A DAY LATER: UPDATES BELOW POST, including an important note from Jason Moran.
TWO DAYS LATER: George Walker responds (see end of post.)
Many of Fredric Rzewski's brilliant compositions make a progressive or socialist point. Rzewski practices what he preaches: IMSLP has a large collection of Rzewski scores and recordings for free.
Not included at IMSLP are his North American Ballads, one of the biggest influences on my solo piano playing. Rzewski wildly deconstructs little protest songs in a theatric and virtuosic fashion. The first time I heard them (on a now hard-to-find Hat Art CD with wonderful Squares, still my favorite Rzewski record) I realized this was what I was trying to do all along. There will certainly be a detectable Rzewski influence at my recital Wednesday night.
I really admire how comfortable Rzewski is while playing his own incredibly difficult music. And he's still got it: at IMSLP, there's a note-perfect live version of a bitterly ironic Etude from 2010, when Rzewski was 72.
Mel Powell, anyone? This 1998 NY Times article by Terry Teachout offers a good overview of Powell's unique career.
I recently spent some time listening to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Duplicates for two pianos and orchestra. It's impressive, but I suspect it really needs to be experienced live — and the odds of it ever being played again are pretty slim.
It's too bad that Powell didn't record more of his classical music as pianist. Only recently did I learn that his Sonatina for Piano filled out a 1953 10-inch Vanguard release that mostly featured a blowing session with — good lord — Buck Clayton, Edmund Hall, Walter Page, and Jimmy Crawford (ex-Lunceford drummer who was Paul Motian's big inspiration).
The jazz tracks have been re-released, but the Sonatina still only exists on the 10-inch. My first eBay purchase went badly. The seller wrote:
Hi there, Forgive me but I've been doing some Christmas partying (drinking) hence the problem. I decided to check my eBay sales depite my wifes insistance I not work today. I saw you had purchased the Mel Powell. I took it out of my Jazz section and while walkking to put it in my to be mailed section. I tripped over a granchild and I used your Mel Powell Sextet to help break my fall. It is now 2 Mel Powell Sextets. Anyway I very much apologize and I have already refunded your PayPal payment. To make up for this if you ever see any of my other records you like you can have it with free shipping. Just tremind me yours was your record that broke my fall Christmas Day while tripping over a grandchild.
I went back for another one and Will Robin helped me find the score. I'm happy to have it: it's a charming neo-classic piece, more substantial that the title Sonatina suggests. The highlight is the second movement. Here's the theme:
The recording exhibits a superlative piano technique. As far as I know, Powell left the performance of his later, more rigorous modernist scores to others. Would that music have a greater chance of staying in the repertoire if he had played and recorded it himself?
As it stands now, Teachout is right: Powell’s jazz discography is showing greater resilience against the winds of posterity. In particular, I’m knocked out by the very first solo sides from 1943, "Jubilee," "When A Woman Loves a Man," and "Hallelujah."
Mel Powell told Whitney Balliett he left jazz because, ''I had decided it did not hold the deepest interest for me musically. And I had decided that it was a young man's music, even a black music.''
Whoops. Is classical music, then, not for black musicians? I’m sure that’s not what PowelI meant, but still, I wouldn't want to show George Walker that quote. Somehow I have been sleeping on Walker. This composer and piano virtuoso has contributed valuable pieces to all areas of the repertoire.
I'm still learning about Walker, it will be a long time before I could produce an authoritave blog post about him, but I'm surprised that his brilliant Sonata No. 1 is from 1953, just like the Powell Sonatina. (Who knew that 1953 was such a good year for pianist-composers?) Albany Records has uploaded it to YouTube: go have a listen, and if you like it, order some of the many Walker records from Albany.
Walker hasn't had much to do with jazz, although certain movements in his canon are dedicated to Ellington or Tatum. The only obvious Black music Walker draws from is the spiritual; indeed, the slow movement of Sonata No. 1 is a senstitive set of variations on "O Bury Me Beneath The Willow."
Although he's 90, Walker is alive, apparently living in New Jersey. Would it be appropriate for me to interview him? If anyone reading thinks so and can facilitate an introduction, I'm not hard to find. Should that opportunity arise, I’ll need to adequately prepare: the Walker works list is extensive, and a fair amount of it is recorded — although hardly everything. Among the missing is 1977’s “Bauble,” which looks delightful on the page but is simply too hard for me to read well enough to get a proper sense of. (UPDATE: Interview is on! See bottom of post.)
From Walker, thinking about mid-century Black composers, I stumbled across Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. The general public knows more about Perkinson than they may realize: he arranged the voices for the Donald Byrd/Duke Pearson/Herbie Hancock classic "Cristo Redentor" and Max Roach's It's Time, the horns and strings for Marvin Gaye's I Want You, and scored several movies including the heavily-sampled The Education of Sonny Carson. He was the pianist in the Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln group for a European tour in 1964 (alongside Clifford Jordan) and arranged big band music for Barry Altschul in the 1980's.
My impression, therefore — although I wouldn’t want to cast anything as definitive from the limited vantage point of casual internet research and reading a few liner notes — is while George Walker was agreeable with working within the almost all-white, all-classical system, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson wasn’t. Perkinson believed in constant contact with other Black musicians and other genres.
It’s too soon for me to parse Perkinson's formal music successfully. For a major composer with an extensive works list, there’s very little to listen to on record. I’ve only found the essential posthumous CD Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: A Celebration and four substantial piano works scattered across three records: two Sonatas, a Toccata, a Scherzo.
The two early orchestra pieces on Celebration, Sinfonietta No. 1 for Strings and Grass: Poem for Piano, Strings and Percussion, are wonderfully executed neo-Stravinsky/Copland works that are deeply impressive for a 22 to 24-year old. The String Quartet no 1. from the same era is based on the spiritual “Calvary.” It’s good but a little too reminiscent of Hindemith for my taste.
More mature in style are the unaccompanied Blue/s Forms for Solo Violin and Lamentations: Black/Folk Song Suite for Solo Cello from the 70’s. A classical musician can play these works and actually get some real blues feeling going — a rare achievement indeed, as these kind of experiments are usually just corny. Perhaps these works are already established in the repertoire, but if not, they certainly deserve to be! Don’t play the Heifetz transcriptions of Porgy and Bess anymore, play Perkinson solo string pieces.
LISTEN: Sanford Allen (the first Black musician in the New York Philharmonic) plays the first movement of the Blue/s Forms, “Plain Blue/s.”
At first blush, the four Perkinson piano works scan as if Prokofiev or Bartok used the spiritual and the blues scale as melodic elements in percussive piano writing instead of Russian or Hungarian folk song and the octatonic scale. While I sincerely thank the various fine pianists involved for recording these works so I could hear them, much more needs to be done. It’s high time for a plush, well-produced, technically impregnable CD of Perkinson piano music that simply drips with “Black music” rhythmic authority. I wish I had the chops to do one myself! But this is seriously well-written and difficult piano music. I had better keep practicing…
Whatever my future with Perkinson holds, his oeuvre awaits discovery and dissemination by others. It’s a worthy endeavor, because he is a major voice. I keep going back to this YouTube of his last work, the Movement for String Trio played by the Ritz Chamber Players. (There’s also a great version on the Celebration CD.) It’s a Bach bassline, a hint of blues on top, and a bit of those early Stravinsky-ish mixed meters. That sounds like a senseless mishmash, but it really works. Perkinson knew what he was doing.
Confronted with the task of writing a large-scale work relating somehow to the Black experience, most Black classical composers will naturally write or borrow a spiritual for their slow movements. It’s a good practical choice, as the spiritual is closer to classical music than the blues. Indeed, these days, some white operatic singers encore their recitals with pieces originally associated with Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Leontyne Price, or Jessye Norman.
What about jazz and the spiritual? Isn't "Cristo Redentor" at least nodding at that genre? Somehow those connections aren't as obvious, at least at first. Amusingly, in the recent nice overview of “Afro-American Experience Jazz Suites” at NPR by David Brent Johnson, the word “spiritual” doesn’t appear on the page, although Ellington’s “Come Sunday” from Black, Brown and Beige was successful enough to be included in some modern-day hymnals, not to mention that the Oliver Nelson piece “Disillusioned” they have streaming is clearly informed by spirituals.
Offhand, the only jazz spirituals I could think of besides "Cristo Redentor," “Come Sunday” and Coltrane’s “Spiritual” (which Lewis Porter showed was based on a rare version of "Nobody Knows de Trouble I See") were the marvelous Hank Jones transfigurations, first the solo versions of" Love Divine, All Loves Surpassing" and "Lord, I Want To Be A Christian" on Tiptoe Tapdance and then the later duos with Charlie Haden.
But I knew there must be more, so I asked Mark Stryker for help:
Sprituals are really interesting — the first (of many) African-American musical idioms to crossover into mainstream American culture. For what it's worth, Paul Allen Anderson's book Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought is good exploration of the evolving meaning of spirituals and related forms to black intellectuals in the first half of the 20th Century.
The famous "Spirituals to Swing" concerts in 1938-39 have a few spirituals but if memory serves they are performed by a choir and not by the jazz musicians (though I may not be completely correct on that). Still, interesting in the way the concert positions spirituals as the first in a continuum of black of music idioms leading up to swing.
Jazz spirituals: There are two really soulful Archie Shepp-Horace Parlan duet records of predominantly spirituals recorded for SteepleChase — Goin' Home (1977) and Trouble in Mind (1980)…Grant Green's Feelin' the Spirit (1962) with Herbie, Butch Warren, Billy Higgins: All spirituals in a contemporary, very hip soul jazz idiom…Albert Ayler’s Swing Low, Sweet Spiritual (1964) with Call Cobbs, Grimes, Murray…Louis Armstrong, Louis and the Good Book from the 50's… Dizzy Gillespie did "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac…"
…Charlie Mariano plays the hell out of "Deep River" on The Toshiko Mariano Quartet (Candid) in 1960 with his then wife Toshiko Akiyoshi, Gene Cherico and Eddie Marshall. Incredible vibrancy to his sound, super loose phrasing of out Bird and drenched in the blues. Here are two white Americans, a Japanese pianist and a black American drummer all playing an African American spiritual with deep understanding — only in America.
Mark and I are both sure there are others, this must only be a partial list. While posting right now I remembered Monk’s short but deep reading of “This Is My Story, This Is My Song” AKA “Blessed Assurance.”
The last time I hung out with Mark Stryker we went to Street Corner Music in suburban Detroit, where I got a copy of Don Shirley’s 1960 Piano Arrangements Of Famous Spirituals.
It’s a lovely record, closer to Robeson than jazz. In the notes, Shirley writes:
I don’t know who composed the music and lyrics to these beautiful spirituals — nobody does. These are traditional things that have been handed down from one group to another, just a matter of people getting together and singing of the private things that are not talked about — the pain of oppression, the longing for freedom, the dependence on God. I have tried here to present them in a different and interesting way without changing their basic and universal meaning.
Shirley is still around. I hope he’s doing well, I always liked him. H’mm — I wonder if his mega-hit “Water Boy” was an influence on Rzewski’s North American Ballads?
Speaking of Black, Brown, and Beige and Black composers in general, I have a few mild correctives to offer to Seth Colter Walls’s valuable recent piece, “The ‘One Drop Rule’ of Jazz.” For his one full-time professional classical composer, Walls cites Hale Smith. God bless Smith, I met him once and he was an imposing and important figure to be sure, but that rather indifferent CRI anthology is not where I would start when making a case for Black composers on symphony concerts. Both Walker and Perkinson — or my man Alvin Singleton, the unclassifiable bard of Atlanta — are much more immediately charismatic. Hale Smith’s great contribution to posterity (that I know about, there’s plenty of stuff I haven’t heard) is the magnificent “Feathers” on Eric Dolphy’s Out There, a masterpiece of Third Stream. Smith did apparently record an ultra-rare album of piano improvisations that I’m eager to audition. Anyone have it?
