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From Bach to Bix: The Influence of European Classics on American Jazz

James P. Johnson. Photo courtesy Red Hot Jazz.

Almost from the beginning, jazz musicians have been fascinated with European classics. The creative urge to develop a synthesis between jazz and classical music has resulted in a rich and varied body of work. Stride piano pioneer James P. Johnson composed his symphonic tone poem "Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody" in 1928 in response to the success five years earlier of Gershwin's composition combining the feel of jazz with symphonic performance, "Rhapsody in Blue."

 

Many jazz musicians in the first half of the 20th century looked to the composers of European operetta for interesting melodies to adapt to their jazz improvisations. Sigmund Romberg was famous for composing classic Viennese-style operetta—heavy on schmaltz and ompah—and yet a number of his songs became jazz standards.

 

"Indian Summer" sheet music. Image courtesy VT ImageBase.

Born in a small town in Hungary in the 1880s, Romberg was about as far removed from the development of jazz in America as he could be. Nonetheless, his composition “Softly as In a Morning Sunrise” made its way into the jazz world via a killer recording by swing era clarinetist Artie Shaw and the tune remains a popular favorite with jazz musicians. Several compositions by the Viennese operetta master Victor Herbert, including his “Indian Summer,” have also become mainstays of contemporary jazz repertoire.

 

Of all the American popular songwriters of the 20s and 30s, George Gershwin was most interested in a true synthesis of American and European musical idioms. His "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Concerto in F" are standard works on the classical concert stage today, and far more classical pianists than jazz artists perform his "Piano Preludes."

 

Gershwin_wiki

George Gershwin. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

Today on Riverwalk Jazz The Jim Cullum Jazz Band explores the frequent cross-pollination between European ‘art music’ and swinging jazz. Included on the program: Dick Hyman and John Sheridan interpret Gershwin’s "Prelude No.1" in a jazz treatment for two pianos. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band performs a movement from their original composition for jazz band and symphony orchestra, "Playing With Fire." And Jim and the band play a selection from their jazz transcription of Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess, "The Buzzard Song."

 

Photo credit for Home Page: Sigmund Romberg,  photo courtesy tvrage.

 

 

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