Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 8

Classics, Jazz and Beyond: Musical Crossroads or Parallel Worlds.? (Part II)

by Marc Chénard / May 1, 2001

Version française...


A s outlined in the first part of this series (March 2001, p. 44), the numerous attempts to wed Western classical music with the “Afro-American tradition” have produced mixed results. In retrospect, the whole Third Stream controversy which raged between them in the early sixties stemmed from a basic ignorance of the assets of the other camp, and was further compounded by sectarian attitudes on both sides. Because of markedly different performance practices in jazz and classical music, there were more head-on collisions than balanced exchanges.

Based on past experience, it would be easy to dismiss any present-day initiatives offhandedly. But times have changed. We now have a new breed of conservatory-trained jazz musicians who are just as capable of fluently reading a symphonic orchestra part as ad-libbing a couple of solo choruses over a jazz big band chart. Conversely, young classical musicians are now exposed to a wider range of popular music than ever before, jazz included, thus making them more aware of and less intimidated by the concept of improvisation as were previous generations, though their training still prevents them from engaging in such slippery terrain.


Music in a global community

Given the greater access to information which is now at everyone’s disposal, there is no doubt that the mixing of cultures and idioms will only continue to increase in the future. Though not a recent phenomenon, the degree to which it is now pursued is new. Jazz music, for instance, arose out of a jumble of musical cultures that reigned over New Orleans around the turn of the previous century. At the dawning of this present one, it is returning to another confused state that signals a whole range of new directions in its evolution. And out of the myriad possibilities now before it, its encounter with the Western classical tradition is no less significant than, say, its merging with various folk traditions, as witnessed in the current “World Beat” craze.

While jazz musicians of yesteryear were basically content to work within the limited forms of pop songs and blues choruses, today’s musicians are more interested in creating original and more extended pieces of music, which may even exclude improvisation. More than any other musician identified with the jazz world, John Zorn has staked his claim as a well-rounded composer rather than as a performer. Of his countless projects, his “Chamber Music” ensemble and his klezmer-influenced “Bar Kokhba” group are examples of his contemporary composed music. Not only that, but his written music and that of other jazz/new music practioners are documented on a series of recordings issued in the composer’s series of his own Tzadik label. In other cases, improvisation may act as an interlude in a wider structure and provide an element of unpredictability within a composed piece. In Europe, there are many one-time free music practioners who have embraced composition in a more extended fashion. Of these, the Viennese trumpeter Franz Koglmann, the British bassist Barry Guy, and his Dutch counterpart Maarten Altena, write extensively nowadays while retaining the freedom of improvisation in various degrees. In the classical field, such indeterminacy has been treated in various ways, mostly by using graphic scores. The whole New York school of the 50’s (Cage and Brown in particular) most notably pursued this approach, as did a number of their European contemporaries (Christian Wolff, Christobald Halffter and Luigi Nono among others). Yet, determinacy prevailed throughout their scores, forcing musicians to interpret their systems rather than letting them make up their own music ad libitum.

Nowadays, the rapprochement between jazz and classical music is more evident than ever — a survey of relevant recordings will be presented in a future instalment — , though the former seems to be taking this more seriously than the latter, who coined the term ‘crossover’ as a means of putting down any attempts at bridging the gap with other musical styles. Given its checkered history, jazz has few qualms about dealing with other kinds of music, whereas classical music has viewed such intrusions with a jaundiced eye. Moreover, jazz has never taken itself for granted by assuming a sort of historical self-sufficiency that other kinds of music, both serious and popular, readily assume. And though certain segments of the jazz establishment are trying to impose such a view, the very internationalization of jazz contradicts such narrow-minded perceptions.

To put things in perspective, jazz’s interest in classical music is no different than its dealings with Salsa, Klezmer, or High Life. That said, one must not naively embrace today’s Zeitgeist just because it’s there.; in effect, it is more important than ever to maintain a critical point of view, to question and not just to consume passively the musical fodder being fed to us. From that vantage point, we may enrich our experiences by allowing ourselves to be tweaked by sounds both expected and unexpected.

Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale