Classical musicians usually know practically nothing about jazz theory. When they do, they tend to throw a wet blanket over it and send it through some sort of blender: a violins and trap-set Osterizer. I might have done this inadvertantly myself, by ear.

I am very close to an excellent jazz pianist and theater organist, who plays no matter what. Unstoppable. Can't shut him up at the keyboard. He hears music, as he hears paranoid voices. That might lend a clue as to why I care. Music saves his sanity as it enlightens my sanity.

I've loved jazz all my life, but loved classical music just a little bit more, so I went classical. In truth though, jazz musicians enjoy life more on the whole, and are often a hell of a good time. Contrast that to being in a room full of professional organists - each hating one another's playing secretly or not for some very tiny reason. Solo out a fugue subject in Bach on the clarinet stop and end up in organist-hell.

There are marvelous attempts, most made before 1970 at bringing jazz and classical music together, in the serious concert hall. I'm not talking about Ives. There is no reason each type of music needs to sacrifice it's sense of being. That is, jazz unadulterated should be able to be in the same room with classical (ibidem), and things can still go smoothly.

For the composer, this is a serious matter. If I write chords that I actually asked for from my jazzer friend, or lifted from some pop chart sound I heard in my youth, it gets labelled "French" by the classical people.

This is not unrealistic: for I was an organist who played a lot of French music, and I have played with modes for many years. Modes are not French, however. No one owns the modes. No one owns french fries, either, for those who are hungry.

If I play a C major triad and add the sixth degree, and move up a step and follow it with a D minor triad and an added sixth degree, am I French or jazz? Or both, or neither? Or worse: a C major 7th chord becomes THE tonic, and the first and final chord to my piece. Why might this potentially cause trouble?

Funny: it's not really right for either style. It's easy to hear why in jazz. It's impossible to say why in classical. It could be, or it couldn't be. Or one might be indifferent. One could write dissertations on the 7th degree's use and misuse and keynote packed lecture-halls, in music schools across the globe. The hunger of a theorist knows no satiety.

This leads easily into the angry area of clichés - and we might as well face this fact: if you can write it down, it has probably been done before and you are a possible victim of the dismissive "pastiche" review. These sentences make sense, and are therefore hackneyed: there must be a way to improve language - but at what expense (sense?).

Many classical musicians honor a few "great" jazz musicians who perhaps "crossed-over" (cross-dressed) successfully. Gershwin will get top bill for that honor. I'm not sure he was the best, but he still sells tickets to classical enthusiasts.

His career went alongside Ravel's, and Schoenberg's and Messiaen's, Victor Herbert's, and most interestingly, Duke Ellington's.

Music has no real fences: people create fences.

I have always wondered why someone had not very cleverly taken Beethoven's piano sonatas, reworked a few of them with "larger," lush and at one time Moderne harmonies and reaped the dollars, Pounds, Euros with the sensational results. And possibly, classical music might find a new direction in its scary future. A few steps back, a bit to the left, and forward again.

To think in tertiary dominants, the circle of fourths, and substitutions, alterations is much closer to what music really sounds like than the impossibly complex Schenker charts that turned me sour to theory at Queens College, many years ago. Learning 16th-century counterpoint is a worthy math assignment. I think it would be better than algebra, but not better than how to play songs by ear that people will know. Musicians used to be the smartest women and men in town: the encyclopedia of notes. When did classical musicians (keyboard artists/conductors) stop playing by ear, and stop improvising in public? When was the last time you heard a cadenza that was fresh and maybe a little thrilling, because it was obviously not rehearsed?

I'm perhaps too old, weatherbeaten to play the role of real renegade. Classical music so desperately needs an endlessly inquiring composer, somebody on the order of an after-Bernstein (at least in the USA) to pull listeners in by clever inventions, and forays into forbidden areas (Broadway) and pop-charts. This used to happen.