I also worry about criticizing the classical establishment for not paying attention to black jazz composers. It’s a complicated subject. I want musicians like James P. Johnson to have as much respect as anybody. I helped get him a tombstone, for heaven’s sake. But Johnson’s concert music for symphony orchestra is immature. Worthy of being known? Yes, of course, thank you so much Marin Alsop and Leslie Stifelman. Or, perhaps remounted in a radical re-imagining? Sure! I’d love for a drummer like Lawrence Leathers to join me in taking apart Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody alongside an orchestra willing to ignore the page (although Aaron Diehl should really do it, not me).
But as it stands, Yamekraw is kind of like all that Franz Liszt orchestra music that nobody plays: unprofessional and repetitive. By all means, Johnson and Liszt scholars should know this music (and there needs to be more Johnson scholars!) but I’d rather that any contemporary enthusiasm for Johnson’s work be directed into making every college piano major learn “Carolina Shout” than into asking our major orchestras to program his symphonic work.
I feel particularly touchy about the average concert-goer leaving the hall thinking, "Well, Gershwin really was better than James P.," which is a too-superficial take. (I write more about Gershwin vs. Johnson here.)
Walls also name-checks Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America. A great work. A great, great, work. But it’s not one that did anything for Ornette’s reputation in the classical world, because classical professionals can immediately discern what the London Symphony hated about it: it is a single line read off by the whole symphony without transposing while Ornette and percussion improvise. There’s only one musician I know with the miraculous melodic sense and frankly, chutzpah, to pull that off: Ornette Coleman!
There's an irony here that deserves examination. James P. and Ornette have name power, so they are more likely to be programmed by anybody anywhere under any auspices then countless worthy working-class classical composers. It’s such a hard and thankless job, being a classical composer. I’ve met a few important ones, and I’m here to tell you, playing jazz in clubs and making hip records with good bands is easy in comparison!
I had a piano lesson with the great Robert Helps once in Florida before he died. Desperate to hear some of his original music before our meeting, I could only find a not-so-worthy CRI anthology. (This reminds me that Hale Smith’s best music may well be unrecorded. For all its wonders — thank you, CRI, for all the music that would never have been heard otherwise — CRI is a low-budget, low-impact label.) At his house Helps played me a scratchy cassette tape of what he clearly thought was one of his finest pieces, Piano Concerto No. 2, with future star Richard Goode in the soloist’s chair. It was only after Helps died that well-produced, engaging CDs of his music proliferated, including a nice Albany recording of Concerto No. 2 with Alan Feinberg. (That future star, Mr. Goode, has never played it again.)
I mean, if black jazz musicians really want that model…
Of course, what they want is not posthumous fame, but contemporary respect. I can understand that. Still, I maintain that if, say, Wayne Shorter wants to produce sonatas and symphonies, he has a much better chance of getting them played than all but a dozen or so major conventional classical composers worldwide. If Sam Rivers or Billy Strayhorn had left a trunk of performance-ready string quartets, I bet I could find a dozen ensembles ready to fight each other to premiere them.
All this is not to say that I disagree with the basic idea of Seth Colter Walls’s piece. Let’s listen up to some Black composers! How can it be that only now, at age 40, am I getting hip to my new heroes George Walker and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson? Solipsism alert, but still: The fact that I’m so late to them — surely it's not immodest to suggest I'm the kind of guest you want at your “Stump the experts about jazz and classical music party” — argues that their race has suppressed general acceptance of their value.
Solipsism aside, George Walker turned 90 last year. I’m positive I didn’t see one mention of this anniversary in any of the major music outlets I’m tuned into, although apparently his “hit,” Lyric for Strings, was played in New York by the Juilliard Symphony conducted by the late James DePriest. Huh. A student orchestra and a (great) black conductor. Interesting. (UPDATE: See bottom of post.)
As far as I know, Walker is the only major modernist composer to also record worthy full-length piano recitals of core repertoire like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt. Of any race. Period.
When a jazz composer like Duke Ellington is considered in classical terms, what do we gain? In my opinion, nothing.
