Celebrated harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani included Mel Powell’s Recitative and Toccata Percossa during his recent NPR Tiny Desk concert. Esfahani calls the piece, “Absolutely brilliant.”
Since the Tiny Desk series is popular and archived online, this may be the most exposure one of Powell’s formal compositions has ever gotten.
Mel Powell had three major stages of creative activity.
1. As a jazz pianist Powell was influenced by Willie “the Lion” Smith and Teddy Wilson. (Powell studied with Smith.) Powell’s short but visible tenure with Benny Goodman occurred during WWII and the height of the Swing Era. Powell also played with Glenn Miller.
2. As a Neo-Classic composer Powell was influenced by Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith. (Powell studied with Hindemith.) Recitative and Toccata Percossa is representative.
3. As a rigorous serial composer, Powell was influenced by second Viennese school of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern and, especially, their postwar American offshoots led by Milton Babbitt. Duplicates, a Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra won a Pulitzer Prize.
It’s hard to keep up with the whole Mel Powell, for these diverse pursuits come close to canceling each other out. Powell was a sparkling jazz personality on hit records with Goodman, while prominent American modernist composers like Babbitt and Elliott Carter considered him a peer. (The preceding sentence should be all but impossible, but it is absolutely true.)
Most critical overviews of Powell reference his jazz and modernist periods but neglect his Neo-Classic period. Perhaps something in Powell reception will change given Esfahani’s contemporary advocacy for Recitative and Toccata Percossa.
Powell didn’t do much to blend genres together. A few original 50’s jazz pieces for trios with Paul Quinchette or Ruby Braff have a taste of counterpoint à la Hindemith, but the melodic phrasing and band interaction while improvising derives solely from earlier jazz. Later in life, when he went back to sit in with old pals on a jazz cruise, Powell’s swinging piano remained untouched by anything learned from Babbitt.
One of the few through-lines in Powell’s diverse output is Claude Debussy. Powell’s passion for the French composer began when he attended a performance of Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune when Powell was still just a boy. Powell said that this was his, “First recollection of an incredible shock.” From a musicological essay on Powell by Jeffery Perry:
The way in which Powell spent some of his precious hours of leave time in liberated Paris illustrates the lasting impact of this early exposure to Debussy’s music. Speaking French fluently, he was permitted by a friendly curator to browse the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Debussy archive, to visit Debussy’s old haunts, and to meet his acquaintances. He also was able to view the composer’s harmony and counterpoint exercises from his days as a student at the Conservatoire.
“Homage to Debussy” was a 1945 jazz piano 78; the slow movements of Powell’s Neo-Classic music offer dreamy melodies closer to Debussy than Stravinsky or Hindemith; Duplicates was inspired by an anecdote where Debussy said: “Do you know what the perfect music would be? A perpetual cadenza. It would be like a chain of gold coins, each like the other, but different enough to claim independence.”
Powell eventually became a celebrated teacher, and anecdotes about Powell turn up in two DTM interviews. Alvin Singleton was student of Powell at Yale:
Mel had a harmony class that was just so amazing. He would compose a melody on the blackboard, then fill in all the harmony and rhythms. It would take him a long time to do. We’d watch it come together, he would point out a few structural things. Finally he turned on a recording of the Brahms Symphony he was recreating from memory on the blackboard. We all got it.
That was when I really got that theory comes from composition, not the other way around.
And James Newton was hired for the faculty at Cal Arts:
Mel gave me some very good advice about structuring the music and thinking about form in multiple ways. He would sometimes take me and say, “James, come into the room for a minute,” and he’d take out a Brahms Intermezzo and play it and he’d break down the form, and he had a lot of interesting suggestions. The other beautiful thing about him was that he was so soulful. Both of our works premiered during an Ear Unit concert. That was meaningful.
Five Neo-Classic pieces by Mel Powell have been recorded, all written in the early 1950s.
Sonatina for Piano. Hidden in plain sight and utterly absent from the history books, the Sonatina is an idiosyncratic wonder from at least three points of view. Firstly, the piece is great: The outer movements are charismatic and detailed dances in disjointed A major while the middle movement, “Chorale Variations,” offers a G-sharp minor atmosphere of great beauty. Secondly, even though the diminutive name “sonatina” suggests a moderate technical level, the work is very challenging and for professional pianists only. Powell plays it to the hilt, putting him in rarified company alongside a few other modernist 20-century composer-pianists like Béla Bartók, Robert Helps and Frederic Rzewski. Lastly, the recording of Sonatina filled out a 1953 10-inch Vanguard release mostly featuring a casual blowing session with some of the greatest black jazz musicians of all time, including Buck Clayton, Edmund Hall, Walter Page, and Jimmy Crawford.
