“Rhapsody in Blue” Is Kitsch? Consider The Bigger Context?

Dismayed by pianist Ethan Iverson’s New York Times denigration of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which I’ve always (and I mean always) enjoyed as a signal American triumph — up there with “The Stars and Stripes Forever,“ “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” “After Hours,” Kind of Blue, “In C,” “Respect,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” among others — I’ve kept quiet about it. To consider Gershwin’s work declassé, kitschy, corny and/or inflated, chastising it for sinful appropriation or for outshining worthier works, seems to me to miss the fun.

Background: I’ve written positively about Iverson since the 1990s and have heard him in many contexts (especially liked his Bad Plus rendition with alto saxophonist Tim Berne, trumpeter Ron Miles and soprano saxist Sam Newsome of Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction at the Chicago Jazz Festival of 2016).

His writings about music and detective fiction are of continuing interest; his blogs have often been voted Awards by the Jazz Journalists Association. He has recently spoken here on Substack Nate Chinen of the current state of jazz journalism, written about Louis Armstrong for The Nation, has just released Technically Acceptable (his second album from Blue Note Records) and last week led his trio at the Village Vanguard, pinnacle of club bookings. So someone to take seriously.

However, I’m such a huge fan of “Rhapsody” that Bela Fleck’s fully realized solo banjo version at Ravinia last September brought tears to my eyes. I rate it as one of the most memorable performances of my year (that show was headlined by John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain in Shakti. Sublime).

So call me a middlebrow? Maybe Iverson in his full sophistication and erudition is onto something. “The Worst Masterpiece”? Seems like very backhanded “praise”. Yet it’s his taste and statement. So be it. Rhapsody can certainly be hammed up.

Now according to my friend and co-Substacker Michelle Mercer, the jazz social media world got lively with debate about Iverson’s judgement, which carried over into discussion about the overlap of jazz and symphony orchestras in general. Writing quickly and well, Michelle has laid out several aspects of the minefield that jazz composers and classically-oriented symphonic performers tread when trying to realize the often (to me) contradictory elements of their arts’ essences. Michelle rightly concludes

As it happens, I already have.

In 2012 I reported originally for my column in CityArts about the American Composers Orchestra’s Jazz Composers Orchestra Initiative (a program now defunct, sadly). The next year, I covered it in depth, attending the workshop and performances of the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra in my ArtsJournal.com/JazzBeyondJazz blog. Subsequently, after conducting interviews with several of the principals, I wrote the following overview for ACO publication. I think it stands as a description of steps in attempts at “practical solutions.

Here ‘tis, with photos by Greg Evans.

Perhaps no issue about the future of the symphony orchestra and how new works for it will emerge is fuller of promise yet more fraught with complications than what to do about jazz.

The rough-and-tumble music born of America’s early 20th Century vernacular has become ever more broadly identified as our culture’s unique, enduring gift to the world. Duke Ellington has gained significant acknowledgement as one of the greatest and most popular composers of the U.S.A., and the reputations of such of his admirers as Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Wynton Marsalis are not far behind. More than 150 institutions of higher learning in North America offer degrees in jazz composition and/or performance, graduating an estimated 10,000 students with advanced musical interests and skills every year. Jazz is just barely a commercial entertainment; indeed, for more than 40 years it’s been touted as America’s indigenous “classical” music.

So surely this expressive, intricate, spontaneous art form has some energy, creativity and relevance to offer to the venerable, institutionally established symphony orchestra. Yet for most jazz musicians, even those who are especially ambitious and well connected, the symphony orchestra remains a distant citadel with strange customs and protocols as well as demanding requisites that make penetrating it an all but impossible dream.

American Composers Orchestra to the rescue! In 2010, the ACO launched its Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute. Originally conceived by ACO executive director Michael Geller and Columbia University professor George E. Lewis – who at the time was director of Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies — the JCOI offered a national pool of accomplished jazz-oriented applicants an irresistible program of workshops and seminars on orchestra composition, followed by the opportunity for selected participants to receive full orchestra readings of their works.

