Concert Jazz

Author's Photo

Author’s Photo

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.

Author's Photo

Author’s Photo

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.

Verve MG V-2026

Verve MG V-2026

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.

Columbia CS 8053

Columbia CS 8053

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!

Author's Photo

Author’s Photo

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.





Maybeck Piano Recital Series

"Webern - Piano Variations op. 27 tone row" by .The original uploader was Hyacinth at English Wikipedia - Created by Hyacinth (talk) 06:45, 7 December 2010 using Sibelius 5.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Webern – Piano Variations op. 27 tone row” by .The original uploader was Hyacinth at English Wikipedia – Created by Hyacinth (talk) 06:45, 7 December 2010 using Sibelius 5.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


Chances are if you are a fan of jazz piano you are already aware of the unique project of the Maybeck Hall piano recitals which were recorded by Concord Records.  This outstanding record label issued 42 solo piano performances by some of the most original and compelling jazz pianists of the twentieth century.   The series originated in 1989 and continued until the Maybeck Recital Hall was sold in 1995.  The project was the brainchild of jazz pianist Dick Whittington, Marilyn Ross and Carl Jefferson the owner and founder of Concord Records.  The concert hall was renown for its intimate setting and acoustical warmth.  The hall was designed by the famous Arts & Crafts architect Bernard Maybeck and it allowed for an intimate audience of only 50 patrons.  The concert room was notable for its unfinished redwood paneled walls.  The acoustics were near perfect for the grand piano used by the visiting jazz soloists.

Personal favorites from this series would be Dick Hyman’s version of the Hoagy Carmichael classic Bob White (Dick Hyman Live at Maybeck Hall, Vol. 3) rendered in impeccable stride-style piano with an amazing set of variations.  As is characteristic of any Dick Hyman solo performance the listener receives an historical tour-de-force of jazz piano style which is melodic as it is memorable.  Another favorite is Marian McPartland’s gorgeous treatment of This Time’s the Dream’s On Me.  The version is both swinging and enriched by stunningly beautiful chords.  (Marian McPartland, Live at Maybeck Hall, Vol. 9)  Pianist, Gene Harris, stuns the listener with his soulful and bluesy treatment of My Funny Valentine – it is both rhapsodic and tender.  A memorable and unique interpretation of the Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart classic. (Gene Harris, Live at Maybeck Hall, Vol. 23) Fred Hersh gets gorgeous resonances out of the Yamaha grand piano on his renditions of Gershwin’s classic Embraceable You and Rodgers & Hart’s If I Loved You on Volume 31 in the series.

The late John Hicks is legendary in the jazz world as being a pianist of unique sensibility and creative imagination.  His performances at Maybeck Hall (Vol. 7) allow the listener to finally hear what all jazz musicians from Betty Carter to Pharoah Sanders already knew – that he was one of the most gifted improvisers on the scene.  His phrasing, his use of chordal color, his timing draws the listener into a very special world.  Highlights from his Maybeck recital have to be Coltrane’s heraldic After the Rain, Kurt Weill’s Speak Low, the Miles Davis/Bill Evans’ classic Blue in Green.  However, everything on this recording is memorable and he performs compositions rarely played as solo piano works such as Wayne Shorter’s Contemplation and Charles Mingus’s Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.  Maybeck Recital Series, Volume 7, is one of the rare gems in this important series.

Live at Maybeck Recital Hall Stanley Cowell (Vol. 5) is one of the most perfect sets in the series.  It is truly a case where the ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’  While this listener could mention certain favorites from this recital, it would be a disservice to the concert and to the performer whose depth of virtuosity and imagination gives this particular recital an almost magical quality.  In the very first track Stanley Cowell explores Softly As In A Morning Sunrise (Hammerstein II, Romberg) in all twelve chromatic keys in just over two minutes.  He then proceeds to a stride piano version of Stompin’ At The Savoy (A. Razaf, B. Goodman, E. Sampson, C. Webb), and then onto an original composition of his called I Am Waiting.  The entire recital is a potpourri of harmonic and melodic richness, rhythmic subtleties, and creative explorations of tempo.  Many well-known jazz standards (I’ll Remember April, Out of this World, Django) are presented in fresh, new arrangements.  Virtuosity of piano technique abounds but is always in the service of musical integrity.  A gentle ballad, Lament, by J.J. Johnson, (sadly, too little heard) is spell-binding.  This recording deserves to be listened to in its entirety.  The listener will find it infinitely rewarding.  Pianists will find it inspirational.  The Concord Records CD is a generous length of an hour and five minutes.  Thoughts of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson,  Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor would not be inappropriate.  At no time does the listener ever think of adding a bass or drums to the performance.  Stanley Cowell provides it all – sound, propulsion, impetus, harmonic complexity, and rhythmic variety.  It is an amazing recital performance!

