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Stravinsky A-Z: Letter J

Letter J
Jazz and Stravinsky

'Jazz: America's classical music' (pianist and educationalist Dr Billy Taylor)
In our own time the recurrent impetus to merge older and contemporary art-forms has resulted in a number of (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to combine pop music and classical music. A hundred years ago the emerging art-form was jazz; it was at this time that western Europe's leading classical musicians first experienced the music of American jazz's rising stars. London and Paris were the foreign outposts of the new music, but composers such as Darius Milhaud also journeyed to the American sources of the music - in Harlem and elsewhere - indirectly bestowing respectability on music which was as yet officially disdained in the US.

Milhaud's 1923 ballet, La Création du Monde (based on an African creation myth), is credited as the first full-length jazz-to-classical crossover piece; Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra (1924) might be regarded as the first classical-to-jazz composition. Written for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, this iconic piece - as popular now as it ever has been - established Gershwin as a serious composer and again conferred legitimacy upon jazz's presence on the concert stage. In 1927, however, Aaron Copland was still ruffling feathers among Boston Symphony subscribers, with the use of jazz elements in his Piano Concerto.

Maurice Ravel was an early admirer of Gershwin's work and it's been pointed out that 'Le Gibet' (The Gibbet) - part of his piano suite Gaspard de la Nuit - contains 95% of all 'modern' jazz chords. The traffic between jazz and classical remains two-way, with Debussy and Ravel feeding back into jazz and performers such as Art Tatum, Bill Evans and Miles Davis acknowledging their indebtedness to classical in their music. As Davis laconically remarked when asked about the provenance of one his tunes, 'Well, we were really into Rachmaninov that week …' And as Ted Gioia relates in his History of Jazz, Charlie Parker, when taking part in a 'blind' listening test, heard Stravinsky's 'Song of the Nightingale' and declared, 'Give that all the stars you've got', before going on to wax lyrical about Prokofiev, Hindemith, Debussy and Ravel. Modern European composers such as Louis Andriessen and Mark-Anthony Turnage regularly incorporate jazz idioms into their music.

If any 20th century composer was likely to make a foray into jazz, it was Stravinsky: how could it be otherwise for the composer of the most rhythmically complex piece of orchestral music in history to date: The Rite of Spring (1913). But Stravinsky's talent was mercurial and often ironic/objective; he was also commercially-minded: certainly, when he wrote his Ragtime and Piano Rag-Music, other than a few items of sheet music he had never actually heard jazz's precursor - ragtime - in the flesh. There was also a celebrated occasion in 1931 when Jack Hilton, doyen of British band leaders of the 1930s, led his musicians in a Paris performance of a symphonic extract from Stravinsky's comic opera, Mavra.

But Stravinsky went further in describing his Ebony Concerto as 'a jazz concerto with a blues slow movement'. Stravinsky had followed Milhaud to the jazz clubs of Harlem, and also heard the music played by black musicians in Chicago and New Orleans - an influence acknowledged in the title of the piece. The concerto was premièred by clarinettist Woody Herman and his orchestra in 1945; at the subsequent recording session, Stravinsky recalled: 'What I remember most clearly is the smoke in the recording studio. When the musicians did not blow horns they blew smoke ... the atmosphere looked like Pernod clouded by water.' Undaunted, Stravinsky went on to compose Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, composed in 1949 for Woody Herman's band but actually premièred by Benny Goodman in 1955.

What characterises all of Stravinsky's excursions into jazz is that aficionados of jazz would be unlikely to admit them as jazz music; the jazz elements in effect are borrowings.
© Graeme Kay/BBC

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