Stravinsky Composes a Jazz & African Inspired “Ebony Concerto” for Woody Herman & His Big Band

by Roy “Futureman” Wooten

 

The mirror of history reflects stories, like a mirror of glass reflects images. Eye sight is partially blind and can look only at others but cannot not look directly at itself, unless with the aid of a mirror. Thus, we may use history as a mirror that helps the present to see itself.

In this blog, want to continue reflecting on the collaborations between classical musicians and jazz musicians by showing examples of the mutual admiration between these seemingly separate styles of music. In my last blog, I wrote about conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, first hearing James Brown’s music on the radio and eventually travelling to Georgia to interview Brown and have him collaborate with the symphony orchestra.  This meeting of minds between Michael Tilson Thomas and James Brown mirrors the collaboration between Stravinsky and the Woody Herman Band.

Stravinsky rehearsal with the Woody Herman Band

Igor Stravinsky wrote the “Ebony Concerto” in 1945 for the Woody Herman jazz band, also known as “the First Herd.” It is one of a series of compositions that was commissioned by Woody Herman who was the featured Clarinetist and band leader.  Stravinsky dedicated the score to the featured soloist and band leader Woody Herman and even though Stravinsky conducted the rehearsals with the band, he chose the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Walter Hendi to conduct the March 25, 1945 Carnegie Hall premiere.

Stravinsky said that his title “Ebony Concerto” did not refer to the Ebony Concertoebony colored clarinet as one might suppose, but rather he was referring to Africa. He said that this was because the blues meant African culture to him and the jazz performers he most admired at that time were Art Tatum, Charlie Parker and the guitarist Charlie Christian.

Although traces of the blues, boogie woogie and jazz can be found in Stravinsky’s music throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, it was only with the Ebony Concerto that Stravinsky incorporated jazz on a far reaching scale of composition.

Stravinsky decided to create a jazz-based version of a Concerto Grosso, with a blues section for the slow movement and the horn and harp were additions outside of the normal Big Band Band line up.

Stravinsky and many of his European contemporaries found inspiration in the new forms of popular music coming from America.  Between 1910 and 1920, ragtime jazz evolved into a more improvised ensemble oriented idiom.  The music exhibited a fresh syncopated take on European dance and march rhythms that caught the ears of classical composers.

Through his distant European introduction to jazz, Stravinsky’s early writing evolved in a way that owed much to the idea of jazz, without actually reflecting the authentic jazz style.

He was quoted in 1916 to say “I know little about American music except that of the music halls…but I consider that unrivaled.  It is veritable art and I can never get enough of it to satisfy me…I am convinced of the absolute truth in the utterance of that form of American art.”

Stravinsky A Soldier's TaleStravinsky’s early compositions featuring jazz -inspired works happened around the closing of the First World War when there was an economic need to write for smaller ensembles. L’histoire du soldat, is a (A Soldier’s Tale) Ragtime for eleven instruments that joins his “Piano-Rag-Music” as two of his early jazz based compositions.

Decades later, Stravinsky asserted that Jazz patterns and especially jazz instrumental combinations did influence his music and researchers identify three distinct categories of Jazz-influenced works when looking over Stravinsky’s entire career:

1) The initial explorations into the jazz style before the 1920’s

2) The commissioned works by jazz bands in the 1930’s and 40’s

…and 3) the “serious” works that contain elements of jazz that span his career from the 1920’s onward. Specific details of these works are related in the article titled “Stravinsky’s Jazz Influenced Music.”

This meeting between classical music and Jazz is one that could only happen with mutual respect that allowed different egos and talents to stretch beyond their normal comfort zones. Stravinsky almost backed out of the whole deal with Woody Herman after a publicity story published in September 1945 claimed that this was a collaboration between Stravinsky and Herman. Stravinsky withdrew from the agreement until his lawyer, Aaron Sapiro, convinced him that no offense was intended.

When they finally got together, Woody Herman found Stravinsky’s solo clarinet part so difficult that he did not feel that the composer had adapted his writing style to the jazz band idiom. Instead it seemed as Stravinsky “wrote pure Stravinsky” and the Herman band originally did not feel comfortable with the score. Stretched beyond their comfort zone, the band was disheartened, almost to the point of tears after the very first rehearsal because nobody could read the music and they were so embarrassed. Stravinsky reassured everyone by walking over to put his arm around the leader and said, “Ah, what a beautiful family you have.”

In my next blog I will share another Classical meets jazz encounter where a great Russian Composer comes to the New York Jazz Club “Birdland” to hear Charlie Parker.

For those interested in learning more about the deep historical connections between classical music and jazz, I recommend the book “New World Symphonies” by Jack Sullivan and I have posted multiple references below. Each one of the links is like another mirror that reflects the many images of Classical music meeting Black Culture. Enjoy!


 

References

Art Music and the Influence of Jazz in the Early 20th Century: A Brief Survey,” Academia
Classical/Jazz,” Michael Arnowitt
Classical music inspired by the Jazz Age,” Classic FM
The Influence of Jazz with Professor David Baker,” NPR
The Inherent Compatibility of Jazz and Classical Music,” Paul Hofmann
Influence of Jazz on 20th Century Classical Music,” Blogiversity
Jazz and Stravinsky,” BBC
Jazz Influence on French Music,” M. Robert
Jazz on Classical: Classical on Jazz,” Boosey & Hawkes
List of Jazz-Influenced Classical Compositions,” Wikipedia
NYC-style jazz meets classical music:  The many muses of trumpeter Tom Harrell,” Daily News
Why Jazz Musicians Love ‘The Rite Of Spring’,” NPR

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