Jazz Musicians & Classical Music

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Jazz musicians love classical music.  The opposite is true to a lesser extent..   The two forms are different in many ways:  jazz is democratic with equal participation, musicians compose as they improvise.  Jazz is also paradigmatically American, which is why the U.S. State Department sent jazz musicians around the world during the Cold War to promote American democracy (see this RP post:  http)://blogs.kcrw.com/rhythmplanet/americas-jazz-ambassadors/).   Classical music is old-world, top down, authoritarian:  composer writes music, conductor interprets it, players play what’s on the sheet music.   Back to jazz musicians, however:   Charlie Parker, while playing in LA before his visit to Camarillo in the early 50s, stopped by Stravinsky’s Wetherly Drive address to meet the famous Russian composer.  As the car was pulling away, the diminutive composer appeared at the door with his wife Vera.  Too late.   Conversely, Ravel and Rachmaninov were jazz lovers, often venturing uptown into Harlem while visiting New York City.

Jazz French horn players Willie Ruff and Dwight Mitchell went to Yale during World War II to study with Paul Hindemith.  Charlie Parker wanted to go to Hindemith’s classes there as well.  Hindemith wrote the book on modern harmony, both in his compositions and in his famous book on modern harmony.  Plus, he used a lot of horns and modern dissonances in his music, which always appealed to the forward-looking beboppers of the 1940s and early 50s, when bebop was the revolutionary new jazz form that intoxicated both Americans and Europeans alike.  Think of Miles Davis and Juliette Greco, or Sartre, Boris Vian and others flocking to hear Charlie Parker and getting his autograph.   Lenny Bruce, in his funny sketch of the imaginary French horn player Shorty Petterstein, said he liked Bartok and Shostakovich because they had “more swing” than serial and 12 tone music.  Modernist jazz loved the harmonies in Bartok, Hindemith, Debussy, and Ravel.  This music spoke to them.

As a personal anecdote, I once took an improvisation class at Dick Grove School of Music.    There was a classical pianist taking the class.  The instructor, Jon Crosse, asked this guy to improvise on D-dorian, all white keys and easy.  The guy was paralyzed and couldn’t play a note.  Jazz  musicians, because their heightened, knowledge of II-V-I chord progression, heightened intuition and ability to improvise, have more flexibility and don’t have to have a sheet of paper in front of them.  It reminds me of the great mambo album by The Cesta All Stars, “no hace falta papel”==”no paper (sheet music) needed.