Precociously talented vocalist, pianist and songwriter Kandace Springs found her jazz feet and a ready audience with the release of Soul Eyes on Blue Note earlier this year. She spoke to Peter Quinn about acquiring her first instrument and the tutelage of heavyweights such as Prince, Don Was and Gregory Porter
Mentored by Prince, who was so taken by her cover of Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’ that he flew her to Minneapolis to perform with him at the 30th anniversary celebration of Purple Rain. Offered a record deal by Blue Note’s President Don Was after hearing her perform just one song – an arrangement of Bonnie Raitt’s ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ (from Raitt’s 1991 album Luck of the Draw, which Was co-produced). Vocalist, pianist and songwriter Kandace Springs seems to be the very epitome of overnight success. And yet, as is so often the case, the reality is rather more complex.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, her father, Scat Springs, is a session singer who still holds a residency downtown. Springs vividly recalls the day that a piano suddenly appeared in the family home, an event which was to profoundly shape the course of her life.
“We had a friend who was being evicted from her apartment,” she tells me on the phone from the US, “and she had this old, old upright piano, like an heirloom. They were going to throw it out in the street, so she called my dad and said please, please can you keep this. He didn’t want to take it because it was so big, but a few days later I saw the piano in the house. I remember trying to play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and my dad comes down and plays a ghetto version and I played it back real quick and he was like, ‘that ain’t normal!’”
As her father was close friends of the Nashville-based Wooten brothers, lessons with Regi Wooten soon followed. Then, at the age of 13, her musical path was sealed when a song from Norah Jones’s debut album Come Away With Me came on the radio.
“The last song on that record came on, the great jazz standard ‘The Nearness of You’. I was like, oh my gosh. I stopped everything and said I’ve got to learn this song.” Springs bought the sheet music and ended up performing the song at a music camp in Nashville. “That was my debut – I was hooked after that. I thought, I want to make a living doing this.” After that, her father gave her more albums to check out: Diana Krall, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald, who she cites as being one of her biggest influences.
An early demo caught the ears of Rogers and Sturken, writers for Shakira, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson and others, best known for discovering and signing Rihanna. Aged just 17, Springs had the opportunity to ink a deal with their production company, SRP, but felt that she couldn’t commit at that point. Instead, she threw herself into work at a downtown Nashville hotel, valet-parking cars by day and playing piano in the lounge at night (Springs is a self-confessed gearhead).
Ripple dissolve to a few years later. Springs now found herself in New York, focusing once more on songwriting and demo recordings. Hooking up with Rogers and Sturken, a self-titled debut EP garnered critical acclaim and appearances on Jimmy Kimmel and Letterman shows, but the R&B/hip hop direction her music had taken wasn’t sitting quite right with Springs. Following some soul searching, plus some invaluable advice from Prince to follow her own muse, she finally returned to the soul, jazz, pop sweet spot that had so captivated her on Come Away With Me.
That all-important audition with Mr Was then followed, and Springs became a Blue Note artist. But it’s been a long musical journey.
In addition to her smoky vocals and engaging piano playing, expressed almost as one musical thought with what album producer Larry Klein refers to as, “a sense of phrasing way beyond her years”, her distinguished debut album Soul Eyes is marked by her own distinctive compositional voice. Featuring the most beautiful trumpet solo by Terence Blanchard, Springs co-wrote the slow-burner ‘Too Good To Last’ with songwriters Greg Wells and Lindy Robbins, plus a brace of songs (‘Fall Guy’ and ‘Novocaine Heart’) with Rogers and Sturken. But it’s the entirely self-penned album closer, the almost conversational ‘Rain Falling’, which really captures your attention.
“I was 16 years old when I wrote that song. I just like that more poetic writing where it’s not just verse, chorus, back to the verse and into the bridge. I really like the song to tell a story,” she says. The imagery of water seems to thread its way through the album like a subliminal idťe fixe. Is this something she particularly responds to? “Actually, I do. No-one’s ever brought it up with me like that before, but I’m obsessed with water.” And will there be more of her own material, is there a back catalogue? “You better believe it,” she laughs.
Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman – Just the Two of Us
The dynamic top-tier pairing of Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman are seeking to elevate the status of the piano and sax formation with their new album on Nonesuch, Nearness. Ahead of their headline appearance at this year’s EFG London Jazz festival on November 12, Selwyn Harris spoke to them about their profitable partnerships and the relative paucity of high-profile precursors to their own designs on the duet
For whatever reasons, the piano-sax duo is one of the more unusual of what could be considered conventional jazz line-ups. It’s a setting that hasn’t had the same watershed moments or been talked about with anything like the same gravitas as the solo, trio, quartet, quintet format and so on. Of more recent contemporary recordings though, Marc Copland-Greg Osby, Lee Konitz-Dan Tepfer and Vijay Iyer-Rudresh Mahanthappa are notable pairings that have revealed the format’s potential for a freewheeling, intimate, one-on-one dialogue cut through with an intensity that can more than match any of the other more ‘classic’ settings. Add the new Brad Mehldau-Joshua Redman recording to that list. Their outstanding new release Nearness on Nonesuch is their first recording as a duo and captures the very essence of these values.
“My observation would be that there aren’t as many duos as there are trios, quartets, etc in any instrumentation,” says Mehldau. “I’m not sure why that is. Duo implies the opportunity for a direct confrontation with the other player, but there are also ways to make it more conventional of course, as with any instrumentation. Perhaps that directness is a put off for musicians. For me it’s what’s so fun and exciting. I’m not saying I’m a master at it at all; on the contrary, playing duo with an inspiring musician like Josh makes me feel less self-assured in the best sense of the word. I really value those musical situations where I am challenged, and this is one of them.”
Mehldau’s other musical half Joshua Redman, also considers the lack of role models in the duo setting. “It’s an interesting question and one that I’ve never thought of before,” says the tenor-soprano saxophonist on the line from LA, as inquisitive in conversation as he is improvising. “I’ve heard Herbie and Wayne play duo together and they sound amazing, Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron, but I would say not so much in the sense that there are so many touchstones as for a quartet or quintet, groups historically that have had huge influence and impact. With the duo it’s more just that the models are the great jazz improvisers that we’ve listened to. And it sounds a little strange but I think our duo thing was already established. All the pieces were already there from the lifetime of music making we’d had that preceded that together. In a way we were doing what we’ve always done, but maybe just without bass and drums. It felt very familiar and very natural from the first gig. That surprised me a little bit. Oh yeah, I’m playing with Brad and we’re doing what we do, but this time it’s just the two of us.”
The musical bromance between Redman and Mehldau has passed every endurance test since their first meeting in the early 1990s. That was when Mehldau got his first big break in Redman’s quartet touring and recording on the sax man’s 1994 Warner Bros album MoodSwing. The saxophonist, who’s the son of Dewey Redman – a former protagonist of a more avant-garde strain of jazz tenor – was one of the highly-gifted young generation of jazz musicians at the time riding the wave of a mainstream jazz renaissance. By his early twenties he’d already been nominated for a Grammy, won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition and copped a record deal with Warner Bros.
“It was by far the best gig I had ever had up until that point in my lifetime,” says Mehldau. “I had been gigging around New York and had some other road gigs since I was 18, and I think I started playing with Josh when I was 24. It was, needless to say, very exciting for me. I felt like I had won a lottery, getting that gig! It was a real happy moment in my life. Josh called me to play two nights at the Village Vanguard – he had a week there – to see how it would go. That in itself was daunting, to be playing in that room. I passed the test and he asked me to be a part of the band. Big event for me, for sure.”
“I first met Brad and played with him shortly after I had moved to New York and he was God to me,” says Redman. “He was light years ahead of everyone else. He already had his own sound and identity. He was already clearly one of a kind, a one in a generation musician. He was in my band for a short period of time, but a very formative period. Then he started to do his own thing and we reconnected on another record I did called Timeless Tales in 1997 or so for a period of time.”
With new family commitments, managing their separate high-flying careers as well as living on different coasts, playing together became less of a regular occurrence. Even so they were still bumping into each other on the road and at the odd jam session. The tables had meanwhile turned. Mehldau’s star was the one in the ascendant; to many minds he’d become the most important new jazz pianist on the planet.
“For one thing, I would go to hear him play whenever,” says Redman. “At that time I had moved to New York and was living there up until 2002. So whenever he was in town, like playing with his trio at the Vanguard, I would always go down, often multiple nights because I’m one of the biggest Brad Mehldau fans and we’d always run into each other on tour. We did some double bills together too, his trio and my quartet. We were always in touch musically and I was always aware of what he was doing and listening to his latest records, so even though we’ve gone long periods of not playing together I’ve always felt in a very good way, very familiar with him musically.”
Their next notable musical exchange occurred in 2008 when they performed as a duo for the first time. Redman’s key appearance on Mehldau’s Highway Rider (2010) and Mehldau’s on Redman’s sax-and-strings Walking Shadows (2013) gave them the opportunity to cross musical paths again. But both longed for the kind of profoundly intimate experience they’d discovered as a duo. “Josh and I made a few duo performances together first, without much thought of where it would go, just to explore,” says Mehldau. “We had a really nice one as a part of a residency I did at the wonderful Wigmore Hall in London. We both felt strongly about that gig immediately; it felt like there was potential to grow. So we looked for more gigs. Indeed, what was appealing about the duo setting was how unhinged it felt in comparison to the two recording projects you mention, which were, relatively speaking, planned out affairs.”
“I didn’t know if I was ready to play duo with Brad Mehldau,” says Redman, with genuine modesty. “My question was about whether he even needed me. He’s one of the greatest solo pianists playing today, arguably of all time, so what am I going to add to the conversation? But, in a way, what I discovered was what I already knew, that exactly what I did add was myself to the conversation and that is one of the things that makes Brad such a great musician. I think one thing we share in common is this embrace of a real communicative conversational ethic. We’ve always had this even when we were playing together in larger configurations. That’s something we both love and it’s a source of our connection and I think it makes the duo situation feel so unique and special, at least for me. I think the challenge for me is to not let that love of interplay and conversation take over the music. We still have to be conscious of the song and trying to tell the story of the song, whatever that is. And to be conscious of architecture and form and organisation of the music so there is structure, there is a sense of purpose and directionality, there is a sense that there’s a larger narrative going on. That’s also something I think we both share, we’re aware that improvisation takes place in a larger context and you can be completely free and in the moment and interactive and conversational, and still be aware of the larger structure and architecture and hopefully serve it. You can have your cake and eat it too.”
In the making of Nearness, Mehldau approached Redman just over a year ago about them listening through some live concert tapes of them in duo. Redman compiled the recording, going through about 20 gigs and finding “special or unique versions of our repertoire”, a mix of bebop, standards and pop-rock tunes. They boiled it down to seven tracks, all of which come from a European tour in November 2011. Mehldau remembers it as “a fruitful series of gigs; we were really in the zone.” It’s highlighted by their elegantly scintillating versions of the bebop standards Charlie Parker/Benny Harris’ ‘Ornithology’ and Thelonious Monk’s ‘In Walked Bud’.
“When I first heard Brad I remember being struck by how much Wynton Kelly he had in his playing and I loved Wynton Kelly,” says Redman. “People don’t hear that now because there are so many layers. His thinking obviously wasn’t as fully developed as it became five years later. But we both loved bebop and we came up at a time when bebop was super important to what young cats were checking out. That music is a shared love for us for sure. So it was natural for us to play bebop tunes on the tour.”
Aside from the standard title theme, all are originals, one of them being Redman’s punning ‘Mehlsancholy’. Says Redman, “It’s a Brad-like tune in the feeling of the harmonic motion and has that beautiful tinge of melancholy which is something that’s at the core of his aesthetic. It reminded me of him and was influenced by him in a way. We’ve always shared musical values, whether in terms of our approach to improvisation or some of the same influences, and the importance of swing, blues and love of interesting popular music of our generation. All those things have been there from the beginning. Even though we grow and mature and change with our different projects, I feel, maybe because I’ve always listened to his music, that we’re changing together and growing together. There’s never been a point when I didn’t feel 100 per cent comfortable playing with Brad. This doesn’t take anything away from other musical relationships, but often when I go a long time without playing with a musician there’ll be an adjustment period. With him it’s never felt like that. It feels like we’re picking up where we left off, but with the added benefit of how many years and notes of making more music and being that more mature and hopefully wiser. At the same time, I’m always on the edge of my toes and it never feels too comfortable. It never feels like we’re just dialling it in, or just coasting. It’s not easy trying to keep up with Brad! But yeah, we both have a very playful spirit and not coming to the bandstand with any agenda. We both really embrace the moment.”