Another fine pianist who can stun and amaze the listener with his awesome command of the grand piano is Kenny Barron (Kenny Barron Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 10).  The pianist brings power, range and sensitivity to his performance.  One of the best solo piano versions in the entire Concord Maybeck Hall series is his electrifying eight minute version of Witchcraft (Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh).  His improvisation on this wonderful song is inspired and the melodic ideas keep flowing at an amazing pace.  Just as with the Stanley Cowell recital, there is absolutely no need for bass and drums.  Mr. Barron also brings some ‘Monkish’ ideas to bear on several of his interpretations of standards and then bestows us the favor of playing the great Thelonious Monk composition Well, You Needn’t.  With such songs as I’m Getting Sentimental Over You, Spring Is Here, and Skylark the great standards of the jazz repertoire are well represented – but those of us who yearn to hear newer material are treated to three Kenny Barron originals which sound wonderful on the concert grand piano.

Now, how about you.  Do you have a favorite Maybeck Recital Hall performance?





Don Shirley: Solo Piano, Concert and Chamber Music

Photo By Salvatore Vuono, published on 14 January 2011, courtesy of Digital

Photo By Salvatore Vuono, published on 14 January 2011, courtesy of

Between the years 1955 and 1960 Don Shirley performed in a variety of contexts which included solo piano, piano with trio (bass and cello), and symphony orchestra.  Uniquely, one concert with orchestra was his role in performing the piano part of Duke Ellington’s hauntingly beautiful “New World A-Comin’” piano concerto or orchestral suite with piano.  This was a role for which Duke Ellington customarily reserved the piano to himself.  On only one occasion did Ellington assign the role of piano soloist to someone else – Don Shirley.  This occurred on March 16, 1955  at Carnegie Hall when Ellington took up the baton and Mr. Shirley was the pianist – a singular mark of respect.  Reputedly, Don Shirley later commented that it was the hardest piece of music he ever had to learn.  However all of Don Shirley’s musical training and education gave him the tools to succeed at this difficult task.  Consider his solo piano album Pianist Extraordinary, Cadence Records CLP 3048.  In his program notes he states he uses transcription as opposed to arrangements:

“An arrangement consists of rearranging notes to serve a purpose.  A transcription on the other hand is essentially a re-composition.”

On the album he proceeds to describe in detail just what he means.  For example, on his performance of How Deep is the Ocean (Irving Berlin), Don Shirley explains that he employed a form of Mozzoarabic Chant (“an early Eastern form which led to the Gregorian Chant”):

“I’ve used a chorale form with four part harmony.  It’s also in a two part song form.  The original melody is one part and the introduction becomes the meat of the second part. I’ve tried to emphasize the much part of the lyric, how much do I love you? with the second part attempting to answer how much.”

The excellent liner notes to Cadence CLP 3048 by George T. Simon, allow Don Shirley to explain his thoughts on music, performance, and technique so well.  The pianist explains his conception of each song and what each song needs to complete the artistic presentation. There is a reason for not purchasing digital downloads of classical music and jazz, and the reason is that the buyer only gets the music and not the thoughts behind the music – the reason the music was created in the first place.  On the Cadence album Don Shirley Plays Standards, the pianist performs “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” which is actually a blend of three Ellington songs “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “I Let A Song…” and “Jump for Joy” (from Ellington’s African American Musical of the same name.)  Don Shirley manages to bring out the beauty of each piece while letting each song reflect the sonorities of the others.  It’s an amazing arrangement…and very heartfelt.  Apparently, Duke Ellington was very appreciative of Shirley’s “transcription” of these well-known Ellington classics because it was decided by the two of them that Don would feature it as the encore presentation after the performance at Carnegie Hall on the night of March 16, 1955 of Ellington’s “New World A-Comin’” piano concerto.  Duke honored Don by having him perform the piano part of the concerto (usually reserved for Ellington), and Don in turn paid tribute to Duke by weaving the melodies and harmonies of the three Ellington pieces into a solo piano concert work to conclude the Carnegie Hall performance.

Resources Available to Consult:

This Carnegie Hall concert featuring New World A-Comin’ was released on the Italian label, Musica Jazz 2MJP 1021 in 1984.  The album is titled Duke Ellington – Le Suites Sinfoniche.  It is available on vinyl LP, CD and on digital download.  For some reason, Don Shirley is not identified as the pianist on the piano concerto, but the date March 16, 1955 confirms that Mr. Shirley is indeed the piano soloist.