Recitative and Toccata Percossa. Written for Fernando Valenti, recorded at live recital by Ralph Kirkpatrick, recorded in the studio by Jory Vinikour, now toured by Mahan Esfahani. These are big names in the harpsichord world and their sympathetic support is justified, for the blend of antiquity and modernity in Recitative and Toccata Percossa is simply perfect. While the “Toccata Percossa” is not stylistically like a swing band, a good performance of this irresistibly rhythmic movement might cause an audience to tap their feet a bit.
Three other Neo-Classic pieces can be heard on Mel Powell: Chamber Music, a CRI LP released at the end of the ’50s. Powell started embracing serialism in about 1957, so the LP was already outdated in terms of where the composer was headed. The liner notes are by another great composer/pianist, Yehudi Wyner. Wyner’s barbed comment, “Certain aspects of Mel Powell’s past deserve raised eyebrows!” suggests some of difficulties Powell would have experienced when making a career shift from jazz pianist to composer.
Divertimento for Violin and Harp. This uncommon instrumentation is probably a nod to Debussy, and overall Divertimento might be the most obviously Debussy-esque of Powell’s formal music. The harp’s sonority conjures something long ago from another land, and the modal violin melodies unroll like a mermaid’s seductive song.
Piano Trio. A substantial work in four movements. As with the Sonatina, a certain aphoristic and diffuse aspect of the argument foreshadows Powell’s engagement with serialism. Wyner’s note makes much of this Trio, but I’m as not certain that all the elements are in balance. The most obviously appealing movement is a “Marcia Grottesca” in the Prokofiev and Shostakovich tradition. A second recording was done by the Francesco Trio, who also tracked Powell’s atonal sequel, Piano Trio ’94.
Divertimento for Five Winds. All Neo-Classic composers must write a wind quintet; in Powell’s case, he replaces french horn with trumpet. “It’s a gas!” an old timer might say of a 1940 Benny Goodman chart, and today in 2020 I declare of Divertimento for Five Winds, “It’s a gas!” Good humor abounds in asymmetrical and nearly “big band” phrasing. (Perhaps Mel added trumpet for the big band reference.) It’s a virtuoso work and the Fairfield Wind Ensemble (Thomas Parshley, David Weber, Harry Shulman, Elias Carmen, and guest Murray Karpilovsky) performs with cheerful verve and perfect intonation.
Divertimento for Five Winds ranks with Sonatina for Piano and Recitative and Toccata Percossa as Mel Powell music deserving repertory status. There may be more to discover: Powell Neo-Classic pieces that haven’t been recorded include a String Quartet (also called Beethoven Analogs and the topic of Jeffery Perry’s paper), Cantilena Concertante for English horn and orchestra, an Orchestral Suite, and Miniatures for Baroque Ensemble, which dated at 1957 may have been the last formal work in a given tonality. According to Perry, each movement of Miniatures for Baroque Ensemble is, “…Composed around one of the notes of a modal B-flat scale, arranged in ascending order (i.e. the first movement is in B-flat, the second in C, the third in D, etc., up to the eighth and final movement, which is again in B-flat).”
In the postwar period, many American composers took on the challenge of modernism, expanding the basic template of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern to even more extreme reaches. Key figures included Milton Babbitt, who wrote in a serialist style with parameters determined by mathematics, and Elliott Carter, whose music wasn’t systematically twelve tone but shared a similarly recondite surface allied with extraordinary rhythmic demands.
Although Powell was wary of categorization — he preferred the description “non-tonal” to “atonal,” drawing a line between sympathetic and doctrinaire, perhaps — he joined this lineage in the late 1950s and never looked back. In his extensive 1980 liner notes to the Sequoia String Quartet’s recording of the Schoenberg Second String Quartet and Powell’s own docedaphonic Little Companion Pieces (featuring Bethany Beardslee), Powell muses:
At this late hour modernism is an ancien régime. Once it was propelled by future-intoxicated ardor, but that is quietly past now. It is a remembered time of heroes. The battlegrounds where aesthetic warfare was waged are grown over, the agitations, the large radicalisms, have at last, inevitably, begun to seem like orthodox tenets.
And yet…and yet. What is more intrepid? Even now? It’s as though modernism had been endowed against time’s malevolence with an ineradicable audaciousness.
This “intrepid” style ruled the roost of American composition in academic circles for 20 or 30 years, but its footprint is vanishing fast. “Ineradicable audaciousness” is true enough, but it’s also hard to imagine the serialist music of Mel Powell ever becoming standard repertory. These “orthodox tenets” remain interesting to a specialist audience conversant with the catechism.
