There have been many attempts over the years to write and perform concert jazz. Some attempts more successful than others. Many critics and fans of jazz have decried these attempts, but nevertheless, jazz musicians as well as jazz conductors and arrangers have proceeded to try. What does one mean by ‘concert jazz’? A serviceable definition might be an arrangement of music which features a mixture of traditional jazz instruments (piano, saxophone, trumpet, etc.) with instruments more normally found in the concert orchestra. The composition features both written parts and improvised sections for solo instruments. The presentation of such concert music would utilize rhythms more often found in jazz such as swing eighths and sixteenth notes as well as syncopation.
Many classical composers of the twentieth century such as Charles Ives, Stravinsky, Ravel, Darius Milhaud, Shostakovich and others have made attempts – more or less successful depending upon tastes. Jazz artists such as Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton have commissioned and performed works that one would consider to be concert jazz. Jazz arrangers and composers (again Ellington is a key example) but also people such as Eddie Sauter, Ralph Burns, George Russell, George Handy, William Russo, Pete Rugolo have made significant contributions to this endeavor. American composers like Gershwin, Copland, David Diamond, and Leonard Bernstein have championed such efforts and been more or less successful in this field.
Depending upon your definition of concert jazz, one might consider Rhapsody in Blue to be primogenitor of the entire field. Historians point out that the written piano sections were originally improvised by Gershwin and then later written down. Some artists today proceed with the idea and intention of improvising the piano parts but concert goers pretty much want to hear the familiar piano cadenzas played as Gershwin played and wrote them…and who can blame them since it’s hard to come up with anything that sounds better. Dave Brubeck commissioned his brother, Howard, to write the symphony orchestra parts to his composition Brandenburg Gate (featured on the album Brandenburg Gate Revised.) John Lewis developed compositions that he performed with members of the Stuttgard Symphony Orchestra along with the Modern Jazz Quartet. Composer and educator, Gunther Schuller, championed the development of what he termed “The Third Stream” (blending classical and jazz) and he performed and recorded many examples of this type of music. Many of the arrangements of Gil Evans would meet the definition of concert jazz in particular his arrangement of Porgy and Bess with Miles Davis as soloist. Evan’s other major work Sketches of Spain (also with Davis as soloist) is considered one of the best and most successful works in this endeavor. Attempts to blend classical and jazz influenced almost the entire catalogue of Creed Taylor’s CTI record label and the arranger Don Sebesky contributed symphonic arrangements that supported the improvisations of major jazz artists such as Hubert Laws, George Benson, Milt Jackson and a host of others.
Two of the finest examples of concert jazz were created by the composer, arranger and pianist Billy Strayhorn. Billy Strayhorn wrote and composed music for Duke Ellington’s band from 1939 until 1967. He also helped to arrange performances for members of the Ellington orchestra when these members went out on their own to record independently from the Duke. The Billy Strayhorn composition Chelsea Bridge is acclaimed as one of the greatest jazz ballads of all time. It has been recorded by dozens of major jazz artists, but perhaps the finest rendition of the song is to be found on an album by Ben Webster recorded for Verve Records. It is known as Ben Webster with Strings “Music for Loving” and it originally was made on three 10 inch long-playing vinyl records for Mercury/Clef or Verve Records. Billy Strayhorn did the arrangement for the string section that surrounds the beautiful tenor saxophone solo. Strayhorn briefly takes a solo on the piano as well. It is a gorgeous arrangement! Every aspect of this arrangement is in the service of showcasing the marvelous velvety tone of Webster’s saxophone.
As a companion piece to Ben Webster’s masterful performance with strings, another stellar arrangement by Billy Strayhorn is his setting of Solitude featuring Duke Ellington at the solo piano. One can easily imagine a recording studio with the lights dimmed. It is after hours, all the musicians are relaxed and tired from a long day of recording. They could easily pack up and go home. But one last masterpiece needs to be played. Duke sits down at the piano and begins the first tentative notes of the Ellington classic Solitude. The beauty of this arrangement is its apparent simplicity…its easy, relaxed unfolding. The band enters behind Duke very softly caressing the chord changes. The center piece of the arrangement is Ellington alone at the piano playing one of the great jazz compositions of all time. Very few people in the world can create this kind of magic. The piano, the orchestra, and ultimately the arrangement are complete perfection. This is concert jazz!
When Billy Strayhorn joined the Ellington Orchestra his first assignments were to arrange and rehearse the small band recordings (which often featured altoist Johnny Hodges) and to create arrangements for the male and female singers with the band. (Hajdu, 1996, pp. 60,80) (van de Leur, 2002 , p. 34) Singers who worked with Billy Strayhorn initially and over the years commented on how much he provided them the professional help that allowed them to sing at their best. He collaborated with them in selecting the most appropriate keys to sing in and he took great pains to make arrangements which demonstrated how much attention he could give to even the smallest detail. (Hajdu, 1996, pp. 97-99) These early assignments with the Ellington Orchestra no doubt served him well in these arrangements of Solitude and Chelsea Bridge.
Sources and References:
Ben Webster with Strings Music for Loving (Verve Records 527 774-2) Two CD format
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra Ellington Indigos (Columbia LP – CS 8053)
Hajdu, David. Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996.
van de Leur, Walter. Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn. Oxford University Press, 2002.