In a room full of people, are you part of a gang or alone in a crowd? The distinction between jazz and classical musicians, players, and composers, to their respective tasks, offer up an interesting question. The jazz musician has to adapt his playing to the boys-in-the-band, and usually on the fly, while the classical musician stays on task no matter what happens around him. Is there a musically definable middle ground?
With jazz, the focus is more often on what the player brings to a composition (consider old warhorses like Basin Street Blues, Cherokee, Body and Soul). Do you prefer Lester Young or John Coltrane, Chet Baker or Miles Davis? Sometimes it doesn’t even sound like the same song as musicians apply their personal touch to a tune. The acknowledged jazz greats known for their orchestral compositions and arrangements, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones come easily to mind, specifically describe thinking about particular players when writing or arranging for large ensembles. Consider Ellington and Hodges or Jones and Sinatra.
It seems to work differently within classical music circles. Rarely do individual players achieve notoriety, such as Goldberg playing Bach or Yo-Yo Ma on cello. A specific orchestra like the London Philharmonic or Boston Pops (aka, the Boston Symphony Orchestra) is more likely referenced when discussing a classical performance than their famous conductors, let alone the first chair violin by name. For example, we tend to think of Mozart’s music in relation to the instruments (Flute Concerto #2 in D), but rarely associate that same composition with a particular musician.
An Intro to Classical Music from a Jazz Enthusiast’s Perspective
Jan Swafford’s terrific new book, Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music inspired me to create a playlist of exceptional classical music. The first surprise was how much of the music Swafford recommended was already in my collection. Recordings by David Munrow with the Early Music Consort of London and the Goldberg Variations on Bach had been, regrettably, gathering dust. Conversely, lots of music by Mozart and Stravinsky are in regular rotation on my daily soundtrack. The complete Beethoven symphonies, well, not so much.
Going in chronological order, I added works by Berlioz, Ravel, and Bartok. Not among the music mentioned by Swafford that made my list is a personal favorite, Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time(context is important to fully appreciate this work, composed in a Nazi death camp, so check out this link). Finally, though Swafford probably wouldn’t approve, I finished out my seven-hour survey of classical music with some Phillip Glass, the Saxophone Quartet Concerto – all movements. This playlist is an absolute delight to play, especially for friends not expecting classical music from a jazz enthusiast; and also another example of the intersection between elements of jazz and classical music.
So classical music was much on my mind as I recently watched an interview with Dizzy Gillespie from 1990 (during a made for TV documentary by Norwegian Jan Horne, To Bop or Not to Be: A Jazz Life).
A curious segue was provided by trumpeter Red Rodney as he explained why hard bop is the hardest form of jazz to play well (cut to Gillespie), “Because you got to think all the time.” Gillespie went on to observe that, “Classical musicians just play that (points to a sheet of music), period. No added notes, no nothing else.”