Classical music has pulled so far away from what people out there really listen to, or want to listen to that we are heading towards a concert hall of one. I live my invisible-composer life through that dream, but I know that it is false. I am not interested in money, and fame is for prettier people. I acknowledge that my many years studying theory in university and conservatory were crap - and that is not my fault.

You need to be a member of Composers' Forum to add comments!

Join Composers' Forum

Email me when people reply –

Replies

  • Amen!

    Learning jazz is a lifelong journey but I guarantee everyone is better for it. Its more of a mindset. Playing by ear and transcribing is probably one of the best things you can do to improve your composing. Love Jazz.

  • I only just recently got into jazz.  That's a very long story in itself. 

    I'm not exactly a "composer" in the strictest sense of the term.  I prefer to actually play the music (i.e. improvise it) and then write down what I've done.  Of course this is a method used by many composers, especially those who improvise sitting at a piano or other instrument.  I feel confident that even the great classical composers often improvised their ideas on the instrument before writing them them.  In other words, they didn't truly compose using "music theory".   Music theory is really nothing more than an explanation of why their improvisations actually sound good.

    I own and dabble with quite a few instruments.  Recently I've been focusing on drums, saxophone, and trumpet.  And those particular instruments have lead me into the world of jazz, simply because there is a lot of jazz information on these particular instruments. 

    Jazz drumming in particular is quite fascinating, and is basically my current study program on the drum kit.  Although, there are so many off-shoot "genres" it's hard to say what actually constitutes "Jazz".

    For example, the book I'm working from right now is entitled "The Art of Bop Drumming".   Is "bop" jazz?

    I've also been studying Stanton Moore's "Groove Alchemy" which is based on funk.  Is "funk" jazz?


    All these genres are certainly closely related.  And Jazz itself tends to come out of the Afro-Cuban music styles which I also find fascinating. 

    Ironically, a few years ago I was fascinated with Bach's partitas and sonatas for violin, cello, and even his piano pieces.  I have tons of CDs of violinists and pianists playing those pieces.  Hilary Hahn is my all-time favorite violinist.  She seemed to really bring Bach's partitas and sonatas alive. Almost in an "improvised" fashion similar to what we typically see in Jazz. Hilary seems to have the ability to cast off the chains of the classical mold and just play the music as she feels it. 

    I tend to think of her as a "Classical Jazz Artist"

  • It makes sense that jazz would be associated with French music.  There must have been some significant exchange during World War I, when James Reese Europe and his 369th Infantry "Hellfighters" Band was stationed in France.  Ragtime gets introduced to Paris, and Ravel creeps into the ears of Jim Europe, who brought it back to Harlem.

    This is just a theory, but I imagine that this could be the root of the influence of French music in 20th century USA jazz.

    In addition to Duke, Charlie Parker used to jam over the top of Stravinsky records, and Charles Mingus wrote a beautiful symphonic piece called "Meditations On Integration".  There have been some good efforts to combine the strengths of these two genres, in my opinion.

    I run a hip hop orchestra in L.A.  Time will reveal the significance of that attempt.

  • I am a Jazz pianist. My classical background is limited. After graduating college in Speech Communications I returned as a Performance Major and then soon after that continued my studies while attending North Texas State University.As some of you know NT is an international center for Jazz education. Before attending NTSU, since the age of six, most of my learning to play the piano was by ear. It was not until I started to study Jazz theory at NTSU that I began to assemble the infinite parts that make up the academic structure of a Jazz player. In my own opinion this academic structure results in a sturdy platform which is paramount in the further study, understanding and facility in impriovsation.

    But after all this work, I still play mostly by ear.

     

    My teacher of Jazz, although I never met him and only shook hands with him once at a concert is the late Jazz pianist Bill Evans. By listening to him over the many years, I finally can "hear" it and everyday I look forward to working on/playing the piano when I get home from work.

    Bill said:

    "It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It's not. It's feeling."