I was reminded of this when out in Missouri this past weekend. I was guesting with the Truman State college jazz band and played from some transcriptions made for the student competition Essentially Ellington. In some ways they are astonishingly accurate. I'm so happy to finally know just what Duke played at the top of "Across the Track Blues."
That's great. On the other hand, the rhythm section part for "Rockin' in Rhythm," based on the great 1963 Paris version, is like all the sorrows of the earth:
Those lonely bars are cut and pasted for piano, bass, and drums for almost the whole chart. Of course, everyone knows that is not right. (Especially the drum part.) Fortunately, there's a nice long note from David Berger and sometimes Wynton Marsalis in the front of the transcriptions explaining that the recording is the text, and to listen, listen, listen.
Still, the notes on the chart are there. Classical music. And then, when you listen, listen, listen, are you supposed to emulate further? More like Classical music than ever?
Obviously, students learn by imitating. But there's something academic and impersonal — Classical –about these charts that put me off a little bit.
It's a two-edged sword. I had never learned the intro to "Rockin in Rhythm,'" "Kinda Dukish" before, and when the (very cool) director Tim AuBuchon said we should play it, I immediately started making excuses. "I don't have time to learn it!" "It's too hard." "No way, unless you have a chart."
Tim immediately sent me David Berger's transcription.
Well, that was even worse, in a way. Was I supposed to spend the hours needed to reproduce all those notes with Duke's special feel?
But then I came to my senses. Jason Moran was my savior, really. I've heard the Bandwagon play "Kinda Dukish" many times over the years. They don't care exactly about what Duke played. Jason, Tarus Mateen, and Nasheet Waits play themselves through Duke. They let in the avant-garde, hip-hop, everything else they know when dealing out "Kinda Dukish." Which is really what jazz interpretation should be about.
I kinda learned "Kinda Dukish," (thanks, Mr. Berger) and played myself through it last night at the gig. It was great!
Not Classical Music at all.
Again, not to say these transcriptions aren't valuable. But I'm a little afraid I'm going to turn a corner someday and hear a student pianist playing this exact Berger transcription before a college band roars into "Rockin' in Rhythm" with that exact bass and drum part. If that day comes, a little part of me will die inside. This music is too important and beautiful not to be treated with due diligence, and in this case, due diligence means not playing the score.
Ultimately this whole ramble is about genre. I believe in respecting all the best makers of music on the most appropriate terms. It's hard for anybody to know enough about everything; I do my best, but undoubtedly I fall short myself.
Also the marketplace makes its unhelpful demands, or maybe the artist doesn't see things clearly. That's why I began with Rzewski. One of his strange, almost savant-like areas of greatness is improvisation. Indeed, he is the only contemporary classical pianist-composer I know of who can improvise non-tricksy, deeply felt, nearly atonal cadenzas at the drop of a hat.
However, the only way to listen to Rzewski's sensational improvisations is to sift through his records with scores in hand, looking for the few cadenzas. One of the best is on the Cornelius Cardew recital, We Sing for the Future! But how would you know that unless I hadn't just told you?
Perhaps no one is interested in recording an album of Rzewski improvisations, or maybe he doesn't think they are that important himself. Whatever the reason, it's not too late. Let's get some of that unheard magic tracked on a good piano in a decent studio as soon as possible!
UPDATES (A day later):
Jason Moran wrote:
Hale Smith has some amazing art songs for voice and piano.
“Beyond the Rim of Day” is one: Beautiful and abstract, soulful and stark.
Alicia sang these songs at Manhattan School of Music. MSM had 3 supreme African-American divas on the voice faculty. Betty Allen, Hilda Harris, and Adele Addison. Bernstein wrote things specifically for Adele. Hilda and Betty were on the MET stages in the 60s and 70s. Betty Allen also ran the Harlem School of the Arts. Hilda is still on faculty at MSM. They are major figures in our community, and have informed soooo many students of the history you write about.
I presume that any answer you want about the African-American composers, means you have to go looking for the African-American classical musicians. There are tons in Harlem. They just don't show up on big stages, and rarely show up in the press. They are in the choirs, in the Broadway pits, etc.
For about 8 months, Alicia wrote a classical column for the Amsterdam News. You should be able to find them online.
