WHEN CLASSICAL MEETS JAZZ
Jelly Roll had no time for black musicians such as composer, pianist and big-band leader Duke Eillington (above) – but this attitude was not a simple case of bigotry jazz was what you did to material. Jazz as a verb, not a descriptive noun. In Morton’s world, it was possible to make jazz from ragtime, but the other way round would have been inconceivable, like cracking open omelettes to make eggs. Ragtime was entirely notated and had episodic structures that related to European classical tradition. At the opposite extreme, blues were improvised and began from the assumption of strict 12-bar form. And you could make jazz from it all – and from hymns, opera, waltzes and marches – by combining the different referencing in 1924? That question is posed all too rarely, but the answers are highly revealing. Much of Rhapsody in Blue has precisely nothing to do with ‘jazz’ as we now understand the term. Gershwin’s glued-together, Heath Robinson form could easily pass for a medley of Broadway showstoppers, and his central ‘love’ theme owes its melodic DNA to Rachmaninov. His piano part, which pitches up somewhere between ragtime and the stride piano of so-called ‘Harlem ticklers’ such as James P Johnson and Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith, speaks the most authentic jazz of the whole piece. But during the first performance Gershwin famously improvised some of it. In Earl Wild’s and Oscar Levant’s classicised recordings, even this vein of jazz truth is airbrushed away. Which is not to say that Rhapsody in Blue doesn’t succeed in other ways; but as a retort to jazz, especially from a composer living in New York City at the peak of the jazz age, it’s a half-baked attempt to embed the heat and heart, the spit and spirit, of jazz into its notation. But Gershwin wasn’t alone. Seemingly every composer wanted a slice of the Rhapsody’s popular success. George Antheil’s technically clumsy A Jazz Symphony (1925) reduced jazz to condescending caricature, and even Copland’s explicitly jazzy Piano Concerto (1926) had more, you feel, to do with Stravinsky than with Morton or Ellington.
‘For Morton, jazz wasn’t the material you worked on, it was what you did to the material – a verb, not a descriptive noun’
strains and opening up the material with solo instrumental choruses and improvisation. The key to successful jazz composition, though, was respecting the character and form of your sources;
Again, Morton provides us with a route out of this aesthetic impasse. For Morton, jazz wasn’t the material you worked on,
to comment on a march, the march itself has to be recognisable.
In 1922, Milhaud was in New York, and as with Ravel six years later, all roads led to Harlem jazz clubs. Milhaud returned home with a suitcase full of jazz 78s and a deep feel for the music’s technical nuts and bolts and emotional kick. La création du monde has retained its radical edge because, at a deep structural level, Milhaud injects the spirit of improvisation into his score. The music spills over the bar-lines as bruising, unanticipated structural ‘disjoints’ punctuate and jolt. The opening alto saxophone line is taken on a digressive melodic journey, the composer improvising on manuscript paper. As Milhaud generates heat and swing by overlaying
14 GRAMOPHONE JANUARY 2014