Blues, Jazz and Symphony – which of these things is not like the others?
There is a steady stream of music being created for orchestras that attempts to fold jazz, blues, and rock and roll, the most organically “American” of musical styles, into music that gets played at symphony concerts. The impulse is natural. Many classical musicians love jazz in its various forms and look for opportunities to expand their horizons – and many jazzers love the rich color palette that an orchestra can provide. Blues, defined by its question/answer format, typical 12-bar phrases, characteristic chord patterns and “bluesy” flatted 3rds and 5ths, intersects more with jazz than classical music. It’s also true that classical music in America is a “niche” product, seeking to broaden its appeal, and, not accidentally, its ticket sales.
So, the result is a proliferation of what’s commonly referred to as “crossover” pieces, often played at symphony pops concerts. It’s a mixed bag, and frequently misses the mark as either good symphonic music or real jazz or blues. The best of these works can be magical, and George Gershwin is the transformative composer of this genre. Porgy and Bess is opera and it is jazz, and it’s one of the most profoundly moving theatrical experiences in anyone’s lifetime (I’ve been lucky enough to see several great productions, including the thrilling one at the San Francisco Opera several years ago). Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris are equally inspired treasures. Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Claude Bolling, Morton Gould, and a (very) few others managed to master this art.
I find the most commercial variety of this type of music pretty bland, though I know that many people love Yanni, Kenny G, and John Tesh, often found on symphony stages and pledge drives on PBS. Many orchestras program one light “jazzy” piece on a program filled with classical chestnuts and call it innovative.
Over the years, the Peninsula Symphony has programmed original works by Taylor Eigsti, Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill, Jeremy Cohen, Chris Brubeck, Paul Dresher and other authentic and superb artists, and always on programs that look at many facets of the idiom in a broad symphonic context, and with the best of intentions. And, honestly, they don’t always work. Like any new music, a batting average of over .500 is pretty darn good.
But the effort has always been worthwhile, IMHO. The symphony musicians (and their conductor) get to stretch their technique and artistic sensibility in a way that’s profoundly different. To really play jazz, you have to listen differently – hear the pulse under the notes in a way that jazzers are better trained to do than classical players. You have to trust yourself to play more than just the printed notes, but also the feeling inside the notes, even, dare I say, improvise. It’s a revelation, and it’s challenging.
It’s also complicated, since one runs out of Gershwin masterpieces pretty fast, and commissioning and arranging new ones is no small undertaking. We’re lucky enough to have our own composer/arranger in residence – the fabulous Ron Miller. Ron has collaborated on dozens of projects, and he gets it. He knows the style, and he fits the jazz into playable and stylish orchestrations.
So, we venture forth yet again into this realm in our January concerts, collaborating with a local ensemble that has become a real cultural institution. The Saint Michael Trio plays classical music and jazz (and blues) with equal aplomb and with equal success. They make their concerts fun and funny, with engaging commentary and brilliant playing. Now in their tenth year, they have established a rabid fan base in concert and on YouTube, and as artists-in-residence at Menlo College, NDNU, Stanford, and Villa Montalvo.
Some newly released videos of theirs:
For this program, the emphasis is on jazz and blues, with a small helping of tango. Sweet Georgia Brown, Jive in Blue Major, Amoureuse, and even Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely will mix with St. Louis Blues, Claude Bolling’s Suite for Trio and Orchestra, Gwyneth Walker’s Concert Suite, and lots more. Numerous selections will be premieres of new Ron Miller arrangements. It’s going to be great fun, and maybe it will suggest that all of these things are more alike than we first thought.
Check it out.
Mitchell Sardou Klein