The Out-of-Style Experience

I have a modest personal stake in the preceding discussion of classical composers borrowing pop elements: I’m writing a piano concerto largely based in jazz idioms. The reason is it’s a commission from the Orkest de Volharding in Amsterdam, and they have an unusual instrumentation: flute, three saxophones, three trumpets, three trombones, horn, and bass. When I first thought about it, I thought of the few classical pieces I’d heard for piano and brass, and recoiled. (The two great concerti for piano and winds are by Stravinsky and Kevin Volans, but they both have plenty of woodwinds, and I don’t.) If I’m going to write for solo piano with brass and reeds – instruments I’ve never focused on before – I’m going to use the one model for such instrumentation I dearly love, jazz band music of the 1920s. That led me to New Orleans, metaphorically speaking, and while I was considering this I happened to buy a DVD of Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke, which touched me deeply. So the piece started to gravitate toward New Orleans as subject matter. And when I considered that I was writing the piece for Amsterdam, another city built below sea level, the topic seemed fated.

It’s not like me to make reference to current events in my music. I don’t respond emotionally that quickly, and I’ve suffered through dozens of tediously sad pieces about the Holocaust, none of which ever came near doing justice to the unimaginable evil of their subject matter. I have no 9/11 piece. That I have a piece about Custer’s Last Stand is more typical of my creative lag time. But here I am, for once in my life, writing a piano concerto about a recent event, New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. The short, frenetic first movement is labeled “Before,” and the long, devastated second movement is labeled “After.”

And it’s a piece about jazz. The word about is chosen advisedly. It is a depiction of jazz. And not just “jazz” in general, which would be meaningless, but about specific moments in jazz history. The first movement is a collage based on the syle of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven, and even more of Bix Beiderbecke’s band with Frankie Trumbauer of 1927-28. Armstrong was from New Orleans, of course, Beiderbecke wasn’t, but Beiderbecke joined Armstrong’s band in Chicago, and that’s my image of the happy, innocent, partying New Orleans style. The second movement briefly features a New Orleans funeral of ghosts, led by Jelly Roll Morton and based on the chord changes of Morton’s “Dead Man Blues.” (I’ve wondered why ghosts figure so frequently in my music – I’ve never seen a ghost myself, though I thought I felt one once – and I don’t know.)

In any case, I am not writing jazz, and have no desire to do so – if anyone starts improvising in my piano concerto I will be offended. I am depicting 1920s jazz, the way a novelist might go back and write a narrative about the Roaring ’20s. Like the novelist, I include enough realistic detail to create the atmosphere I want. Also like the novelist, I am not obliged to confine myself to narrative conventions that might actually convince the audience that I’m writing from the 1920s.

I’ve studied a lot of jazz, and I’ve written piano and Disklavier homages to James P. Johnson, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans that have been well received, especially by jazz fans. I know you’re supposed to write whatever the hell kind of music you want and the audience be damned, but if jazz musicians had told me that I really didn’t understand jazz and should leave it alone, I probably would have. But the opposite has happened: jazz musicians have been appreciative and supportive, and as I blogged recently, my Disklavier CD made someone’s top-ten list for 2006 in Jazziz magazine. This was incredible good news to me. Because I feel that 20th-century classical music, with its stupid pitch tricks, dropped the ball in the area of harmony, and that only two profitable harmonic directions have presented themselves: microtonality (which I pursue in other media), and bebop harmony, which picked up where Debussy and Ravel left off and kept going. Since 2000, bebop has been my default harmonic language when I’m writing non-microtonal music. So I’m relieved, since I’m determined to go that way, that no jazz musician has ever given me grief and told me that that wasn’t my music to write, or that bebop harmony should never be notated.

Stick with me – I’m getting back to the pop-classical issue in a roundabout way.

In doing this I am acutely aware that I have opted into a classical tradition: the tradition of Rhapsody in Blue, of Copland’s Piano Concerto, of Milhaud’s Creation of the World, of Martinu’s Le Jazz. I’m especially aware of the Copland (since it’s another two-movement piano concerto), and also of the Coplandy early piano pieces that Conlon Nancarrow wrote, the Prelude and Blues and Sonatina. For years I’ve tried to find early stride piano that actually sounded like Copland’s and Nancarrow’s pieces, and I’ve come up dry. The image of jazz piano you get from 1920s and ’30s classical music just doesn’t match historical recordings of jazz piano itself. They evidently heard something in that music that we don’t now – mistakes, maybe? were they enchanted by wrong notes played by drunks at rent parties? – and exaggerated that, and didn’t understand the style very well. But 80 years later, who cares? We judge Copland’s Piano Concerto and Rhapsody in Blue today not on their fidelity to their models, which is pretty slipshod, but on whether the music itself is creative and enjoyable. The idea of a “creative misreading” – that wonderful art can result when an artist imitates something foreign to him and gets it wrong – has come to be accepted as a recurring source of artistic progress.

