by Roy “Futureman” Wooten

European Classical music and American Jazz might seem to be two different worlds, but there has long been great respect between many of the artists from both of these genres.  Despite the practice of racism and prejudiced political views, great musicians sincerely appreciated great musicianship, and this was the basis of many unlikely friendships between Jazz and Classical musicians.

Virtuoso musicians such as Jazz pianist Art Tatum and Classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz represented many of

Art Tatum

Art Tatum

these ‘historical’ Classical meets Jazz relationships that bonded through a mutual respect for each other’s music, art and talents.

At first glance, George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel might seem to occupy two different musical worlds, yet they both shared a passion for Jazz. When Maurice Ravel would attend a party with Gershwin, he (Ravel) would request that a Gospel choir and an African dance troupe be present to perform at the party.

In 1928, Ravel made his first and only trip to America, where he conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program of his own works in January of 1928, and also had the chance to explore one of his latest obsessions: American Jazz. This was a four-month concert tour that would take Ravel to more than 20 cities, including New York, Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco and Chicago, where he would spend much time with George Gershwin and hear many American Jazz musicians.

Ravel observed during his travels in the U.S. that American intellectuals believed that Jazz was a cheap, vulgar, filthy and temporary music… yet he was convinced that it would become the national music of the United States. These views were very controversial coming from yet another prominent European composer who placed black music on a national level with the same importance that Dvorak had placed black spirituals and slave songs.

Ravel was one of the first to recognize Jazz as a compositional vehicle, flexible enough to take on national characteristics and importance. Various composers would find their own personal ways to utilize this new American musical influence, which would be noted in the differences between the Jazz and rags of Milhaud, Stravinsky, Casella and Hindemith. Like his fellow French composers Satie and Debussy, Ravel was also fascinated by American popular music, which included Ragtime and Jazz.

Howard Pollack, author of George Gershwin: His Life and Work, writes about the new sound of American Jazz that was making a big splash in Paris. Pollack wrote about Ravel, who was becoming a champion for American Jazz. Ravel, very early on, was showing a strong passion for using Jazzy idioms in his Classical works, such as his Sonata for violin & piano No. 2 in G major, which took him four years to complete and was finished in 1927.

In a 1928 interview, Ravel insisted that he could play you the composer Gottschalk’s music written in 1849, which is considered Classical music, yet with its syncopated characteristics, you could take it for Jazz.

Ravel was bewildered at the ambivalence and hostility towards Jazz by so many American intellectuals and argued that Americans were taking Jazz too lightly.  He felt that Americans were too Eurocentric with “too little realization of yourselves” and insisted that American Jazz had a long enough history and tradition to be almost Classical in nature.

Ravel told a French interviewer, “my recent music is filled with the influence of Jazz.”  The influence of American Jazz could be felt in the Blues movement of the violin-piano sonata and the Blues and Fox Trot sections of L’Enfant et les sortileges.

The violin-piano sonata was Ravel’s sincere attempt to compose a Blues mood on to a Classical chamber work.  The instruments emulate Blues band sounds, where the piano uses repetition of staccato-flatted seventh chord progressions and the violin plays through banjo like strummings and Blues notes. Even though this violin-piano sonata took him four years to write, it has a deeply felt Blues sensibility that links sophistication with childish naiveté, which was a Gottschalk inspired combination.

Ravel was astonished by the fresh Jazz techniques of George Gershwin, along with his ability to weave complicated rhythms along with a great gift of melody. Apparently, the admiration was mutual, and Gershwin asked the French master to give him lessons in composition.

According to Gauthier, Ravel gave serious consideration to Gershwin’s request, but decided that “it would probably cause Gershwin to write ‘bad Ravel’ and lose his great gift of melody and spontaneity.”

100-year Love Affair: Gains momentum in America 

Paul Whiteman (standing) and Maurice Ravel in 1928.

Paul Whiteman (standing) and Maurice Ravel in 1928.

During his American tour, Ravel spent several nights with Gershwin, listening to Jazz at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, where dancers did the Lindy Hop to hot Jazz from some of the nation’s greatest bands. Ravel also visited Connie’s Inn and the nearby Cotton Club, where he heard Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

Before leaving New York for Kansas City to resume his tour, Ravel further explored his interest in Jazz by visiting the Liederkranz Hall to hear famous bandleader Paul Whiteman, “The King of Jazz,” and his orchestra in a recording session with Jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke.

That same month, Ravel urged Americans to “take Jazz seriously” in an essay published in Musical Digest. Ravel wrote: “Personally, I find Jazz most interesting: the rhythms, the way the melodies are handled, the melodies themselves. I have heard some of George Gershwin’s works and I find them intriguing.”

