Classical Critic Found Own Way Into Craft Via Creative Portal Of Jazz

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“Unlike most people who start with Bach and Mozart and often never make it past Stravinsky, I started with the contemporary music,” says Detroit-based arts writer Mark Stryker. His profile of the Motor City’s culture of excellence, ‘Jazz from Detroit,’ offers a nifty listening guide from his novel perspective. (Photo by Donald Dietz)

Mark Stryker: Jazz from Detroit. University of Michigan Press, 2023. 358 pages.

BOOK REVIEW — In the mid-1990s, as I was forming an internet department at The Detroit News after serving as the paper’s classical music critic, I became aware of a new hire down the street at the Detroit Free Press. Mark Stryker, the new Free Press arts reporter and music critic, would pay close attention to the city’s jazz scene, in addition to classical music, from the start.

The Motor City had long flourished as a jazz center, although that aspect of Detroit’s musical life was not my focus. For Stryker, who grew up playing alto saxophone, Detroit was jazz hallowed ground. To him, the city was home not only to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Detroit Opera, but also to royal musical families such as The Jones Brothers: pianist Hank, the eldest, who came out of the swing era; trumpeter Thad, a stellar big-band composer and arranger; and innovative drummer Elvin, the youngest, who made history with the John Coltrane Quartet. Stryker covered both the classical music scene in Detroit and its extraordinary jazz legacy.

It wasn’t until reading Stryker’s book Jazz from Detroit — which focuses on the extraordinary flowering of jazz in Detroit from the 1940s to the present day — that I began to understand the fullness of his perspective regarding the rich cultural interplay at work there. Well-paying jobs in Detroit’s auto industry, coupled with topflight, desegregated magnet schools that offered intensive music training, created a nurturing environment in which music prospered for decades. Cass Tech was such a famous magnet school, brimming with top Black and white talent, that visiting band leaders in search of hot young prospects made a habit of stopping by. Jazz from Detroit covers this aspect of Detroit history extensively.

Stryker’s book is also a window into the way he listens to classical music. If my own student music experiences were typical for classically trained public school students in the ’50s, his were not. People like me took piano and percussion lessons, did a little apprentice conducting in the school orchestra and marching band, and studied music history starting with ancient chant and working forward. Stryker did it pretty much the other way around:

“I did take piano lessons as a kid, but I didn’t get that far,” he said recently in a conversation about his book. “I fell in love with jazz at nine, took up the saxophone at 11, and quit the piano. Unlike most people who start with Bach and Mozart and often never make it past Stravinsky, I started with the contemporary music that I was hearing at the University of Illinois by the faculty composers I knew, such as Sal Martirano, Ben Johnston, and Morgan Powell. From there, I went backwards, through Boulez, Messiaen, Bartók, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Brahms, Wagner, et cetera.”

If that listening seems systematic, it wasn’t, Stryker emphasized: “I was just drawn to contemporary music because I’d hear it.” He cited pieces such as Johnston’s Fourth String Quartet — a set of microtonal variations on “Amazing Grace” — as a formative experience, and Martirano’s wild L’s GA, a post-Cagean anti-war piece for a narrator who wears a gas mask, inhaling helium and nitrous oxide while reciting the Gettysburg Address, along with film projections and electronics: “I’d hear those guys talk about Elliott Carter or Messiaen or other composers at parties or in campus coffee shops, so I’d go check it all out.”

The classical composers Stryker knew at the University of Illinois were also jazz musicians by avocation: “Martirano played good bebop piano,” Stryker recalled. “I would hear one of his pieces at a new-music concert, and the next day I’d see him in a practice room and we’d play the bebop anthem ‘Cherokee’ together.” John Garvey, who conducted the jazz band, was a polyglot musician who went on the road with a swing band in the ’40s. Later, Garvey played viola in the Walden String Quartet, which premiered Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 1 and recorded it for Columbia. “Garvey also conducted landmark recordings of Harry Partch’s music, but at the same time he worshipped Ellington and Basie,” Stryker said. “I learned you could love all that stuff.”