As John Shaw of Utopian Turtletop mentioned in a recent comment, Copland found jazz awfully limited, thought it possessed a sad (blues) style and a happy (dance music) style and not much else. That’s not true of me – I love that music, and listen to it for pleasure all the time. However, Beiderbecke and Armstrong were making music for people to dance to, and I’m making music for the concert hall. So my primary change has been to free that style from 4/4 meter, to let it go rhythmically wherever the melody wants to go. I run it through the Gann rhythmic gear-shifting mill and make it my own. It’s something I love to hear: 1920s jazz divested of metric regularity and song form:


I don’t feel, as Gershwin and Copland may well have, that I’m “improving” or “redeeming” the music I depict. But no one’s going to dance to my concerto, and so I don’t have the same job to do, or the same social or economic pressures, that Armstrong and Beiderbecke did, so why not?

A big difference separates me from Gershwin and Copland, and also from the pop-influenced composers of my generation: I’m depicting a style outside my training, but it’s not a contemporary style. The fantastic musicians whose music I draw from are dead. Their music has been about as well assimilated as it’s going to be. My concerto, whatever its success, will have no impact on the ongoing reception of 1920s jazz. And there’s another huge difference between Gershwin and Copland and the pop-influenced composers of my generation. In the 1920s, classical music was a dominant artform, and jazz was a scruffy newcomer, looked down on in highbrow circles. Jazz musicians may have resented the attention Gershwin and Copland received – I notice that to this day, they wrinkle their noses when you mention Rhapsody in Blue, because it was inferior to the jazz of its day, yet because it became so famous, for generations it misleadingly defined what jazz was about. Since jazz musicians were relatively powerless, however, protests defending their music against classical borrowings and encroachments didn’t draw much notice.

Today, however, we have a complete turnaround. Classical new music is now a minority culture constantly on the defensive, though it is stereotypically perceived as looking down its nose at pop music. Pop music, meanwhile, is a vastly dominant culture, a multi-billion-dollar industry, yet its fans see it as a feisty underdog. In other words, Goliath is a rickety old man in a wheel chair, David is chief CEO of an omnipotent corporation, and David’s fans get terribly upset when Goliath steals a riff from him, or even imitates him in homage. David can kick Goliath out into the street any time he wants and everyone cheers, because he’s, like, Goliath, man, the bad guy! And so pop music has inspired many composers my age, and they’ve depicted it, written music about it, some with more fidelity, some with less, maybe altered some things for creative effect, maybe creatively misunderstood. But the pop fans have it both ways: they speak for the dominant culture, but also carry the righteous indignation of those who have been snubbed. Holding all 52 cards, they insist on absolute fidelity to their music, and anyone who doesn’t provide it will be cast into the dungeon without regret – because not only are they powerless, they’re the bad guys, so there is double reason not to care about them.

(I do wonder one thing about composers who so so strongly identify with pop music – why are they composers, and not pop musicians? If pop music is the real, the true, the authentic music, why didn’t they go make that? Why would anyone devote their life to writing their second-favorite kind of music? Do they secretly feel guilty for having abandoned pop? Do they fear that their classical training is a betrayal? And when some of us neglect to measure our lives against pop music, do they salve their consciences by projecting that abandonment and betrayal onto us? Just thinking out loud here.)

This will pass. The historical process is well established. Composers (and other artists) borrow from a style other than their own. At the beginning, their fidelity to that style, or lack of it, is a big political issue. Depending on how much clout each style carries in the social order, protests about lack of fidelity may or may not carry weight. As the years pass, however, the fidelity issue fades away, and all that matters is whether the composers created something new and vibrant on its own terms. There’s nothing wrong with a musician borrowing from a style outside his training. If there were, we’d have to go back and condemn Bach for stealing from the Italian style in his Italian Concerto (which doesn’t really sound like Italian music of its day and wasn’t intended to, because Bach thought he could do better), then obliterate Rhapsody in Blue, Creation of the World, Stravinsky’s Ragtime, Colin McPhee’s Tabu Tabuhan, Henry Cowell’s Homage to Iran, Lou Harrison’s gamelan music, and a thousand other worthwhile pieces. Right now pop fans are so numerous, so in the ascendant, that one can’t go up against the horde of them. Twenty, 40, 80 years from now, the argument will seem academic, and we’ll rehear that pop-influenced music for what it did accomplish, not for what it wasn’t trying to. As long as the music is wild and creative on its own terms, who, ultimately, cares whether you “get it right”?


  1. Herb Levy says

    I think I’ll have more to say about all of your posts on pop & classical musics now that my computer’s up and running again.

    But I want to point out that, while it may be true that pop music is now the major musical component of the dominant culture in the US and classical music may be a very minor component of this dominant culture, the situation of jazz within the dominant culture is much closer to that of classical music than it is to pop music.

    Jazz is no longer “pop music” in any meaningful sense of the term.
    KG replies: In saying we now have a complete turnaround, I meant only for classical music – I didn’t mean to imply that the places of classical and jazz were now reversed, only that classical was no longer on top.

