Support American Mavericks with your Amazon.com purchases
Search Amazon.com:
Keywords:
  • News/Talk
  • Music
  • Entertainment
American Mavericks home page

It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing!
James P. Johnson
 

 




The audience at Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, 1924, included bandleader John Philip Sousa, composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and Ernest Bloch, conductors Walter Damrosch and Leopold Stokowski, violinists Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, and Misha Elman, pianists Leopold Godowsky and Moriz Rosenthal, soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, critic Carl Van Vechten--the cream of New York musical society. They had assembled to hear Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra conduct what Whiteman called "an experiment" - an attempt to prove whether one band could excel in both the jazz and classical fields on the same program. The experiment opened with the "Livery Stable Blues," a naive early jazz number that Whiteman intended as an object lesson in the embarrassing origins from which jazz had arisen. To his great concern, the audience loved it. "I had the panicky feeling," he later admitted, "that they were applauding the thing on its merits." The concert ended with a staid classical warhorse, a Pomp and Circumstance march by Sir Edward Eglar. And just before the march came the climax that the literati had come to check out: the 25-year-old George Gershwin, famous Tin Pan Alley songwriter, going public with his first concert work: "Rhapsody in Blue."

A fusion of classical form with the new jazz piano idiom, the work was an overnight sensation, the recording sold a million copies, and the sheet-music made Gershwin a rich man. Yet the piece was widely criticized for its formal awkwardness, and Gershwin remained insecure about whether his technical skills were sufficient for composing large-scale works. A few years later he approached the famous French composer Maurice Ravel about studying composition with him. Ravel asked, "How much money do you make from your music?"

Gershwin replied, "Between one hundred thousand and two hundred thousand dollars a year."

Countered Ravel, "Then it is I who must ask you to teach me how to compose."

Despite his flip answer, however, Ravel took the request quite seriously. On March 8, 1928, he wrote a letter to the great French composition teach in Founainbleu, Nadia Boulanger, saying, "There is a musician here endowed "His world-wide success no longer satisfies him, for he is aiming higher. He knows that he lacks the technical means to achieve his goal. In teaching him those means, one might ruin his talent. Would you have the courage, which I wouldn't dare have, to undertake this awesome responsibility?"

Boulanger thought the matter over and declined.

Jazz and classical music have always inhabited separate worlds, divided along racial lines, economic lines, the lines of art versus entertainment, the concert hall and academy versus the night club and bar. Yet musically the two have never been completely unconnected, but have maintained a quiet, mutual codependence; like two brothers, one considerably older than the other, who don't look alike or talk much. Some composers thought of jazz as a vulgar manifestion representing a lowering of taste, but the more adventurous composers saw it as a goldmine of new ideas, a repository of new rhythms more interesting than the same old 4/4 and 3/4 ones Europe was in the habit of putting out. On the other side, early jazz musicians were often classically trained. They took their harmonies, seventh chords and ninth chords, from composers like Debussy and Ravel, and learned about orchestration from the late Romantics. While classical music was about creating detailed and repeatable musical objects of permanent beauty, jazz was about improvisation, spontaneity and the emotions of everday life. Yet jazz and classical composers stole from each other liberally, and it was America's Maverick composers who saw the most possibilities in jazz.

This was true fentury, this new syncopated music would have a name: ragtime. Ragtime had its first big public impact at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Here more than 20 million people could have heard ragtime musicians like Ben Harney, Scott Joplin, Jesse Pickett, Johnny Seamore (sometimes referred to as the father of ragtime). Joplin appeared not with the piano compositions like "Maple leaf Rag" that would later make him famous, but as a trumpet player.

Present at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition was an 18-year-old boy named Charles Ives--recognized as the first great composer America had produced--took those syncopations back to Connecticut with him, and thence to Yale where he enrolled the next year. Next to the Yale campus on Chapel Street was a popular vaudeville house called Poli's Theater. Here Ives used to stop in and relieve George Felsburg at the piano when Felsburg, who was famous for his ability to read a newspaper while playing, wanted to stop and have a beer. By 1902, out of college, living in New York, and working in the insurance business, Ives would write his own ragtime pieces, complete with wrong notes, performers who get lost, quotations from other songs, all thrown into an exuberant noise of the type that must have male. A few years later, in one of his most abmitious works yet, his Piano Sonata No. 1, Ives climaxed the piece with a rousing ragtime arrangement of the old-time hymn "Bringing in the Sheaves."

