Along with the large-scale jazz crossover works (Concerto in F among them), Gershwin wrote three piano Preludes, a form favored by Debussy and Ravel. It’s a thrill to hear Gershwin’s concert works performed with enthusiasm and understanding (Leonard Bernstein’s mid-70s versions are exemplary), but to hear the piano Preludes in miniature can be even more moving, if you’re in the mood, especially Prelude #2:

Gershwin, “Prelude #2” (Eric Jones, piano)

Similarly entranced by the French Impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel was Duke Ellington, whose Creole Rhapsody is said to be influenced by Gershwin. In fact, Duke periodically rearranged Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for his various jazz bands through the 1920s and 30s, and would compose similarly symphonic scale works through most of his career. Ravel himself had an ear for jazz. On his successful concertizing tour of America in 1928, Gershwin took him to hear jazz in Harlem and New Orleans and overt jazz elements can be heard in Ravel’s later works, especially his Piano Concerto in G, written between 1929-1931:

Ravel, Piano Concerto in G, 1st movement (Philharmonia Orchestra, Arturo Bendetti Michelangeli, piano)

Moving forward a few decades past the swing era of the 1930s, Art Tatum’s expansion of the harmonic language (Duke Ellington had a role in this as well), and the subsequent bebop explosion of the 40s, we arrive at an extraordinary crossroads in the timeline of jazz.

“Boplicity” (Miles Davis Nonet, arrangement by Gil Evans)

Birth of the Cool is the first album attributed to Miles Davis as leader but its significance extends well beyond that mere fact. The 1949-50 sessions for the project act as a sort of time portal, bringing together among others, players and arrangers Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Lee Konitz, and Gunther Schuller, all who will come to be exponents of the jazz-classical crossover in some form and also to be identified with the “cool jazz” movement (a sub-genre yet to be born at this time). Miles had just left the Charlie Parker Quintet where he had been a member for three years, looking to branch out and explore less frenetic, more sonorous forms of jazz. Gil Evans, having made his bones writing elegant arrangements of bebop tunes for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, a large ensemble led by the pianist. A modern big band that went well beyond the swing bands of the 30s, the Thornhill Orchestra had a refined sound based on a vibratoless tone, excellent musicianship, and Evans’ unconventional instrumentation. Opening his 55th Street apartment in midtown Manhattan as a sort of clubhouse where forward-thinking musicians would hang out and discuss the future of jazz, Gil Evans was a pivotal figure that would play a fundamental role in the world of jazz as it moved past bebop. The big, opulent Thornhill sound became the model for the nine musicians that formed the Miles Davis Nonet, who would take those concepts and work them into a leaner, more sinewy, and intentional form of jazz on the sessions that would be released as singles and EPs and later compiled in LP form as the Birth of the Cool album.

“La Ronde Suite” (Modern Jazz Quartet)

In the interim between those ’49-’50 recordings and their compiled LP release in 1957, cool jazz exploded in popularity (hence the compilation’s retrospective title of Birth of the Cool) with each of the principles involved in that seminal project moving forward with their own conception of the new sub-genre, often incorporating classical elements into their music. John Lewis would form the cool jazz small group archetype in 1952 in the Modern Jazz Quartet with classical influences at the forefront of that group’s unique approach. Classically trained pianist John Lewis (with a Master’s degree from Manhattan School of Music) as musical director set the tone for a group that rooted their sound in Baroque counterpoint between Lewis and vibraphonist Milt Jackson (aka, “Bags”) against the tightly arranged bass and drums of Percy Heath and Connie Kay. Another staple of the group is overtly Bach-like melodic phrases alternating with bebop lines. Their sly, serpentine weaving of ideas in a refined, often restrained but intentional environment with lots of space is the sound of the Modern Jazz Quartet, one that won enormous popularity in the 1950s among college students and those coming from a more classical upbringing whose taste in jazz was just awakening.

