Fleishedik and Milchedik

Jazzing the classics and classing the jazzers from Jelly Roll Morton to Uri Caine

Works like Milhaud's La Création du Monde and Krenek's opera Jonny Spielt Auf seemed to fulfill that prophecy in short order. In the years following World War I, jazz was embraced as the voice of modernism by innumerable European composers, including many who hadn't heard any; their idea of jazz was ragtime or Irving Berlin, but at least they were on the right trail. Stravinsky once complained that discussions of Russian music always focused on its revelations of Russian character, never on its merits as music. So it was with most early writing on jazz, which proceeded from the belief that America, syncopation, and the new century were synonyms. Jazz was the muse that would finally drag American culture out of Europe's shadow. This never happened, at least with our classical music, in part because World War II filled our conservatories with European émigrés for whom jazz and pop were a vulgar distraction from the serious business of the 12-tone row. From that point on, with meaningful exceptions like Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman and David Schiff's recent Four Sisters for Regina Carter (not yet commercially available, but the best thing she's ever done, to judge from a concert tape), most of the overtures have come from the other side of the divide.

Third stream is today widely regarded as an aberration, and I, for one, am unable to hear those two words without recalling the Mencken-like critic (and Bix Beiderbecke biographer) Ralph Berton's dismissal of the entire movement as Schuller and Lewis pissing in the same urinal. But third stream's legacy becomes staggering if, in addition to Schuller's variations on Monk's "Criss Cross" and Lewis's concerti grossi for the Modern Jazz Quartet, we stretch the definition backward and forward to include Scott Joplin's Treemonisha, James P. Johnson's "Harlem Suite" and "Yamakraw," Ellington's "Harlem" and "The Three Black Kings," Mary Lou Williams's "The Zodiac Suite," Tadd Dameron's "Fontainebleau," Ralph Burns's "Summer Sequence," Bob Graettinger's "City of Glass," George Russell's "All About Rosie," Charles Mingus's "Half Mast Inhibition" and "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife," Ornette Coleman's "Forms and Feelings" and Skies of America, Hannibal Marvin Peterson's "The Children of the Fire," John Carter's Castles of Ghana, Anthony Davis's X, Uri Caine's Mozart and Mahler adaptations, parts of Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill, and all of Stan Getz and Eddie Sauter's Focus, Miles Davis and Gil Evans's Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain, and Wayne Shorter's Alegria.

Give me a longer deadline and more column inches and I swear I could name a few hundred more, not even counting comparable works by European jazz composers or curiosities like Bley's "And Now the Queen" (after Stravinsky), Coltrane's "Impressions" (after Ravel, by way of Morton Gould), Art Tatum's finger-busting interpretations of Dvorak's "Humoresque," and Jelly Roll Morton's tip of the cap to Chopin on "Dead Man's Blues." In his autobiography, Miles Davis said one inspiration for Kind of Blue was a thumb piano he heard behind an African ballet troupe. But those textures suggest he and Bill Evans were listening to a lot of Debussy. It's easy to hear Sly and James Brown in Agharta and Pangaea; Miles said Stockhausen was also in the mix. When Wynton Marsalis first burst on the scene as a trumpeter with laurels in both jazz and classical music, he insisted on keeping the two apart, like fleishedik and milchedik. Lately, though, even he's come around, with unorthodox works like Blood on the Fields and All Rise.

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    Improvisers have also benefited from an immersion in the classics, even if their references are more difficult to identify. Jimmy Heath once told me that as young men in Philadelphia in the 1940s, he and Coltrane—aware of Charlie Parker's fascination with the European modernists—spent countless hours examining scores in the free library, looking for ideas to elaborate on in their solos. According to the late Roland Hanna, the early boppers were especially keen on Scriabin for his daring with flatted fifths. The bebop era was also when young musicians who already knew their instruments began studying the aesthetics of improvisation and fine points of harmony with private teachers like Lennie Tristano, Dennis Sandole, and Stanford Gold. From this it was a short step to homemade systems of improvisation, like George Russell's Lydian theory, Mary Lou Williams's zoning, Ornette Coleman's harmolodics, and who can keep track of how many others? Playing jazz was no longer just doing what came naturally—as if it ever was. Whereas pianists once swung the classics, today Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau often class the jazzers, turning unsuspecting pop tunes into Chopin or Liszt. On a brighter note, Ornette Coleman so loves Mozartian symmetry that he frequently sounds like a Texas bluesman wearing a powdered wig—phrased differently, "Dancing in Your Head" could be a minuet.

    I've dwelled on history because, of all today's fusions, only jazz-and-classical has as much to draw from. I'd argue that third stream reached its peak not in its own erabut in the early 1980s, by which point the emphasis in what was still being called free jazz paradoxically shifted to composition, ultimately producing Anthony Davis's X—not a jazz opera, whatever that might be, but a legitimate one in which jazz from ragtime to Coltrane and beyond played an integral part. Given the decelerated pace of jazz evolution, that period feels like just yesterday. Its strides forward and missteps are still being sorted out in clubs and concert halls (and on panels), even though Davis himself and others from his 1980s circle (their efforts color-coded as "jazz," rather than Philip Glass or Meredith Monk's "new music," by everyone except the jazz police) have taken refuge in academia, alongside the post-serialists and dodecaphonists who don't care if anybody listens—a luxury jazz has never been able to afford, and one it had better not covet. "If it sounds good, it is good," Ellington preached, and even if it appalls aesthetic conservatives among the jazz faithful, who can be as scornful of relativism as the Christian right, his subjective criterion is the only one worth applying to future jazz-and-classical hybrids. There figure to be lots of them. When haven't there been?

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