Jazz and the Classical Influence

No musician ever works in a vacuum, and the best ones often pull influences from many genres, cultures, and influences when creating a style of their own. In honor of Jazz Appreciation Month, we wanted to explore a few of the ways that jazz and classical music specifically have influenced each other. While many of us may be familiar with a piece like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, there are countless examples of how these two genres have impacted and mixed with each other. Our Social Media Team took a deep dive into the subject, led by Jazz and Symphony Orchestra bassist Tom Gotsch and featuring the help of Abigail AuYeung, David Stolyarov and Shirley Xiong. Read on to learn more about composers and performers whose knowledge of both jazz and classical traditions helped them create a unique sound.

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein was the first American-born conductor to lead a major U.S. orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and was also a prolific composer. Born in 1918 as Louis Bernstein, he began taking piano lessons at 10 years old and was soon quite proficient on the instrument. Later on in life, he would sometimes conduct piano concertos from the piano bench. Bernstein wrote for several genres, including ballet, theater, film, orchestra, opera, chamber, and more. His music blends elements from jazz, musical theater, traditional Jewish music, and has influences from earlier American composers such as Gershwin and Copland. Bernstein’s compositions helped bridge the gap between popular and classical music, a notable example being his score for West Side Story.

Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda

Alice Coltrane, also known by her adopted Sanskrit name Turiyasangitananda, was a harpist, pianist, composer, organist, and a prominent figure in the Spiritual Jazz movement. She was born in 1937 in Detroit, MI, and grew up playing the organ in her church. In the 1950s, Coltrane moved to Paris to study both jazz and western classical music with renowned jazz pianist Bud Powell. In the 1960’s, Coltrane played professionally as a jazz musician in Detroit, collaborating with contemporaries like avant-garde composers Ornette Coleman and Pharaoh Sanders, and bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Around this time, she married the famous saxophonist John Coltrane, and replaced McCoy Tyner as the pianist in John Coltrane’s incredibly influential quartet. In the late 60s through the 70s, Alice Coltrane devoted herself to Hinduism while simultaneously releasing albums as a bandleader and composer. Her musical style incorporates influences from jazz, North Indian classical music, Western classical music, and the avant-garde.

Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus was a bassist, composer, and pianist who once described his music as “alive and… about the living and the dead, about good and evil. It’s angry yet it’s real because it knows it’s angry.” A jazz icon of the bebop jazz movement in the mid-20th century, Mingus was influenced by mentor and idol Duke Ellington and contemporaries Charlie “Bird” Parker and Thelonious Monk, as well as by the musical traditions including gospel, Western classical, Afro-Cuban, and New Orleans Jazz. He grew up in Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s, and studied composition with Lloyd Reese, who introduced Mingus to Igor Stravinsky’s harmonic palette and orchestration. Mingus is influential for blurring the line between soloist and accompanying (“comping”) musicians in his large-ensemble compositions, and would have musicians improvise as a collective rather than as individuals. He is also know for defining a new avant-garde that took inspiration from the orchestrations and large-scale compositions of Stravinsky and Debussy as well as the swing and rhythms of Bird and Duke.

George Gershwin

George Gershwin was a history-making pianist and composer well known for writing hits like Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, “I Got Rhythm,” and “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Born in 1898, he began music lessons at age 10 after his family purchased a piano. Gershwin always wanted to study with Maurice Ravel and you can hear some of the influence from French impressionist composers in his work. He wrote in a style that was distinctly his own, a jazz influenced classical style, usually categorized in the classical and popular genres. Sadly, he died at the young age of 38, yet left an indelible mark on the musical landscape.

The Modern Jazz Quartet

The Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ), applauded for their unique blend of traditional jazz and classical music components, consisted of pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, double bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Connie Kay (for most of its history). The Quartet was founded by members of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in the late 40s—Lewis, Jackson, and originally Ray Browne and Kenny Clark—staying active from the 1950s to the end of the 20th century. Lewis had an avid fascination for Bach, thus influencing the Quartet’s style with the restraint found in baroque music while maintaining blues melodies that were accentuated by Jackson’s love for improvisation and bebop. One of the pieces that defined MJQ was titled ‘Django,’ as a tribute to Lewis’ friend, Belgian jazz guitarist Jean “Django” Reinhardt. The eloquent blend of musical styles has made ‘Django’ a cornerstone of what is now referred to as modern jazz.

