There is a lot right with jazz, of course: a powerful range of timbres, rhythmic vitality, cool extended melodies, moods ranging from the velvety to the steely. But for me jazz has always lacked something that would enable it to generate truly great musical compositions and it will be interesting to dig into why that might be. Intuitively, I’m not deeply attracted to jazz, even though I enjoy the occasional piece. I was just listening to a couple of classic Duke Ellington numbers, “In a Sentimental Mood” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing” which are both charming pieces. But, charming though they may be, they don’t have the things that keep bringing me back to the great classical compositions.
The problem with jazz is that, without a deep understanding of the nature of harmonic structure and what it can contribute to musical composition, it tends to revert to pre-harmonic musical forms, with, perhaps, a fossilized harmonic structure retained from jazz’s roots in popular music.
Why haven’t jazz musicians engaged with the problems and possibilities of harmony as classical composers do? I think that the answer has to do with the function of jazz music. One of the most important components of jazz is the freedom to improvise. The satisfaction of playing jazz has a lot to do with letting yourself roam, letting the mood unfold, being in the moment. These are good things, of course, but they are contrary to subtle and deep, long-range harmonic structure. Composers of successful jazz standards cannot limit the players to the extent that they can no longer be free to improvise.
Here’s another reason: the history of harmony is tightly linked with the history of counterpoint and voice-leading. Many of the most interesting aspects of harmony have to do with the relationships between voices, which is what counterpoint is. The foundation of the study of harmony for the last two hundred plus years has been the chorales by Bach, which are harmony and counterpoint in their purest form. Each voice in a chorale, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, is independent, and the relationship between them is the harmony. Jazz, coming as it does out of popular music, does not have strong independence between the voices. Typically there is a predominant melodic line, a bass line (considered part of the ‘rhythm section’) and chords filling in the textures. True, Dixieland jazz features polyphonic improvisation, but a classical musician would be tempted to call it heterophony rather than polyphony because of the improvised nature of the parts. Or, perhaps a better description would be of two melodic instruments delivering a melody in two-part harmony with a third—often the clarinet—doing a decorated obbligato above. In any case, the deeper, structural relationship between counterpoint and harmony is not present. Also, Dixieland, apart from an occasional revival, has not persisted and developed in jazz.
I think no-one would claim that the typical features of counterpoint such as imitation between the voices that would include augmentation and diminution, inversion and retrograde, not to mention invertible counterpoint—that these features have ever been present in jazz as such.
Here I come to a deeply-rooted problem with my theory, however. Modern classical musicians do not, as a rule, improvise. They spend many years training how to analyze and interpret a musical score, not how to improvise on it. So what? Well, the problem for me is that this was not always the case. Bach and Beethoven particularly were renowned for their ability to improvise and some of their written compositions, such as Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, are the fruits of an improvisation. Bach could improvise entire fugues on a given subject as we know from his famous visit to the court of Frederick the Great in 1747, when he improvised a different fugue on each of the six pianos that Frederick the Great had just purchased and placed in different salons in his court. Beethoven too was famous for his ability to improvise entire compositions. I’m not entirely sure why we no longer cultivate this ability. But I can note one difference between these forms of improvisation and that found in jazz: in both cases and in similar cases such as improvised cadenzas in piano and violin concertos the improvising artist is an individual with complete control over the harmony and counterpoint. It may seem astounding to us that Bach could improvise a fugue, but it seems he could. Though, as we see from the Musical Offering delivered to Frederick the Great some months after his visit, in order to achieve the highest standards it was necessary to spend some time at the composition desk working out details that couldn’t be realized in the heat of the moment.
Which returns us to jazz: in jazz the “heat of the moment” is the most important thing. But in classical music, the inspired moment of aesthetic delight is just one part of a musical composition with the rest being things like overall structure, counterpoint and harmony. In order to retain the freedom to improvise for each member of a jazz ensemble, harmony and counterpoint have to be sacrificed, returning us to what is essentially a more primitive kind of music-making.
Just a little side note: I regard some of the music of the Beatles as being of a very high order. Perhaps in time that body of work will be accepted as being, in some sense, ‘classical’. Why that and not jazz? The clue comes from their methods, I think. When they really started rolling, around the time of Rubber Soul and Revolver, they developed a new way of working. They used to write songs head to head in hotel rooms or wherever they were. But by Rubber Soul, they started to actually compose in the recording studio. They would come in with lyrics and chords but the arrangement and the structure of the song, especially in terms of how it would be put on tape, evolved in the studio. They went to great lengths to get exactly the right effect. Often they would use a voltage regulator to slightly slow down or speed up a tape in the recording so that when it was played back at normal speed it would sound slightly different. Usually the instrumental tracks were recorded at a higher speed so they would sound ‘fatter’ on playback, and the vocal tracks were recorded at a lower speed so they would be more ‘forward’ on playback. They used many other devices as well. The final product was a highly structured, finely tuned composition. This is, by the way, why ‘covers’ of Beatles songs are rarely successful. The recording is the composition.
Incidentally, one of the few classical composers to write pieces inspired by jazz was Igor Stravinsky—the Ebony Concerto for clarinet and chamber orchestra is an example. But Stravinsky himself observed that the way jazz is performed is more interesting than the music itself.