  2. richard says

    It’s funny, but when I was a kid, I loathed Milhaud’s “Creation”, because at the time I was enthralled with Mile’s jazz-rock work, and with free-jazz. I believed that the kind of jazz Milhaud used as a model was hopelessly out of date. Now it’s one my favorite pieces. Maybe all folks need to do is become older and wiser.

  3. chris sahar says

    Kyle –
    A suggestion for additional listening for your piano concerto — the organ, trumpet and/or sax flute, drum set with saxophonist Eddie Lockjaw Davis and organist Shirley Scott. Great timbre and wonderful music.
    I understand the piano and organ are two different timbral beasts but it may offer some ideas. Also, I see that this is jazz of the 50’s and 60’s but their harmonic language is a bit more conservative compared to the be-boppers of the same time.
    KG replies: Thanks, always interested. I’ll check ’em out.

  4. says

    Going back to the snobbery of rock fans, has anyone talked to someone who’s been to, or, like me, actually gone to a rock club lately? If you talk at a rock show, you can feel the angry stares from people who are there to listen. They’re almost worse than the classical audience’s.

    Classical presenters are so keen to draw in younger listeners by stressing how relaxed an orchestra concert is that I think they have no idea how uptight some pop shows can be.

  5. says

    Your David & Goliath riff is spot on. I sometimes think of the “rock revolution” as (Papa-Oo-Mow-) Maoist in the sense of “permanent” — permanent revolution, that is, as long as Rock stays on top.
    Ellington’s late “New Orleans Suite” incorporates, in one of the movements, a solo flute into his standard orchestra of five reed, three (or four) trumpet, three trombone, piano, bass, drums. If it wasn’t Ellington’s first use of flute, it was close. The New Orleans connection might be of interest to you if you don’t already know the album, and though I don’t particularly like the suite’s “Portrait of Louis Armstrong,” some of the other movements are among his most gorgeous music.
    If you will allow me one quibble after such a friendly citation, I don’t think Armstrong’s opening cadenza to “West End Blues” or his “Weather Bird” duet with Earl Hines would be suitable for dancing. It may or may not be relevant that the Hot Five and the Hot Seven were studio bands that never played live.

  6. says

    Marc– The rock clubs you go to must be a lot quieter than the ones I’ve been to. The last time I was at a rock club, a month or two ago, was at Arlene’s Grocery on the Lower East Side. Most of the time the music was so loud that if you wanted to talk to somebody you had to lean close to an ear and shout. The people who were there to listen (just about everybody, to one extent or other) couldn’t possibly be disturbed. These kinds of ear-damaging, conversation squelching volume levels have been pretty much ubiquitous at the clubs I’ve been to.

  7. says

    Galen–Volumes vary from club to club and band to band, but if the volume is at a reasonable, non-conversation squelching volume, the standard I see is that you ain’t supposed to be talkin’. Granted, some bands take the choice out of your hands.

  8. Allen Lowe says

    just to note – Bix did NOT join Armstrong’s band in Chicago. He watched it, but never played in it –
    Allen Lowe
    KG replies: Thanks. I misinterpreted something I heard in Ken Burns’s series, but I should have remembered there were no integrated bands before the ’30s.

  9. Toni says

    Early jazz came out of the blues of slavery days, as you must know. For stride piano I suggest Papa Yancy, if you can find any of his recordingds. Papa Yancy’s Blues is a favorite of mine. Fats Waller did some fine stride on a few records. on the old Okeh Lable, I think. Lil harden Armstrong and the Hot five, and Hot Seven did play in small clubs around Chicago. King Oliver brought Pops Louis,( not Louie,) Armstrong up river from NOLA, Buddy Bolden is credited with originating Jazz, later picked up by Morton, Oliver, and others.
    I am not a musician, but knew many of the early jazzmen and women such as Lil Harden, back in the 40s. and sat in many a night in Harlam and at the Royal Roost in Manhattan when Dizzy, Monk, Bird, the Prez (Lester Young) where flatenibg the fith to invent Re Bop, later just Bop.
    Paul whiteman might have been billed as the King of Jazz, but what his big band played was poor quality to the real jam sessions of the real jazzmen of the 30s and 40’s.
    Good luck on your classical interpretation of Jazz.

  10. Roxanne Rieske says

    I’ve been reading for a while but have never before commented.
    The best example of a classically trained musician who lives and works in the pop world and marries the two discplines really well is Tori Amos. She’s a classically trained pianist who was actually dismissed from The Peabody because she wanted to play rock music. The two best examples of her work that show this marriage between classical and pop are her two albums Under the Pink and Boys For Pele. Boys For Pele is beathtaking as it combines Baroque influences to present day pop and jazz sounds (including brass arrangements).
    If you are not already familiar with her work, I highly recommend giving her a listen.

  11. says

    integrated music-making did happen in the studio back then. Jazz guitarists Lonnie Johnson (who had played with Armstrong and Ellington) and Eddie Lang (who had played with Bix) recorded duets together in 1929. (Lang used a pseudonym, “Blind Willie Dunn.”) Armstrong recorded one song with white country singer Jimmie Rodgers in 1930.