In August 2012, mentor composers including George Lewis, Derek Bermel, Anne LeBaron, Paul Chihara, Anthony Davis, Nicole Mitchell and James Newton gathered at the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA in Los Angeles to commune with a diverse class of 37 composers eager to delve into writing symphonic scores.

from upper left: James Newton, Anthony Davis, Nicole Mitchell; Gregg August, Dave Wilson, Ole Matheson, Anita Brown; bottom right: Wilson, August, Brown and Joel Harrison

After an intense weeklong intensive on the current issues regarding orchestras and new compositional techniques, 17 of the 37 were chosen on the basis of their open mindedness and one-minute music samples to develop pieces to be read in 2013 public presentations by the ACO, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and La Jolla Symphony & Chorus. The League of American Orchestras, American Composers Forum, and New Music USA collaborated with the ACO in this Earshot/Jazz Composers Orchestra Initiative.

Along with Frank J. Oteri, editor of New Music Box, I was graciously invited to observe two days of the events in Buffalo during February 2013. As I wrote in my blog ArtsJournal.com/JazzBeyondJazz, it was one of the most enlightening experiences I’ve had to watch works in progress. I was privy to the private critiques and discussions mentors Davis, Mitchell and Newton, Buffalo Phil conductor Matt Kraemer and instrumentalists from the Philharmonic had with the composers Gregg August, Anita Brown, Joel Harrison, Ole Mathieson and Dave Wilson. I got to hear these composers’ new music, learn what they hoped it would be, listen in on their consultations and hang out with them after they’d spent hours in detailed revision. Each composer and the mentors, too, were fully present, enjoying peak individual and collective interactions. Recent talks with Joel Harrison and Anita Brown, plus composers Rufus Reid and Richard Sussman confirmed that JCOI was for them greatly enriching, perhaps life-changing.

First, mentor-composer James Newton, the flutist and composer/ improviser who in 2013 accepted some directorship responsibilities for the initiative, explained the project’s underlying motivation. In our country, it’s difficult to get access to a symphony orchestra,” he said by phone from his home in New Mexico. “For composers from the jazz tradition that’s always been the case. James P. Johnson [best known as the stride pianist who wrote “The Charleston”] is one of my favorites, and his ‘Harlem Symphony’ really should be in the standard repertoire but isn’t. James P., like so many other jazz composers, had a burning passion to write for the symphony orchestra. His ‘Yamekraw’ was performed during his lifetime [in 1928], but so many of his other pieces sat on the shelf. I think the JCOI can play a hand in helping pieces get written by people like that, and get them moved off the shelf.

“It’s also important to look at the composers who’ve come out of the classical tradition and embraced jazz in a major way, as part of their own language. I’m one who thinks Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is really important, since Ravel spent years studying jazz, taking private lessons, and then inspiring Gershwin. And Ligeti’s Piano Concerto is one of the seminal works that take African and jazz influences and a wide range of techniques out of European tradition, and puts it all together.

“We have to get to the point where we have an orchestra here that allows the co-mingling of all these influences and ideas and people to happen. I dream of the day when we have an orchestra that has a mission to work with musicians coming out of the jazz tradition to produce new work, and also to play the great works written already.”

The stumbling block is obvious: tight budgets tamp down an orchestra’s daring. Newton is guardedly hopeful, referring to underwriting that jazz ensemble leaders such as Maria Schneider have been able to gain from crowdsourcing sites such as ArtistShare and Kickstarter. “Just as we see jazz orchestras have support we never thought they’d get, maybe that model can happen with symphony orchestras, too. At this point it’s not easy for, say, a young Latina improvising instrumentalist who really wants to write symphonic literature to get the opportunity, or even to get appropriate exposure for her major talents. The only answer may be for us to develop a small group of people with means who say, ‘Okay, we’ll support this, because it’s enriching and will leave behind a legacy.'”

The Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute was not an inexpensive program. A powerful coalition provided funding: the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Continuing Education Program, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Fromm Music Foundation, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, the National Endowment for the Arts, New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Herb Alpert Foundation. To participate in it, composers had contributive burdens, too. Often they were required to leave behind, or at least temporarily set aside, what they thought they already knew.

“I’m a jazz piano player, composer and arranger first of all,” explained Richard Sussman, 68 years old, a widely, deeply accomplished musician as well as professor of jazz composition at Manhattan School of Music. “I’ve had experienced with orchestras in the past, writing two suites for jazz band and orchestra, supported by NEA grants. When I heard about this program, I had to ask myself: At my age I want to go back to school? Go to Los Angeles, pay $500 for a one-week workshop [composers chosen to be read were reimbursed for that fee], plus transportation and printing expenses, in order to submit a one-minute demo for a chance at the ACO performing the piece, and go through two competitions? And here I thought I knew how to write for orchestra.