“Josh and I both value listening closely to the other player,” says Mehldau. “It definitely plays into this duo format. Having said that, there is always a counterintuitive possibility: sometimes there are exciting moments of rupture here when one of us just charges forward brazenly, independent of what the other guy is doing. This is interesting to me, this notion of respecting and trusting the other player enough to play something that is, on the face of it, disrespectful. All of these variables on the bandstand are applicable to friendships. Jazz is nothing if not a social music, a music of social interaction.”
Interview: Dominic J Marshall on studying jazz at university
Rising star pianist Dominic J Marshall has produced four impressive albums to date, his latest being The Triolithic, featuring his molten blend of hard hitting melodic jazz underpinned with slugged hip hop grooves and daring dynamics. He’s also keyboardist with internally acclaimed trip hop pioneers Cinematic Orchestra, and is currently on a world tour with them, while he also moonlights as an electronica artist under the moniker DJM. Born in Scotland, Marshall moved to England when he was three years old, with music running in his family: his father an Oxford graduate, classical piano player and teacher and his mother a self-taught pianist. Attending both Leeds College of Music and Conservatorium van Amsterdam, where he studied jazz piano and obtained Bachelors and Masters diplomas respectively, before turning professional. Fellow Leeds and University of Amsterdam alumnus, musicologist Rokas Kucinskas, interviewed Dominic this summer in Amsterdam about his life in music so far...
Before attending higher music education, what were your piano studies like?
My father was my first piano teacher, introducing me to the instrument and giving me lessons. At the beginning they were mainly classical music focused, but with time my father also introduced me to improvisation and composition via scales, and how rearranging notes in them affects the music I was playing. It also was something that I really liked, being a bit of an opposite direction to what my main focus at the time was – classical music. I did develop an appreciation for playing, and it became a daily habit that after school I would come home and play for two hours. Just improvise and what not. I had a few lessons with jazz pianists before my auditions, as people told me I should consult with people who know about jazz more than my father, but he was my only true teacher until I enrolled in Leeds College of Music.
So you were not really playing jazz until you enrolled in LCM?
I was, but it was quite a low standard playing. I mean we had gigs and all. There was one in a pub, across from my house just before I left for Leeds, where together with my friend I was trying to play “Giant Steps” (by John Coltrane), but had to stop after 20 bars. We just couldn’t follow the form [laughs]. The thing is, that I never learned the simple stuff, like say “Satin Doll”. I wanted to play things like “Giant Steps”. The first jazz tunes I learned were “Turn Out the Stars”, “Time Remembered”, “Waltz for Debby”.
You started playing Bill Evans’ compositions straight away?
Yes [laughs]. I had books with his transcriptions, and I read some of his pieces.
How did your study habits change in LCM then?
I spent a lot of time practicing. Especially from the second year onwards. I realized that I didn’t have dexterity in my fingers. The speed in my hands was nowhere near the speed I wanted to have. It sort of developed into an inferiority complex, and I became anxious that other students had something I didn’t. All the first year I overlooked it by not being strict with myself, so during my second year I started practicing seven hours a day. Scales, arpeggios, J. S. Bach, transcribing other pianists’ solos, learning new songs – all became a daily routine for me.
Working with a metronome?
I’m doing that now [laughs]. It’s funny, because during one of the workshops [bassist and educator] Jeff Berlin came to LCM and told everybody not to practice with a metronome. He was very confident about it, and it did affect many of us, students. Suddenly we all were like “wow, he must be right”. Looking back, I appreciate what he said. Time comes from inside not from a machine; rhythm is not mechanical. But today, musicians work in highly technological environments, recording studios, and so forth. One needs to be aware of that, and the metronome becomes very important tool, especially if you consider something like BPM – an essential aspect in today’s music world.
Did you escape from that inferiority complex regarding the speed of your playing?
Well, it became one of the many things I want to have in my playing. But that’s the thing, you can never have anything in music – it just doesn’t belong to you. Now we’re sitting here, talking, and where is the music? Nowhere. If I sit down and start playing after a few beers, my hands will act very differently to what I am used to, and the whole speed element becomes something you shouldn’t solely focus on, because same beers might enhance my creativity, but the speed might suffer.
That’s an interesting way of looking at it. When did you start thinking about the matter in this way?
Just a little before I graduated from my Masters. I stopped being strict on myself in general, because the goal where you want to be, which is essentially why one practices, is always moving. It’s a moving target, and it can become a trap, if you do not have it set. You should practice for something, and if you do that for 5 years, there needs to come a time when you stop, look back, and say: “Did I achieve what I wanted? Because if I did, then I don’t need to practice it anymore”.
But when do you know that you have achieved your goal?
It’s funny, because I’m reminded of another workshop I went to LCM, when one of the fellow students asked a person, I can’t remember his name, leading the workshop: “How do you know when you have to stop practicing something?” And the person gave such a great answer: “How do you know when you fall in love?” It’s a feeling – you just know.
Going back to the beginning of the topic, Leeds, how would you describe your three years spent in there? How would you describe the institution itself?
Just a lot of work. A lot of time spent in classrooms; some great teachers. Mark Donlon, my principal teacher during my last year, for example, suggested me that I could do the Masters. Jamil Sheriff was also great. He was strict, but great because of that. I learned a lot from Mulele Matondo, too. Just by playing with him I learned a lot about rhythm and melody. These people make the institutions, and because of this institutions are always changing. I mean it was great back when I studied there. There were some lectures I didn’t attend, especially during my second year, but I was constantly working. I sort of made selective sacrifices for my individual practicing. Also, I learned as much from different musicians in LCM as I did from the teachers; made some good friends. In the end, I got a lot from it.
Do you miss it?
Do I miss it? Well, I never really missed schools. You take what you can from them and you move on. It’s like attending swimming lessons – once you know how to swim, you don’t think: “Oh, I want to go back to swimming lessons” [laughs]. That’s the thing with institutions that I said before – they’re always changing. I went and did a workshop there after I graduated, and it already felt like a different place. Some people were still there, but it did feel like a different place from what I remember. I do miss playing basketball though [smiles].
Ok, let’s talk about your Masters programme. Did you enroll in Conservatorium van Amsterdam straight after Leeds?
Yes, straight away. As I said, Mark Donlon gave me the idea to do the Masters programme. Perhaps he saw me practicing a lot and thought it could be something for me. I applied for a few programmes, and was accepted in Amsterdam. It wasn’t my first choice, but it turned out to be the best one for me. For my auditions I played Bill Evans’ and Robert Glasper’s tunes. As it turned out, piano teachers in Amsterdam are fond of Bill Evans, and maybe because of that I was given the place in the programme [smiles].
So you didn’t play some well-known jazz standard? Was it always like that for you?
Absolutely. I need to like the tune to perform it well, and if I played something like “Autumn Leaves” for my audition in Amsterdam, I don’t think I would have gotten in [laughs]. Even in Leeds with all the mandatory repertoire of jazz standards, I didn’t play many of them. I remember completely rearranging “All The Things You Are” because I didn’t like it, and I must admit, I’m still very much like that today. It’s all about the composition for me, and not so much about improvisation – I care about the framework in which I improvise. I met a lot of people during my time in both Leeds and Amsterdam, who complained to me how boxed-in they feel having to play all those jazz standards, but somehow I always managed to avoid this.
Are there big differences between BA and MA courses?
I think that both of them are similar, except that the MA programme is like a bigger pool to swim in, with more challenges. Most of my time spent in Amsterdam, however, I was doing the same things as in Leeds. I was behind the piano practicing, playing with people, learning from my fellow students, and some very good teachers. I could have socialized more than I did. I could have benefited from that. There’s definitely more freedom in the Masters. Teachers expect you to know what you want, and how to go there. For me that was perfect, because I knew where to go to in terms of my goals. Where the BA programme was more like: “You don’t know what you’re doing, so just come this way” [laughs].
