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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Jazz Influence

I suppose it’s a fact of history that things which were once outrageous eventually become acceptable. If Paul McCartney, Elton John and Mick Jagger can receive knighthoods then I guess almost anything’s possible. In this program we’re going to explore the way in which jazz has been an inspiration to composers in what we might call the classical mainstream; how a once “way out” form of music came to be involved in the creation of so-called “art music”.

These days, jazz is an accepted, almost venerated part of the musical world, so it might come as a surprise to discover that in the early 20th century, when jazz was new, it was regarded by the mainstream with some horror. Part of this was little more than bigotry based on jazz’s Afro-American origins. For example, in 1924 a writer in The New York Times called jazz, "a return to the humming, hand-clapping, or tomtom beating of savages". This sounds very much like the dire warnings handed out by the offended middle class when Elvis first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, or when the Beatles, Stones or Kiss appeared anywhere. There’s nothing new under the sun. Yet in the 1920s jazz was, if you’ll pardon the pun, in full swing, and its influences were already being felt in the concert halls of America and Europe. But what is jazz?

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines jazz as follows: The term conveys different though related meanings: 1) a musical tradition rooted in performing conventions that were introduced and developed early in the 20th century by African Americans; 2) a set of attitudes and assumptions brought to music-making, chief among them the notion of performance as a fluid creative process involving improvisation; and 3) a style characterized by syncopation, melodic and harmonic elements derived from the blues, cyclical formal structures and a supple rhythmic approach to phrasing known as swing.

These three different aspects of jazz are crucial to an understanding of its fascination for “serious” or “art music” composers. Firstly, its African origins gave composers a focus other than that of the European tradition. Secondly, its basis in improvisation gave composers an aspect of freedom to incorporate in their works. And thirdly, the fact that jazz involves a “new” rhythmic and melodic language gave composers different sounds to add to their palette of raw materials.

The most obvious feature of jazz picked up by mainstream composers was its rhythm, and in particular its “syncopation”. Beat (or pulse) is the temporal scaffolding of music, the skeleton which holds it together in time; syncopation refers to rhythm which is off, or between, the beats.

Syncopation is a feature of a particular sort of music which is related to jazz, namely ragtime. Ragtime is so called because the rhythms are “ragged”, or syncopated in a particular way, falling around the beat but not always on it. The composers most readily associated with ragtime is Scott Joplin. In a classic Scott Joplin rag, the left hand usually keeps the beat going in the bass, while the right hand melody is “ragged”, with syncopations making the notes come just before or just after the beat. [listen]

Scott Joplin

In the terms of melody and harmony, the concept of “blue notes” is vital to jazz and this was another feature picked up by mainstream composers. Blue notes are notes added into a scale which would not normally be expected, usually achieved by slightly flattening a particular note of the scale. This is usually done on the 3rd or 7th degree of the scale.

The blue note is often achieved on non-keyboard instruments by flattening the note only very slightly, that is, less than a semitone. This is effect is impossible to achieve on a piano because the semitone is the smallest interval you can play on a normal keyboard. But when you hear a microtonal blue note on, say, a clarinet, a trumpet or a trombone, it says “jazz” to you perhaps more than anything else.

The harmonies used in jazz - that is, the sorts of chords used - have a particular flavour to them as well, something picked up by composers wishing to create a jazz ambience. Chords like the dominant seventh extend easily to the major seventh, the minor ninth, and beyond to create the sorts of tonal language which can be imitated by other composers.

That Joplin rag we heard a moment ago comes from 1899, when jazz itself was still in its embryonic stage. However it didn’t take long for astute mainstream composers to pick up on the new sounds which were emanating from black musicians in the United States. In 1908 Claude Debussy applied elements of ragtime and jazz to the final movement of his Children’s Corner suite, called Golliwogg’s Cakewalk (his spelling). The ragtime rhythm of the right hand against the regular bass of the left is exactly like the Joplin rag we just heard. The harmonies also utilise the sorts of jazz chords I referred to earlier. [listen]

Debussy at the piano

Ten years after Debussy’s suite, Igor Stravinsky penned his delightful miniature Ragtime. It’s scored for eleven instruments, including the cimbalom, a traditional instrument from Hungary which he had recently heard and incorporated in his fairytale, Renard, written in 1917. The cimbalom consists of strings which lay flat in a shallow box and are struck with metal hammers. Its sound is very prominent in Ragtime, which, as the title suggests, is preoccupied with the ragged rhythms of popular dance hall music of the time, filtered through Stravinsky’s own inimitable style. [listen]


One of the first orchestral works to be overtly influenced by jazz was written by the American composer John Alden Carpenter in 1921 - a 13 minute ballet score called Krazy Kat. The piece is written for a small orchestra with prominent parts for saxophone and piano, as well as “wa wa” trumpet effects and a hip-sounding trombone solo, accompanied by blue notes in the violins and piano. Krazy Kat is based on a comic strip character of the same name, and as such it marks a really important step in the melding of popular culture - jazz and comics - with what might be called serious art music. This happens a lot now, but in the 1920s it was very new indeed. [listen]

John Alden Carpenter

It’s logical to expect that American composers would be inspired by jazz. The freer, more independent spirit of the times led composers like the young Aaron Copland to include elements of jazz in his music, and he did so from his earliest works and throughout his long career. The last of the Three Moods for solo piano is called “Jazzy”, and that it is. Copland wrote this when he was 20 before he went to France for studies with Nadia Boulanger. When he played this piece in France, Copland hoped it would “make the old professors sit up and take notice”. I have no doubt it did! [listen]

