Jazz Composers Orchestra: Teaching The Symphony To Swing When it comes to creating new pieces for orchestra, opportunities for composers today are scarce -- especially for jazz musicians. But participants in the first Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute have been busy imagining an improvising symphony.
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Teaching The Symphony To Swing

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Teaching The Symphony To Swing

Teaching The Symphony To Swing

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In the music world, opportunities for composers to create new pieces for an orchestra are few and far between, and it's more difficult for composers who work primarily in jazz. So, Columbia University and the American Composers Orchestra got together to do something about it.

They came up with a program to give jazz composers the tools they need to conjure new sounds from the sometimes un-swinging symphony orchestra.

Lara Pellegrinelli spent a week sitting in on seminars and getting a peek at the shape of music to come.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Its nine in the morning and 30 composers are sucking the last drops of coffee out of their paper cups. Its impossible to gauge their excitement. After all, people in the jazz world arent exactly known for being early risers.

In his own way, Joel Harrison manages to muster some quiet enthusiasm.

Mr. JOEL HARRISON (Guitarist/Composer): I kept writing them and saying, is this happening? Is this happening? And they said, dont worry well tell you when it is.

PELLEGRINIELLI: Like many jazz players, the guitarist writes much of his own music. He was awarded a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship for composition and was a student of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Joan Tower at Bard College, back in the 1980s.

Mr. HARRISON: When I was in school, the fences were that much higher. And I, being a guitar player also and more interested in jazz, never had the opportunity to play with or to learn about orchestration.

PELLEGRINIELLI: Harrison has long wanted to write for orchestra. Until now, hes had to make do with composing for small ensembles.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINIELLI: Particulars aside, Harrisons story is not too different from many of those participating in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute. Even as jazz has become more accepted in universities, the concert world tends to keep classical composers on one path and jazz composers on another.

Mr. MICHAEL GELLER (Executive Director, American Composers Orchestra): You become, you know, identified as jazz. And even if youre a composer, you dont really interact with those people down the hall or in the other building or wherever it is that are studying classical, quote-unquote, "composition."

PELLEGRINIELLI: Michael Geller is the executive director of the American Composers Orchestra, which partnered with Columbias Center for Jazz Studies to create the institute. Geller points out that classical composers still have advantages.

Mr. GELLER: Theyre introduced to techniques and composers and music. And if you want to study jazz composition, you might be limited to some basic course work in big band arranging or something like that.

PELLEGRINIELLI: Geller was among those who wanted to level the playing field. So he helped enlist a group of distinguished composers to lead seminars on contemporary orchestration, orchestral techniques and notation.

(Soundbite of piano music)

PELLEGRINIELLI: These composers also happen to be well-versed in jazz and other traditions, like Cuban-born composer and pianist Tania Leon.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Ms. TANIA LEON (Resident Composer, Center for Jazz Studies, Columbia University): So what I wanted to say...

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. LEON: Now, this is the way I grew up. While I was at the conservatory training to be a concert pianist, and the music that I write nowadays is more...

PELLEGRINIELLI: Even though there are longstanding institutional divisions in the concert world, the music itself has a long history of blending. In the first half of the 20th Century, the works of such composers as Igor Stravinsky and George Gershwin drew overtly on jazz.

(Soundbite of music, "Rhapsody in Blue")

PELLEGRINIELLI: Across the color line, jazz composers like Duke Ellington ventured into the elite terrain of classical music, but not without obstacles. It wasnt until 1931 that William Grant Still became the first African-American to receive a premiere by a major orchestra.

(Soundbite of music, "African American Symphony")

PELLEGRINIELLI: Still wrote about the viability of having a, quote, "Negro orchestra." He didnt mean a segregated orchestra of blacks. That already existed, says George Lewis, the MacArthur Award winning-composer, who directs the institute and Columbias Center for Jazz Studies.

Professor GEORGE LEWIS (Director, Center for Jazz Studies, Columbia University): Negro was a metaphor for people who were code switchers.

PELLEGRINIELLI: Thats a term Lewis uses for people fluent in multiple musical traditions.

Prof. LEWIS: You had to play classical music. You had to play popular music. You had to know how to do all kinds of things. You had to be a conductor. You had to be a pianist. You had to be an oboist. You had to be a violin player, all these kinds of things. And then you had to learn to improvise, 'cause thats was what was is in the vernacular music world, its all about improvisation.

So he figured a symphony orchestra of people like this the so-called Negro Symphony Orchestra would be able to play both the written page and to do improvisations. He talked about doing improvisations with the orchestra since 1930.

PELLEGRINIELLI: Jazz is all about improvisation, but the orchestra hasnt evolved much in that direction.

Composer Derek Bermel is also on the institutes faculty, and he points out that improvising isnt the only thing that separates jazz musicians from classical players.

Mr. DEREK BERMEL (Resident Composer, Center for Jazz Studies, Columbia University): The thing that often really separates, for instance, your typical orchestral musician is, that they probably cant swing in the way that a jazz musician can swing.

PELLEGRINIELLI: That was point of the institute - to help jazz composers figure out what you do with all of those non-improvising, un-swinging orchestral musicians. The answers have the potential to shift the course of concert music.

Mr. BERMEL: With jazz composers writing for concert music, anything can happen because theres that freedom, that freedom of improvisation, of being in the moment thats such a part of jazz, that could really combine beautifully with that sense of tradition and exactitude thats in the classical world.

PELLEGRINIELLI: Just maybe not first thing in the morning.

Next June, eight of the institute's participants will present the musical results of their studies.

For NPR news, Im Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.

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