“But I did it, and the intensive workshop week was totally mind-bending. I came out with a totally changed perspective on how to write or not write for orchestra, and even on what jazz is. I had a lot of preconceptions about what was good or bad, but they went out the window. There’s no way I would have ever attempt to write what I ended up writing if not for that workshop. I left there having made a decision not to think in terms of vertical harmony, but determined to use the orchestra to create pure sounds and rhythms.

“I didn’t know what this was going to sound like. This was like stepping off the side of a cliff. But I started discovering, as I composed. And when some chords started creeping it, it was ok. The music wanted to include some chords and I didn’t want to fight that, because I thought it was working.”

Like Sussman, Joel Harrison, an electric guitarist and ensemble leader with 18 recordings in his discography, was interested when he received an ACO mailing about the JCOI. “When I read about this program I thought it was designed for people like me,” he said in a phone interview from his studio in Brooklyn, “and I applied immediately. It was what I was waiting for. I’d never seen anything like it.

“I don’t think any composer would disagree that some of the great compositions of all time have been done for the orchestra. You can’t be much of a composer if you don’t get your ears inside it. But since I’m a guitar player and I never went to a school big enough to have an orchestra, I’ve never played in one, and always felt distant from it. That put me at a deficit as far as writing for it goes. But I’ve tried to listen to a lot of great orchestral music due to my interest as a composer and love of the sound. Over many years, the more I got involved with bigger groups of instruments the more the symphony orchestra intrigued me.”

Harrison had written for jazz big band, for string quartet with jazz quintet, string quartet plus two guitars and several multi-cultural ensembles tackling works influenced by Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, rock, contemporary classical music and country and western themes. He had arranged and performed two of his original compositions and George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for the Melrose Community Orchestra, “pretty much figuring out stuff on my own.” He was confident of his abilities, sure of his direction, impressed by the scope of what the JCOI weeklong intensive covered and keen to get his music played.

“I realized while I was at the intensive that the idea we were going to learn how to write for the orchestra was a slight exaggeration,” he said. “We would be introduced to the orchestra. There would never be enough time to learn what we needed to know. The real learning could only come from writing a piece and hearing it, like we got to do in Buffalo, and then getting great feedback from the orchestra and the mentors. That was what amazed me: listening to the piece, then sitting afterwards with qualified, smart people talking to me about it. That’s almost unheard of. This is what’s great about what the ACO is doing. It’s really out front on that.

“Such listening improved me as a composer, I’m absolutely certain of that. I was, of course, hearing things I could do better, because it was my first time out, but I was very proud of myself – because it was so much work, and so challenging. I felt good in that I got a lot of things right! And I realized I had to do some rewriting, which was fine.

“Despite my learning in other fields of endeavor in music, writing for orchestra is a separate thing. For a jazz musician to write an orchestral piece, however great we are at performance and composition, we face a very steep learning curve. You have to put in time to learn what the issues are. The first priority,” he said, “is making the orchestra sound good.”

Harrison was particularly desirous of instruction on balancing the symphony’s instruments and how to deal with the large string section. He was disappointed that the program discouraged compositions that featured improvising soloists, having conceived his piece, “The Other River,” as a bassoon concerto. Overall, his JCOI participation spurred his continued thinking about how to imbue the symphony orchestra with more attributes of jazz.

That was less of a concern for Anita Brown, who has fronted her own jazz orchestra since 2000. “It was a remarkable opportunity for people who compose in the jazz genre and have ideas for thicker orchestrations using a broader pallet of colors than is available with jazz instrumentation,” she said over the phone from her home in Nyack. “Because the symphony really is different.”

Brown’s early teachers included the late pianist Lennie Tristano. In 1995 she was accepted into the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop for instruction from Manny Albam (now deceased), Mike Abene and Jim McNeely. She became the first winner of the ASCAP/International Jazz Composers’ Symposium New Music Award for Big Band Works in 2006, and has had her works performed by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the US Army’s Jazz Ambassadors, among other ensembles. The JCOI’s program description seemed like an answer to her composerly wish list.

“I had been thinking about–sitting quietly, hearing in my head – orchestral ideas, for forces larger than my jazz orchestra. I didn’t know at the time if I’d actually bother writing an orchestral piece. Where would I get it played? Where would I hear it? How could I find out if what I’d done was on point? I didn’t have a symphony available to me.” Though she was suffering intense financial distress when first apprised of the JCOI, she “threw caution to the wind to do it. Like lots of moments in an artist’s life, the opportunity held both yin and yang. That financial darkness was simultaneous with the brilliant light of creative energy and excitement.

