Jazz, and the lost world of Bach and Beethoven



Mulgrew Miller, center, with Johnny O'Neal and Marion Hayden at the 2010 Detroit International Jazz Festival.

Time was when "classical" music flowed ever fresh from the inspiration of the moment. It was called improvisation, and it was considered fundamental to the art of composer-performers like Mozart and Beethoven. That was before the classical tradition became standardized, formalized, cast in stone. I was recently reminded of that long-ago creative world, as I was covering the prodigious Detroit International Jazz Festival.

Performances by great musicians like trumpeter Terence Blanchard, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, bassist Christian McBride and pianists Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Barron, among others, brought to mind what I’ve always found most compelling about classical music: the imaginative elaboration of a motif. That’s essentially what jazz is all about.

The real art of serious, or classical, music lies in the skillful permutation of core ideas, whether broadly stated themes in Mozart and Schubert or mere cells in Beethoven. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always reveled in variations like the ultra-concise passacaglia that crowns Brahms’ Fourth Symphony or the elegantly crafted double variations that form the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

By the same token, what I’ve always found exasperating about classical sonata form is the typical brevity of development sections. This is exactly where jazz takes flight and carries me on journeys deep into the possibilities of harmony, melody and rhythm. To hear creative jazz musicians push and pull an idea into a hundred different shapes is to re-imagine Bach’s great chaconne from the D minor Violin Partita as improvisation – and to think how amused, if not disdainful, Mozart and Beethoven would be to think all their spontaneously fashioned cadenzas had given place to ossified formality.

Jazz is where the generative spark of European art music went.

Previous articleMore than "Pretty Ballet" with The Joffrey and The Cleveland
Next articleMuti and Chicago Symphony are ‘Fantastique’
Lawrence B. Johnson
Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.