It chronicled a lot of the classical offerings in Harlem. That publication still does that job, and has been for years. Think of Herbie Nichols offerings in the 40s. We don't go looking for African-American representation in the mainstream. Know what I mean? For decades, we've found a way to inform ourselves, think (Ebony, Jet, Black Enterprise, Essence). Most folks don't think to ever read the Amsterdam News. And when i say most folks, I really mean, everyone, no matter their race. I would get the Amsterdam News occasionally, but only subscribed once Alicia started writing. Then I saw that there was soooo many stories I was missing because I had been brainwashed to only look to The New York Times.
Oh, and a note. The Don Shirley quote about how things got passed down, or the lyrics for spirituals. Well, Alicia's great uncle is HALL JOHNSON, a kind of God of black choral music. Have you seen the film Green Pastures? he did the score for that, and his choir was the go to place for young black classical singers arriving New York. He was one of the pioneers of writing down spirituals because he had older folks sing for him as he transcribed the songs. I think he then combined it with some of that german romanticism, and made it this beautiful fusion. But look up Hall Johnson. He has had a big influence on my voicings.
And lastly, Alicia grew up with another diva, Shirley Verett. A big opera star, similar to that of Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price, etc. An exquisite voice. Alicia studied with her as an adult. There is a lot of shared history that is Very Private. Just like Don Shirley said.
All that to say, go meet the black classical musicians your age, and they know this history. A pianist named Major Scurlock , lives in NYC, knows this.
and you are right about "Carolina Shout!"
On Twitter, Seth Colter Walls rightly questioned the phrase, "proper composer." I have changed it to "full-time professional classical composer." He brought up Anthony Davis. I don't know Davis as well as I should, but did write about two symphonic works here. Perhaps Davis does view himself as a "full-time professional classical composer," I don't know, but there are 73 entries for him in the Lord jazz discography, and everything I've ever heard by him required improvisation, including what I know of his operas.
It's just a different thing. I remember when I interviewed Threadgill: he told me about how he wanted to make the orchestra part of the process, to redo hundreds of years of European orchestral tradition in a single piece. Kudos! And, good luck! But the night before that interview I saw Alvin Singleton's BluesKonzert at Carnegie. It was awesome, and Singleton didn't do anything to the orchestra's "process" other than mail in the score. BluesKonzert will always around for a curious group to grapple with, but Threadgill's orchestral commisions won't ever be played again after he leaves the room.
It's fine for anyone to challenge orchestras! But I have sympathy for a commissioning board that balks at a jazz composer demanding process and improvisation, moving on instead to someone who simply mails in a performance-ready score.
Not that I wouldn't love to go see an evening-length presentation of Davis and Threadgill and others' best symphonic work requiring improvisation and process. Indeed, it's important to do one, I think.
Speaking of the Lord discography, I'm embarrased to admit that it took a nudge from Kevin Whitehead to get me to search for Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson there. Yep, Perkinson toured in Europe as pianist with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln in an all-star group including Clifford Jordan and Eddie Kahn: there are a couple of January 1964 bootlegs. My respect for him keeps increasing! Who was this cat?
I had also simply forgotten to mention that Perkinson turned up as Barry Altschul's arranger in a recent interview at Destination: OUT! You can even listen to a big band tune, "Satarumbarengue."
SECOND UPDATE: I now have been in touch with George Walker, and we have plans to do an interview as soon as I study up on his music. I didn't find his excellent website before because the Wikipedia link is dead (now fixed).
The New Jersey Symphony acknowledged my 90th birthday with a commission. My Sinfonia No. 4 has now been played by four orchestras– New Jersey, Pittsburgh, the National Symphony and the Cincinnati Symphony.
James DePreist did not perform my Lyric for Strings at Juilliard because of the illness that eventually took his life.
A friend presented a program of my works at the Ethical Culture Society after I turned 80. No one prior to that date acknowledged any previous birthdays.
My website is: georgetwalker.com. Also, New Jersey Television posted a video that you find by googling "George Walker: State of the Arts." Thanks to the Internet there is a wealth of information about me. Some of it is accurate.