“Bernie’s Tune” (Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker)

Another major proponent of cool jazz and exploiter of that Baroque style of counterpoint within a jazz context is the Gerry Mulligan Quartet featuring the astonishingly smooth baritone sax of the leader paired with the fluid, appealing trumpet of Chet Baker. The hallmark of this immensely popular group and what set them apart from the MJQ is their lack of piano in the quartet, the spare, pianoless sound putting more focus on the clever intertwining of the two horns, both players sharing an effortless, almost folksy approach to their melodic constructions. But the secret weapon in this group that had no piano or guitar was the commitment to outlining the chords of the song in the 2 horns and bass parts, mostly accomplished through Mulligan’s mastery of functional harmony, and his playing of long tones and background figures behind Baker’s improvisations (a la J.S. Bach). So even in their most hard-swinging jazz-oriented material, this underpinning of classical counterpoint is part of the picture of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. After Baker moved onto a solo career, Mulligan would pull in Art Farmer on trumpet who more than filled his role and was able to further develop the idea of the group. Listen to the gorgeous three-part invention that serves as an intro to this uniquely Mulligan-esque interpretation of this standard written by Vernon Duke and E.Y. Harburg:

“What Is There to Say?” (Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Art Farmer)

No discussion of the cool jazz phenomenon of the 50s would be complete without the inclusion of its most popular purveyors and greatest ambassadors, the Dave Brubeck Quartet featuring Paul Desmond, a jazz outfit whose reach into classical music went beyond sly counterpoint into more harmonic and rhythmic Late Romantic Era borrowings.

“Blue Rondo à la Turk” (Dave Brubeck Quartet)

Brubeck and Desmond’s adventurism then went further afield into the regional folk music of Eurasia (the group was sent there on tour by the U.S. State Department), artifacts of which can be heard on the albums Jazz Impressions of Eurasia (1958) and Time Out (1959), the latter scoring major radio hits with the odd-metered classics “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” Borrowing from regional folk music sources is a compositional device of Late Romantic classical composers Dvorak, Chopin, Grieg, and continues into the 20th Century with Bartok, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev. Listening back in time through the (conservatory-trained) Brubeck catalog from these two well-known albums shows that his incorporation of classical elements was always a feature of the Brubeck cool jazz concept.

Paul Desmond’s identifiable style and tone (to my ear, the sound of cool jazz), lyrical and vibratoless, owes much to the alto sax of Lee Konitz, who played lead alto in the Claude Thornhill Orchestra and was an essential element in the silky Birth of the Cool sound. Coming up in the bebop era, the Konitz light approach to the alto sax couldn’t have been further in concept from the biting, commanding roar of Charlie Parker whose influence on sax players was pervasive at the time, to say the least. It’s not a coincidence that Konitz was classically trained; the softer, rounder sound is required in orchestral playing. It took a player like Konitz to connect the phraseology of bebop with the “cool” sound of orchestral saxophone, creating the other major tributary of jazz alto playing besides Charlie Parker and his influence reaches beyond contemporaries Paul Desmond and Art Pepper into the future. Not surprisingly, Konitz’s own jazz repertoire is full of crossovers into the world of classical music, often, as in his angular “Duet for Saxophone and Guitar” from the Conceptions album, touching on the abstractions of 20th Century serialist composers.

“Duet for Saxophone and Guitar” (Lee Konitz with Billy Bauer)

The other major bridge of the jazz-classical divide from that time is the music of American composer Gunther Schuller who played French Horn on the ‘49-’50 Birth of the Cool sessions. In the decade that followed, Schuller and pianist from those sessions, John Lewis formed the Modern Jazz Society (later known as the Jazz and Classical Music Society), and while lecturing at Brandeis University, Schuller coined the term “Third Stream” to describe the intentional blending of the two genres. Also influenced by 20th Century serialists, Schuller’s modernism takes him way beyond cool jazz into realms more reminiscent of Schoenberg than Brubeck, as can be heard on “Abstraction,” from the mis-titled album John Lewis Presents Jazz Abstractions (Lewis doesn’t even appear on the record; it’s a program of Schuller compositions and arrangements, and one of his most successful examples of his Third Stream music which combines contrapuntal avant-garde jazz and classical elements, featuring Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy on winds, Bill Evans on piano, Jim Hall on guitar, the inventive Scott LaFaro on bass, and a handful of classical string players). I’m currently obsessed with this 1961 outing, late to the party once again. Check out this deftly-organized mayhem:

As jazz moved out of the cool jazz and hard bop of the 1950s into the more impressionist modal jazz pioneered on the enormously influential Kind of Blue album (Miles Davis, once again leading the way), the most profound, pervasive influence of classical music on jazz moves from Bach-style counterpoint to the impressionism of the great modernist Claude Debussy, whose own modal abstractions and rejection of functional harmony would, at the very end of the 19th Century, signal the end of tonalism’s iron grip on the world of classical music. Viewed this way, the modernist, coloristic vision of pianist Bill Evans created more ripples through the jazz world than anyone had since Charlie Parker (whose own harmonic expansion of the jazz language owed so much to classical music via the Art Tatum prism).

