Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jazz in Orchestral Programming

Symphony orchestra music directors need to program work by some of the great African American jazz composers. I can't think of one instance recently where this has happened. And it is necessary. The classical tradition, over the last 100 years, has moved slowly from exploiting jazz while mocking it as a vulgar "folk" idiom--mining its appeal and techniques while keeping it at arm's length--to a grudging admission that jazz might actually be an essential element in the evolution of the classical tradition in the 20th Century. Jazz at Lincoln Center brings the styles of jazz permanently into the Mecca of U.S. classical music, the same center where the Metropolitan Opera and Juilliard School are housed.

But JALC, as important as it is, does not undo the century-long hostility that kept jazz (with rare exceptions) out of the classical concert halls. In an important way, JALC is just the last bastion of the "other music" mentality. In the same way that Black History Month distracts attention from the absence of black history that should be taught in our schools year round, Jazz at Lincoln Center presents the entire jazz tradition as a self-contained museum exhibit, allowing its importance to be acknowledged while still isolating it from the main body of performable concert music.
There are some things about jazz that are different. But not as many as leaders in the classical world like to believe. Jazz and classical are part of the same tradition, the dance hall and the club, the chamber music salon and the concert hall. The same audiences heard all of it, often entertained by the same musicians merely dressed differently. The repertoire moves easily from one to the other. We just haven't gotten to the point of seeing that yet.

Orchestra works by jazz composers represent an obvious opportunity to enrich the symphonic canon and begin to bridge the unnatural gap between these two vital repertoires. We could begin with James P. Johnson's "Victory Stride" or Duke Ellington's "Black, Brown and Beige". Then we could investigate the possibility that many other jazz composers have written for orchestra and we just don't know about their work. I suspect that we'll find that many homes and many library archives contain important scores that deserve to be heard. Probably we'll even find great composers whose names are unknown in both the jazz and the classical worlds.

The worst that could happen is we end up with only a handful of works that we can add to the list of classical pieces that get recycled each season. That would still be progress.

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