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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 5

American symphonic jazz: an excursion into the geography of music

by Betty King / February 1, 2001

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S ymphonic jazz, that fusion of jazz and European high-culture music that arose in the United States of the 1920s, is closely identified with American urban settings. The music creates images on cultural, geographic, ethnic, and economic levels, using the technical components of melody, harmony, rhythm, and form—as well as less definable elements—to evoke American identity.

True symphonic jazz is a concert music whose musical language is derived from European Romantic tradition, African-American jazz, and American popular music. The term "symphonic jazz"was coined by famed American band leader Paul Whiteman early in the 1920s. The first piece of symphonic jazz is thought to have been the opera Blue Monday, George Gershwin's 1922 attempt at a new sound, which preceded Darius Milhaud's more famous symphonic jazz ballet La création du monde. By far the best known symphonic jazz work, often regarded as the first such composition, was Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue of 1924. His famous Concerto in F appeared in short order. Many other jazz symphonies followed, including George Antheil's Jazz Symphony and Ferde Grofé's Metropolis.

Music geography

The musical characteristics of symphonic jazz reflect the sociocultural conditions of the U.S.A. in the 1920s. But how exactly is music linked to a nation, culture, geography, or landscape? Identified as closely tied to human migration patterns, musical y´cculturation occurs when the musical idioms of two cultures gradually borrow characteristics from one another through commerce and intermarriage. However, the ties between music and cultural geography were little understood until music geography emerged around 1970 as a subfield of cultural geography.

Music geographers point out that we can sense environment aurally. Music can convey social, political, economic and cultural contexts, as outlined in the article "Hearing Places."1 The authors argue that music can evoke memories and emotional responses, and create "soundscapes"in the same way that a painting can evoke a landscape.2

It is a natural extension of this idea that not only nations, but each culturally distinct city,should have a "soundmark"— a characteristic sound that can be musically conveyed through representative rhythms, melodies, instruments, structures or harmonies. Symphonic jazz establishes a bond with American cities, especially New York.

Cities can be recognized by their pace just as people can by their walk,"writes Robert Musil.3 õowever, long before the field of cultural geo.graphy arose, critic Hiram K. Moderwell, an early enthusiast of symphonic jazz, found that ragtime rhythms evoked the sounds of the American city. "I like to think that it [ragtime] is the perfect expression of the American city, with its restless bustle and motion... and its underlying rhythmic progress toward a vague Somewhere."4 Identifiable city soundscapes occur in many works of this period. Gershwin's Second Rhapsody, for example, evokes the rhythm of riveting, along with images of construction and commercial growth.

The music of America contains the sounds of different cultures, like the nation itself. Composers, songwriters, and arrangers of symphonic jazz reflect their culture through rhythm, melody, harmony, formal structure, and instrumentation. Symphonic jazz in particular, democratically combines the most interesting elements of black jazz, American popular music, and European high-culture musical styles.

Cultural characteristics

£merican culture values innovation in all things. The innovative concept of symphonic jazz offered a fusion that most Americans generally welcomed with open arms. Rhapsody in Blue premiered at the Paul Whiteman concert entitled "An experiment in modern music."It presented a hybrid form of music with roots in the emotionalism of European Romantic orchestral music, in African-American and Latin rhythms, and in popular music forms. The experimental nature of this combination was a major element of its American identity.

Symphonic jazz also expresses a forward-driving energy typical of the U.S.A., one of its most insistent and distinctive qualities. Gershwin summed up the importance of America's rhythmic energy in his compositions as follows: "Basically, it is a matter of rhythm... In America this preferred rhythm is called jazz... Jazz is the result of the energy stored up in America. It is a very energetic kind of music, noisy, boisterous and even vulgar."5

Musical democratization

Yet another typically American element is the strong trend after 1900 toward removing distinctions between high-culture and popular music. Symphonic jazz is a democratization of concert music. Of course, America is well-known for its fascination with reducing everything cultural to its lowest common denominator. Some people see symphonic jazz as a mere popularization of European high-culture music. It has traditionally been classified among the light classics or "pops"and is regarded as music for the middle class. Like American society, it is decidedly middle-class and far less class-conscious than its European counterpart.

Unexpected rhythms

Symphonic jazz also embodies America's history of challenging European authority. When it first appeared, it defied European tonal thinking and conventional Romantic sounds by using unexpected rhythms of African or Latin origin. The syncopation and dissonant new harmonies contested the musical status quo and expressed America's budding cultural independence.

