Classical musicians and jazz music

Photo, Andrei Z

I try to be both a classical musician and a jazz musician. This dual pursuit is sometimes detrimental to both sides, but often beneficial, and I enjoy it. I’ve put in serious study, listening, and practice hours with both kinds of music.

Jazz has influenced classical composers enough that classical musicians can’t ignore it—if you’re an orchestral clarinetist, it’s only a matter of time before you have to face Rhapsody in Blue. So it’s not unusual to hear classical musicians, especially in academic situations, address aspects of jazz playing.

It’s disappointing to me to hear classical musicians use pejorative language when describing jazz style, but frequently terms like “sloppy,” “lazy,” “harsh,” or “piercing” are used to characterize its techniques and sounds. In the last few months, some egregious and ill-informed examples of this have appeared in the blogosphere, and I can think of several examples during that same period when I have heard that kind of talk in masterclasses and workshops.

I don’t think that the examples I’ve seen lately were intentionally belittling or snobbish. And, in fact, in some cases the intent seemed to be to express appreciation for jazz music and jazz musicians, but the choice of words betrays some underlying attitudes about the relationship between classical and jazz.

If you’re a classical musician, these are the kinds of things I want you to know about jazz playing:

  • Classical musicians hold themselves to very high—and very specific—standards when it comes to tone. But in jazz, we take what we consider a more open-minded approach. In jazz, the fact that my tone doesn’t meet classical standards doesn’t mean that I’m undisciplined. It means that I’m an individual. I worked just as long and hard to develop my sound as you did. It’s not that I’m unconcerned about my tone; it’s that I’m unconcerned about yours.
  • The unique trappings of jazz style (inflections and other effects) are a complex and nuanced language of expression. When you suggest that scoops and smears can be added to your “jazzy” repertoire piece without properly absorbing and understanding their use and execution in jazz, I find it insulting to my craft and unpleasant to listen to. Can you imagine a musician untrained in Baroque style telling a room full of attentive students, “just put in some trills and stuff?” The results would be, um, unconvincing.
  • The same goes for swing. There’s a popular myth that to swing simply means to play eighth notes with a triplet feel. If you take the time to really listen to some good jazz (an hour with the Count Basie band is time well spent), you’ll quickly find that the triplet approach is inadequate for reproducing the subtleties of jazz rhythm. You’ll also find that swing is more than a rhythmic thing—it has a great deal to do with phrasing and articulation. Be aware that these things are not accurately expressed by the notation in your excerpt book.
  • There’s nothing careless, loose, or facile about jazz playing. I personally find that in many ways (not all ways) jazz is more mentally and physically demanding to play than classical music. For jazz playing, I need all the control, precision, and focus that I need for classical music, but with a much wider expressive range. I need the ability to do all the poised, graceful, and delicate things that classical musicians pride themselves on, plus a whole world of other sounds that you won’t find in Beethoven (or even in genuinely jazz-influenced composers of the twentieth century onward). Oh, and I often do these things while improvising—performing a spontaneously-composed melody in real time.

What I’m getting at is that playing convincingly in a jazz style (even setting aside improvisation) is as complex and subtle an art as playing classical music, and to do it well requires dedicated study. And that it’s a mistake for classical musicians to think of jazz as a charmingly primitive tribe that could be civilized by airlifting in some etude books.

I encourage musicians of all stripes to be curious, open-minded, and respectful about each other’s art.


11 responses to “Classical musicians and jazz music”

  1. Geoff Allen Avatar
    Geoff Allen

    Good points.

    Indeed, someone who thinks that scoops and a rigid triplet feel makes him (or her) into a jazz musician would stand out as badly as someone at a classical concert dressed like Lady Gaga.

    It’s a feel (I like the analogy with Baroque music), and there’s no substitute for listening.


  2. I really appreciated this post. I was trained in classical playing much more than in jazz playing. I had some of these same thoughts when I first started my jazz studies. Needless to say I have and still do struggle greatly.
    Many people do not realize, but Jazz in many ways takes just as much dicipline as classical playing does. I found it particularly had to be disciplined in practicing my improvisation. I really appreciate the points you made in this post, and I think if any musician truly studies someone else’s art, there is always more to it than what meets the eye.

  3. Preach on brutha! Some great insights here. I actually think that the best classical musicians out there tend to have great respect for jazz – like Arthur Rubenstein coming out to the small clubs to hear Art Tatum back in the day.