Ives was probably the first white composer to use ragtime in his music, years before Debussy wrote "The Golliwog's Cakewalk" in 1908, or Stravinsky wrote his Ragtime in 1918. Ives was the first in a tradition of American composers who would draw no line between high and low art, who would welcome ragtime, jazz, and other vernacular musics as a rich and authentic source of new ideas for the contemporary composer. As he said, "Ragtime is an idiom similar to those that have added through centuries and through natural means some beauty to all languages.

In 1917 the Original Dixieland Jazz Band brought New Orleans jazz to New York at Reisenweber's Restaurant on 58th Street, and made the first jazz recordings. As ragtime turned into stride piano and jazz, the World War I era saw inflitrations of jazz into classical music on many fronts. Even Europeans got into the act. Composers like Darius Milhaud and Igor Stravinsky, coming to New York, would demand to be taken to Harlem where they could hear the latest dance bands led by James Reese Europe, Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb. And, whether they understood the new idiom and got the rhythms right or not, they responded with jazz-tinged works like Stravinsky's Ragtime and L'Histoire du Soldat; Erik Satie's "Parade;" Milhaud's "The Creation of the World" and "The Bull on the Roof"; Hindemith's Suite 1922; Honegger's Concertino; Ernst Krenek's opera "Johnny spielt auf." Most of these pieces preceded "Rhapsody in Blue." Ironically, American composers, for whom jazz was not simply musical exotica but rife with social and even moral implications, were slightly slower to respond. Some elements in the classical music world put up strong resistance to jazz as an authentic musical idiom. The Etude magazine for August of 1924 expressed the opinion, "In its original form, [jazz] has no place in musical education and deserves none. It will have to be transmogrified many times before it can present its credentials for the Walhalla of music."

Despite all highbrow objections, the roaring 1920s were a golden age of symphonic jazz. The modernist ballet "Skyscrapers" of 1926, by Chicago composer John Alden Carpenter, is typical of a slightly timid approach to bringing the tamer jazz rhythms of broadway into an orchestral setting. Compared with actual jazz, of that or any other era, and you have to wonder what these composers thought they were hearing when they visited Harlem--or whether they ever visited at all.

Some of the most compelling symphonic jazz pieces were by Aaron Copland, such as his "Music of the Theatre" of 1925 and his Piano Concerto of 1926. When Copland played through some of this music on the piano for his friend Roy Harris, a composer from Oklahoma, Harris jumped up with a big grin and shouted, "But that's whorehouse music!" Born in Brooklyn only two years after Gershwin was, Copland kept up a kind of informal rivalry with Gershwin. They finally met at a party in the late 1930s, and, as Copland later recalled, "We found nothing to say to each other!" Even Copland, felt I had done all I could with the idiom, considering its limited emotional scope.... all American music could not possibly be confined to two dominant jazz moods--the blues and the snappy number."

Some of the most authentic crossover music, though it was widely ignored, came from the opposite direction, from jazz musicians who wrote orchestral scores. James P. Johnson, the king of Harlem stride piano, grew up immersed him in both jazz and classical worlds. He heard his southern relatives sing "ring-shouts" (an African-influenced style of church singing) and ragtime and blues in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, but also studied piano and voice with a classical teacher, Bruto Giannini, and went so far as to sing as a boy soprano in a performance of Haydn's "Creation." His initial importance came from piano pieces that he preserved on piano rolls in the early 1920s, notably Harlem Strut and Carolina Shout - tepertoire piece of every jazz pianist for years to come, including Duke Ellington. In his 1923 Broadway musical "Runnin' Wild," Johnson wrote a dance called the "Charleston," which became the theme song for the decade.

In the 1930s, however, Johnson fell back on his youthful classical training and began writing orchestral works--either because he really wanted to be known as a composer of symphonic music or because his brand of stride piano had fallen out of favor during the big band era; historians differ, and it may have been a mixture of motives. In 1927 Johnson went into direct competition with Gershwin, writing a piano concerto called Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody. Of it he wrote, "This is not a Rhapsody in Blue, but a rhapsody in black and white (black notes on white paper)." His protege Fats Waller premiered the work at Carnegie Hall in 1928, and Johnson recorded music from it himself in 1944. "Harlem Symphony" of 1932, rooted in the blues, is considerably smoother in its continuity than Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

William Grant Still, born in 1895, was the first American black composer to achieve success within the classical world. From the beginning he set out to write concert music, though his first jobs were working for the important bandleader W.C. Handy as an arranger. He also made arrangbig break: the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra premiered his Afro-American Symphony, the first symphony by a black American to be performed by a major orchestra. The work's orchestral continuity is more expert, more coherent than in Rhapsody in Blue, while at the same time, the accents of the blues ring out with more authenticity.

