When Jazz Gets Bach To Classics

THE SWING ERA: THE DEVELOPMENT OF JAZZ, 1930-1945 by Gunther Schuller, New York: Oxford University Press, 944 pp., $30

STEEL yourself, as those near and dear to me do, for a musicians' joke of ancient vintage. One of the bassoonists in the orchestra for ``Carmen'' breaks his instrument and for the first time has a chance to listen to the opera from a seat out front.

``How was it?'' asks the bassoonist sitting next to him when he returns to the pit.

``Amazing,'' he says. ``You know that part where we go bomp-beep, bomp-beep - that really goes da-dee-da-dah-dah,'' and he hums the melody of the March of the Toreadors.

I feel a little like that enlightened bassoonist after reading the 900 pages of ``The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945,'' by Gunther Schuller, former president of the New England Conservatory of Music and an international figure in the realms of jazz and classical music.

I was listening to a lot of the same sounds that he was during that era - and even playing in a swing band or two. But I had no idea what was really going on in the music we took so lightly and enjoyed so much.

After ``over 30,000 listenings to recordings,'' Mr. Schuller hears so much in the swing era, good and bad, that I want to listen to it all over again. While I was going pah-pa-pa-pah on my hi-hat cymbal, things were happening in American music that had never happened before. And soon, American music, in one form or another, was reaching the ends of the earth.

There was the night our band leader had contracted to play for a dance with an eight-piece band. The only musician he could find for the eighth spot was a string bass, and we already had a string bass. That night we had two string basses. Solid!

If only we had known at the time what good company had preceded us. Schuller tells how circumstances once left Duke Ellington with two basses, and Ellington liked the effect so much that he kept two basses for three years. They produce ``a most amazing sound and harmony,'' writes Schuller, in Ellington's celebrated composition, ``Reminiscing in Tempo.''

Schuller sees the swing era as an extraordinary period when much popular music was also art, to be judged by the standards of art no matter how much fun it was. The Carl Colby Orchestra that I was in - ``Colby Swing Is the Natural Thing,'' said the sign on our sleeper bus - was certainly fun. The Ellington band was certainly art. Yet in those days the public liked the art as well as the fun, and the Ellington band would sweep through the Midwest, playing at the same Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, N.D., that we did.

(For some reason the jazz connoisseur who recorded Ellington - on old-fashioned discs - at the ballroom in 1940 did not come back to record us a couple of years later.)

Our Midwestern bands, like those in other regions, were loosely called territory bands. Schuller calls the Nat Towles orchestra ``the finest territory band of all.'' And there sits the Towles sleeper bus - a cab with streamlined semitrailer - just a page or two from our sleeper bus in a 1987 book, ``Odyssey of the Mid-Nite Flyer: A History of Midwest Bands,'' by the leader of one of those bands, Lee Barron.

Alas I don't remember the faces in the photo of the Wit Thoma band, with which I played one night for audition purposes. A year later I got a postcard offering me the job. The more musicians left to serve in World War II, the better my audition must have sounded. Before long I was in uniform in the Pacific myself, finding bands to play with during off hours as the music Schuller memorializes swung through all the theaters of war.

I recognize someone for sure in the photo of the University of Northern Iowa Jazz Band - ``reputed to be the first college band in the nation to be formed to play a jazz concert,'' according to Schuller. It's Jim Heskett, now a professor at the Harvard Business School, who also helped form the Generation Gap band in our basement, with several of us fugitives from the swing era joining the children of rock to play great old tunes like Earl Hines's ``Rosetta.''

Hines is one of the stars Schuller discusses as he puts into the widest musical context what once seemed to be the ephemeral music of jitterbugging dancers and three-minute phonograph records. Pianist Hines had a marvelous array of ``sleights-of-hand,'' but most of these had existed in classical piano literature for at least a century, says Schuller. For example: ``Chopin's nocturnes, mazurkas, and ballades abound with scampering octave runs, zephyr-like roulades, surging swirling bass-register figures, scintillating obbligatos and embellishments.... What is especially interesting is that these pianisms and effects in Chopin occur almost always, as in jazz, over a steady beat or rhythmic pattern, usually explicitly stated, sometimes obliquely implied. The only difference is that in the case of Chopin these infrastructures, also dance-related, were Polish mazurka rhythms, Italian barcaroles, fiery marches, and elegant waltzes.''

When drummer Alvin Burroughs accompanies one of Hines's solos, he uses a simple rhythm alternating quarter notes and triplets that was also favored by a more famous drummer, Gene Krupa. This ``is precisely the figure Schubert uses in his great C-Major Symphony (last movement) in the violins. When played with a crisp rhythm, against Schubert's pizzicato basses and cellos - the closest thing in the early classical repertory to a `walking' bass line - the effect is startlingly like swing era jazz.''

As a later musical generation puts it, or raps it, you see what I'm sayin'? I don't know how many times I played that very same drum rhythm during the swing era. Who knew it had such a pedigree.

And remember the hi-de-hi-de-ho singing of Cab Calloway? Schuller discriminates between Calloway's satiric comedy and the inanity of so much commercial clowning by musicians. And ``after all,'' as Schuller notes, ``the Elizabethan madrigalists had their `Heigh Nonny No.'''

Schuller is not alone in seeing an interplay between jazz and the classics. For example, one of the pianists he particularly admires, John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, has written of being reminded of Bach's choral prelude structure by Ellington's ``Sidewalks of New York.'' Lewis cites the passage in which the trombone embellishes the melody and the secondary harmonic line is played by the saxophones - ``one of the most wonderful contrapuntal gems I know.''

What about improvisation, which, along with a swinging rhythm, turns music into jazz? From Schuller's encyclopedic knowledge of music - reflected in ``Early Jazz'' of 20 years ago as well as the current book - he can document something that I came to know casually from playing a number of times with the same musician. Not every ``improvised'' jazz solo is improvised on the spot, invented wholly new.

Spontaneous creation ``certainly represents the heart and soul of jazz,'' says Schuller. But ``a fine musician can play even a memorized `solo' with a feeling of just-created spontaneity.''

This is true of classical as well as jazz players, says Schuller, reminding me of a conversation I had with Louis Krasner, whose career includes playing the premi`ere performances of the violin concertos by Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. He tells his classical violin students to listen to the way jazz musicians play. A musical work is like a story, he said. With the same notes in front of you, you can read the story, or you can tell the story.

Trumpeter Roy Eldridge, saxophonist Lester Young, and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell are among the jazz musicians whom Schuller says tell a story when they play. It can make all the difference, whether in Beethoven or in the blues, whether on a concert stage or in a sleeper bus.

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