Symphonic Ellington?  Rehearing New World A-Comin’ ; David Schief.  The Music Quarterly, Vol 96, Issue 3-4, pp. 459-477.  This article fully explores the conception behind Ellington’s piano concerto and discusses the role played by Don Shirley in the concert performance of New World A-Comin’ in the March 16, 1955 performance at Carnegie Hall.  It also analyzes the structure of this composition.

Duke Ellington As Pianist:  A Study of Styles.  Mathew J. Cooper, College Music Society, 2013.  The author explores the style and technique of Ellington the pianist.  The author provides numerous insights into the unique Ellington approach to improvisation and composition.  The book includes the author’s transcriptions of works discussed.

Four Symphonic Works by Duke Ellington.  Maurice Peress conducting the American Composers Orchestra.  Nimbus Records CD and also Music Masters CD.  Soloists Roland Hanna (piano), and Jimmy Heath (woodwinds.) Roland Hanna is another jazz pianist who learned the complexities of the Ellington piano style in order to perform New World A-Comin’ with a symphony and jazz orchestra.  Formidable technique is in evidence throughout this performance.

Don Shirley.  Pianist Extraordinary.  Cadence 25048 or Collectables CD 2759.

Don Shirley.  Plays Standards.  Cadence 3033 or Collectables CD 2789.

Dvorak to Duke Ellington:  A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots.  Maurice Peress, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Don Shirley’s original Cadence albums have been transferred to digital CD and are available on the series called “Collectables”  (see  There are all highly recommended for their highly artistic and sumptuous melodic performances.


Ellington Songbook Featured at Stanford Jazz Festival 2014


Image courtesy of By Nick Coombs, published 2008, at

San Francisco Bay Area musician, composer, and educator, Marcus Shelby, brought his jazz orchestra to the Dinkelspiel Auditorium at Stanford University on an unseasonably warm June afternoon for a celebration of the music of Duke Ellington. Also featured with the Marcus Shelby Orchestra was gifted jazz singer Denise Perrier, who has a rich history of performing and recording with such jazz greats as Red Holloway and Houston Person. The Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra is a performing orchestra which plays many venues, jazz clubs, colleges, and festivals. In fact, the MSJO had just recently played a concert in May at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall featuring the music of Duke Ellington – his renowned Such Sweet Thunder Suite. Marcus Shelby is a prolific composer and arranger who has composed and recorded three soul-stirring creations depicting very heroic and tragic events in African- American history for which he has received numerous grants and commissions: Port Chicago, Harriet Tubman, and Soul of the Movement. The members of MSJO also pursue their own career paths, and many of the band members have their own jazz ensembles. The featured vocalist, Denise Perrier, has traveled extensively throughout the world performing on concert stages in Europe and Asia as well as the United States. Ms. Perrier’s acknowledged idols are Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington. The pairing of Denise Perrier with the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra appeared to be an inspired decision as both artists have a strong appreciation for and love of the music associated with Duke Ellington.

The artistic and executive director for the Stanford Jazz Festival, Jim Nadel, welcomed everyone to an afternoon celebrating the music of Duke Ellington. He told the audience how pleased and happy they were to secure the talents of  Marcus Shelby and Denise Perrier. Mr. Nadel acknowledged some of the Bay Area jazz celebrities in the audience such as Sonny Buxton, the founder of legendary Pearl’s Night Club in San Francisco, and program announcer on Jazz FM 91.1 KCSM. He also informed the audience that several very talented students from this year’s Stanford Jazz camp and last year’s student camp would be joining the orchestra at various intervals to take solos and to join the ensemble. The concert soon began as the band leader and bassist, Marcus Shelby, took the stage wearing his trademark wool fedora. He started off with Juan Tizol’s composition Perdido (using the 1950’s Ellington Uptown arrangement.)

