What Jazz Can Learn From Today's Classical Music Presenters

Joel Harrison. i i

Joel Harrison. Gildas Bocle/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption Gildas Bocle/Courtesy of the artist
Joel Harrison.

Joel Harrison.

Gildas Bocle/Courtesy of the artist

Guitarist and composer Joel Harrison, a jazz musician with an open ear to outside styles and approaches, recently attended a slate of contemporary classical music festivals in New York City. And far from feeling stifled by it, he left inspired by both the art and the audiences. He was prompted to write about his experiences — and why the jazz world should pay attention to these events. —Ed.


One of my frustrations as a jazz musician is that the music is continually placed into silos — even in jazz-rich New York City. There are relatively few harbors where both "playing out" and playing in," both electric and acoustic, both notated music and free improvisation are encouraged.

In practical terms, this can mean that a lot of good music is denied access to good stages for reasons that seem arbitrary. The most progressive venues, such as The Stone, assert an open view, where jazz can be approached in multiple ways, and transcending received notions of style is encouraged. The problem is that there are so few of these venues, and all of them operate on the slimmest of budgets.

With this in mind, I have gazed in envy at the classical music landscape these past few months. The venues with funds and prestige seem to have had an epiphany.


A recent wave of classical "new music" festivals have led me to believe there is a quiet revolution taking place. The Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Concert Hall, Tune-In Music Festival at the extraordinary Park Avenue Armory and Tully Scope at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall all have offered listeners the most bracing combinations of adventurous, fulfilling music in recent memory. And did I mention the eight-hour marathon of all living composers at Symphony Space?

Among the riches: Morton Feldman's "Rothko Chapel," played by Axiom; George Friedrich Hass' "In Vain" and Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" played by eighth blackbird; 90 minutes of chamber works by Gunther Schuller; Kurt Schwitters' 25-minute solo vocal piece made from nonsense syllables, performed by Steven Schick and accompanied by virtuoso computer imaging and processing; and a collage of Renaissance chorus, Arvo Part and Beethoven, with interstitial writing by Paul Haas. I missed a piece for 72 percussionists by John Luther Adams, a torrent of pop-influenced classical writing spearheaded by Judd Greenstein of New Amsterdam Records, and a piece for 12 radios by John Cage. I was, however, present for two astounding, thunderous Iannis Xenakis pieces by the Strasbourg Percussion group and the premiere of four orchestra pieces by the American Composers Orchestra, including one by Henry Threadgill.

What is going on here? I half expect to hear Elliott Carter piped in at Starbucks!

Things have changed. I vividly remember how cold, uninviting and hidebound the classical world seemed to me as a teenager in the '70s. Babbitt's famous adage, "I only write for my colleagues," had not lost its sway. Writing new music that involved jazz or rock or "world" music — or for that matter any sort of overt emotion — was very rare. This is one reason that I turned to jazz. At the Aspen Music School, I recall the look on fellow composers' faces when I said that I favored tonal music. Shock! When I declaimed that jazz and progressive rock music were just as important as Schoenberg, I was regarded as a simpleton.

These battles between "high" and "low" art, between tonality and atonality, between the heart and the mind, between uptown and downtown seem to be over. This is cause for celebration! It suggests a more pluralistic, all-embracing future for classical music.

Put another way, it means young people will stay engaged. And this is the key. There seems to be a youth movement afoot that is as surprising to me as it is exhilarating. Of course, all along the way, the classical world has been full of eccentrics and visionaries. But the level of creative writing, performing and programming going on now with new music groups is extraordinary. Somehow, magically, young people have joined forces in what seems like a real synergy.

This all-embracing vision is one I have had since I was a teenager, and to see it unfolding in the classical mainstream after all these years is deeply gratifying. All the remarkable events I saw this month were either sold out or close to it. Plenty of people actually love modern music!


Meanwhile, my jazz conscience is nagging at me. Why are there no agencies, save for Jazz at Lincoln Center, that have the kind of budget that could make extraordinary jazz programming happen?

One reason is that about 90 percent of the philanthropists in New York and elsewhere feel more attached to classical music than jazz. Classical music has had a long time to hone its fundraising skills. Even that, though, is an unsatisfying explanation. Do those big donors realize what insanely modern music their dollars went to this year? And if they did, would they be eager to have those same dollars go towards radically new jazz-based music?

No doubt certain gatekeepers in the jazz community hold on to the belief that only traditional jazz, with its swing rhythms and roster of yesteryear's heroes will guarantee fund-raising success. And you know what? They may be right! I've never tried to raise money to sustain a large jazz organization, and I'm not about to cast anyone as a villain here.

But if Xenakis can be programmed on the same festival as Jordi Savall at Tully Hall, why can't we find a venue to program Threadgill beside Ellington? Better yet, why not program Morton Feldman's piece for bass clarinet and percussion with a trio of improvisers like Marty Ehrlich, with Andrew Cyrille and William Winant. Talk about scope! To the funders, I say this: Jazz composers and classical composers are now brethren in multiple ways. Can we just do away with the concepts and call it all new music?

One issue we face is that jazz is not a part of the daily lives of many young classical players or composers. Improvisation as a whole is appreciated, especially when it appears in hip-hop, rock and modal funk, but Mingus and Dolphy are not on their iPods. There was little jazz-based music in the Ecstatic Music Festival, and jazz is mostly missing from the Bang On A Can annual marathon.

I wonder: Why is there this disconnect? I am not suggesting what anyone should like or dislike, but this tendency surprises me. As a comparison, elder statesmen of the classical community absolutely love jazz and found it formative to their style — Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Alvin Singleton and William Bolcom, to name a few. I'll bet Elliot Carter was an Ellington fan. (Anybody know?)

On the other hand, many younger jazz musicians are open to if not actively engaged in the world of classical and new music. If they don't always attend concerts, or study this music closely, they still listen deeply. Younger groups like Kneebody, the Dan Weiss trio, Ohad Talmor's sextet and John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet are steeped in this aesthetic. This openness goes way back to Dizzy, Duke, Mingus and then Muhal Richard Abrams, Ran Blake, Jimmy Giuffre and George Russell.


I long for more dimensionality and depth in today's jazz festivals after the embarrassment of riches from our friends uptown. Even the most compelling festivals in the U.S almost never reach out to the new music world; rather, they reach out to the pop world, in order to turn a profit.

While we can admire the now-not-so-new Vision Festival, which exposes us to a certain marginalized niche of improvised music, and the Winter Jazzfest, which perhaps comes closest to representing the frontlines of the creative scene, more is needed. On a curmudgeonly side note, one sometimes wishes jazz events provided comfortable seats, great sound, lack of lines and prompt start times. I guess that if the Winter Jazzfest had access to the types of venues that the classical world operates in, this would be easier. In any event, the producers of this event deserve much praise and replication.

I issue two challenges. First, I would like to see someone from the jazz side of the river write a piece for 72 musicians and get paid for it! That is, I'd like to see a venue with a big budget take it on. Years ago I saw the great trumpeter Lester Bowie do a piece for 60 musicians at the old Symphony Space. It was amazing! And then, I'd like to see another festival where the walls between improvised and notated music fall away.

Jazz and classical music are the two great intellectual musics of our time. Isn't it time they got serious with one another?


Related At NPR Music: Lara Pellegrinelli on the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute.

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