Piano Street Magazine

That Fascinating Dash of Blue

July 30th, 2014 in Articles by | 13 comments

Since the early 20th century, jazz always had a significant impact on classical music and classical pianists. Composers found the rhythms, the blue quality in melody and harmony, as well as the spontaneous improvisation immensely fascinating and irresistibly modern.

Gershwin brought jazz into the classical concert venues

Even though composers like Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and even Soviet composers used jazz and blues in their works, it was Hollywood and Broadway which would enable jazz music to enter the classical concert venues and the key composer was George Gershwin. Gershwin’s symphonic works like An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F and the opera Porgy and Bess were influenced by French composers. In turn Maurice Ravel was strongly impressed with Gershwin, commenting, “Personally I find jazz most interesting: the rhythms, the way the melodies are handled, the melodies themselves. I have heard of George Gershwin’s works and I find them intriguing.”

…but Ravel rejected him

In the mid-1920s, Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period of time, during which he applied to study composition with the noted Nadia Boulanger who, along with several other prospective tutors such as Maurice Ravel, rejected him.

Ravel (at the piano) and Gershwin (to the right, apparently more interested in what Ravel is doing with his hands than smiling into the the camera) in New York 1928

Ravel (at the piano) and Gershwin (to the right, apparently more interested in what Ravel is doing with his hands than smiling into the the camera) in New York 1928

They were afraid that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. Maurice Ravel’s rejection letter to Gershwin told him; “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?”. The orchestrations in Gershwin’s symphonic works often seem similar to those of Ravel; likewise, Ravel’s two piano concertos evince an influence of Gershwin.

Rhapsody in Blue – an experiment in modern music

Challenged by the question “What is American music?” and a comission by bandleader Paul Whiteman for an New York afternoon concert named “An Experiment in Modern Music”, Gershwin wrote the “American Rhapsody” which later was re-named “Rhapsody in Blue”. The version that was heard then was for a 24-piece jazz band, not for full orchestra which was written in 1942 and eventually became the most popular version. The opening clarinet glissando suggests a sound effect quote from a number of piano pieces by Ravel such as Jeux d’eau, Gaspard de la nuit or Alborada del Gracioso.

A performance by classical pianist with serious jazz skills

Let’s hear pianist Kirill Gerstein play the original 1924 version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Gerstein, a renowned international classical performer is also a trained jazz pianist from the famous jazz music school Berklee College of Music in Boston before attending the Manhattan School of Music, earning both his Bachelor’s and Master’s of Music degrees by the age of 20. In this particular concert Gerstein returns to his old Alma Mater in March 30, 2012 to perform togheter with students and faculty members at Berklee College of Music.

Gerstein plays Rhapsody in Blue (Jazz band version) at Berklee

Do you hear the jazz influences in Ravel’s music?
Grimaud plays Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G

How did George Gershwin play the piano himself?
Hear a live capture of I Got Rhythm from 1931

Read a recent interview with pianist Kirill Gerstein:
He got rhythm: Piano virtuoso Kirill Gerstein embraces classical, jazz… all that is unexpected

Reader Poll

While most pianists and piano music aficionados enjoy playing, or at least listening to, both classical and jazz, a combination of different musical genres can obviously compromise their unique genuineness. Or what do you think? Let us know in this week’s reader poll!

Do you like classical music with jazz influences?

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  • Jane Brown says:

    I believe it was a necessary step in the development of music hundred years ago for composers to be influenced by contemporary styles and genres. It doesn’t necessarily mean I like Ravel’s G major concerto better than Beethoven’s… Nice article, thanks Piano Street!

  • Alice G. says:

    Yes, it’s very cool!

  • Graham says:

    As a jazz musician, I do understand the classical composer’s fascination and desire to experiment but no, it’s not genuine and therefore quite unpleasant to listen to.

  • Ken Iisaka says:

    While the complex rhythms in jazz can be attributed to African music, the extended chords and dissonance can be owed to Ravel, and even perhaps Schoenberg. Some argue that rag-time and swing came from Beethoven.

    While I concur that not all classical-jazz fusion have been successful, there are some wonderful gems.

    The music of Nikolai Kapustin is classical in its form, but its idiom borrows much from jazz, and Russian and Ukrainian folksongs.

  • Louis Podesta says:

    “Gershwin is not jazz.” Earl Wild, who was initially reviled, and subsequently praised for being the only American Classical Pianist to singularly promote Gershwin’s works, made that statement. George Gershwin was a Broadway (coupled with his brother Ira) songwriter. And, he was great at it! However, he was not a jazz composer. Therefore, the predicate of this post is flawed, and then some.