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky was a Russian composer who was a disciple of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, one of the most prolific composers out of the Russian nationalist circle of musicians known as the “Mighty Handful.” Drawing from this influence, and Stravinsky’s fascination with rural Russian culture, he composed folk-inspired and deeply “Russian“ music for companies like the Ballet Russes in Paris. His most notorious work was The Rite of Spring, a perfect example of the rhythms and polytonality of the avant-garde that he pioneered in classical music. Stravinsky’s distinctive use of polymeter, polytonality, and later styles such as serialism set him apart from his contemporaries. Because of this, Stravinsky’s music reached a wide range of audiences and became extremely popular among jazz musicians in the United States. Famous saxophonist Charlie Parker was a huge fan and was known to use licks from compositions such as The Rite of Spring in his own improvised solos. There is even a story of a time Stravinsky appeared in a club whre Parker was playing, causing Parker to quote The Firebird at the beginning of one of his solos before moving on into the rest of his solo without even acknowledging or nodding to Stravinsky’s presence. Some theorize that the love for Stravinsky that arose in jazz musicians is due largely to the rhythmic content in Stravinsky’s music that provide the motion in all of his works. Regardles of whether it’s that or the polytonal, dissonant harmonies, it’s impossible to deny the connection between these musicians. Listen to members of the London Symphony Orchestra perform Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto which was written for Woody Herman jazz band and features a blend of classical and Jazz styles.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone, born in 1933 as Eunice Kathleen Waymon, first aspired to be a classical pianist in her youth, yet is now most well known for her distinctive jazz piano and vocals, as well as her civil rights activism. Following her rejection to the Curtis Institute of Music—one potentially influenced by racism, though that has been denied by Curtis administration—Simone began performing in nightclubs to make a living. She released her debut album, “Little Girl Blue” in early 1959, which included her first hit song: an adaptation of the famous “I Love You, Porgy” duet written by George and Ira Gershwin for Porgy and Bess. In her own works and performance, Simone was inspired by gospel, blues, jazz, and folk music, but with the style of European classical music; she utilized counterpoints like those of Bach and the virtuosic flair of Romantic music like that found in Chopin and Liszt. Simone’s social commentary, especially on the civil rights movement, also became a defining characteristic of her compositions, demonstrated in the songs “To be Young, Gifted, and Black,” “Four Women,” and others. Her social circles included notable black contemporaries such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry, influencing her music to a further degree.

Miles Davis

Miles Davis was prolific trumpet player and musician who paved the way for innovation. Early in his career, Davis was already playing with some of the most influential jazz musicians of the avant-garde such as John Coltrane—a relationship that would help develop Davis’ deeply innovative soundscape. In 1959, he released “Kind of Blue,” a masterpiece that came out of Davis’ new style of playing over modes rather than following the standard chord changes of the previous eras, introducing what’s known as “modal jazz” to the forefront of jazz improvisation. Davis’ versatility and innovative spirit shined in his partnership with pianist and arranger Gil Evans, which led to the album, “Sketches of Spain.” The opening track, “Concerto de Aranjuez”, is a classical guitar concerto by Joaquín Rodrigo (listen to the original version here), and it’s complete orchestration as well as the solo work done by Davis, is incredibly effective in bringing out the beauty of the original piece with the addition of Davis’ own flare and tone. Released only a year after “Kind of Blue”, “Sketches of Spain” pushed Davis into a new direction and while he quickly went to explore many other styles, this dive into the orchestral realm is one of Davis’ most beautiful and compelling albums.


Thank you to the four CYSO Social Media Team members who contributed to this blog post: Abigail AuYeung (cello in Concert Orchestra), Tom Gotsch (bassist in Jazz Orchestra and Symphony Orchestra), David Stolyarov (percussionist in Philharmonic Orchestra), and Shirley Xiong (cellist in Philharmonic Orchestra).

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