 


 

In 1893 the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak had urged American composers to build their works on Negro spirituals. Still, however, rejected spirituals and turned to the blues, explaining that "they, unlike many spirituals, do not exhibit the influence of Caucasian music." "I wanted to demonstrate," he added, "how the Blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level." Yet in the thiger of showtunes are also delightfully evident. The African-American composer who would receive the greatest credit as such, though, proved himself first through the jazz medium. Born in 1899, son of a butler at the White House, Edward Kennedy Ellington, who acquired the nickname "Duke" already in high school for his regal bearing, grew up in relatively well-to-do circumstances. His profess to break out beyond jazz, and worked on an opera called Boola which, he said, would "tell the story of his race." The opera was never completed, but much of the music written for it turned up in the concert hall as some of the most ambitious music ever written for jazz band.

For instance, Koko, of 1940, was a set of variations on a blues pattern in the growling, drum-beating so-called "jungle" style which was one of his signal innovations. Ellington was a new kind of composer, a kind the classical world couldn't understand - one who wrote not for instruments but for specific people playing instruments. And so Koko wasn't just for clarinet, saxophones, tsinging trombone style with wa-wa mute, the heavily physical bass sound of Jimmy Blanton, and Ellington's own lightly punctuating piano interjections. But Ellington also wrote orchestral works for others, like Harlem, commissioned in 1950 by the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, a tone poem of nonstop excitement, all bustle and subway rides and civil rights marchers, with a touch of bitter sadness.

On January 23, 1943, at Carnegie Hall, Ellington's band premiered his most ambitious work ever, a 50-minute symphonic work called Black, Brown, and Beige, the culmination of his intense experience with the jazz orovisation, the work incorporated influences of blues, mambo, the jitterbug, and other styles in a highly personal sound that no classical orchestra could ever duplicate. The jazz magazines like Downbeat and Billboard praised the concert, but the New York daily paper critics panned it. Discouraged, Ellington withdrew Black, Brown, and Beige, and never recorded the whole thing, but he did resurrect smaller excerpts from it for concerts. Black, Brown, and Beige, said the New York Times, "had many exciting passages, but it was in the shorter works like 'Rockin' in Rhythm' and the familiar 'Mood Indigo' that the leader seemed most completely himself."

"I have two careers and they must not be confused," the Duke later said, "though they most always are. I am a bandleader, and I am a composer. Sometimes I compose for the band; sometimes I compose for other organizations; sometimes I compose in a vacuum. What I'm trying to do with my band is win people over to my bigger composing ideas. That's why I pared down Black, Brown, and Beige. You gotta make 'em listen first.... Then... maybe they'll say, 'Gee, maybe this guy isn't so bad at all,' and they'll listen to the longer and more ambitious works...."

Jazz and symphonic music had their honeymoon in the 1920s and '30s. During the d "international style," quite possibly the least jazzy music mankind has ever known. Meanwhile, jazz players worked out their own difficult brand of modernism, called bebop, engineering a level of improvised harmonic and rhythmic complexity that matched and even surpassed Stravinsky and Bartok. From 1940 to 1980 the two worlds seemed completely separate. But even by the late 1950s there were unacknowledged preparations for a new merger.

 

Ornette Coleman
 

 

The first signs came from the ambitions of the post-beboppers. The rigorous harmonic changes of bebop were exhausting, and some young jazzmen of the '50s thought they inhibited full self-expression. Rumbles were heard for awhile, and then the explosion came in 1960, when a young saxophonist from Fort Worth named Ornette Coleman, only one year after his New York debut at the Five Spot, released a revolutionat young players around - including trumpeters Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard, bassists Scott LeFaro and Charlie Haden, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and Eric Dolphy on clarinet - improvised with no tune, no chord structure, no rhythmic underpinnings, just a few pitch areas to steer by and an agreement as to who would solo when. Free Jazz was to music what Jackson Pollock had been to painting, and suddenly, most of the classically trained avant-gardists realized they had been throughly out-avant-garded.

