Swinging Against the Tide.

Classical and Jazz: Can One Player do Both?

John Robert Brown

Listen to Wynton Marsalis, André Previn, or the lesser known but brilliant Berlin Philharmonic viola player Martin Stegner. Each of those wonderful musicians proves that the jazz/classical crossover can be done. About Marsalis as a concerto soloist, ask conductors Leppard, Dutoit, Maazel, Slatkin, Esa-Pekka Salonen or Tilson-Thomas. In the jazz direction, if you are unaware of maestro Previn's ability to swing, hear his superb Gershwin CD, We Got Rhythm: Gershwin Songbook, with virtuoso double-bass player David Finck. Previn's jazz abilities are up there with the best. For a delightful ear-opener, search on YouTube for Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic accompanying Dianne Reeves in 2003, on Gershwin's A Foggy Day. The viola jazz interlude steals the show. Stegner swings! My short answer to the question whether one player can do justice to both classical and jazz is therefore an unequivocal 'yes'. For one player to be convincing at both is possible.

Some will disagree. Clearly - and unfortunately - there are many classical players who, leaving aside the skill of improvising the right notes, are clueless about playing rhythmically in a jazz four-four style. 'Couldn't swing if they had a rope' was how one band-leader cynically described such lack of feel. When playing swung eighths the clueless ones sound as though they have never listened to good jazz instrumentalists, and are rendering a twelve-eight version of the music. They do what they imagine jazz players do. Invariably, the results are corny, cheesy, rooty-tooty, mickey mouse - choose your insult. Certainly they are not professional. And for sure they don't swing.

What any decent jazz player has done is listen, listen, listen. Jazz musicians play along with records, transcribe great performances, learn great solos. Remember that a student of Mandarin must listen to Chinese natives speaking if s/he's ever going to acquire a decent accent. Likewise, the classical performer who never listens to jazz, but comes by in a rehearsal break asking to be told how to swing, seeking a golden secret, won't have any command of the jazz vernacular. He doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. An analogy would be someone taking a correspondence course to learn to cycle, or reading a book in order to learn to swim; preposterous. One must immerse oneself.

These thoughts were sparked when one of my CASS colleagues commented on a modern performance of Artie Shaw's Concerto for Clarinet. I'm not going to mention the name of the soloist, but at the time of writing, his performance is one of several versions of the Shaw concerto to be found on YouTube. To quote my CASS colleague: "[His] version of the Artie Shaw concerto on YouTube seems quite impressive until you listen to the real thing." I agree. I would make several further points:

Artie Shaw was an outstanding clarinettist, one of the greatest ever, still not adequately recognised for his high achievements. Shaw had the benefit of a working ensemble. Any experienced player understands how much the cohesiveness of an ensemble improves with the repetition of a piece. As saxophonist Tex Beneke said about the Glenn Miller band of the time: "The instruments never got cold."

Shaw's musicians were the same, playing a small repertoire repeatedly, several times a day. Such polish brings results. Shaw's original recording was played in a swing four-four climate. During that era the public danced to swung rhythms. To attempt to play in that style in the twenty-first century is to swim against the tide. To swing above an accompaniment that isn't itself swinging is impossible, a point frequently overlooked.

Shaw's string players were very much under Shaw's direction. The clarinettist employed them to play music that he had written himself. He knew what he wanted. They did as they were told. Shaw knew how to swing. About the jazz extras, such as using a stylish vibrato, there was a consensus.

During the intervening seventy years, particularly since the arrival of rock music, the sound and style of the rhythm section has changed considerably. I'm not suggesting that to play in a swing style is now impossible, but to do so requires that one takes the challenge seriously.

Turning to consider jazz players as classical soloists, at one time, the most contentious aspect in the clarinet world was the use of vibrato. Jazz reed players have always used vibrato. Their critics have suggested that its use is to cover up a poor tone, or inaccurate intonation. That may have applied to some of the cruder players. But vibrato does have charm and expressiveness. Reginald Kell played the classical repertoire with vibrato. At times Jack Brymer did the same. Today, Richard Stolzman uses vibrato. All three are acknowledged to have produced beautiful tone and accurate intonation. Their use of vibrato was not done to hide anything, but to bring increased expressivity to the music. When all is said and done, vibrato is still a contentious subject. It could well be one of the main reasons why some people hold that a mastery of classical and jazz is, for one person, impossible.

I remember giving a CASS talk some twenty years ago in Birmingham, using Benny Goodman's beautiful performance of the Copland Clarinet Concerto as an example. From a small group of distinguished classical clarinettists in the audience there came audible murmurs of dissent. Clearly these eminent players found Goodman's playing inadequate in some way, even though he was playing a piece that he himself commissioned. What I found most puzzling, however, was the total lack of any explanation from the critics. What was wrong with Goodman's performance? In what ways did it fall short? To my frustration, no-one gave details, neither then nor later, not even in private.

Perish the thought that jealousy inspired the reaction!

Martin Stegner, Berlin Phil:
Artie Shaw:

First published in Clarinet and Saxophone, Winter 2009. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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