It’s interesting to note at this point how, rather than creating an unbridgeable chasm, inspirations and techniques taken from classical music have so often prodded the development of jazz, usually in profound ways. The large-scale, progressive compositions of Charles Mingus continually draw from classical forms and techniques. Pianist Andrew Hill’s studies with composer Paul Hindemith permeate his abstract approach to the instrument. Even the free jazz movement was influenced by Bach via the imitative contrapuntal melodic lines of bassist Charlie Haden against the untethered improvisations of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. Avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor’s playing was described in a recent Guardian article as “like Art Tatum with contemporary classical leanings.” It seems that the crosscurrent of the classical influence, from Baroque to 20th Century atonalism, has propelled jazz into new realms throughout its whole development. 

Rather than create an unbridgeable chasm, inspirations and techniques taken from classical music have so often prodded the development of jazz

The influence of classical music on jazz continues today and some of its most intriguing hybrids are being made by current artists. When he’s not combining infectious Fender Rhodes-driven jazz with hip hop (listen to “Fang” from his Bedrock 3 album), the eclectic jazz composer/pianist Uri Caine has made a cottage industry of thoughtful, moving jazz/classical hybrids on the Winter & Winter label, Bach, Beethoven, Verdi, and Mahler among the sources (I’m just catching up now to the output of this talented, very sensuous artist). His stunning adaptation of Mahler’s gorgeous Adagietto Movement from the Fifth Symphony into a chamber jazz group setting begs to be heard:

Mahler, Symphony No. 5, Adagietto (Uri Caine Ensemble)

The new album, Disappearing Curiosities by the Tania Gill Quartet out of Toronto is in pre-release, out March 11th, 2022. Her deft incorporation of modern classical elements in a jazz setting are some of the most thoughtful and moving examples of the potential presented by the hybrid of these two heady worlds. Here, in the opening cut from the album, an ostinato pattern under the thematically developing melody suggests a slowly unfolding, abstract Bach invention. What starts out as a two-part piano presentation evolves into a jazz quartet setting (piano trio plus trumpet), building dynamically and texturally. This is really something:

A deep or casual understanding of classical music, ostinatos, thematic development, or counterpoint isn’t necessary for enjoying any of these crossovers, but it doesn’t hurt. Neither is being well-versed in jazz a necessity; many of the most successful cool jazz artists used their audience’s love of classical music as a bridge into jazz, a device fully exploited by European virtuoso pianists Eugen Cicero of Romania and Jacques Loussier of France, both of whom made successful careers starting in the cool jazz era of “swinging” famous classical pieces. French pianist Claude Bolling scored a big hit in 1975 reviving the overt jazz-classical mashup style when he collaborated with classical flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal for their simple but charming Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano. These more populist jazz outings owed a lot of their success to having an audience with at least a familiarity with classical pieces and idioms, something in short supply in our modern world where a concerted effort at exposure to music in any form is no longer a substantial part our public educational system. 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding”

Not everything we are taught in school is or should be for a practical reason. Some aspects of the curriculum are just there to expand the mind, which can be a painful, frustrating process for the student. “When will I ever need this in life?” – if you’re a parent, you’ve heard this one. Well, I’ve found that having a brain with more capacity and stronger and more reliable wiring to be pretty useful, even if I’m never again asked to recite a poem by Walt Whitman or calculate the area under a curve. And an expanded outlook, a more open mind, and the background and capacity to understand what we may one day encounter in the world – this is what it means to be truly educated. As T.S. Eliot observes, some exploring of the outside world is helpful in coming back to better know and understand our own minds.

For a number of reasons, the trend in public education is to make lessons more palatable for students with a bent toward “real world” applications of anything presented to them. But in our endeavor to update and contemporize the general curriculum, we need to be careful not to lose these vital inconveniences – the classics, the theoretical, the obscure, and the truly challenging, because high school is not trade school. Public education is meant to expand our capacities, to foster curiosity and a desire for higher learning, whether that is pursued in college or in life, or both. And besides these direct benefits, we might pass on a little curiosity, capacity, and appreciation to future generations, which is nice too if you’re going to, y’know, have a civilization.

Saxophone Embouchure, Classical vs Jazz
Tania Gill Quartet, Disappearing Curiosities pre-order

Sheet Music photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels