The Similarities Between Clasical Music And Ellingtons Jazz

Word Count: 2390 |

One of the greatest tragedies in the 20th century can be seen in the debasing of the Jazz genre as a unworthy equal to it’s predecessor, European Classical music. This can be seen in various statements about Jazz, such as Boris Gibalin commit, “The “Jazz Mania” has taken on the character of a lingering illness and must be cured by means of forceful intervention.”1 This conflict can be traced through out the history of Jazz, as Classical composers have relatively disregarded this new type of music. Before Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club performances, Jazz play on the radio was delegated for late night audience only. This sub-culture treatment has led many critics to disregard the Jazz movement as a dance craze, or unsuccessful recreations of Classical pieces. This slandering of Jazz has not only created a false image of the music, but it has also lead to a full disconnection between the two genres. It is for this reason that I propose in my paper to show the relationship between these two musical categories. My hopes in demonstrating these similarities is to disassemble the schism of ignorance built between the two, and place both Jazz and Classical music on equal footing.

Critics of Jazz have always perpetuated this schism by utilizing the reasoning behind Jazz, that of it being a free form interpretation, to question the legitimacy of calling a Jazz leader a composer. For how can one be styled as a proper composer and still remain true to the Traditional Jazz concepts? The classic composer has at their disposal highly skilled musicians who are trained to work within professional bodies, such as a symphony orchestra or string quartet, and who then relies on the efficiency of these professionally trained bodies to interpret his scores as he sees fit. On the surface this appears to run contradictory to the Jazz composer whom, “Has to write for specific combinations which do not exist until he brings them into being, and to rely on highly individual executants whose personal style must be blended together to give expression to his own ideas without…losing their individuality”.2 Yet to interpret this blending of highly individualistic sounds as proof of a schism between this and the rigidly structured Classical composer is a false impression.

This fallacy can be attributed to overemphasizing the sporadic and improvisational aspects of Jazz and refusing to address the simplistic question of how much room is there for personal interpretation within the context of composed writing? Complete artistic improvisational is only accomplished by the single performer, but “Yet the moment a group or a collective improvisational steps in some relatively simple and more or less inflexible convention becomes essential if mere chaos is to be kept at bay.”3 This is why Duke Ellington’s Orchestra played such an integrate role in his development of musical scores. It is here that we see the originality of Duke Ellington, for in his tailoring a piece around the performer, he created the impression of pure interpretations within the framework of structure. As Duke once said, “Another theory they hold is that there is such thing as a unadulterated improvisation without any preparation or anticipation. It is my firm belief that there has never been anyone who has blown even two bars worth listening to who didn’t have some idea what he was going to play, before he started”4 This is an important aspect to bear in mind for this argument, for the mistake that Classical critics make is this distortion of the improvisational aspect to such extremes that one would believe that no compositional writing takes place. While obviously some improvisation happens in Jazz assembles, it is not that extreme, and in Ellington’s case this improvisation of certain musicians was actually written in the piece. “Ellington work is centered on the interplay between written and improvised music.”5 As one can see both types of composers utilize their musicians to express they’re given message and while it is through this utilization that subtle differences arise, it is hardly enough to claim this schism.

To most people the infusion of African tonality into Duke Ellington’s music to create “Negro art”, questions the connection between European music and Jazz. Here Constant Lambert responds to this.

“If anyone doubts the essential element of European sophistication in Jazz, it is a simple matter for his to compare a typical piece of Jazz, such as Duke Ellington Swampy River, first with a lyric by Grieg and then with a record of African music. It must be clear to even the most prejudiced listener that apart from a few rhythmical peculiarities the Ellington piece has far more in common with the music of Grieg”6

One must understand that even when Duke infused the two tonalities of music; he still was obligated to work within guidelines of the European Harmonic tradition.7 Yet by him keeping with this tradition he is not obligated to write music in the form of previous composers such as Stravinsky, Mozart, or Bach, for to do that would delegate Ellington’s music as a duplicate work. Here is the contradiction, for no Classical composer has ever been chastise for creativity in their sound, and yet how do you explain the criticism of Ellington’s work? The intentional fusing of African and European tonality is nothing more than a continuation of numerous inventive techniques used by musicians as seen in the changing sounds and techniques of Classical music over time? Thus to criticize Duke for his originality one would also have to condemn original composers such as Debussy, who’s use of the whole-tone scale, instead of the traditional scale of Western music, allowed him to achieved a new nuances of mood and expression.

Music is a universal aspect in which the inherit purpose of composing is expression. In Don Giovanni “Mozart treats the interplay of social and sexual tensions with keen insight into human character that transcends the comic framework, just as Die Zauberflöte (1791) transcends, with its elements of ritual and allegory about human harmony and enlightenment, the world of the Viennese popular theatre from which it springs”8 As one can see this expression of the artist is relevant to Classical music, but can the same be said about Jazz? Some critics explain Jazz is nothing more than entertainment, and yet in this declaration these critics overlook the implication of the music. The purpose of Jazz is to express the conditions of the time, and for a critic to denote that the music cannot do so is not only ridicules but logically incorrect. First of all, who knows more about an artist’s music than the said artist? We know that Don Giovanni has meaning to it because of the authors intended purpose, thus for Duke Ellington’s music to have the same type of meaning he must state it, and for which he does.