“The first leg of the program at the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA, from 9 a.m. until sometime the next morning being with composers, talking music, was just the most exciting week I have ever lived through. It was chock full of brilliant minds standing in front of us, sharing what they thought were the most important little things they could give us at that moment to open our eyes and ears. We talked about traditions, and how jazz and improvisation might be brought into a piece for a symphony orchestra. We met conductors who told us that audiences for symphony orchestras are dwindling, and how their main goal, and that of their executive directors, is to broaden the demographic of the concert goers beyond the older white folks who are dying off. One of the goals of the ACO, also, is broadening this demographic. I thought that’s a great reason to be involved. Bringing jazz into the symphony is opening it to musicians who already have ideas. Jazz to me is analogous to the melting pot of America, so it stands to reason jazz will enter the orchestral realm.

“One thing we spent a long time on at the UCLA intensive was learning about extended techniques on all the instruments. We had professional musicians making the weirdest sounds and speaking about how to notate them. I used some of this information, especially regarding speech set to pitches, which was central to my piece. I also learned how to get a helicopter sound out of a bassoon’s low multiphonics. Ann LeBaron talked about extended techniques on the harp. Derek Bermel talked about rapping, with a great groove, in 5/4.

“The point everyone made was to think outside the box. It was like, ‘Here are some ways we have to do this. We’re going to show you and encourage you, just because. And because we need a broader audience for the symphony orchestra.”

Brown’s submission of her composition “Disarming the Tempest,” based on military veterans’ experience of post-traumatic stress disorder, was read by the Buffalo Philharmonic, though not when she’d first expected it to be. Upon arriving in upstate New York she was upset to learn that the readings, originally scheduled for evening, had been moved to 10 a.m. “I have relatives in Rochester who I’d invited to hear my work, and because of the nature of my piece I’d invited a lot of vets’ organizations and Marine corps recruiting personnel. None of them could make it during business hours.

However, Brown and the others benefited from the time change, which allowed conductor Matt Kraemer to treat the reading as a working rehearsal, during which he asked the composers for comments on their intentions and the orchestra’s interpretations. After the run-throughs, Kraemer and representatives from each orchestral section repaired to a backstage room where they gave detailed, personal notes on fine points of the composers’ works.

“That was one of the most valuable components of the entire experience,” Brown said, “because we were not talking to the mentors who we knew were going to be supportive and would have us thinking about creative stuff. Now we were talking to the people who have to take the ink that’s on the page – ink and paper, not music, but representations of sound – and interpret it to make it into sound. Those people are where the rubber meets the road, and from their first hand experience they spoke to us as professionals who have never had this experience writing for a symphony orchestra before. Some of them wrote their comments down. They were straightforward, whether writing or talking about their points.”

Even months afterwards, Brown was enthusiastic. “The vibe that was ever present of honoring the composers’ creative efforts and creative abilities by saying ‘You’ve got something that we value, and we want you to try your hand at something we think you’re going to be good at’ — that was amazing. I think the JCOI is a great program.”

Rufus Reid has been one of the most respected and in-demand bassists in jazz for 40 years. Having studied his instrument with principal bassists of the Seattle and Chicago symphonies, and earning a degree in double bass performance at Northwestern University, he’s enjoyed notable stints with Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, J.J. Johnson and Jimmy Heath, among many others. He’s written a book, The Evolving Bassist, and he’s a professor emeritus of William Paterson University. His many honors include a 2008 Guggenheim fellowship. He had been involved in the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop for five years, and has served as a judge in its annual competition. Still, at age 70, he welcomed the JCOI intensive as a “crash course, at graduate level, to try to get jazz musicians to use their jazz sensibilities to write for this animal, the orchestra, which is a very specific thing.

“A lot of it was mechanics about how to prepare a score,” he reported, “because if you don’t know how to notate correctly, your work is thrown away just because it won’t be understood – and that’s before they get to the music. The sessions in which musicians showed extended techniques on strings and woodwinds and percussion — to me that was for learning about all the toys they have that you can learn to write for, and how to notate it.

“Best of all: To have the orchestra read my composition, then go upstairs with all the principals plus the conductor sitting in a circle, discussing how the piece went, whether they liked it and whether the performance represented the kind of result I wanted – that was a real eye-opener. Who can afford to have an orchestra read your music, tell you what’s good or bad and then play it again? I knew a little bit about the orchestra and what it takes to compose for one, but still it was very gratifying to learn more and to hear the music played so well.”

