Piano Giants of Jazz — Aaron Copland on Jazz

December 5, 2016

[This article first appeared in Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]

In the summer of 1958 a series of 13 television programs was produced for NBC's educational TV wing (since disbanded). Entitled "The Subject Is Jazz," the 30-minute shows used a house band under the direction of Billy Taylor, with numerous celebrated guest artists and guest speakers. I was involved, along with the late Dr. Marshall Stearns, as a consultant.

The subject of the penultimate program was "Jazz And The Classics." The guest speaker was Aaron Copland. The moderator for the series was the late Gilbert Seldes, then nationally known as a critic and chronicler of the lively arts in general, though far less knowledgeable about jazz than some of us associated with the show would have wished.

What follows is a transcript of a portion of the program as it was aired on WNBC, New York.

Gilbert Seldes: There are people who think that some time, pretty soon, jazz will cease to exist, to be remembered only as a passing fad, an aberration that lasted 50 years, enchanted the whole world, then suddenly vanished. This depends on the relation of jazz to music as a whole—is it somewhere in the mainstream, or is it a backwater doomed to stagnation?

It would have been very easy for us to find a composer as enthusiastic for jazz as we are. In the interests of an honest appraisal, we've invited instead a composer who has, in a sense, passed through his jazz phase and is, in addition, a good critic: Aaron Copland. It seems to me, Aaron, that you and I have been discussing the merits of jazz in public for many years now, but I never asked you how you first saw jazz in relation to your own work.

Aaron Copland: Gilbert, you mustn't forget that I was born in Brooklyn, and that in Brooklyn we used to hear jazz around all the time—it was just an ordinary thing. It wasn't until I went to Paris and Vienna as a student in the early '20s that I suddenly realized that jazz had something for serious composers—an influence, actually. And we got that impression also from the interest of European composers in jazz. A man like Darius Milhaud first heard real jazz in Harlem in 1922.

GS: About the time you went from Brooklyn to Vienna, he came from Paris to Harlem. Why didn't the American composers recognize what they had here? Were they afraid of it?

AC: They weren't afraid of it: I think it's like anything that you have around the house, you don't pay much attention to it, you take it for granted. It was the jazz polyrhythmic element, the fact that more than one rhythm was happening at the same time, that most attracted us in those early days.

GS: What did you first compose under that influence?

AC: The two main works were a suite for small orchestra, Music For The Theatre, and the second work I did in 1926, which was a piano concerto that I later played with the Boston Symphony.

GS: I must confess that the question I'm going to ask Aaron Copland now is virtually without meaning; but I have to ask it, because if I don't, it will seem as if both he and I are trying to avoid the answer. So here goes: Do you think that jazz will become the great basic form of American music, or that our music will absorb all of jazz, so that it will have no identity of its own any more?

AC: I don't see why you have to choose between those two possibilities.

GS: I don't either; I think you have to ask the question, though, so we can get the right answer.

AC: Of course you do. I think really you can like both and have both, and that both have their place. In other words, I think that there are things that the jazz idiom can contribute to the mainstream of music that no other form of music can contribute in the same way. Also in the same way, I feel that serious music has something to contribute that jazz can't quite match.
I know that I, as a composer, sometimes have moods that I want to translate into musical terms, which couldn't be translated in terms of the jazz idiom. On the other hand, I recognize also that there are other moods that will never seem as exciting as they do in jazz terms.

GS: The pieces you played, and those you mentioned could be called your musical excesses, and do I gather that jazz does not have as much immediate relevance or influence on your own work as it used to have?

AC: It doesn't have quite the relevance. Jazz isn't as new as it used to be, and it doesn't have quite the punch for me personally that it used to have—especially in its ordinary commercial form. But on the other hand, I think it has a very important influence, not only on my own work but on the work of all contemporary American composers, in what you might say is the more unconscious use. In other words, you'll find the influence of jazz in our piano sonatas and our string quartets, though you won't be able to say, literally, what it comes from.

GS: As you have a more liberal attitude toward jazz than was common say, about 25 or 30 years ago, I get the impression that a peaceful coexistence, and no desperate warfare, is possible at least. And we have a demonstration here, now of that possibility. A few days ago, Tony Scott of our combo and Stefan Wolpe, a composer whom I know you admire, were together and they began improvising. Tony played baritone sax, and Wolpe played the piano. They were at Tony's house and there was a recording instrument, and we have just a bare fragment of their recording. [Music]

GS: I myself can't tell whether these two instruments were in opposition or friendly. What do you think?

AC: Oh, I think they were friendly enough.

GS: The point that is new to me is that a classic[al] composer and instrumentalist can improvise. I thought it was all limited to jazz players.

AC: No, I would say that improvisation was more familiar to classical composers two hundred years ago than it is today. In those days they were often given a theme on which to improvise, sometimes by some famous gentleman at court who wanted to hear what they could do with his theme.
Nowadays, we classical composers, as you might call us, don't improvise normally, except perhaps when we write our music—if we write at the piano—we're often likely to get good ideas as a result of some home improvisation. But it's the improvisatory side of jazz that fascinates us, and I think [this] is one of the principal fascinations of jazz throughout the world.

GS: It's very good for a layman like myself to have backing from a professional. At our rehearsal our combo took a cue, or a challenge, from something you had said to Billy Taylor sometime before, and they began to improvise, what I would call the hard way; not on a specific theme, in order to see what would happen. When they were through, they found a name for the piece. They called it "Hurricane." This is what they are going to play, and they probably will remember something of what they played at rehearsal—they certainly have the general idea. But it's bound to be different, because it's different every time. It's still a hurricane, or you can call it free improvisation. [Music.]

GS: Do we both say "Wow!" Tell me, Aaron, you must know more of what happened than I do.

AC: Well, I think that's terrific; that really talks my language. That's when jazz is really exciting to me, when everybody goes off on their own and nobody knows what the combined result is going to be.

GS: You said that you were improvising when you were composing. Can you tell how seven men were improvising simultaneously and held together?

AC: I can't tell precisely, no, but I think I got the general idea.

GS: Billy Taylor, every time I ask him, says, "Well, the rhythm fixes it." We had an improvisation here before on a more or less fixed theme, and that I could follow, but this . . .

AC: It's a little bit because you can't follow it that it gets so exciting; the fact that you don't know what's going to happen next is what creates the excitement.

GS: In view of this amount of vitality, do you think there is any grounds for the assessment of some critical people that jazz is becoming too sophisticated, and is losing its hold on people in general?

AC: I think there's a danger always for any popular art of its becoming too sophisticated. A popular art gains its value, especially for us serious composers, through a certain essential naiveté. We all are a little naive, we serious composers, and it's for our own good, because you mustn't know too much when you fool around with art.

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