Plumming with Schubert

A couple of weeks ago, the Italian plum tree in our little orchard broke off at the base of its trunk and fell over, loaded with hundreds of perfect purple plums. Before the hired man chopped it up and hauled it away to a useful end in someone’s fireplace, I harvested the tree’s final crop and stashed it in bushel baskets.
This evening, I pulled a chair up to the dissecting table in the garden shed, switched on the radio and set to work cutting the plums, removing the pits and putting the halves into dehydrators. My timing was lucky. Terry Gross replayed her interesting 2000 interview with Robert Moog, the synthesizer inventor who died on Sunday, and Northwest Public Radio followed Fresh Air with Franz Schubert’s Quintet in C.
If one of the primary aims of jazz improvisation is the creation of melody, could there be a more inspirational concentration of examples than in this astonishing work? Each of the four movements is awash in melodies that implant themselves in the listener’s mind. The melodies are sustained by Schubert’s harmonic genius, as bold as Beethoven’s; visionary in the early Nineteenth Century. Any developing jazz player would benefit by paying close attention to the little melodies, as fleeting as thought, in the brooding Adagio, and to the ripping chromatic dance tune of the Scherzo that Shubert contrasts with the movement’s funereal slow section. They are examples to aspire to as surely as those of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young, Art Farmer, Paul Desmond, Bobby Hackett, Miles Davis and the other great melodists in jazz.
Solos by Armstrong reflect his love of the Italian operas that were a living part of New Orleans when he was learning. Charlie Parker quoted melodies from classical composers, including Wagner, that he absorbed from radio, records and live performances. Desmond had a fund of Stravinsky phrases on which he worked variations and permutations. How many teachers in the high school and college programs turning out the majority of today’s prospective jazz players immerse their students in melodic geniuses of classical music as well as those of jazz?

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