In the 1960s, many of the new ideas in the composing world secretly came from jazz. As early as 1957, the more radical California composers like Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, and Loren Rush had begun eginable notion in a classical world that had come to rely on ever more detailed notation. The early minimalist works of Riley and La Monte Young were directly inspired by the "sheets of sound" technique pioneered by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.

On the East Coast, Gunther Schuller, a modernist composer but also one of the leading experts on jazz history, tried to bring jazz and classical music together into what he called a Third Stream. The abortive Third Stream experiment lasted throughout the '60s, and included such projects as Transformation, a work in which begins in the 12-tone technique and gradually gives way to improvisation. Schuller even worked with Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Scott LeFaro on an abstract Meanwhile, other rumblings were taking place in between in Chicago, where the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or AACM, was getting started. The AACM was the brainchild of Muhal Richard Abrams, who, born in Chicago in 1930, had started out as a hard bop pianist. Abrams divided existence into two aspects, the concrete and the abstract. Harmony he connected with emotion and therefore with the concrete; melody and rhythm were aspects of the abstract, and were therefore spiritual. Besides, harmony had its sources in Europe, not Africa, and Abrams had come to see bop"s obsession with harmonic changes as an aesthetic barrier with European roots. Multimelodic improvisation became his favored terrain. 'You don"t need much to get off the ground,' he " when your musicians are spontaneous enough - just rehearse and let things happen. [Multi-instrumental jazz player] Donald Garrett used to tell me that someday there wouldn"t have to be written compositions - he saw it before I did. I had to write quite a bit until I had musicians who could create a part, and then I wrote less and less. Now I can take eight measures and play a concert."

In Abrams' "Spihumonesty," for example, Yousef Yancey's eerily singing Theremin over changing quiet drones veers closer to meditational minimalism ala Pauline Oliveros than to free jazz.

Dissatisfied with bebop's limitations, in 1962 Abrams formed a group called the Experimental Band, along with the only local musicians he found adventurous enough to join him: Roscoe Mitchell, Jack DeJohnette, and Joseph Jarman. In 1965 they and others founded the AACM, a losely organized school devoted to what it terms Great Black Music. framework and melody/accompaniment texture. AACM musicians were the first to issue solo albums on any instrument other than piano, starting with Anthony Braxton's disc for alto saxophone simply called For Alto. AACM groups - the Art Ensemble of Chicago foremost among them - have also introduced more Afrocentric percussion into their music, such as rainsticks, bells, gourds, mbiras, and wind chimes, and have often painted their bodies and worn African costumes to perform.

At the same time, paradoxically enough, many of the AACM musicians have turned to fully notated composition, writing string quartets and concertos usually in an atonal and complex, though rarely harshly dissonant, modernist idiom. The works usually leave some room for individual improvisation and require a loose, swinging style of performance that goes beyond to the point of meaninglessness, and several of the composers involved vehemently reject being called jazz musicians. The instrumental style has the growling intensity of jazz, the cultural references include African music, but the composed forms achieve a level of European abstractness.

This energy exploded in the 1980s, the great era of breaking down barriers. In the 1980s, jazz musicians wrote notated music, rock groups played at concert halls, classical composers played electric guitars in night clubs, and nothing was considered off limits. Free improvisation scenes took off in major cities around America and around the world, especially in New York, where a milieu formed that welcomed black and white improvisers equally andmusic was raucous and ideologically polystylistic, accepting cartoon music, the avant-garde, jazz, Beethoven, heavy metal, klezmer, polka, and anything else the protagonists could think of. The scene's center of gravity was a saxophonist from New York named John Zorn, who was exposed to the AACM while attending Webster College in St. Louis. He returned to New York in 1974, and started writing a series of game pieces, improvised collages in which turn-on-a-dime group changes were achieved by players signa lfor "A Fistful of Dollars" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Morricone"s gun-slinging stylizations, heard through the haze of Zorn"s crazy intercutting and raucous Downtown side effects, caught the public imagination, and Zorn was suddenly a star. Suddenly it became hip to make "high art" music with vernacular or "low art" materials. Music had become postmodern.

In the 1990s, jazz, rock, and symphonic music separated again, but things would never really be the same. The lines between high art and low art had blurred, had been revealed as an illusion. Soon composers would be writing large works using the materials of popular music, a subject we'll be covering on another segment of The American Mavericks.

End of file