JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


What was the role of classical music in the birth of cool jazz?

Jazz musicians have always been aware of classical music. How could they not be? You have to remember that classical music itself was popular music at the turn of the century. Everybody knew who Caruso was - he was a best-selling record artist. He was like Elvis. I mean if you had two records in your library, if you owned a phonograph before 1910, then one of them was going to be by Caruso. Everybody knew operas and operatic themes, and in the days before everybody owned a record player let alone a radio, which didn't come in until the late '20s, you had a piano in the parlor. And what did you play? You played Chopin, you played Li[szt] - well if you were really good you played Liszt. But you played simple Mozart or Beethoven; you played classical pieces. And these were part of the general understanding. Nobody thought this was strictly for highbrows. This was the music that you inherited. When you went to the silent movie theater and, you know, the young ingénue is strolling down the street and you're listening to Mendelssohn's Spring Song and people knew it was Mendelssohn. These were popular themes so jazz musicians growing up in that period grew up with them and they used them.

In the 1930s and '40s, more sophisticated jazz musicians were really into the avant-garde classical scene. They all knew Stravinsky. Charlie Parker adored Stravinsky. Shorty Rogers wrote pieces based on Stra[vinsky] - Stravinsky wrote for the Woody Herman Orchestra. Woody Herman commissioned him and he wrote the Ebony Concerto. Uh, no improvisation but using jazz instrumentation and some jazz ideas for pieces essentially classical, through composed. You also have people who are writing the great jazz songs who are also writing classical pieces - George Gershwin, most famously. George Gershwin writes "I Got Rhythm," which has the second most popular series of chord changes after the blues. He also writes Rhapsody in Blue; he also writes an opera: Porgy and Bess, which produces songs that all the jazz musicians are playing. So there is a lot of criss-crossing.

Inevitably after Bach, when these musicians really spend a lot of time listening to Ravel and Debussy and Stravinsky and Alban Berg and they knew their Schoenberg, they start more consciously trying to make connections. And in the 1950s you had - and also they're using classical instruments. Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool, you're seeing French horns and tubas, instruments not associated with jazz. You're seeing a lot more flute, you're seeing bass clarinet, even occasionally oboe. And then in the 1950s you have Gunther Schuller and a number of other composers - John Lewis, Charles Mingus, George Russell - working in what became known for a while as the third stream.

And what the third stream meant was that classical music was the first stream, jazz was the second stream. You could bring them together and create a third stream. Now some of the music they composed today sounds very artificial, it sounds like somebody mixing the first stream and the second stream. It doesn't sound like a natural . . . but ultimately at the same time there are people that are doing it naturally. There are people who simply grew up with all those musics and putting them together in a way that doesn't make you think, oh this comes from that planet and this comes from that planet. It's something new and its exciting in its own right.

To give a very modern, 21st century example of that for a while when hip-hop was all the rage you had a number of jazz musicians self-consciously trying to combine hip-hop. They would hire rappers. It sounded really silly. Nobody liked it. You'd hear a jazz band that would play a really cool tune, good solos, then somebody would get up there and start rapping and it's like, you know, "Go home, that's not what we came for." But then you get a young musician like Jason Moran - whom we devote most of the last chapter to - Jason grew up with hip- hop, he's not mixing anything. It's the music he learned as a kid. He's also a virtuoso pianist who grew up learning the classics in jazz. For him to use hip-hop beats - he isn't making a mixture, it's as logical to him as it is for any of us to use words we grew up speaking. It's the natural mix that survives and has meaning, not the artificial one.