Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Jazz

Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere.   The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms.  In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s.  Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century.  His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year.  He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.

It was from this perch in sunny Hollywood that Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto in 1945.  In it, he distilled American jazz through his own compositional lens.  The score (untouched since its first edition in 1946) has this to say about its origin and inspiration:

Ebony Concerto was written by Igor Stravinsky for Woody Herman and his Orchestra.  It was introduced by that orchestra in a memorable concerto at Carnegie Hall, New York, on March 25, 1946, to the acclaim of public and critics alike.

Igor Stravinsky is one of the greatest and most representative figures in modern-day music.  His music has shocked, delighted, amazed, and irritated, but never bored people.  Stravinsky’s revolutionary musical precepts, his constant search for the new, for the true mirror of our changing world, find expression in music that is based on sound musicianship and great genius.  That is why his Firebird SuiteRite of Spring, and Petrouchka, to name only a few of his major works, are modern classics.

That is why Stravinsky was so impressed by the Woody Herman Orchestra and by their recordings of Bijou, Goosey Gander, and Caldonia.  His creativeness, invention, and deep sense of the modern, matched the characteristics of the Herman Orchestra.  A few months after Stravinsky had met Woody Herman, he presented the popular bandleader with Ebony Concerto… a composition that marks an epochal collaboration between the “jazz” and the “modern” schools of thought.

In truth, this origin story is somewhat romanticized.  Another account (see the Chicago Tribune link below) has it that a member of Herman’s band boasted of a meeting with Stravinsky which never actually happened, leading their mutual publisher to arrange the commission for the cash-strapped composer.  Regardless, Stravinsky did possess enough affinity for jazz that he did not hesitate in completing the project.

Listen to the original recording, and notice the delicious clash of styles happening:

Now listen to another recording that Stravinsky conducted, this time with Benny Goodman as the soloist:

The astute listener in possession of a score will have noticed that in both recordings, Stravinsky does not take his own printed tempos.  The interpretations on these recordings have now become standard.

The tunes mentioned in the program notes give great context to what inspired Stravinsky.  Here is Bijou:

And here is Caldonia:

For further reading on the Ebony Concerto, visit the Center for Jazz Arts, the Chicago Tribune, New York City Ballet, and Boosey & Hawkes.  Get a partial look at the score here.

Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as a Foundation in his name with an Internet presence.  So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice.  But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.

American composer Dana Wilson (b. 1946) has won numerous awards and grants for his work.  His music has been performed and recorded across the United States, Europe, and Asia.  He has been commissioned to write new works by organizations and prominent soloists around the world.  His output includes music for orchestras, chamber groups, choirs, and a wide-ranging repertoire for bands at all levels.  Educated at the Eastman School of Music (DMA, 1982), he is currently the Charles A. Dana Professor of Music in the School of Music at Ithaca College.  To read more about his distinguished career, visit his website, wikipedia, his Ithaca faculty page, or the American Composers Forum.  For an overview his music by one of the distinguished figures in our field, visit Tim Reynish’s website.

Speak to Me (2010) is the result of a commission from John F. Kennedy High School in La Palma, California.  Wilson’s program notes describe both inspiration for the piece and the way he uses its main idea:

There is a long tradition in jazz of instruments carrying on a conversation–either intricate, soloistic dialogues (often improvised) or the call and response of larger forces. Speak to Me is above all such a conversation, at first among soloists and then among more and more performers as they gradually join in. This piece begins with a simple tune that increasingly overlaps with–and is interrupted by–other ideas, generating enormous energy along the way.

Aside from its jazz elements, Speak to Me is also a study in the chromatic scale for almost every instrument in the band, with its main motive built on chromatic fragments that are gradually extended to cover more than two octaves at times.

CLICK HERE to listen to the University of North Texas Wind Symphony play Speak to Me.

I had a small part in bringing that recording into being, since I conducted rehearsals and a preliminary performance of it at the University of North Texas Conductor’s Collegium in the summer of 2014.

