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Musical Openness: Jazz & Classical Musics

Posted on | March 18, 2012 | 2 Comments

by Nou Dadoun

This week Karin Plato, well-known Vancouver jazz performer and educator, was moved to share some thoughts on Musical Openness for both Jazz and Classical Musics on her blog (available at  Here are her comments reproduced with permission:

There is something that I have been thinking about on the “surface” level for the past several days since hearing an interview with a beloved CBC radio host who is retiring after many years of being on air. This is a host for whom I have much appreciation. I have listened to, met in person and enjoyed speaking with her. Something was said in a final interview that has stayed with me for some reason. This is not a direct quote since I cannot recall the specific words but something to this effect was said:“classical music does nothing for me”. Yes, I know and agree that everyone has a right to have their own opinion about the music that they love. I also know that in my case I am lucky that the music I love today “came” to me after a somewhat slow start i.e. I did not like it when I first was exposed to it.

“Jazz” to me was a cacophony when I first heard it being played instrumentally in a live setting and on recordings as well. I couldn’t make sense of it and I certainly could not understand how my friends (classical musicians) were so enamoured with it. It was classical music that I loved and studied and it was the rock and pop music of my generation played on the radio that I was drawn to. Somehow over the years I did come to truly appreciate jazz in most of its incarnations and I continue to love and listen to classical music, folk music some pop and rock music and some world music. I am lucky to have had teachers and friends who kept suggesting various recordings and artists to listen to and to learn from. I’m glad I listened and that I decided to “work” on my listening and listening tastes.

I try to remember to keep an open mind and not to judge what I am hearing too quickly. The concern I have is that I am aware that both jazz and classical music seem to be failing at attracting larger audiences. I see this when I am attending some jazz concerts and classical concerts and of course I am aware that jazz clubs and venues come and go over the years with the poor club owners struggling to keep their business afloat. I observe diminishing audiences for classical concerts with fewer younger people attending.

Now, I see a new responsibility for myself as a musician and as a music teacher. I must assume that many people in the general population may feel as the radio host does, only loving or appreciating one form of music. I believe it is important to broaden ones horizons in the music that we listen to on recordings and at concerts. I believe that it is important at a cultural and community level to at least explore and experience some music and art that is not necessarily familiar or immediately appreciated by us as music lovers. That is not to say that all art or all music is good and deserving of an audience.  Certainly within each most genres the crème de la crème will rise? Is it naïve for me to think so? I hope not.

I hope that if I attend a jazz festival and listen to artists I have discovered on the radio and on recordings I have purchased that I will also then make an attempt to see new artists that I have not yet discovered; perhaps selecting a direction in the music that I am not immediately drawn to. The example would be deciding to attend an adventuresome jazz ensemble not playing traditional jazz, i.e. exploratory improvising jazz or “free form” jazz. It is my opinion that without expanding ones horizons in the area of music we purchase or go to see/hear, we cease to grow as listeners and might become stuck in believing that only John Coltrane is valid or Miles Davis or Brad Mehldau etc. and that classical music has “nothing to offer”.

As a music teacher I believe I must keep offering my students various forms of music to study and encourage them to give certain pieces some time before deciding whether or not they like it. Some may wonder why people keep playing and listening to the “old dead guys music” (classical music) but there is a reason that we do continue to study the music and perform it and work at the skills required to do so. The melodies, rhythms, excitement, emotional range, complex orchestrations, challenges in technical ability, dynamics and surprise elements are some of the reasons.

In jazz of course we have the world of improvisation, the re-invention in the moment that exists in playing in ensembles or even as a soloist. I believe great jazz musicians share some of the very same skills that classical musicians work at achieving. The “cacophony” I thought I heard in my early days of hearing jazz when I thought none of the musicians were listening to each other was in fact careful listening from each of the musicians. Perhaps I was overwhelmed with what I heard at the time and I had to learn to truly hear it and understand. Perhaps some classical music requires the same care and “practice” so that the music can make sense to the listener? I am not sure about this. I just think that both classical and jazz music are too important to be ignored or judged with a swift decision.

