Jazz Musicians Play Classical…

I had an interesting exchange via Twitter the other day after listening to “CD Review” on BBC Radio 3. The programme included a few examples of Opera singers trying – and, in my opinion, failing – to sing like Jazz singers.

I was reminded of this discussion last night when I got home to find a lovely Clarinet sonata by Poulenc being played. It turns out that this piece was commissioned by none other than the “King of Swing”, clarinetist Benny Goodman.

I love both Jazz and Opera, but attempts to mix the two very different genres are not often successful.  Jazz and Classical music are rather like different languages and musicians are rather like poets: fully bilingual exponents who can perform their art in more than one tongue are few and far between. There are, however, notable exceptions to this rule if not among singers but among instrumentalists. I think this is largely because so many Jazz musicians are so unbelievably virtuosic on their instruments that they can play more-or-less anything they put their mind to.

Anyway, I thought I’d post a few examples of famous Jazz musicians who have proved that they can play Classical music well. Here’s the man Benny Goodman playing the Mozart Clarinet Quintet K. 581:

Wynton Marsalis playing a Haydn Trumpet Concerto:

Keith Jarrett playing the first movement of the Italian Concerto by J.S. Bach  BWV971. I would have included his version of the Goldberg Variations, but it’s on harpsichord and therefore not allowed…

I’d like to hear any further suggestions of excellent performances of Classical repertoire by Jazz musicians, so feel free to comment through the box.

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11 Responses to “Jazz Musicians Play Classical…”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    The distinguished classical conductor Andrew Preview André Previn is also a noted jazz performer.

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s worth saying that improvisation was expected from musicians up to the Baroque era – Bach himself was a very accomplished improviser. The basic idea of most music is “theme and variation” and this is common to Jazz and Classical forms. The difference is really more to do with that special indefinable something that Jazz possesses. Yehudi Menuhin loved to play with Stephane Grappelii, but great musician though he was, he simply couldn’t play Jazz no matter how hard he tried. In the words of Duke Ellington “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing…”

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, and that improvisation continued through the classical period into the romantic era too. Soloists were expected to improvise cadenzas into the early 19th century. Beethoven was well-known for his piano improvisation. Bruckner used to do it on the organ through the 19th century, though I doubt he had any swing.

      • telescoper Says:

        I think it died out a bit with the arrival of really big orchestras and the emphasis on symphonies, but as you say concerti often had (and still do) have improvised cadenzas and of course there was more scope for improvisation in solo work. I believe Liszt also had a reputation for being adept at improvisation.

  2. Clarinettists Artie Shaw and today’s Eddie Daniels have also played and recorded classical pieces. Thank you for the interesting article!

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Thanks Peter, it’s great getting all three of them going at once!

  4. Friedrich Gulda was a classical pianist strongly affected by jazz. There’s a distinctly jazzy approach in his recording of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues.

  5. Adrian Burd Says:

    The classical guitarist Julian Bream is also an excellent jazz musician (jazz was his first musical love) but I don’t think he ever recorded any jazz.

  6. Those who like the “popular jazz” of the 1920s and 1930s might want to check out Max Raabe’s Palastorchester. Although he’s worked only in this field, he actually studied at conservatory to be an opera singer.

    He has an instantly recognizable style (which, of course, is based on that of the 1920s and 1930s). As a novelty, he has performed some non-pop-jazz songs in the same style. His version of Abba’s “Super Trouper” is remarkable.

  7. Thomas Quasthoff is primarily known as an opera and Lieder singer but has done jazz as well.

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