Symphonies that Swing

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Since jazz began, composers have had the impulse to “jazz up” the more traditional symphony orchestra. Has it been a happy partnership between the two styles? Here is the next Fishko Files…

Since the 20s, composers of all kinds have been trying to write music that combines jazz and symphonic elements – with the idea of putting jazz in the concert hall. Here are comments from both sides.

Michael Beckerman, Chair of the Department of Music at New York University

It’s a real paradox, because on the one hand jazz provides you with a bona fide American sound. Because jazz is acknowledged by almost everyone as, some would say, America’s great contribution to world music. On the other hand, what made jazz so exceptional and extraordinary was that it wasn’t symphonic music. And, therefore, to try to create an American music by taking something that was not a symphonic entity, and putting it into symphony hall, poses challenges. I think there is a sense that the combination of jazz and symphonic music, in that sense, has lived up to what we imagine should happen when these ideas are combined. And often leaves us – well, at least wanting more.

Loren Schoenberg, jazz historian and Executive Director of The Jazz Museum in Harlem

I think this issue really boils down to how America has dealt with its cultural insecurity, and coming to realize that American things don’t need to be validated by European models. And in the same way that I think that the great majority of people who sit in concert halls to hear quote-unquote classical music, don’t even know why they behave the way they behave, and how orchestrated, and unnatural, and odd concert hall behavior is – that most of us don’t even know why we act that way. And so the whole exercise of this kind of mixing of the genres to me, ultimately, is for the most part, a misfire, almost comical at times.

Leonard Bernstein - Journey into Jazz
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The American premiere of Wynton Marsalis' Swing Symphony is on Wednesday, September 22nd at the opening night of Live from Lincoln Center's 35th season.

Special thanks to the Berlin Philharmonic for the excerpt of Wynton Marsalis' and Sir Simon Rattle's conversation. For the complete interview (and the performance!) with Rattle and Marsalis, visit their Digital Concert Hall, here.


Playlist for Symphonies that Swing

1. Louis Armstrong, My Heart. The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings. Sony Columbia/Legacy.

2. Louis Armstrong, Yes! I’m in the Barrel. The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings. Sony Columbia/Legacy.

3. George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue.  New World Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. BMG RCA/Red Seal.

4. George Antheil, A Jazz Symphony. The New Palais Royale Orchestra and Percussion Ensemble. Maurice Peress, conductor. Music Masters.

5. William Grant Still, Afro-American Symphony (Moderato assai-Longing).  The Royal Philharmonic. Karl Krueger, conductor. Bridge Records.

6. Igor Stravinsky, Ebony Concerto. New World Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. BMG RCA/Red Seal.

7. Duke Ellington, Night Creature – 2nd Movement. Duke Ellington, conductor. (Originally released in 1963) Warner Bros. Records.

8. William Russo, Street Music op. 65.  The San Francisco Symphony. Seiji Ozawa, conductor. DG.


WNYC Production Credits...

Mix Engineer: Wayne Shulmister

Associate Producer: Laura Mayer

Managing Editor, WNYC News: Karen Frillmann