It is all music! It requires facility, commitment, artistry, interpretation, listening ability and endless practice to perfect one’s technical and artistic sensibility. Unfortunately one other thing that jazz musicians and classical musicians share is the fact neither is the “popular” form of music now-a- days.

I encourage people new to either genre to try a taste of jazz AND classical music. Try a few tastes in fact because, sometimes music could be an acquired taste. You might fall in love with a flavor you didn’t initially like at all…

Although Karin was reluctant to name the jazz radio host who prompted her to offer her thoughts, there can be little doubt (to any one familiar with retiring jazz radio hosts in Canada) that she’s referring to Katie Malloch, specifically to comments made in an interview with Michael Enright on the Sunday Edition available for listening here (she supplied the music for the interview which, as usual, is excellent).  I was also slightly taken aback at Malloch’s comment when I heard the interview but did wonder if it was made as a provocation to people who “don’t like jazz” rather than being a strongly held opinion.

Historically of course there have been many links between jazz and classical music: Woody Herman commissioned The Ebony Concerto by Stravinsky and Prelude, Fugue and Riffs by Leonard Bernstein (revived in a spectacular performance by The Hard Rubber Orchestra last year), Charlie Parker named his Yardbird Suite in homage to The Firebird Suite and George Russell responded with his composition A Bird in Igor’s YardEddie Lang and Charles Mingus both doing a Rachmaninoff Prelude. Through the Birth of the Cool and a wealth of Third Stream experiments, the cross-fertilization continued.

More recently, I’ve noticed a number of jazz performers who have taken inspiration from classical music, here’s a brief smattering.

The Bad Plus have performed their interpretation of Stravinsky‘s  The Rite of Spring at selected recent performances (unfortunately not at their Vancouver performance at the Rio last week):

Susanna Wallumrød (in Vancouver at the 2010 Jazz Festival as Susanna and the Magical Orchestra) has recently turned to interpretations of Henry Purcell (her most recent recording on ECM If Grief Could Wait has several), here’s an earlier favourite:

Phil Dwyer‘s recent Juno-nominated recording Changing Seasons is loosely patterned on Vivaldi.  On bassist Dave Young‘s most recent (also Juno-nominated) CD Aspects of Oscar,  he’s included some Bach interpretations (by way of Oscar Peterson).

Besides his many New York-based groups (including a long-standing duo with Lee Konitz), pianist Dan Tepfer has recently released an acclaimed take on Bach via his Goldberg Variations Variations in which each of the original variations (played straight) is followed by an improvised variation on the variation.  Here’s a taste:

And finally bassist and former Vancouver-ite Michael Bates has offered up his excellent recent Sunnyside release Acrobat: Music For, And By, Dimitri Shostakovich

Not to mention Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey doing Beethoven (their project entitled Ludwig), Chick Corea doing Mozart, Gerald Wilson paying homage to Claude Debussy, the list is seemingly endless.

Discuss in the Jazz Forum. (Katie Malloch, are you out there?)



2 Responses to “Musical Openness: Jazz & Classical Musics”

  1. Gavin Walker
    March 18th, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

    The late great Warne Marsh said once told me that all you need to do to play Jazz well (if that indeed is the music that you wish to play) is get a good grounding in classical studies with a good classical teacher of your choice. Then go out and play Jazz if that is your passion. He saw no difference in the musical rules that govern both styles.

  2. katie malloch
    March 30th, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

    I’m here, at least for the rest of today!
    I really truly meant that classical music doesn’t attract me, no more or less than that. And it was meant to express my belief that different people simply like different things, with no musico/politico agenda involved. I often feel that people get bullied by cultural gate-keepers into thinking that if they don’t “appreciate” a certain kind of music, art, dance, whatever, then they’re not cultured, or hip, or sophisticated, or cool. And I believe that’s wrong.

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