Garvey taught Stryker that there was no fundamental difference between making a phrase in a Brahms symphony and making a phrase in an Ellington ballad: “The idiom may be different, but the emotional content of the music and the elements of phrasing, the sense of movement, line, and momentum were all the same.” Stryker vividly recalls being about 20 when an older friend played him recordings of Ravel’s String Quartet and Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta on the same night. “Those are still desert island pieces for me,” he said.

“I didn’t learn the core classical tradition until after college when I was working in a classical record store. I’d come in every day and ask the boss: ‘What should I know?’ He’d say, ‘Do you know the Beethoven symphonies?’ ‘Uh, no.’ ‘OK, let’s start there.’”

Stryker was an American history major as an undergrad at the University of Illinois in Champaign, although he first considered majoring in music at Indiana University, where his father, the sociologist Sheldon Stryker, taught from 1950 to 2002. The elder Stryker, who was familiar with the intensely competitive culture at Indiana’s music school, encouraged his son to get a liberal arts degree instead. “It made sense to me,” Mark said. “I was a good student, but Indiana had such a big conservatory that they didn’t have time for you if you weren’t majoring in music. Whereas at the University of Illinois, the music scene was much looser. Everybody could participate.”

La Monte Young, an early influence. (Wiki)

In Champaign, the young Stryker joined the salon of jazz musicians and new music composers like Martirano and Johnston, who was in contact with avant-garde composers such as John Cage, La Monte Young, and Iannis Xenakis. “I found myself really drawn to new music because these contemporary composers that I admired so much were also into jazz, and that was my bridge,” Stryker said.

“And because I grew up as an improvising musician, when I began to learn the classical repertoire I didn’t think of performance interpretation as being locked into one thing,” Stryker continued. “I didn’t think Brahms’ Second Symphony went one way. I was quite open to all kinds of interpretations, and I was willing to go with performers and try to understand what they hear in the score, and how they justify their decisions. There are limits, of course.

In Stryker’s early memory: Iannis Xenakis (Wiki)

“But my thinking is that interpreting a score is a creative act, not an act of imitation, and that starts with my being a jazz musician. I was friends with contemporary composers and played in their pieces as a sax player when they were workshopping those pieces, and they would invariably ask us, ‘What do you think?’ And someone would say that this part here is not working for me and it might be better if we do this, and you realize that surely that happened with the whole galaxy of great masters when that music was new and the ink was still wet.”

In Detroit’s classical-music realm, Stryker found himself drawn to Neeme Järvi’s approach to standards with the Detroit Symphony, which the conductor led as music director from 1991 to 2005. “Neeme may not come from a jazz background, but he’s a great example of someone who had a particular affinity for jazz, and that spontaneity that he loved in jazz, and its rhythmic vitality, is reflected in the way he conducted Stravinsky,” Stryker said.

Neeme Järvi

“I remember a Rite of Spring in Detroit — the word I would use for it was swing, to use a term from jazz — and I hear it the way Neeme heard it,” Stryker said. “And I remember that week in particular because it was just after I had heard Boulez conduct a Rite of Spring in Cleveland. If you ask most critics, they might prefer the Boulez reading, but I found Neeme’s to be more convincing, capturing the spirit of the 20th century.” Stryker also cited pianist Jeremy Denk as someone who leaves the impression of creating music in the moment.

Although he no longer works for the newspaper, Stryker remains Detroit-based. He loves going to hear jazz there and says it’s like hearing it nowhere else. “It’s such a special thing here, with the city’s long history and tradition and the audience so knowledgeable. When you go to hear jazz in Detroit, you could be sitting next to family members of people like Milt Jackson and Tommy Flanagan and Geri Allen, or people who went to high school with them. I quote Joe Henderson, the tenor sax player, about how when you come to Detroit, you’re taking your life in your hands if you’re not really making it onstage, because the audience will be on to you.”

Stryker lives about 10 miles away from William Bolcom, a classical composer who has remained very open to the vernacular. They are still in touch. “We are a mongrel country in the best sense, a melting pot,” Stryker said. “A lot of our best art takes in this difference. Our composers have the birthright to draw from any tradition that makes sense for them.” Among Stryker’s favorite recordings is the Juilliard String Quartet’s 1960 take on Ravel’s String Quartet. “As a young listener, I remember how helpful it was to have someone to help guide you through it. A friend told me to listen to the opening melody of the Ravel and how achingly lyrical it is. And the second movement, all the pizzicato stuff, like a champagne hiss or something.