Reid had not thought much about the symphony orchestra as a young man. He received a lot of his early formal musical training as a trumpeter in the U.S. Air Force. “I never had desire to get into an orchestra until I went to Northwestern,” he said, “to get my music performance degree. That was my first time sitting in an orchestra, and I listened to orchestral music particularly while I was in school. Over the years I performed on a couple of movie scores with an orchestra. My proposal for the Guggenheim in 2008 was to write an orchestra piece. What would one have to do, I wondered at the time. It was a daunting thing, but I wanted to figure it out.

“Ever since then, I’ve been looking for further opportunities. I’ve been encouraged by people who are in the orchestral world. That’s what this workshop was about. We were told we were needed, we as jazz people, not necessarily to write jazz for the orchestra, but that we thought differently than the European classically-trained composer. That we have different linear and harmonic thoughts. To me, some contemporary composition sounds like exercises, overly mathematical, like something I don’t want to hear again. The mentor composers told us that if we learned to write for the orchestra, we could use our sensibilities not to make an orchestra swing, but to infuse it with different concepts. I personally feel you can still write melodies. Modern music doesn’t have to be ugly, or sound like calisthenics, or have 2000 rhythmic changes every bar.”

Reid’s composition “Mass Transit: Metropolis,” read by the American Composers Orchestra conducted by George Manahan at Columbia University’s Miller Theater in 2012, contained one obvious jazz trope: A walking bass. He used few of the extended techniques taught in the intensive he attended. “At some point I may want to utilize some of that, but some of it I don’t hear yet. You can have a lot of stuff on your palette, but that doesn’t mean you use it all, all the time.

“The thing you must understand, though, is how to notate whatever you want so the person reading it doesn’t have to ask you what you actually mean. I want to get my score so clean I can finish it, put it in an envelope, send it off and the string players don’t have to think about it, but just do what you want them to do. Questions waste time, you know,” Reid said, “and time is money.

Reid believes the mix of jazz and symphonic cultures is advancing. “There are a lot of players coming up now who can actually function in both camps. Not who just have the knowledge, but who can actually function. Here’s Wynton Marsalis playing a trumpet concerto, and writing for the orchestra. He’s been given the opportunity because he can play both kinds of music extremely well, but he still has to write his music on the score so the conductor doesn’t squirm due to how it looks. That’s what the workshop tried to teach, which helped me also with my big band charts.

“The whole process has been thrilling to me. It has re-refined my work in the jazz idiom, as you can hear in Quiet Pride, my first professional recording for big band which was released last spring. The lessons I learned at the BMI workshop helped me get my Guggenheim fellowship, and I used that in my application for the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute, which inspired me to finish ‘Mass Transit.’ For me, learning more about the orchestra has been right on time.”

Guitarist Harrison had concluding thoughts. “There is a lot of incredibly exciting orchestral music being written,” he said, “and the ACO is responsible for a substantial part of it. Like the jazz big band, the orchestra may be an old model but plenty of great music can still be written for it. The symphony orchestral is too rich and fantastic a musical creation to ever die away. Just the opposite – the problem is that the donor basis and ticket sales are still dependent on an older crowd that wants to hear the warhorses. But the more the orchestra can be renewed by encouraging and incorporating the talents of people outside that old box, the more people will start to show up who aren’t of the old crowd. And the more the orchestra programs interesting new music that feels relevant, the better is its chance to survive.

“Any orchestra that has the courage to do that and can please its older, more conservative audience with traditional repertoire will have the best chance. Orchestras need to broaden out,” Harrison proclaimed, “and understand that there’s a whole big world out there of composers who can write a lot of great music for them that’s going to help renew the tradition.”

Anita Brown also acknowledged the trend, and gave the Earshot/JCOI program special credit for accelerating it. “Jazz exists because of the fusion of various cultural elements in America,” she said. “For the same reasons, we’re seeing a fusion of jazz with the symphony orchestra. This fusion doesn’t mean that traditional symphony orchestra music will go away, but I think we may be witnessing — because of the ACO and JCOI and all those standing behind this workshop and the ideals that generate the concept to begin with – the birth of a new genre unto itself.

“I don’t know what we’ll call it, but we’ll think of something quickly. It’s very exciting. There are going to be symphony orchestras saying ‘What are you talking about?’ And there are going to be symphony orchestras saying, ‘Yeah! Let’s do it!'”

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