Blurring the line between classical music and jazz


Although the terms “classical” and “jazz” are frustrating for such musical richness, they provide a useful distinction for two different musical traditions. When the two styles have combined or worked together, there have been outstanding musical results throughout the last century. There are many obvious stylistic differences between the genres, and classical and jazz musicians have mostly worked in separate ensembles, performing in different venues. Improvisation has long been at the heart of jazz, an element that was once highly prized in classical music but whose use declined significantly during the 19th century. Likewise, while notated music has always enabled compositions of enormous complexity and range in classical music, it has also been a mainstay of jazz composers and arrangers. Duke Ellington’s Symphonic Suites were early examples of the extension of the big band jazz style into ambitious musical territory, extending it beyond the standard dance music of the time. There have been instances where musicians from the classical and jazz world have come together to create something new and exchange musical ideas.

Perhaps the most famous work to have shaped these genres is that of George Gershwin. Rhapsody in Blue from 1924. Gershwin was becoming well known as a composer and pianist of Broadway songs at the time, but had ambitions as a serious composer. As good as Rhapsody, all of Gershwin’s music would incorporate different jazz elements into classical structures, especially composed for symphony orchestras as concert works. He used familiar jazz harmonies, such as “blue” notes with flattened thirds and sevenths, rhythms full of syncopations and regular dance patterns, as well as instruments including jazz timbres, such as a section of saxophone and drums. Another example from the period is William Grant Still’s African American Symphony from 1930, which makes extensive use of harmony and blues rhythm, placed in a symphonic orchestral context.

In the 1940s, bandleader Woody Herman commissioned a number of classical composers to write pieces for his ensemble. Igor Stravinsky composed his Ebony Concerto for the group in 1945, a neo-classical work in a familiar Stravinsky idiom that greatly taxed musicians with its unusual rhythms and complexity. Leonard Bernstein was also commissioned by Herman and composed his Prelude, Fugue and Riffs for him in 1949. Bernstein’s work is scored entirely like Stravinsky’s, but the style is more obviously “jazzy”, blending elements of swing and big band with modern classical harmonies and techniques.

Postwar jazz musicians were often drawn to the possibilities of modern classical music, with its wide harmonic vocabulary and rhythmic unpredictability. With the advent of more formalized study of jazz music in universities during the 1950s, the scope and ambition of jazz composition increased, leading to what is known as the Third Stream. New concert pieces by jazz musicians explored the contrapuntal complexities and harmonic invention that noted the music offered to jazz ensembles. by George Russel All About Rosie of 1958 is an exciting example of these developments. by Stan Getz To concentrate from 1962 features improvisations on complex compositions for string ensemble inspired by Bartók by Eddie Sauter.

Classical music was sometimes a source of musical material for jazz musicians, reinventing and adapting the music by so-called “jazzing the classics”. This sometimes controversial style could be seen as an effective way to reach a wider audience and was often just honest entertainment. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn created fabulous new sequels in 1960 based on Tchaikovsky Nutcracker and Grieg’s Peer Gynt. These were respectful of the originals, while creating something new, witty and modern.

Although jazz may not have had a major influence on contemporary classical composers at the end of the 20th century, some classically trained jazz musicians wished to work in multiple styles. Jazz pianists such as Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea have composed and arranged many works for themselves to play with an orchestra, with improvisations alongside notated music. This restoration of the old composer-performer-improviser model of pairing jazz with classical has become probably the most frequent and successful combination of the two genres. Wynton Marsalis also effectively updated Ellington’s large-scale symphonic worlds, blending his own jazz band with the classical orchestra. Classical performers were able to recreate jazz styles in fully notated works, such as those by Nikolai Kapustin. Contemporary composers such as Mark Anthony Turnage have also incorporated jazz into their stylistic language, as well as improvising jazz musicians in works such as blood on the floor. As modern audiences have grown accustomed to musical diversity, the boundaries between classical and jazz have blurred, leading to a richer and more varied concert scene.

Gershwinicity, the new release of the Art Deco Trio with 15 new instrumental arrangements mixing the classical and jazz influences of George Gershwin’s songs, will be released on the SOMM label on April 16th. Learn more:


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