Still swimming in the stream
During each of jazz’s growth spurts, opportunity for greater complexity and freedom arose. When jazz went from Dixieland to hot, the improvisations and prominence of the soloist’s voice grew. Then from hot to swing and the big band era, the arrangements began to take on a new complexity. The music during the big band era further absorbed colors for its palette from the modern classical music coming out of Europe. Groups lead by Claude Thornhill, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman were some of the main proponents of furthering the sophistication factor on the bandstand and in compositions.
There was however a subtle shift as jazz went from being a music of rebellion and outsider art to providing a soundtrack to the day’s youth. There would still be moments of complexity in the “what” and “how” for the music being played but the more populist elements were at the forefront to ensure bodies were on the dance floor and the juke boxes were gorged on pocket change.
From Bop to Third Stream
There were a few factors which came together by happenstance to bring about the next phase of jazz. A two-year ban on recording by the union and most big bands ranks being depleted by the World War II draft combined with an inherent desire for further artistic evolution by some of the younger players. Bop was birthed at late night jam sessions by kindred spirits who wanted to be thought of less as entertainers and more as artists. Many of its main progenitors sat shoulder to shoulder for their “day jobs” on the bandstands of the day’s big bands before they could take off their ties and cut loose at Minton’s Playhouse or some of the other small late night clubs in New York which were proving grounds for the birthing of a new art.
As word spread about this new musical genre the circle of people practicing and participating began to enlarge. The initial core group who had worked out the first theories of bop began spreading the gospel in informal clinics, taking young up-and-comers onto the bandstand with them. Miles Davis was in New York (1944) to attend Julliard School of Music. He soon abandoned that for the more practical application of learning while on the bandstand with one of Bop’s chief architects, Charlie “Bird” Parker. “
Bop brought with it a new musical vocabulary and freedom. To be sure, musicians still had many trials but it was now no longer an absurd notion for a musician to wish to be thought of as an artist and not worry about the entertainment aspect. From Bop’s original revolution of sound would spring forth many new sub-genres. But as exciting as Bop was, it did become a little formulaic, being more often than not about the solos, not the arrangements.
Miles Davis began to crave a more complex framework in which soloists could create. Gil Evans (1912-1988) was living in New York where he had been writing and arranging for Claude Thornhill (1909-1965), leader of one of the more classically leaning big bands. While with Thornhill, Evans would help formulate a vibratoless way for the horns to play which would give them a wider palette to paint with in more delicate ways. He initially contacted Miles about permission to arrange his song “Donna Lee” for Claude Thornhill’s band. Aside from Miles’ tune, Evans had begun adding Bop inflections to Claude Thornhill’s band (“Thrivin on a Riff,” “Anthropology,” etc.).
Gil’s apartment on 55th Street (NYC) became a sort of musical think tank where like-minded musicians began plotting out a new course. Arranger/composer/musician Gerry Mulligan, who had also worked with Claude Thornhill, took an active part in helping to solidify the theories which would lead to a new kind of music and how best to realize them. Initially Charlie Parker was going to lead what would be a nonet but this direction was not taken; and instead Miles Davis, who was beginning to gain a reputation, took the leader position for this ensemble.
The nonet featured arrangements by Gil Evans, John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan. The songs were orchestral although featuring only brass and reeds. The arrangements were more complex than what Bop had been offering but still contained some top-notch soloing by, among others, Lee Konitz, who had been playing with Claude Thornhill and would later play with Stan Kenton. The nonet did some live dates at The Royal Roost (NYC) which lead them to be signed to Capital Records, releasing singles in 1949-1950. A year later all the tracks (12) were collected together and released as Birth of the Cool (1949), the title thought up by Capital A&R executive Pete Rugolo.
This collective was a sort of jazz Rosetta Stone. Everybody associated with the sessions would go on to not only lead their own ensembles but either create or largely contribute to more new musical genres. The music came to be known as “Third Stream,” a term coined by one of the date’s musicians who is also one of jazz’s all-time great deep thinkers, Gunther Schuller, during a lecture at Brandeis University. In its simplest definition, Third Stream is jazz with a classical music influence and components of improvisation contained within its score.
Gunther Schuller is truly a jazz/music renaissance man. He is an important theorist, conductor, composer, educator and, although he retired from it fairly early on (1962), musician (French horn). Schuller privately took lessons on French horn and flute. This led to him playing at the age of eighteen with the American Ballet Theater (1943) and then to a position with the Cincinnati Symphony (1943-45) and the Metropolitan Opera (1945-59). After his involvement with the Birth of the Cool sessions, he would again work with Miles Davis and Gil Evans for their third stream take on Porgy and Bess (1958). By this time he was doing projects under his own steam. Along with John Lewis, who had also been on the Birth of the Cool sessions and founder of The Modern Jazz Quartet, he created the Jazz and Classical Music Society (1955) which played both jazz and classical music compositions in concert. Columbia recorded an album, Music for Brass, which consisted of compositions by John Lewis, Jimmy Giuffre, another of the Birth of the Cool session alumni J.J Johnson, and his own work, played by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos.