For some context on this piece, here is a clip of the type of jazz conversation that Wilson has in mind, in the form of a TEDx talk:

Here is another, less academic, example, with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie:

Blue Shades (1996) was my introduction to Frank Ticheli and his music back when I played it (2nd trumpet) with the Dartmouth Wind Symphony in 2000.  I’ve seen a lot of his music since then, and I still think it’s one of his best.  Ticheli talks eloquently about the piece and its origins in the score:

In 1992 I composed a concerto for traditional jazz band and orchestra, Playing With Fire, for the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and the San Antonio Symphony.  That work was composed as a celebration of the traditional jazz music I heard so often while growing up near New Orleans.

I experienced tremendous joy during the the creation of Playing With Fire, and my love for early jazz is expressed in every bar of the concerto.  However, after completing it I knew that the traditional jazz influences dominated the work, leaving little room for my own musical voice to come through.  I felt a strong need to compose another work, one that would combine my love of early jazz with my own musical style.

Four years, and several compositions later, I finally took the opportunity to realize that need by composing Blue Shades.  As its title suggests, the work alludes to the Blues, and a jazz feeling is prevalent–however, it is not literally a Blues piece.  There is not a single 12-bar blues progression to be found, and except for a few isolated sections, the eighth-note is not swung.

The work, however, is heavily influenced by the Blues.: “Blue notes” (flatted 3rds, 5ths, and 7ths) are used constantly; Blues harmonies, rhythms, and melodic idioms pervade the work; and many “shades of blue” are depicted, from bright blue, to dark, to dirty, to hot blue.

At times, Blue Shade burlesques some of the cliches from the Big Band era, not as a mockery of those conventions, but as a tribute. A slow and quiet middle section recalls the atmosphere of a dark, smoky blues haunt.  An extended clarinet solo played near the end recalls Benny Goodman’s hot playing style, and ushers in a series of “wailing” brass chords recalling the train whistle effects commonly used during that era.

He goes on to say that the minor 3rd is the most important interval in the piece, showing up in various accompaniment figures and in every major melodic theme.  The piece even starts with that message in mind: the first nine intervals are all minor thirds!  Listen to this nearly perfect (though they don’t swing quite enough at 14) recording of the North Texas Wind Symphony playing it, and you’ll see what I mean:

And here’s the Columbia Wind Ensemble playing it in December 2007.  We’re not North Texas, but as I look at that video, I see one of the most legendary front rows in CUWE history!  Fair warning – this was recorded from the front row of the audience on a camcorder.

Now let’s look at some of the background in that program note: Ticheli talks about how there is no 12-bar blues in the piece, yet it’s full of blue notes, those in-between pitches usually found at the 3rd, 5th, and 7th.  To illustrate where that comes from, here’s John Lee Hooker:

The smoky jazz club of the center section has its roots in slow blues.  Ticheli even calls it “Dirty” in the score.  So, here’s some nice, dirty, slow burlesque-type blues.  This will give you an idea of the sound you’re after.  I would show a dance to go along with it, but many of those are too PG-13 for this space.  Suffice it to say, this section should sound like hair-tossing!

The clarinet solo was inspired by Benny Goodman.  So here’s the man himself:

Finally, Ticheli uses a train whistle effect in the brass wails towards the end of the piece.  You can hear bits and pieces of that in the Chattanooga Choo-Choo as performed by the Glenn Miller Orchestra:

Ticheli’s publisher hosts a complete, downloadable set of mp3s of the vast majority of his large ensemble music on their website – quite a find!

Frank Ticheli’s personal website, Frankticheli.com.

Ticheli bio on wikipedia.

Frank Ticheli’s Facebook fanclub.

A video interview with Ticheli in which he talks about composing.

For those who have forgotten, here’s my short bio on Frank Ticheli: Educated at the University of Michigan, composer Frank Ticheli (b. 1958) has become one of the biggest names in new wind band repertoire.  Since 1991 he has been a Professor of Composition USC-Thornton and, until 1998, Composer in Residence of the Pacific Symphony.  The recipient of many awards, he was most recently winner of the 2006 NBA/William D. Revelli Memorial Band Composition Contest for his Symphony No. 2.