It was during the first two decades of the 20th century that western Europe's top classical composers and the rising stars in the new American jazz first heard each other's music. "Classical/Jazz" presents some of the fruits of the cross-fertilization of classical and jazz, a process that has continued throughout the century, up to the present day.
The new jazz was first heard in Europe in halls in Paris and London. Some composers, Darius Milhaud of France among them, came over to Harlem and brought back inspiring stories of their visits to New York jazz circles. The music that official American elite culture disdained received eager attention on the other side of the Atlantic.
By 1930, a Who's Who of top European composers had written jazz-influenced pieces, among them Stravinsky, Satie, Hindemith, Milhaud, Debussy, and Brazilian transplant Villa-Lobos. On our side of the ocean, George Gershwin was pondering the jazz/classical divide from the other direction, incorporating classical elements into his jazz/popular background.
Milhaud's ballet The Creation of the World was the first full-length work to integrate jazz and classical music. The music was written in 1923 (predating Gershwin's major works) and is based upon an African Creation myth, thereby giving Milhaud an appropriate vehicle to introduce his new love, jazz. Milhaud's composition is beautifully conceived, a perfect blending of classical and jazz elements.
Aaron Copland, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1900, demonstrated an interest in jazz from an early age. At age 27 he played his Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; its overt jazz elements were said to have greatly annoyed the staid subscribers. His Four Piano Blues were written in the 1920's, '30s, and '40s, and reflect a poetic side to jazz that was not to fully flower in jazz itself until John Coltrane. It is perhaps ironic that Copland, one of the first Americans to travel to Paris to study with Europeans, found inspiration for composition back home with American jazz and folk tunes.
Winnsboro cotton mill blues, by Frederic Rzewski, is based on an actual millworkers' tune of the 1930's. There is a remarkable evocation of the din of the machines throughout, with the blues tune first buried by the machines' ruckus, then fighting it, emerging above it, and periodically overtaken. The composition closely follows the lyrics of the original tune, including a brilliant depiction of the last verse: "When I die, don't bury me deep, bury me down on Six Hundred Street; Place a bobbin in my hand, so I can spool in the promised land."
Ragtime was a precursor to jazz, balancing white European classical conceptions of form and harmony with black African-American syncopated rhythms, blues, and call-and-response features. Although born in black culture, ragtime flourished in interracial bars and houses of prostitution. Maple Leaf Rag, published by Scott Joplin in 1899, shortly became the first piece of sheet music ever to sell a million copies: ragtime was an immediate popular success. Because ragtime came from bars and brothels, and because of its African-American roots, it was condemned by the critics -- yet again, in Europe, greats such as Debussy and Dvorak were hailing it as a fresh new force in music.
Igor Stravinsky had never actually heard ragtime live or on one of the rare "race" records before he wrote his Ragtime for 11 instruments (for which Picasso did the cover drawing) and the 1919 Piano Rag-Music. All he had was some sheet music to a few rags, and what resulted sounds more like circus comedy, Charlie Chaplin, and Stravinsky himself than Scott Joplin. William Albright's Sleight of Hand Rag dates from a resurgence of interest in ragtime in the 1970's. His rags use modern chords and acknowledged references to classical 20th century masters Debussy and Webern, but keep the unique spirit of ragtime -- sometimes gentle, sometimes rambunctious.
Maurice Ravel's Le Gibet, written in 1909, is an astonishing bit of Twilight-Zone fare; it contains 95% of all "modern" jazz chords. So the cross-fertilization process indeed ran both ways -- classical composers such as Debussy and Ravel greatly influenced jazz performers as well as vice versa. Art Tatum, Bill Evans, and many others learned much from the classics, and Miles Davis, once asked about the origin of a particular tune of his, replied, "well, we were really into Rachmaninoff that week." Now, more often than not, young jazz performers have training in both classical and jazz.
Art Tatum's improvisations are so intricately thought out that they may be considered compositions in the classical sense of the word. Tatum's famous solo on Tea for Two stunned the jazz world when he recorded it in the 1930's, and Michael Arnowitt's transcription of Tatum's inventive and technically brilliant improvisation is surely a high point of the program. The final two selections represent classically-influenced jazz tunes, performed as spontaneous improvisations. In Bluesette, classical waltz rhythms are intermixed with the jazz waltz of the original tune, with some surprising results. In Dave Holland's Copland-like Four Winds, we come full circle to the mood of the beginning of the concert.Program