French composers seem to have been as attracted to jazz as those in America. A rebellious spirit infused the work of virtually all French composers in the first half of the 20th century, with many going out of their way to thumb their noses at convention and propriety, especially in the inter-war years. In 1920 the French composer Darius Milhaud encountered jazz for the first time when he was in London. He heard jazz again in the United States shortly afterwards - in a Harlem jazz club - and in his own words found it was “a revelation”. He went on to say, “Against the beat of the drums the melodic criss-crossed in a breathless pattern of broken and twisted rhythms... Its effect on me was so overwhelming that I could not tear myself away... More than ever I was resolved to use jazz for a chamber-music work”.

Darius Milhaud (1926)

Milhaud used jazz as the basis for his next important work, a ballet called La création du monde (The Creation of the World) which was completed in 1923. The work doesn’t just use jazz’s musical elements of syncopation, rhythmic drive and blue notes; it uses these to tell a story from Africa, thus reflecting the ethnic origins of the musicians who invented jazz in the first place. It's based on an ancient African folk myth about the creation of the world. The whole ballet only takes a little over a quarter of an hour but it’s a gem. It’s scored for eighteen instruments, and has a prominent part for saxophone. A very jazzy fugue follows the Prelude; this is ironically used to describe the chaos before creation, and the magical incantations of the gods. A little later we have the Dance of the Animals, a dance which includes the birth of the first humans. This leads without a break into the boppiest solo for the clarinet, marking the start of the Dance of Desire. These first humans don’t waste any time... [listen]

The critics, of course, panned Milhaud’s music at the 1923 premiere, saying it was more suitable for a restaurant or dance hall. Milhaud said, “Ten years later the selfsame critics were discussing the philosophy of jazz and learnedly demonstrating that La création was the best of my works.”

The American composer George Gershwin made his fortune initially as a writer of popular songs and musicals, but he yearned to write music which would be taken seriously in the classical world. His first large-scale work of this nature was Rhapsody in Blue, which appeared in 1924, one of the most popular jazz-inspired works of all time. The Concerto in F and An American in Paris soon followed, works which also infuse classical forms with the spirit of the jazz age. When he visited France, Gershwin met the great French composer Maurice Ravel, a very different composer in most respects, but one who was in his own way influenced by jazz. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that when Gershwin asked Ravel for composition lessons, Ravel is supposed to have replied, “Why do you want to be a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?” It’s a great line, whether or not it’s true, but the jazz connection between these two composers is an important one. Ravel wrote two piano concertos - one for the left hand only and one for two hands - more or less simultaneously around 1929 and 1930. Both concertos have jazz influences, especially the first movement of the two-hand concerto. Here’s the opening of that concerto’s first movement, where, after a bright, snappy opening, the secondary themes are all jazz-inflected with an unmistakably bluesy feel. There’s a passage a little further on in the same movement which is a magical mixing of French lusciousness and jazz laidback-ness. There are so many blue notes in this passage I even think Ravel might have had Rhapsody in Blue in mind at times. [listen]

Maurice Ravel

If Ravel wrote in classical forms and sometimes added jazz influences, then Gershwin could probably be said to have written jazz pieces and put them in classical forms. This is certainly true of the three Preludes for piano, which date from 1925, the year after Rhapsody in Blue, and the year in which the Concerto in F was written. The centrepiece of the Preludes is a classic example of blues writing for piano. One could imagine all manner of other titles for it, but in calling it a "Prelude" Gershwin was, among other things, invoking the spirit of his famous contemporary Rachmaninov, whose piano preludes appeared over the two decades before Gershwin’s. Gershwin’s second Prelude is in ternary form. The middle section is discernible by a new melody appearing in the bass, whereas the outer sections have the melody in the treble over a sleepy accompaniment. The piece ends with a blue note par excellence, completely isolated and unexpected. [listen]

George Gershwin

A somewhat malignant nod in the direction of blues occurs in the seventh piano sonata of Sergei Prokofiev, composed in 1942. The outer movements of this three movement work are powerful, violent in the extreme, but the middle movement seems to retreat from the edges. It’s a slow movement with an air of blues or jazz about it at the beginning, but an air that’s almost forced, or even fake, as if he’s saying to his critics through gritted teeth: “I know you’ll hate what you just heard, so here’s a tune to keep you happy”. I find this music deeply disturbing, especially as it doesn’t remain restrained for long. After an expansive climax which seems to sound like the pealing of bells, the initial blues-inspired melody returns, but only briefly. This is a fascinating piece to contrast with Gershwin’s Prelude. [listen]

Sergei Prokofiev (c. 1918)

Returning to George Gershwin, I can’t resist concluding with something from his magnum opus, the opera Porgy and Bess which premiered in 1935. In the beautiful love duet in the second act, Gershwin creates a melodic line which has the most perfectly placed blue note. In Porgy’s opening line, it’s the note on the first syllable of “woman” and it creates a colour, a feeling to the line which only that note is capable of. There’s also the most amazingly free feeling with regard to the tempo and the beat, as if the whole thing - voices and orchestra - is being improvised. Porgy and Bess is anything but improvised; it’s simply one of the most wonderful scores there is. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2004.

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