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The Influence of Jazz
with Professor David Baker

On this edition of Milestones of the Millennium we take a look at how jazz has influenced classical composers. Performance Today host Martin Goldsmith is joined by composer David Baker, a distinguished professor of music and chairman of the jazz studies department at Indiana University, as well as artistic director of the Smithsonian Master Works Jazz Orchestra.

Early in this century, classical composers were attracted to the newness of jazz, which to them would have seemed exotic and avant garde, says Baker. The “external trappings” of jazz offered inspiration and provided new areas to explore. As early as the 1890’s, Johannes Brahms was experimenting with ragtime, an early precursor to jazz.

European classical composers were exposed to this adventurous American musical form through recordings of early jazz artists like Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver of New Orleans. In addition, the growing African American expatriate community brought jazz to Europe’s cultural centers. French composer Darius Milhaud was an early adopter of jazz elements, with his jazzy ballet "The Creation of the World" from 1923. Baker observes how Milhaud captures a sense of “swing” as he imitates the New Orleans Dixieland sound by using polyphonic structure and jazz instrumentation.

American composers were also quick to embrace the native jazz form. The Burlesque movement of Aaron Copland's "Music for the Theatre" from 1925 provides one example. Perhaps no work awoke classical composers to the power of jazz more than George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” from 1924. Gershwin was already a huge success in popular music, and was beginning to establish himself in the classical realm. A pioneer in crossing musical boundaries, Gershwin embraced jazz for its uniquely American characteristics, its complex rhythm, and its passion. Baker and Martin listen to the bluesy middle movement of Gershwin’s Concerto in F.

While jazz became more evident in orchestral composing, Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein both wrote jazz-inspired pieces for jazz ensembles. Martin and Baker discuss Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto, written for the Woody Herman band, and Bernstein’s "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs." The latter employs jazz scales, improvisational melodies, and bending notes. You still hear the musical personalities of Stravinksy and Bernstein even in the bluesy melodies and driving rhythms of their jazz inspired music. Baker also explains that the marriage of jazz and classical continues to advance as composers gain a fuller understanding of both traditions.

Listen to David Baker's discussion with Martin about the influence of jazz on classical music.Note: music parts have been edited from the commentary because of internet rights issues. (This stereo audio segment requires the free RealPlayer.)

Note: PT also aired a commentary by Jan Swafford on the 75th anniversary of the the premiere of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at New York’s Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924. You can also hear this commentary online.

"Jazz Influences" is the latest installment of PT's Milestones of the Millenium series.

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