“And then to hear Bartók’s first movement of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, this ginormous fugue, getting bigger and bigger, like the universe expanding, your place in the universe getting smaller and smaller. After listening to it straight through to the end, my friend went over to the piano and played a C-major triad. It sounded like the most avant-garde, outside thing you could imagine, after listening to the Bartók. We can all be prisoners of our training and background sometimes. But I think about what Miles Davis used to say to his sideman: ‘Did you ever wish you could play the sax like you never knew how to play the sax?’ And what he meant by that is how frustrating it can be to feel constricted by what you know. Coming to something as if you never did know can feel liberating, as if you were coming to it as a child.

“As a critic, I sometimes have that experience with my wife, Candace, who was never trained in music but is a very sharp listener. We’ll go to a concert and I’ll ask, ‘What do you think?’ And she’ll say something so insightful that I’ll wonder why I couldn’t have thought of that. I’m the one who is supposed to know what I am doing as a listener! But when we move our preconceptions aside, we let the music come in a fresh way.”

Stryker is in the home stretch of co-producing a documentary film, The Best of the Best: Jazz from Detroit, inspired by his book. He expects a 2024 premiere.

Here is some suggested listening from Stryker, with his commentary:

“Classical” pieces with jazz and vernacular influences that I’ve been listening to recently by Mark Stryker

Roger Dickerson (b. 1934), New Orleans Concerto (1976). I only recently discovered this thanks to my friend Ethan Iverson, a jazz pianist. Dickerson was Terence Blanchard’s early composition teacher in New Orleans. Little of Dickerson’s music has been recorded, so this sonically compromised live tape of the premiere of his piano concerto is all we have at the moment. Fantastic piece — lots of blues influences, incredible rhythmic momentum, virtuoso writing for the soloist all folded into a Bartok-like sound world.

James Newton (b. 1953), Gethsemane for solo piano (2009). Newton came up as a flutist and composer in the experimental jazz world, before turning his attention to “classical” composition. Gethsemane is meticulously notated but retains the spontaneity, the illusion of improvisation, in the way the material develops. The idiom is abstract, but I think the gestures and rhythmic bite still echo his jazz background. Follow the score here:

Duke Ellington that everyone should know

I own more recordings by Duke Ellington than anyone else — some 225 LPs and 80 CDs. I think he’s America’s greatest and most representative composer. The legacy is inexhaustible. I can’t put it any better than the late cultural critic Albert Murray. “I don’t think anybody has achieved a higher aesthetic synthesis of the American experience than Duke Ellington expressed in his music. Anybody who achieved a literary equivalent of that would be beyond Melville, Henry James, and Faulkner.

These are three indispensable recordings I always recommend to newcomers:

1. New No Lament (RCA). The classic 1940-42 recordings, masterpiece after masterpiece like “Jack the Bear,” “Ko Ko,” “Concerto for Cootie,” “Sepia Panorama,” “All Too Soon,” and dozens more with the band of individualists at a peak — Hodges, Webster, Carney, Blanton, Williams, Stewart, Brown, Tizol, Greer, etc. The myriad colors, the emotional depth and range, the seamless marriage of composition and improvisation. Pro Tip: Skip the opening “You, You Darling” (it’s a trifle) and go right to “Jack the Bear.” 

2. Such Sweet Thunder (Columbia). From 1956-57, the finest (along with the “Far East Suite”) of the extended suites composed by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Inspired by Shakespeare, the music transcends — each piece a miracle of the imagination. Hard to believe this music is 65 years old. To me, fair friend, you never can be old/For as you were when first your eye I eyed/Such seems your beauty still.

3. The Great Paris Concert (Atlantic). Recorded in 1963, an exuberant survey of the band in later years that samples the hits going back to the ’20s, rarities, suites, a few pop tunes, and formal concert works like Duke’s best extended composition, Harlem.  

(Stryker notes that thanks to a screw-up by YouTube and the streaming services, the version of “Perdido” here dates to 1942 and is NOT the rocking 1963 version issued on the LP and CD versions of The Great Paris Concert. Here’s the version of that track from the audio recording.)