The excitement of the "Roaring ‘20s"can be heard in the energy of symphonic jazz. Irving Berlin and George Gershwin stated that for them jazz conjured up the rhythm of daily life in America's cities. For Berlin, jazz evoked the "rhythmic beat of our everyday lives. Its swiftness is interpretive of our verve and speed and ceaseless activity."6 Gershwin spoke about machine elements and rhythms in his music and the music of his American contemporaries. "The Machine Age has influenced practically everything. I do not mean only music but everything from the arts to finance. The machine has not afœected our age in form as much as in tempo, speed, and sound. It has affected us in sound whenever composers utilize new instruments to imitate its aspects.7

Other elements

Part of the American musical heritage is the traditional symphonic framework within which certain jazz techniques were used. Symphonic jazz has evident origins in Western tonal music, especially in the late Romantic style, the symphonic orchestration, the rich harmonies and dissonances, and the long melodic lines, all of which contribute to the "American"sound.

There are elements of American popular music in symphonic jazz. These include jazz rhythms and colours, popular melodies, and advanced harmonies typical of Tin Pan Alley songs. Formal structure is another: symphonic jazz contains echoes of the American popular song with its typical harmonies and 16-bar or 32-bar structures.

Important among other identifiable American melodic elements are blues themes. Gershwin's Concerto in F uses blues melodies extensively. The frequent occurrence of flattened blues thirds, bent pitches, and "blue"notes are very noticeable.

Rushing rhythms

The people's imagination was mainly caught by the new African rhythms, including syncopation and cross-rhythms, as striking an "American"note and creating the image of the city rush-hour and bustling modern life.

Roy Harris, in his influential article "Problems of American Composers,"says that "Our [American] rhythmic impulses are fundamentally different from the rhythmic impulses of Europeans... Our sense of rhythm is less symmetrical... European musicians are trained to think of rhythm in its largest common denominator, while we are born with a feeling for its smallest units."

Harris goes on to present contrasting examples of European-based rhythms in 4/4 time, which concentrate on equal, predictable divisions of quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes, versus American spontaneous rhythmic variety:

Examples of these "American"rhythms, polyrhythms and syncopation abound in the works of Gershwin and his followers. Harris points out that U.S. composers of popular jazz and high-culture music alike employ several typically American techniques, including asymmetrical melodies (due to their asymmetrical sense of rhythm), modal harmonies, and a tendency to avoid definite cadences.


To the above list of American characteristics should be added a definitely American approach to instrumentation. While symphonic jazz retains the standard European symphony orchestra, some jazz instruments are used. These are sometimes replaced by traditional instruments—a clarinet instead of a saxophone, for example. Specific instruments such as the saxophone, and unexpected instrumental timbres, especially in percussion, create mental images of America's energy, ethnic makeup, and geographical features.

Inventive instrumentation in symphonic jazz includes Gershwin's use of car horns in the programmatic American in Paris. George Antheil used airplane and typewriter sounds in his work. Copland employed the wood block to convey city traffic images.

Symphonic jazz is the culmination of the American composers' striving for their own characteristic sound. As a movement, it shows how national characteristics can be embodied in music bearing the stamp of the cultures that created it. Both the movement and its individual compositions express the inventiveness and energy of American life, providing the soundmark of the nation's big cities—an interesting excursion for students of music and music geography alike.

1. J. Ingham, M. Purvis, D.B. Clarke, "Hearing places, making spaces: Sonorous geographies, ephemeral rhythms,"Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 17 (June 1999): 283.
2. Ibid., 285.
3. Robert Musil, quoted in J. Ingham et al., 187.
4. Edward Jablonski, Gershwin (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 58.
5. George Gershwin, "The Composer in the Machine Age,"in The American Composer Speaks, ed. Gilbert Chase (Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1966), 142.
6. Irving Berlin, quoted in Kathy Ogren, The Jazz Revolution: Twenties America & the Meaning of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 144.
7. George Gershwin, in Chase, 140.
8. Roy Harris, "Problems of American Composers,"in American Composers on American Music, ed. Henry Cowell (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962), 151.
9. Harris, 154.

Editor's Note: This article won the second prize in our Student Writing Contest last year. If you wish to enter this year's contest, visit our Web site www.scena.org for details. Deadline: May 15 2001.


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