By the late fifties Gunther was creating festivals and composing more pieces in the third stream vein. He was more than just a crusader for this art form, creating over the next few decades a curriculum and whole new departments for various universities. The list of activities which he participated in or created is enough for any three people. All the while he continued composing chamber pieces, operas and even multi-media works.
BMOP (Boston Modern Orchestra Project) was founded in 1996 by Gil Rose. Their mission has been to record and perform re-discovered and commissioned pieces from the 20th and 21st century. BMOP has begun to regularly release CDs to great critical acclaim. The CD, Journey into Jazz (2008), is one of nine releases for this year. The CD is made up of three Gunther Schuller compositions, two commissioned, all dating from the early 1960s. The sound is pristine and the length a little under an hour (58:16). One of the appeals of this album is that it merits repeated listening. Part of the reason for this is not just the top-notch musicians but the compelling way smaller groups of instruments, groups within the group, appear. Throughout the album is an intricate layering of sounds which never becomes so dense as to make any of the pieces unpalatable.
The first piece Variants for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra was commissioned for George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein’s City Center Ballet (1961). It begins with a slow rumbling of the orchestra over which the sharp line of a violin can be heard. It has a beautiful savagery as can be found in some of the works of Dimitri Shostakovich and Arnold Schoenberg. There is a sense of tension which is slow building, made all the more effective by the multi-layers of sound which make the body of the piece expand outward. There is a jazz drum kit of which I am a huge fan when combined with an orchestral setting. The difference in cadence between the two, orchestra and kit drums, I find striking but never gimmicky or distracting. This piece integrates the jazz quartet into the ranks of the orchestra rather than providing just a backdrop over which the quartet can solo. With seamless assimilation, it greatly adds to what both the orchestra and quartet can say.
The variations take place over the first seven tracks. Track two begins with delicate pulse of cymbals and soft murmuring of piano under which strings richly swell. It is all stillness punctuated by lead lines of a violin which seems to secretly converse with piano. Discordance appears quickly bubbling up and just as rapidly disappearing, leaving the conversation to be finished by two. Track three starts with bright bass and drums, another conversation of two under which bassoons and flute rapidly run. There are plucked strings which give a sort of rich effect without weighing this section down. Track four starts with vibes and flute, first gentle and cloud-like, then a little sharper as more of the ensemble appears.
The term Third Stream seems almost a moot term as plenty of modern classical composers now incorporate both jazz instruments and improvisation into their works and many jazz composer/musicians now write music with classical like complexity. A lot of Third Stream seems to move towards the classical or big band; Variants definitely leans towards the former. Although written in 1961 it still sounds fresh. It is has not lost anything since its conception and this is because it derives none of its power from shock of the new. In lieu of novelty is intricate music of the highest caliber. Another benefit of how the piece was written is that it never sacrifices emotion for its complexity.
Journey into Jazz (1962) has text which was written by jazz critic Nat Hentoff and here is ably narrated by Gunther Schuller himself. It is a sort of valentine to the emotion and spontaneity of jazz and also serves to educate the laymen in an entertaining, non-dogmatic way. It is somewhat reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (1918) and Charles Mingus’s A Colloquial Dream/Scenes in the City (New Tijuana Moods, 1957, RCA Victor). Journey tells the story of young Eddy Jackson, a horn player, and his discovery of jazz. Admittedly, I would not listen to this twenty-minute track every time I play the album, but the music without narration is very good and could easily stand on its own.
Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (1959) has a quartet improvising solo parts among a fully realized orchestral score. It starts with a soft piano and high hat being tapped. Vibes and bass, the rest of the quartet, join in. This piece was originally written for John Lewis’s Modern Jazz Quartet and, while it captures some of their bluesy chamber jazz vibe as performed on this album, nothing is merely parroted. In the first section (track 9) the sound of the strings fluttering under the vibes is effective at creating the feeling of something about to happen, an unfolding. Likewise, when the horns do the same for piano’s statements; there manages, under the quartet to be pulses and swells by the orchestra in which everything is equally heard and mutually framed in a sort of shimmering beauty.
The next section begins with a surge of discordance after which there is to be heard just bass and cymbals being tapped. It has a sort of late night bluesy feel, walking alone at midnight under a bar sign’s neon. The horns and flutes let out long lines under the lament as discordance again bubbles up and the tempo picks up carried on the back of the flutes. Track eleven starts with the orchestra instead of the quartet. A piano slowly emerges doing a sort of sanctified sounding lament under which the strings play. The dynamics between quartet and orchestra are impressive and this section shows it to full effect. The strings play under piano but also rise above it with jagged rhythms of their own. The tempo increases but it is done in such an organic way it never distracts from what is going on.
An aspect of the album which is not always encountered elsewhere is that every listen gives little surprises and aural gifts each time. Gil Rose and The Boston Orchestra Project bring a passion and knowledge to the music which is reflected throughout the album. The soloists, not just in what they say but their interaction within the larger ensemble, excite one for what the future could hold for a relatively young art form. The music itself shows that all the awards that Schuller has won, which include the MacArthur Genius Award, The Pulitzer and two Grammies, are no fluke. Over the years he has deepened the knowledge and possibilities of a music whose birth he helped usher in and remained as committed to it ever since.