Symphonic jazz: a history

Long-form classical-indebted compositions are back in style. Stuart Nicholson takes a close look at the evolution of extended symphonic orchestrations in jazz, from the creations of Gershwin to Ellington to a 21st century renaissance led by former members of EST, Kamasi Washington (pictured) and Tommy Smith. Plus, listen to our Symphonic Jazz: a history playlist on Apple Music

In 1892, the Czech patriot Anton Dvořák arrived in New York to take up the position of director at the new National Conservatory of Music. His aim, published in newspaper articles shortly after his arrival, was to encourage young American composers to adopt the melodies of Native American and African-American communities in their orchestral music, saying how he was convinced: "The future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States." He showed the way with his Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, 'From The New World', premiered in December 1893 in Carnegie Hall. Just 30-odd years later the musical landscape had changed beyond all recognition and while it was not in quite the way Dvořák had envisaged, he was at least half right. The future was being shaped by Afro-American inspiration alright, but not in classical music, rather emerging in vibrant new forms of popular music called ragtime and jazz. This was underlined by a concert that took place in the afternoon of 12 February 1924 at Aeolian Hall called An Experiment in Modern Music. The orchestra was led by Paul Whiteman who presented 26 items in all, the penultimate a premiere of an original piece that had hastily been written in the five weeks leading up the concert. By the end of its 14 minutes, as composer and musicologist Howard Goodall later pointed out, "The world of music had been changed forever".

Today, the concert is remembered for one reason only, the premiere of 'Rhapsody in Blue', with the composer George Gershwin at the piano, an event which is now regarded as the defining moment of the 'Jazz Age' and of the cultural history of New York. But Whiteman's band was clearly not a classical orchestra, and 'Rhapsody in Blue' was not a classical piece, so what was it? To answer this, it had to be acknowledged Whiteman's was an American orchestra playing music that was uniquely American, but what made it American? The answer was it was strongly influenced by jazz, that was uniquely American in origin. This situated Whiteman's success in the broader debate of what constituted 'American-ness' in the arts and how this might be expressed in national culture. In the months that followed, jazz, which some elites had been trying to ban, like alcohol through the Volstead Act of four years earlier, began to be viewed differently, the Musical America announcing that: "Jazz Music Not Such an 'Enfant Terrible' After All". Equally importantly, the challenge of the long compositional form in jazz was taken up by bandleaders such as Fletcher Henderson who, in the winter of 1924-25, was performing an arrangement of 'Rhapsody in Blue' and whose arranger Don Redman came up with the impressive 'Whiteman Stomp' in tribute to Whiteman, and Duke Ellington, who began billing himself as 'The Paul Whiteman of Harlem', who was also performing 'Rhapsody' (the score is in the Ellington Collection at the Smithsonian) and working towards longer form compositions such as 'Creole Rhapsody' in 1931, where, as Alex Ross has pointed out, "'Rhapsody in Blue' was the obvious model." For the rest of his life, Ellington continued to experiment and perfect the long-form composition in jazz.

The idea of the long-form classically influenced composition in jazz was not just pursued by Henderson and Ellington – pianist James P. Johnson composed 'Yamacraw – A Negro Rhapsody' in 1927, and the 'Jazzamine Concerto' in 1934; Bix Beiderbecke discussed 'modern' ideas with Maurice Ravel when the composer visited New York in 1928, while Ferdinand Grofé, Whiteman's arranger who orchestrated Gershwin's 'Rhapsody', tried his hand with 'Broadway at Night', 'Three Shades of Blue' and 'Grand Canyon Suite'; Victor Herbert came up with 'A Suite of Serenades'; Rube Bloom 'Soliloquy'; Matty Malneck 'Midnight Reflections' and 'Caprice Futuristic' and Domenico Savion 'A Study in Blue'. Nat Shilkret, who conducted Whiteman's orchestra when they recorded 'Rhapsody' came up with 'Skyward' and classical composers got in on the act with John Alden Carpenter's 'Krazy Kat' ballet and 'Skyscrapers'. William Grant Still composed his 'Afro American Symphony' and 'The Lennox Avenue Suite' and in the 1940s was contributing arrangements such as 'Deserted Farm' and 'Gloomy Sunday' to Artie Shaw, whose 'Concerto for Clarinet' was an obvious swing-era manifestation of symphonic jazz. And Dana Suesse, whose career was sponsored by Whiteman, came up with 'Jazz Nocturne' in 1932 and carried the banner of symphonic jazz into the 1950s.

It's a strange thing, but the symphonic jazz idea never quite caught on, but neither did it go away. The Sauter-Finnegan Orchestra in the 1950s came up with Concert Jazz in 1955; Stan Kenton's many experiments included Bob Graettinger's City of Glass; Stan Getz and Eddie Sauter collaborated on the classic Focus (an album that has currently inspired Britain's Tim Garland) and the less successful Mickey One in the 1960s, and Gunther Schuller coined the term 'Third Stream' for experiments bringing jazz and classical closer together. There are countless other examples lurking beyond the glossy patina of jazz history as conventionally constructed, but just as in Jaws III when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, the whole concept is resurfacing again.

In 2005, the Pat Metheny Group recorded The Way Up, a 68-minute through composed piece that was orchestral in concept and execution and although never called symphonic jazz, pretty much was – and a major achievement that never got the hosannas it deserved. In more recent times, The Symphonic Jazz Orchestra in the US has come up with Looking Forward Looking Back; in Poland Tadeusz Ehrhardt and Eugeniusz Marszałek recorded the impressive Suita Nowoorleanska; Jan Lundgren has recorded the music of Jan Johansson with a string quartet; Marius Neset has just released Snowmelt with the London Sinfonietta; Tommy Smith has just issued the impressive Modern Jacobite with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, while waiting in the wings is the EST Symphony, where Magnus Öström and Dan Berglund have made Esbjörn Svensson's dream a reality with the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra and pianist Iiro Rantala. The form is breaking through to the mainstream as well, with large string arrangements fuelling the music of Kamasi Washington's 100,000 selling album, The Epic, selections of which were performed at the BBC's Henry Wood Proms Concert series, while Snarky Puppy recently won a Grammy for their symphonic album Sylva with the Metropole Orchestra.

It may seem remarkable, but symphonic jazz's compositional and orchestral challenge remains as alluring and elusive to musicians today as it was to George Gershwin in the closing weeks of 1923 and early 1924. Not all symphonic jazz experiments have been successful, but it's faulty logic to judge any art form by its failures. As we are beginning to see in its 21st century manifestations, there's enormous potential to be realised in broadening the expressive and emotional resources of jazz through powerfully conceived long-form orchestrations framing jazz improvisation – for evidence of that, just check out The Way Up.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise magazine, visit:

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