     

    Thanks,

    Dan 

  • Thanks to each of you for contributing to the conversation.

    Yes, there are people who wrote/write music that pulls from both jazz and classical styles: but we don't hear much of it today, at least where I go to hear concerts. Today's New Music work at the Open Rehearsal was by Magnus Lindberg, called "Feria." It was a great deal of erudite orchestral noise. The NY Philharmonic will take that (and Bartok, Prokofiev) on tour.

    There is something extraordinarily out of touch going on with new music in major concert halls across the world. It feels scripted and forced to ride on the back of the entire 20th century. Symphonic music is in trouble, as never before. And I suspect the answer is somewhere closer to jazz than to "serious" music, at least in New York. 

  • Yeah, but can't that be applied to any music really?

    I mean, I seriously doubt that people like Bach, Beethoven, etc. thought of their compositions as "intellectual theorems".  They probably just notated the music that they heard in their minds.  So in a sense they were just putting on paper (or playing through their instruments) what they were feeling.  Not unlike jazz at all.

    To think that jazz is unique in that way is truly unrealistic, IMHO.

    Having said that, I do believe that the Jazz community encourages improvisation over rote imitation.   That's certainly the exact opposite of how classical music is taught.  In classical music the idea is to imitate as closely as possible. Stray too far from a rote imitation and you'll get your knuckles slapped by a teacher's ruler.  But was that truly the essence of "Classical Music" or just what educational formalism turned it into?



    Dan Pincus said:

    Bill said:

    "It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It's not. It's feeling."

     

    Poor, lonely Jazz category. And we owe so much to Jazz: every day of our lives.
    Classical musicians usually know practically nothing about jazz theory. When they do, they tend to throw a wet blanket over it and send it through so…
  • This kind of debate happens all the time in jazz communities as well. There seem to be several camps, where one group pigeon holes jazz into 60s jazz, and then other groups who say jazz is an idea and any music can be jazz. There are even some people who say the word "jazz" is holding jazz back... kind of funny really, when you think about it. Seems like it should just be about making music that moves you. If it doesn't move you, then who do you expect it to move. Style is a choice. Feeling, passion and deep love for your craft are absolutely necessary, regardless of which style you choose. I love writing in many different styles and especially recently have been really into counterpoint for some reason (mostly because of Mahler).

    James, I liked that you mentioned Bach and how it can sound like jazz with the right person. If you ask me, look at the way Bach writes his music, and tell me he's not "playin over the changes." There are some figures he writes that could be straight out of Dizzy's book.

  • Sylvester Wager said:

    There is something extraordinarily out of touch going on with new music in major concert halls across the world. It feels scripted and forced to ride on the back of the entire 20th century. Symphonic music is in trouble, as never before. And I suspect the answer is somewhere closer to jazz than to "serious" music, at least in New York. 

    Amen.  

    At the end of the day, I think all of us want to see a sustainable symphonic culture.  I want to roll up to symphony hall at age 70, and hear a living orchestra performing.

     

    Just like many of us have to do gigs that serve the client more than ourselves in the name of making the rent, orchestras should consider programming the music that will put asses in chairs.  I believe there's a way to have and eat cake without abandoning the challenging repertoire.

    Poor, lonely Jazz category. And we owe so much to Jazz: every day of our lives.
    Classical musicians usually know practically nothing about jazz theory. When they do, they tend to throw a wet blanket over it and send it through so…
  • Jon Brantingham said:

    James, I liked that you mentioned Bach and how it can sound like jazz with the right person. If you ask me, look at the way Bach writes his music, and tell me he's not "playin over the changes." There are some figures he writes that could be straight out of Dizzy's book.

    Yep.  Bach, Bird, Beatles.  The holy trinity.

  • Check out this video. I love the first line "What part of me is in my compositions? The lower part."

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIfdaygMeA4&context=C38048d9ADO...

This reply was deleted.