Some of Ravel’s later works show the influence of the Jazz he heard in America. One is the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, completed in 1930.

In this work, two themes are presented in the introduction, one of them “derived from Jazz, with ‘Blues’ notes and

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

syncopation,” observes Arbie Orenstein in Ravel: Man and Musician.

Another Jazz-influenced Ravel work is the Concerto for Piano in G Major, completed the following year. In this work, one can hear Gershwin’s influence and Pollack writes that “Gershwin unquestionably influenced Ravel’s later work, in particular the Piano Concerto in G Major, completed in 1931.  This piece is a work long regarded as a kind of homage to Gershwin, though its debts to Satie and Milhaud are perhaps greater still.”

100-year Love Affair: Gains Momentum in Europe as American Musicians Travel and Perform Overseas 

Gershwin himself visited Paris later in 1928. The trip inspired him to write an American in Paris, a now famous piece of music that imagines the sights and sounds of a busy Paris

American composer Aaron Copland traveled to France to study with the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. She had a long list of famous composition students that included Stravinsky and Ravel and she prepared all of her international students to find a true musical voice that connected not just to Europe but to their own country and its people.

While Copland practiced some of his piano exercises, the great French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger remarked that his rhythm was unlike anyone in all of Europe.  This statement inspired Copland to dig deeper to find his true American voice and when he returned home from France he re-opened his Jazz books and began to revisit all of his Jazz studies as a source of American originality.

Jazz along with American fiddle tunes would also become an integral part of Copland’s American voice that he would begin to blend with his Classical training.

100-year Love Affair: Artistic Meeting of the Minds 

Vladimir Horowitz

Vladimir Horowitz

Virtuoso Classical pianist, Vladimir Horowitz had so much respect for Art Tatum’s ability at the piano that he said “If Art Tatum took up Classical music seriously, I’d quit my job the next day.”

Conductor Arturo Toscanini, one of the fiercest and strictest conductors to have ever lived, would always seek out Art Tatum whenever he came to New York.  He once arrived an hour late for a concert at Carnegie Hall and told the audience “I’m sorry. I was down in Harlem listening to Art Tatum and I was fascinated by his music.”

Artur Rubinstein, perhaps the greatest Classical pianist of the 20th century often went to the Harlem Onyx Club to see Art Tatum perform and when a music professor saw Rubinstein and said “Maestro, this is not your usual habitat”.  Rubinstein placed his finger to his lips, saying “Shhh. I am listening to the world’s greatest piano player.”

After many months of transcribing and mastering a classic version of Art Tatum’s “Tea for Two,” Horowitz then played it for Art Tatum, who afterwards improvised a newer version. When Horowitz asked Art for a transcription of this new version, Tatum replied that he improvised it…Horowitz never played “Tea for Two ” again.

When Rachmaninoff met Art Tatum, he declared that this man was not just the world’s greatest Jazz pianist but

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff

also the greatest pianist in the world.

Arthur Fielder, who was the conductor for the Boston Pops, once said about Art Tatum, that “There’s a demonic, almost diabolical quality to his playing. The Furies must have gathered around his crib at birth, (and) something infernal slipped into his mother’s milk.”

When Classical piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz was asked who he considered to be the best pianist in the world, he responded with Art Tatum’s name.

Top musicians in the 1930’s and 40’s and 50’s would go to Harlem clubs to hear Art Tatum play and Rachmaninoff told the press. ” If this man ever decides to play serious music were all in trouble”

When composer Paul Hindemith visited America, one of his first actions was to go hear a live performance of Duke Ellington.

Fats Waller

Fats Waller

When Rachmaninoff came to New York one of the first things he did was head uptown to Harlem to hear the great stride pianist, Fats Waller, and the American genius of the piano, Art Tatum.

One night, when the great stride pianist Fats Waller saw Art Tatum in the audience, he said “I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house”

For anyone interested in hearing Art Tatum, we are fortunate that most of his recordings are still available on all the modern formats. A lot of it can be found on YouTube.  There’s also a book biography in print called “Too Marvelous For Words” by James Lester and a biographical documentary film, called “Art Tatum: The Art of Jazz Piano,”

In my next blog, we will continue to explore this “Jazz symphonist” age and the first African American music to be scored into symphonic form by the Exotic New Orleans Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a new world prophet who brought to Europe an African American blend of music from which Jazz is derived.


Please note that Jack Sullivan outlines many of the insights in this blog in detail in the book “New World Symphonies”.