    Also, thanks for linking to my “marching band scoop” video, glad it made sense. :)

  4. Bret – this is a great post. One that I will definite share. As someone who started in the classical world, and who’s taught many students who started in the classical world, I can appreciate what you’re saying.

    My favorite line is “It’s not that I’m unconcerned about my tone; it’s that I’m unconcerned about yours.” which is so true. And the image of “airlifting in some etude books” made me laugh out loud. You should make a web comic. :)

  5. What year is this? 1939? I’m surprised that this discussion is still going on. Aren’t most players today products of the university systems and therefore having largely the same educational experience (classes, instructors, classmates)? Obviously not, and Bret, you’d be the guy to know. Still, in a way, it’s kinda comforting that this still comes up.

  6. David Freeman Avatar
    David Freeman

    Well said!

  7. Ron Nelson Avatar
    Ron Nelson

    Very well stated, Bret. Both genres have there demands. I think we all agree that jazz contains the element (on-the-spot composition AKA improvisation) that most (although not all) classical music does not.

    I think both genres are great to listen to and perform. I do not consider myself to be a jazz musician not a classical musician, but simply a musician, capable of performing both. Maybe not at a level of someone who spends his/her time specifically on one, but at a level that is personally satisfying and one that allows me to play in a wide variety of settings.

  8. Geoff Allen Avatar
    Geoff Allen

    On the topic of classical musicians respecting jazz, I recall seeing a biographical show on Sir James Galway (woodwind content!). Near the end of the show, Galway mentioned that improvisation was a complete mystery to him and he was trying to learn it.

    So he was trying to learn to play the Blues.

    Using canned backing tracks.

    It was really enlightening to see someone as great as Galway, struggling with something I find so basic. (Don’t worry, it won’t go to my head. I’m not even 1/30 the musician Galway is. :-) )

  9. Edward Moore Avatar
    Edward Moore

    I have this professor in college, that always tells us “Jazz should not go with students training in classical music” (I am a drum major). I totally disagreed. I mean, having a leverage of what not to do and what to do is a leverage of the musician. Note movement will be the same regardless of style. And knowledge on both Jazz and Classical makes it more astounding. I totally agree that respect should be there…regardless of what style you want your listener to hear. Very nice article Brett.

  10. I think the two art forms shouldn’t even be compared logically and not doing so removes any offense or insult either way.

    Saying that classical musicians only focus on tone and that jazz musicians are not interested in their tone is tantamount to classical musicians saying that jazz consists of a crapload of scales and tritone embelishing and that classical musicians don’t care for your tritones, dominant sevenths “runs” etc.

    Let call a spade a spade and say that the two are so far removed it is arrogant for someone from the one art form to profess that the other is less expressive, less complex etc because you can only understand expression if u understand the form and the medium. Many believe classical is a genre that is under developed and stopped some 100 200 300 years ago’ depending on level of ignorance.

    I am a classical musician and classical musicians can be flexible mastering other genres in fact I have heard from many jazz teachers even that some of the best jazz musicians were classical musicians as they add a certain amount of sensitivity to the music. Others will argue that this is just not true. The truth is there are classical musicians that do want to branch out and learn jazz and those that don’t want to. Similarly there are jazz musician that want to branch out and those that don’t and there is humility as well as snobisdhness on both sides of the fence.

  11. Jim Snedeker Avatar
    Jim Snedeker

    Yeah, I am also surprised that this debate is still going on. By now I feel that the majority of classical musicians who don’t understand jazz do respect it, and even admit that jazz musicians can do things on their instruments that classical players can’t.

    But it really is comparing apples to oranges. The two fields are so different that you can’t say a player in one is superior to a player in another, or that one music is harder, better, or superior. And the tone debate? Some of the most beautiful tones I’ve heard have come out of a jazz horn. But a beautiful jazz tone is different from a beautiful classical tone.

    I’ve worked in both genres and while I find a classical snob every now and then who looks down their nose at jazz, I know that true musicians know how to respect and even admire something good that they’re not familiar with. At the end of the day, though, the two styles have a lot in common: You need to have mastery of your horn, you need to listen to the masters of your instrument, and you need to practice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments that take a negative or confrontational tone are subject to email and name verification before being approved. In other words: no anonymous trolls allowed—take responsibility for your words.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.