Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 6

Third Stream Jazz: Musical Crossroads Or Parallel Worlds? (Part I)

by Marc Chénard / March 1, 2001

Version française...

In the twenties, it was called Symphonic Jazz. As outlined in last month’s issue by Bette King ("American symphonic jazz: an excursion into the geography of music"), the interest in mixing Western classical music and jazz has been a longstanding one. European composers as diverse as Stravinsky, Milhaud and Krenek were intrigued and even fascinated by jazz, but living outside of the culture that gave birth to this musical form was a definite handicap in the understanding of its idiosyncracies. It would have taken a native son, say George Gershwin, to attempt some sort of fusing of these traditions, especially when jazz was still in its infancy and trying to sort out its own identity. Egged on by bandleader Paul Whiteman, who wished nothing more than "making a decent lady out of jazz," Gershwin wrote his famous Rhapsody in Blue, thus making it acceptable to a white American audience that perceived black music as little more than a sub-cultural product, or a folk music of little portent.

While the classical-jazz mix has been a dicey proposition at best, it never fully disappeared over the years. For instance, in the Swing Era of the thirties, one would talk of "Jazzing the Classics", whereby big band arrangers would more or less skillfully lift musical works from European composers and dress them up anew.1 Similarly, tin-pan alley tunesmiths were not averse to cranking out hit tunes copped from the classics.2

Yet, over the last 80 years, there have been periods when efforts have been more concerted in the merging of genres. Whether purely coincidental or cyclical, there seems to have been renewed attention in this matter every 40 years or so. Indeed, after the passing of the Symphonic Jazz trend of the mid-twenties, yet another manifestation arose in the late fifties with the appearance of so-called "Third Stream Jazz".

Until then, jazz was roughly divided into two camps, the "traditional", which ranged from New Orleans to Swing, and the "modern", which covered the post-war styles, namely, be-bop, cool and hardbop. But with Third Stream Jazz, the music was once more looking beyond its own stylistic parameters.3 As for the term itself, it was the brainchild of the American composer, musicologist and historian Gunther Schuller, coined during a lecture given in 1957. In his talk he proposed how jazz, with its openness to improvisation, could be enriched by the longer forms developed in the classical music tradition. Yet, what may look like a perfectly acceptable idea now was actually quite a controversial one at the time.

"People now forget that we were at the barricades back then, and it was a battleground out there," Schuller recalls during a phone conversation, "because the critical fraternity lashed out against the concept; since many of them were conservative, they just didn’t want to see anything new beyond be-bop. So when something did not work in a performance or a recording, they blamed the composer rather than the players. But you just couldn’t find string players who could swing back then, and it was next to impossible to find jazz musicians who were as proficient readers as their classical counterparts."

In spite of all the emphasis that jazz histories place on the importance of the African-American tradition in its evolution, which the recent "Jazz" series by Ken Burns literally beats to death (extolled ad nauseam by the Murray-Crouch-Marsalis trimuvirate), the truth of the matter shows that many a black (and white) jazz musician has harboured more than a passing interest in the European classical tradition. Charles Mingus, for one, wrote very involved scores,4 sometimes without any improvisation at all. Ditto for John Lewis of the modern Jazz Quartet, a group whose popularity was as much hinged on an elegant form of swing as on classical canons, passacaglias, and the like.

In the ensuing 40 years a lot of water has gone under the bridge, and in spite of all the shortcomings that Third Stream Jazz had in its time, it in fact pointed the way to many developments that would follow. Nowadays we can talk of jazz in terms of substreams, of which such labels as "Fusion Music", "World Musics", "Free Musics" are but tributaries, yet no less important in their impact as jazz itself. Lest we forget, jazz was born out of multiple musical strands, coalescing into a style that would mistakenly be viewed as monolithic rather than polymorphic. And it is precisely that misperception that has led some people to view jazz as dead, or museum music at best. Even as far back as the mid-fifties, the renegade bandleader Stan Kenton held that opinion. Yet it is still around, kept alive by a glut of reissues, and by just as many or even more current day productions. If we then accept that Monteverdi, Schubert and Cage are part of Western music, then it should not be complicated to draw a lineage from Louis Armstrong to Evan (and not just Charlie) Parker.


1. To name but one example, Bennie Goodman’s famous theme song, Let’s Dance, was a clever adaption by Fletcher Henderson of Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to a Dance.

2. Songs like My Reverie, or Baubles, Bangles and Beads were actually borrowed from Debussy and Borodin respectively.

3. Ten years previously, in the late 40’s, jazz was actively courting Afro-Cuban music, with Dizzy Gillespie at the forefront of that intermingling of musical cultures. (More on that can be read in Luc Delannoy’s recently published book, Caliente, in French — Denoël Éditeur)

4. In the early fifties Mingus was writing very thoroughly composed pieces and recording them on his Debut label. Recommended listenings as well are his twelve minute orchestral piece Revelations on "The Birth of the Third Stream" album (Columbia Legacy CK64929) and parts of his monumental suite Epitaph (i.e The Children’s Hour of Dream).

Next month: Classics, jazz and beyond

Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale