Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Jazz Century

Modern American Music

An article in the Dublin Review of Books points out that, in music, the twentieth century belonged to jazz. In reviewing David Schiff's Ellington Century, Kevin Stevens writes:
Schiff’s ambitious study reaches for a dimension that many books on jazz choose not to explore: Ellington’s place in the history of twentieth century art music. The book’s roots are revisionist. On the eve of the millennium, The New York Times had asked Schiff to write a retrospective article on the music of the passing century. When he opened that article by asserting that Ravel, Bartók and Ellington were generally acknowledged as the century’s greatest composers, his Times editor asked him “to drop that opening and re-center the piece on Stravinsky and Schoenberg or Webern and Cage”. That rebuff led to The Ellington Century.
Ellington is a natural case study for the argument that jazz is as subtle, complex, and emotionally expressive as classical music. His musical vision was broad and deep, and he spent a lifetime perfecting its means of expression: his orchestra. “Ellington plays the piano,” his long-time collaborator Billy Strayhorn said, “but his real instrument is his band.” Ellington did not compose for an orchestra but with it. No composer, jazz or classical, was more adept at writing for specific individuals, using their strengths (the tone of Johnny Hodges’s alto sax, the bite and brilliance of Cootie Williams’s trumpet) as the foundation for compositions. “You can’t write music right,” Ellington once said, “unless you know how the man that’ll play it plays poker.”
Like the great European modernists, Ellington believed that form was inextricable from content. However, by sticking to the concepts and ensembles of jazz, he distinguished himself critically from Gershwin, Copland, and other American composers who used European models. Yet the difference is not simply formal. The essence of jazz is improvisation; no other music relies so much on the art of composing in the moment, and Ellington’s music builds not only on the sonorities of his band’s instruments, but the character of the men who played them, expressed in their unique patterns of improvisation. This means that, as in all jazz performance, each rendition of any piece was unique. But Ellington went further, often capturing the most memorable of these improvised passages and formally incorporating them into the written composition.
Although other nations have incorporated jazz into their musical repertoires,  jazz is an American invention, inextricably linked to ideas like creativity, freedom and fun. As the article rightly points out, the strength of jazz is improvisation, which is not the same as interpretation in classical music. Improvisation takes a certain sense of musical understanding and courage that differs from, say, classical music. Defenders of classical music often do not like jazz for its free forms, and vice-versa. Like many music lovers, I like both jazz and classical music, thus enjoying different genres for different moods.

You can read the rest of the article at [Dublin Review]


  1. Jazz is respected. Rock'n'roll is not, although I think it is great--especially the earlier style now known as doo-wop. When I was an undergraduate at Columbia (1954-58), the student radio station, WKCR, banned rock'n'roll. Things changes when the Beatles became popular, but despite their enormous success, they never succeeded in making rock'n'roll respected.

    1. Rock 'n roll was considered more rebellious than jazz, and it went further than jazz in setting up new standards of behaviour and being. It questioned and even attacked the accepted status quo and become highly popular among the young. Even today, it speaks of freedom and individuality. Such might partly explain its lack of acceptance among certain quarters, notably religious ones.


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