The challenge that all artists have in presenting the music of an earlier jazz style is how to stay true to the original while presenting music that is vital and dynamic today. Duke Ellington himself faced this same issue since his band recorded over five full decades. He had to face this challenge every time new members joined his orchestra while established artists left. Marcus Shelby has chosen to follow Ellington’s strategy by allowing the members of his orchestra the latitude to play their own solos in their own style incorporating all the newest developments in jazz. At the same time the concert goer to this event could clearly sense how much respect and admiration for the Duke Ellington organization is exemplified by the Shelby Jazz Orchestra. The Ellington sound was clearly evident in many of the ensemble passages, while the individual members of the orchestra developed their own solos which reflected their skills and strengths. The alto sax soloist, Marcus Stephens, played a beautiful Johnny Hodges style alto passage on I Let a Song Go out of My Heart. The trumpet section was outstanding. On occasion two trumpets would improvise collectively just as the Ellington trumpet section was wont to do. Fil Lorenz on baritone sax delivered outstanding solos which grew organically from the source material but became his own creation through improvisation. Tom Griesser is a major saxophone talent whose solos were strikingly original and compelling. The entire sax section delighted and surprised the audience when they doubled on clarinet for the melodic blues Creole Love Call. This arrangement was a direct reproduction of Ellington’s 1932 arrangement. Trumpeter Geechi Taylor provided the Ellington touch with his mute and ‘growl’ trumpet obbligatos.

Shelby directed the band by standing with his back to the audience but facing the musicians, in a manner similar to other famous bassist/band leaders such as Chubby Jackson and Charles Mingus. The sound of his bass was deep, rhythmic, and firm. The second concert piece was a vigorous performance by the pianist, Joe Warner, of James P. Johnson’s You Gotta Be Modernistic. Director Shelby told the audience he wanted to include this piece since Ellington was strongly influenced by the great Harlem stride pianists of his day, and James P. Johnson, was perhaps the strongest influence on the young Ellington. The concert segued into such familiar Ellington compositions as: In My Solitude, Creole Love Call, and C Jam Blues. One of the advantages of having jazz greats performing at the festival is it gives an opportunity for graduates and participants of the Stanford Jazz Camp an opportunity each year to perform with seasoned veterans. This year was no exception. Joining the trombone section of the Marcus Shelby Orchestra was a young woman who only graduated from the Stanford Jazz Camp last year and is now a professional musician living and working in New York. She took a full 32-bar solo on the beautiful Ellington ballad “All Too Soon” as well as contributing several other shorter solos on other Ellington compositions. Also joining the band before the headliner appeared was a young man who is a current student at Jazz Camp. He sang on Solitude and Caravan and his deep voice and relaxed style were a big hit with the audience. When the Orchestra moved into high gear with C Jam Blues with solos from the saxophones, trumpets and trombones, pianist Joe Warner completed the rhythm-section sound with his Ellingtonesque chords. It is interesting to note that the band director used a Count Basie arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Solitude letting the trumpets give free range to their employment of wa-wa and plunger mutes which blended the band sounds of both the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras.

It was a full hour before Ms. Denise Perrier, took the stage. She kicked things off with a vigorous It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got that Swing. There are some singers who can take a song that everyone has heard a million times, and sing it in a way where you have never heard the song before. Denise Perrier is such a vocalist. Her voice was beautiful, distinctive, bold, and sinewy. Her control of timing, swing and tempo was a pleasure to hear. A true jazz singer, vocalist, and song stylist! She then introduced her own Ellington Medley which was especially arranged for her by Wayne Wallace, the famed trombone player, arranger and composer who has succeeded David Baker as the new Director of Jazz Studies at Indiana University. This arrangement showcased five familiar Ellington melodies: Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me, Mood Indigo, Satin Doll, and ending with Take The A Train. The originality of the medley arrangement plus the verve and sophistication of Ms. Perrier’s interpretations made each song a gem to be treasured. After the Ellington Medley, Marcus Shelby, mentioned that sometimes small groups of sextet or septet size would often record and perform selections from the Ellington Songbook. These groups, he mentioned, were often led by Johnny Hodges or Billy Strayhorn. In the spirit of these smaller groups, Denise Perrier, sang two classics: All Too Soon and I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart. It was All Too Soon with a gorgeous 32-bar trombone solo (reminiscent of Lawrence Brown) and a bass solo performed by Shelby which to my ears stole the show. Ms. Perrier’s voice, the bass, and the shimmering trombone cadenza were sheer musical ambrosia. The Ellington Songbook Concert closed with Denise Perrier singing a rousing, spritely version of I’m Just a Lucky So and So. After wonderful ensemble passages, a great vocal treatment, and many fine solos by the full band (and especially the drummer, Jeff Marrs) the concert came to a close – a full two hours after it had begun. The audience gave the artists a long standing ovation. Many in the audience could have stayed for an additional hour or two, but as Marcus Shelby said to us, “There is just too much music in the Ellington Book…thousands and thousands of songs, suites, and concert pieces…which cannot be played in a single day” – although, some of us would have been happy should he have chosen to try.