  • Roger J. Levin says:

    I have found that most Jazz musicians are very encouraging and impressed with my “classical” music, but that most classical pianists tend to be dismissive about my jazz studies. I frequently get told that all jazz is “is a series of memorized licks in all keys strung together”. No doubt this is a great way to get started with Jazz (and for me the only way). But true, spontaneous composition/improvisation and a willingness to embrace rhythmic alterations is what defines Jazz (and remains beyond me at this point). I love classical piano, but I do tend to default to it since it is so much more in my comfort zone. Fortunately, when I study a new classical piece, my harmonic understanding is now so much finer because of Jazz. I sometimes just “play” ( and isn’t that the point of music) around with the harmonies and note patterns, attempting to weave the classical and Jazz together.

  • Paavo Jumppanen says:

    I like the basic direction of the question but it buys into the subversion of the meaning of “improvisation”. By that I mean that if I say “I like to improvise”, which I do, most people immediately respond, “Ah, you play jazz”, which I most definitely don’t.

    Whilst jazz involves improvisation it does not encompass the entire field of improvisation but a subset of the realm of possibilities. Go back in time far enough and you find improvisation was part of the “classical” music realm, but it wasn’t jazz as we know it today, and somewhere along the line of evolution of western art music the practitioners became overly obsessed with respecting “the score” to the detriment of interpretation.

    The upshot is that I would say I enjoy classical music with improvisation which encompasses more than classical music with jazz. I also enjoy immensely, musicians brave enough to re-interpret classic works with more freedom than the larger classical music community would allow and find it comical to hear the acrid criticism it usually draws.

    It seems to me that far too many in the classical sphere of performance spend too much time pandering to the accepted norm of a piece rather than exploring the possibilities that lie within. The score is but an imperfect representation of the composers synthesis which we can never truly re-create in the absence of the composer so why not just take what is written and put our emotion into that which is not or never can be written. I know it will make those who believe authenticity to be paramount cringe, but at least we would then hear a much bigger range of interpretations be they pleasing or displeasing.

  • Ted Jones says:

    The previous poster, I think, is correct. The main issue is that notatable music, either classical or jazz derived, is only a very tiny subset of what is playable in terms of rhythm. The fact is that most perceived rhythm of any intuitive complexity cannot be notated at all. Yet we are still fed the myth that harmony is what classical and jazz are all about. Harmony is more tractable to teach and analyse because of its discrete, combinatorial nature. Perceived phrase and rhythm, on the other hand, lie in the domain of the continuous and the subjective. In a very real sense they cannot be analysed at all, only created and felt. This is why rhythm and phrase are far deeper phenomena than notation and harmony.

    It follows from this that the prevalent idea of improvisation being a sort of poor man’s composition, directed at best toward imitating structures of the past, is completely false. Improvisation, as the previous poster implies, is actually a much deeper, broader and more complex process than any sort of notatable music, classical or jazz. It has to be, simply because of the aforementioned phrasal and rhythmic freedom.

    Speaking personally therefore, I find both classical and jazz, as the terms are normally used, pertain to very tiny and restricted subsets of piano music compared to general improvisation, the principle reason being rhythm.

  • Depends on the composer. I agree that sometimes it doesn’t blend well but there are some pieces by Claude Bolling that I enjoy very much.

  • John Northcott says:

    I love Jacques Loussier he plays Bach in a way that makes you just want to sit back close your eyes and enjoy, I love Classical and jazz also the great American song book type music, tunes like Misty, Manhattan, fly me to the moon etc, My favourite piano is Rachmaninov and Chopin, That way I can express all my feelings on the piano, music from the heart is just the best even if not truly correct.

  • Jack says:

    If you have played the piano version of the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, it might help you understand his role in the jazz vs. classical controversy. I find it to be a jazz piece based on a classical structure (i.e. rhapsody). It also is one of the greatest pieces if you want to experiment with various interpretations. Each time you play it, it can be a different rewarding experience. I never tire of it. Maybe it’s not jazz for the jazz purist, but it is a lot of fun to play.

    Many of the jazz pianists who improvise seem to use a combination of prescribed patterns (riffs, jazz scales, and ornaments ). I don’t consider that true improvisation. The really great musicians (e.g. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven) could improvise at will, in fact the so called cadenza in a concerto was designed just for this. I’m not saying there are jazz musicians out there who can’t do this type of improvisation. I just don’t find it very often during a jazz piece when the melody is handed off to the pianist for interpretation.

    My award to the most versatile jazz pianist would have to go to Dick Hyman. I think his touch and technique exceeds some of the best classical pianists. Also, I have heard improvisations done by him that are inventive as well as structurally and technically superb.


  • Karma Anthony says:

    Jaques Loussier is a wonderful example of enhancing classical music with a jazz flavour. I can’t but think the composers would approve. After all, they in their own way were making new sounds the be enjoyed.

  • Piano Lover says:

    I think Jazz is the highest level of music, hard to lean and teach you you dont have what it takes naturally.

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