Jazz is Classical Music, Too!

06/03/2013 9:00 AM |

Wynton Marsalis New York Philharmonic

  • Tina Fineberg/NYT

Jazz and classical music are usually segregated: on radio stations, in record-store aisles, and even at Lincoln Center, where the New York Philharmonic and the Jazz Orchestra play several blocks from each other. But to composers such divisions were not always so clear, and on Saturday night the two Lincoln Center institutions came together at Avery Fisher for an evening highlighting the overlap between the two styles, headlined by a performance of Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony.


The evening began with works by famous 20th-century composers dipping into the revolutionary American musical style. Stravinsky’s “Ragtime for 11 Instruments” (1920), a jaunty piece presaging Nino Rota and Danny Elfman, characteristically deconstructed its subject for a touch of the nightmarish, emphasized by the use of a hammered dulcimer. Then there was Shostakovich’s spritely and funny “Tea for Two” arrangement, and Aaron Copland’s “Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra,” which had been commissioned by Benny Goodman as a vehicle for concert-hall credibility. Its slow, Ives-ish, envelopingly orchestrated first movement was gorgeous but not particularly in sync with the evening’s theme, though a jazzy cadenza gave way to a bouncier second half.

That was about 20 minutes of music, after which there was an intermission. Why not a little something more? Say, Shostakovich’s two Jazz Suites? Rhapsody in Blue? But it seemed clear that the orchestra didn’t want to perform anything that might overshadow the evening’s centerpiece, Marsalis’s Third Symphony, which the Philharmonic premiered in the US two years ago. At the time, I hyperbolically called it “The Finest Piece of American Concert Hall Music in a Generation”: “[it] does, as its title promises, swing—and moan, and yelp, and shriek, and weep. The five movements form a historical survey of various regional styles of American jazz, played through a classical filter but still screeching with the sounds of cities and suburbs, blacks and whites, an all-encompassing sonic People’s History of the last 100 years.”

Uh, I’d pretty much still stand by that: it’s still a great piece (even if an added fifth movement makes the second half lag a bit): a cacophonous blast of thoroughly American music writ large for the concert hall, evincing deep knowledge without seeming scholarly—it’s raw, lively and loud. The best part of seeing the Jazz Orchestra on stage with the Philharmonic is how much looseness, informality and energy they bring up there: they look at each other while playing and smile, laugh, get visibly psyched when any musician nails a solo, tap their feet, slap their knees. (During an encore, a simple blues over which the Jazz Orchestra members soloed, bassist Carlos Henriquez got one of the Philharmonic bassists to trade off with him, which delighted the crowd.) Classical music and jazz might overlap, but there’re also obvious distinctions—not just in the notes on the page, but also in the way the players perform.

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