Is it Jazz or Classical?

The Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra’s “Tribute to Benny Goodman” includes the first movement from Igor Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto”

The lines between jazz and classical music have been blurring for a long time.  Early in the last century, as jazz was first emerging as a uniquely American art form, composers of all musical styles began to take note of the special rhythms, harmonies, melodic inflections, and timbral alteration that have since become the hallmarks of jazz. Throughout the 20th century, classical composers borrowed many “jazz elements” to bring modern, exotic flair to their works. Sounds of American jazz have made their way into every corner of classical music, and now it is almost impossible to find a contemporary classical piece that does not contain some jazz elements or influence.

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky’s EBONY CONCERTO (composed in 1946) is a brilliant example of a classical composer’s view of jazz. Stravinsky, of course, is among the most celebrated symphonic composers of the last century. His Firebird Suite, Rite of Spring, L’Histoire du Soldat, Les Noces, Octet for Winds, and much more, are all revered gems of 20th century concert music. Stravinsky often spoke about the influence that American jazz had on his composing, and we can hear jazz elements in almost everything he wrote. However, the Ebony Concerto goes far beyond merely employing “jazz elements.”  It was written to reflect Stravinsky’s “take” on American jazz, and it was his tribute to the art form. The instrumentation is essentially an American big band with clarinet soloist (the version we are working from was famously recorded by Benny Goodman in 1953). The melodic themes, and especially the vivid rhythmic syncopation of those themes, are reminiscent of several compositions by early American ragtime composer, Scott Joplin.

For the current discussion, I’d like to acknowledge that the terms “classical music” and “jazz music” are very difficult to define. Each genre has thousands of examples that defy any definition, and most contemporary examples of either genre cross over into yet other genres.  For the present, let’s narrowly define “classical” music as symphonic and/or chamber music that stems from the European art music tradition, focusing on the precise, virtuosic and artistically impactful presentation of works as conceived by their composers.  Let’s narrowly define “jazz” as music that evolved from the African-American syncopated dance music of the early 20th century, and that focuses on improvisation and ensemble work, placing high emphasis on rhythmic and harmonic complexity.

George Gershwin

The push to blur the lines between these two genres has come from both sides: classical composers employing jazz elements, and jazz composers/players employing classical elements. French impressionists Debussy and Ravel, and American composers Gershwin, Copland, and Bernstein are obvious examples of classicists who embraced jazz. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue utilized harmonies that, for its time, were at the cutting edge of jazz. Of course, Gershwin’s African-American opera Porgy and Bess is a masterpiece utilizing African-American thematic material.

On the jazz side, Duke Ellington pushed very hard to blur the lines, composing dozens of suites and extended works that he meant to be compared to the multi-movement symphonic works of classical composers.  He frequently expressed his admiration for many classical composers, and he often borrowed composition and orchestration techniques from classical composers of the past, and from some who were his contemporaries. Ellington expressed on numerous occasions his aversion for the label “jazz. ” He preferred to think of his music as contemporary African-American music.

Scott Joplin

Pre-dating Ellington by some thirty years, Joplin worked to blur the lines between classical music and African-American popular music, writing large-scale ragtime works such as his opera Treemonisha with a vision to bring American ragtime into fine concert halls. Jazz composers following in Ellington’s footsteps are numerous, but preeminent examples are Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Kenton, and John Lewis with the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Placed in the middle between the classical and jazz composers are American popular song composers of the early 20th century, such as Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Irving Berlin. Though not considered jazz writers, they nevertheless utilized so many jazz elements that nearly all of their songs translate easily into jazz performances, replete with improvisation and vivid jazz inflection (such as bent pitches, altered rhythms, and distorted timbre).

In contemporary times, the “cross-over aesthetic” guides many improvisational musicians who find their music does not fit well into any narrow definition of the jazz or classical music genres. The same is true for many composers of what might be called “contemporary concert music.” Seattle is one of the world centers for music that explores the gray area between contemporary jazz and contemporary concert music. There are many artists living here who, like Duke Ellington, refuse to be labeled.

The definition of “jazz” expands with each passing year, as the musical traditions of more and more cultures are absorbed into jazz, and the musical sensibilities of each new generation add to the mix. Jazz has always reflected the melting pot culture of the United States, and this continues to be true.

It may be that the only a handful of defining characteristics can be heard in all forms of jazz from the past 110 years. I submit this short list of musical characteristics that I use to decide “is it jazz?” All of these are rooted in West African musical culture, and were adopted into the jazz culture of the United States. To the extent that these are omitted in a musical performance, I start to consider the music to be leaving the realm of jazz:

1. Improvisation

2. Prevalence of Rhythm Over Melody (or at least an equal status)

3. Group Interaction/Communal Music Making

4. Syncopation

5. Timbral Alteration (changing and distorting instrumental and/or vocal tone)

6. Call and Response

7. Open Ended Forms (a piece can be extended or shortened at the will of the performers)

8.  Heterogeneous Sound (mixture of instruments and/or vocal tones are intended to not blend together as a homogenous ensemble).

The Ebony Concerto was a fascinating mid-century milestone in the push-and-tug between classical and jazz. These days, so much “cross-over” has taken place that one would think it is no longer an issue. Yet, the controversy of assigning labels to music persists, and we continue to argue “what is jazz?”  With the Seattle Repertory Orchestra’s March 2011 performance of this piece, we hope to stimulate further discussion among our audience members.

What do you think?

-Michael Brockman

UW School of Music

Co-Artistic Director, SRJO

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One response to “Is it Jazz or Classical?

  1. All long as you can enjoy it and it is meaningful in someway, who cares what genre it is! Michael Colina’s new release “Three Cabinets of Wonder” blurs the boundaries between jazz and classical, check it out on iTunes or Amazon! Also, you can enter to win a FREE copy of the album on his Facebook!

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