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Let’s Give a Boost to American Jazz, Too – WSJ

Let’s Give a Boost to American Jazz, Too – WSJ


Let's Give a Boost to American Jazz, Too

Lawrence A. Johnson, a music critic who also runs a group of web-based classical-music sites, has had a corker of an idea: He's launched a nonprofit foundation whose purpose is to boost the number of performances of American classical music.

Ellen Surrey

Not only will Mr. Johnson's foundation commission new compositions and ensure that they get performed and recorded, but—even more interestingly—it will also make grants to musical ensembles and concert presenters that want to perform previously existing works by American composers.

"I'm starting this foundation because I feel American music is underrepresented in American concert halls," Mr. Johnson said in an interview with Chicago Classical Review, one of his publications. "I think we have a real responsibility to present this music, and I believe many of these works would become standard repertory if audiences only had a chance to hear them." Part of the problem, he explained, is that "nobody gets excited about doing a second or a third performance. Ninety percent of [new works] disappear." Hence his plan to underwrite performances of pieces by such important but insufficiently known midcentury modernists as Paul Creston, David Diamond, Irving Fine, Walter Piston and William Schuman, who wrote accessible, impeccably well-made classical works that deserve a second hearing but simply don't get played nowadays.

I couldn't approve more. I have only one quibble, and it's with the name of Mr. Johnson's foundation, which he calls the American Music Project. Yes, it's catchy and to the point. But I'm sure Mr. Johnson knows very well that the phrase "American music" doesn't just mean "American classicalmusic." As Virgil Thomson once observed, all you have to do to be an American composer is to be born in America, then write whatever you like. Classical and jazz, Broadway shows and bluegrass, hip-hop and zydeco: all fit comfortably under the vast umbrella that is "American music." To suppose otherwise is to miss part of the point of what it means to live in what Paul Hindemith, the German composer who spent a productive decade living and working in Connecticut, wittily called "the land of limited impossibilities."

So Mr. Johnson should change the name of his outfit to the American Classical Music Project, right? Maybe not. In fact, I have a better idea. Instead of coming up with a new name, I'd like to see him expand the range of the American Music Project's activities. Not infinitely—money only stretches so far. But what he could do without altering the AMP beyond recognition is start making grants to composers, performers and presenters who are interested in large-scale jazz composition.

To this day, Duke Ellington is the only jazz composer who is also widely known for writing both large-scale works like "A Tone Parallel to Harlem" and "The Tattooed Bride" and multimovement instrumental suites like "Black, Brown and Beige" and "Such Sweet Thunder." But he wasn't the only one who tried his hand at it. After World War II, a considerable number of other jazz musicians started turning out large-scale instrumental pieces that had a scope and expressive weight comparable to that of the best contemporary classical music.

Some of these pieces, like Ralph Burns's "Summer Sequence" (1946-48), Bill Holman's "Quartet" (1956), J.J. Johnson's "Poem for Brass" (1956), George Russell's "All About Rosie" (1957), Eddie Sauter's "Focus" (1961), Lalo Schifrin's "The New Continent" (1962) and Bob Brookmeyer's "Celebration" (1997), were recorded, but most of them were performed only once or twice, then forgotten. Yet the challenge of formal innovation continues to excite such important jazz composers as Mr. Holman, Darcy James Argue and Maria Schneider, all of whom write large-scale pieces for big band and other instrumental ensembles that are as deserving of attention as the works of their opposite numbers in the world of classical music.

When Aaron Copland, who was both fascinated and influenced by jazz, decided to spin off his posthumous royalties into the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, whose purpose is "to encourage and improve public knowledge and appreciation of contemporary American music," he made a point of specifying in his will that the fund would support both classical music and jazz. Why, then, can't the American Music Project do something broadly similar, specifically focusing on large-scale jazz composition?

Two of the members of the AMP's advisory board, the composer William Bolcom and the conductor Leonard Slatkin, are conversant with both kinds of music. I'm sure they'd see the point of widening the scope of the American Music Project in a way that is compatible with Mr. Johnson's stated mission of "supporting and underwriting performances of American classical music of the past." So why not add jazz to the mix? I bet Messrs. Copland and Thomson—not to mention Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin—would have approved.



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