Did you meet people in Amsterdam who were doing BA programme in jazz?
Have you ever looked at them and compared them to yourself when you were studying in LCM? Maybe you thought about differences between the two institutions you studied in?
To be honest, I think that both LCM and CvA are very similar. They both are very big schools, which offer places to a lot of people, more than some other schools. I really like such approach, because it’s more sociable and you meet more people; rather than feeling isolated, you feel being a part of something bigger. I can imagine that in some schools that admit less people, you might run into troubles if you don’t like playing with them. What if you don’t like a bass player, but there isn’t any other to play with? What happens if he can’t play a funk groove, and you love playing it?
I don’t think you’re allowed to play funk in such schools…
No, you’re not – it’s bad [laughs]. Perhaps the basic difference between Leeds and Amsterdam is how much more international Amsterdam is. I really liked it, and because of that, while doing my Masters, I played in Germany, Russia, and Latvia. If you live in Amsterdam then all of the big European capitals, where one can find gigs more easily, are reachable by trains in a matter of hours, which is so great. In Leeds, you have the whole UK, but it’s not the same. It isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not the same. The problem I’m experiencing is that people don’t want to go and listen to jazz anymore. Hence, it doesn’t matter where you live – Leeds or Amsterdam – the audience for jazz is getting older and older. It’s sad, but to me it feels like jazz scene in the world is dying, and I don’t want to be tied up to it, that is to say jazz.
Jazzwise is saddened to hear of Bobby Wellins' death. Peter Vacher interviewed the great saxophonist in the magazine 10 years ago, and he provided this list of Wellins' finest recordings:
Stan Tracey Quartet
Under Milk Wood (1965)
Tracey had Wellins in mind when he composed his suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’ famous radio play. Both men rose to the occasion magnificently; Wellins is especially eloquent on ‘Starless and Bible Black’. A defining career moment.
Stan Tracey Quartet
With Love From Jazz (1967)
Newly remastered and reissued, Tracey’s later suite evokes “the tragic-comedy of human love” and has the two protagonists at their quirky best. Wellins swings hard on Two-Part Intention’ supported by Dave Green’s purring bass and is hauntingly fragile on the lovely ‘Amoroso Only Moreso'.
The Satin Album (1996)
Jazzizit JITCD 9607
Wellins is a ballad master and excels on this sublime examination of the songs from Billie Holiday’s 1958 recording, Lady In Satin. The late pianist Colin Purbrook plays sparingly but sweetly and Bobby’s tenor improvisations, spacious and quite sensual, are among his best on record.
Bobby Wellins Quartet
The Best Is Yet To Come (2000)
Wellins was inspired by a rather different vocalist in this fine album of songs associated with Tony Bennett. His unique sound, plaintive yet robust, is beautifully caught and there’s plenty of thoughtful piano from Bobby’s current associate, Liam Noble.
Jazzizit JITCD 0434
And it is, with Mark Edwards playing Hammond or piano as drummer Spike Wells clatters away. Wellins hoots and hollers as only he can and everyone seems to be having a ball. Fun? Just listen to the ‘The Odd Couple’ or the swingy ‘Smouldering’.
When The Sun Comes Out (2005)
Recorded live at the Appleby Festival, this retains the Fun quartet and is another breezy affair. Wellins is a fund of ideas and Edwards presses hard over Cleyndert’s bass and the inspirational drumming of Wells.
And don't miss...
Culloden Moor Suite (2014)
Spartacus STS 020
Although there are solo cameos for Tom MacNiven, Steve Hamilton and drummer Alyn Cosker (who also provides the militaristic underbed for the ‘March’ movement) this is really all about Bobby Wellins. His tone is as blurry and magnificent as it was in the 1960s, his phrasing as oblique, yet centred, and his ability to channel forceful feelings while appearing not to, is quite magical. His duet with the drums on ‘Battle’ and his reflective keening on ‘Epilogue’ are as fine as anything he has ever recorded.
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.