“ Question is always being asked whether Jazz music will ever be accepted seriously. I think so; and it has to be accepted as serious music because it is the only type which describes this age…if serious music is supposed to be descriptive of a period, then Jazz will have to be used to describe this, the Jazz age. Since I think Jazz is serious thing, I must be serious in my choice of song titles.”9

Thus one can see the purpose of Ellington’s music is to describe the era in which he lives in, very similar to the Classical era composers and the Romantic era composers. In response to the enjoyably of Ellington’s music, I admit that Ellington’s music has melody in which patrons danced to, but the dance-ability of the music is not inherent but rather an interpretation by the targeted audience. As Duke once indicated, “No notes represent swing. You can’t write swing because swing is the emotional element in the audience.”10 The dance-ability of Jazz cannot be used as a distinguishing character, because one can always point to ballet, the waltz, or other manners of dance perpetuated against the backdrop of classic music. Last, large amount of spectators not only dance to Classical music but attend concert halls to listen to their performer, is this critic also indicating that in hearing Classical music one does not find enjoyment? As one author indicates, “Like Mozart he, (referring to Duke Ellington) wrote music specifically designed for dance and concert and, again like Mozart, fudged the distinction between the two by the originality and consistency of his vision.”11 Thus as one can see that both Jazz and Classical music are reflection of their artists ideals and social conditions, while also consisting of an enjoyable element to their audience.

In this ongoing analysis between the similarities of Ellington and Classical music, one must bear in mind the fundamental composition of all music. The basic elements found in the composition of all musical sound is melody, harmony, tone color, texture, rhythm, and form. While all music is created through combining these elements, the unique sound of a specific musical genre is dependent upon the proportion ratio of the mixture.12 As one can see the originality of Jazz rests not in the creation of new elements, but rather with their unique utilization. An example of this can be seen in the accenting of rhythm in Jazz music thus leading some critics to refer it as ‘rhythmic music.’ In all honesty Jazz is neither more or less rhythmic than any other types of music, it just simply uses rhythm in a different manner.13

One of the clearest examples between of this link that I have been refereeing to can be seen in Ellington’s relationship with Delius. Yet Before I make the comparison between Ellington’s Jazz and Delius’s European impressionism and lyrical romanticism, a note must be made. I am in no way inferring that either composer played an integrate part in the development of the others style. Ellington’s sensitive impressionism shows considerable development before his actual encounter with Delius, and there is little proof that Ellington’s style would have changed if he had not even encountered Delius work. The real connection between these two is in the way they both utilize the impressionist technique in their music. Delius close adherence to the impressionist view can be seen in his focus on the mood or emotion stimulated by a scene. Ellington’s focus on reactions to events indicates how both composers place the personality of themselves at the center of their piece. On a more subtle scale, it is well known that Delius was an admirer of early minstrel shows of the 19th century.14 These shows were the only theatrical medium in which gifted blacks performers of the period could support themselves and play their music. In them we see the employment of great blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Yet contrary to their own propaganda, minstrel shows musical repertoire has an only quasi-black influenced, not the full integration that is often portrayed.15 The connection of this music can also be seen as the embracing of the African slave culture, while the extent of this embracement is arbitrary, the influence is still there. Yet like Gershwin this employment of the African tonality is not as pronounced in Delius, and yet the concept still advocates an unseen bridge between Classical and Ellington.

While on the surface it may appear that the influence that ragtime played on Jazz has no relevance in this comparative analysis, the truth is ragtime is very much European. While it is common knowledge that European marching bands had immense influence on the development of ragtime,16 I have decided to focus on the role of syncopation rhythm. This is made up of two essential elements, first in the placement of stress on a weak beat, and the second is the creation of a strong impulse on a subdivision of a beat, called an in-between beat. Now weak beats and in-between beets are also known collectively as off beats, hence the rationale on why syncopated rhythm is referred to as a “offbeat rhythm”. Yet the important factor to remember is, musicians have always employed this type of rhythm as a stylistic method, with the only differential aspect in regards to rag time is the employment on a large-scale basis. Yet to the regard of many critics, a full composition cannot be based solely on this rhyme, thus only difference in the ragtime implications and that of Classical music is the extent of the utilization.

Now that we have made the connection between ragtime and Classical the question is now asked, does such a relationship exist for Ellington? If one wanted to see the contribution of ragtime on Ellington, all they had to do was look at his first piece ever composed, “Soda Fountain Rag”. Ellington’s early life was spent in the company of the great ragtime pianist whose impact on him as a musician is unfounded. As Ellington himself indicated, “Those ragtime pianists sounded so good to me, and they looked so good! Particularly when they flashed their left hands.”17 As one can see, while syncopated rhythm is an integral aspect of Jazz, it is in no way limited only to this musical category. From Bach to Mozart, Beethoven and even Tchaikovsyky employed it as a stylistic feature in their pieces.

In conclusion, one can see the shared characteristics of the two musical styles. Yet I find myself pressing again the reasoning for this paper, for I must submit that I am in no way declaring that Classical music equates Jazz. The two musical categories are different in numerous ways, but one must wonder does this difference justify the mistreatment of Jazz. Throughout history great innovations have been created not thought the passive means, but through the torrent fires of dissent. Classical music has born the scars of numerous dissenting musicians, all of who now stands as pinnacles of their craft. Yet now we have arrived at a time in which this reverent originality has become cause for scorn, and it is this debasement that I am addressing. By showing the similarities of the two genres, I had hoped in quenching this distaste for Jazz. This musical elitism that is being perpetuated can lead only to a disastrous finale for all who engage in it. Duke Ellington has it right when he stated, “There are only two types of music, good music and the rest.”18

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