Other good composers worked in an idiom not far from Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, and Mel Powell, but I don’t always find them overwhelmingly distinctive. To be fair, I don’t have perfect pitch. Carla Bley does, and when I spoke to her about the great late twelve-tone composer Charles Wuorinen, it was apparent that Carla’s supersonic ears enabled her to understand a Wuorinen piece faster than I could myself.
An amused appropriation of ragtime gives some of Wuorinen’s mature music a kind of “beat.” Indeed, certain Wuorinen pieces have resonated with me more than most Babbitt, Carter, or non-tonal Mel Powell; I wrote an appreciation, “The Syncopated Stylings of Charles Wuorinen,” for his 80th birthday.
Mel Powell certainly knew more about “beat” then Wuorinen or almost any other formal composer. After all, Mel Powell could comfortably play in a rhythm section with Walter Page and Jimmy Crawford! But as far as I know, Powell never attempted to marry the abstract phrases of his modernist composition with a hint of beat in the manner that was so successful for Wuorinen. Hell, even Babbitt penned the rowdy All Set for jazz band. If something like that turns up from the Mel Powell archive, I’d love to hear it.
An important disc of serialist Powell features the Pulitzer-winning Duplicates performed by Robert Taub and Alan Feinberg alongside the two-piano Setting (which relates explicitly to Duplicates) and Modules, an Intermezzo for Chamber Orchestra. David Alan Miller conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
All three pieces are representative of the style, “endowed against time’s malevolence” to be perpetually avant-garde, and surely would have even more impact in live performance. The opening flute lines on the middle “Madrigal” from Duplicates are gorgeous.
Within this genre Powell is an acknowledged master. Matthew Guerrieri has surveyed a lot of high modernism and told me recently, “Some composers didn’t write for the instruments very well, especially for voice. Powell did write well for the voice in that style, though. Everything comes across. I especially like the Haiku Settings and Die Violine; the piano parts ring really nicely for the instrument.” (Die Violine also offers a rare recorded example of Powell himself playing his own serialist music.)
Again like Babbitt, Powell was at the forefront during the 60’s synthesizer movement and even founded the first electronic lab at Yale. The sultry soprano of Phyllis Bryn-Julson sounds wonderful set against a science fiction backdrop in Powell’s Strand Settings: Darker.
David Lopato was a grad student at Cal Arts when Powell was the provost during the mid-70s, and on one occasion got to hear Powell perform an hour of solo jazz piano. Lopato reports: “It was amazing. Mel effortlessly sounded like Tatum and Teddy Wilson, uninterrupted by all those years.” Lopato recalled the prevailing sentiment to be, “How could this guy who could play such amazing improvisational piano walk away from it for something so dry and intellectually oriented as dodecaphonic composition?”
After Powell’s death in 1998, Terry Teachout wrote an article for the New York Times that began with an unforgettable lede:
Trivia question: who was the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for music? Hint: it wasn’t Wynton Marsalis.
Teachout also offered a strong closing sentiment:
The irony is that Powell’s jazz playing is far more likely to be remembered than his classical compositions, which have never appealed to more than a tiny coterie of admirers.
I hadn’t paid attention to Mel Powell’s unusual career before reading Teachout’s article, and my post today is a delayed return to Teachout’s serve.
Almost certainly Teachout was right then and now, that the jazz Powell commands more cultural bandwidth than the classical Powell. During the CD boom, all of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and even almost all of the jazz Mel Powell was reissued — but an important tell is how the material from the old Vanguard 10-inch containing the Sonatina was reissued except the Sonatina!
They sometimes say, “The truth bats last.” I’ve been advocating for the Powell Sonatina online for a decade. While I had to search out and pay an exorbitant sum for my own Vanguard 10-inch, a benefactor has since uploaded a rip to YouTube and the Sonatina has probably been listened to more in the 21st Century than in the 20th. With Esfahani touring Recitative and Toccata Percossa and my post today, there’s more 2020 interest in the compositions of Mel Powell than could have been reasonably expected at the time of Powell’s passing.
Powell himself repeatedly gave clear indications that he regarded formal composition his most important contribution. The lifestyle of a composer suited Powell’s personality. In 1983, five years before winning a Pulitzer for Duplicates, Powell explained to Reid Robbins:
…When you are at work and working well, one finds oneself speechless, then, almost guilty. We use the word “work,” but it should actually be closer to play. What person anywhere at any time would swap this for anything? You’re not always in that strange kind of mystical union with material, but when you are, that’s an experience that transcends any pleasure I can think of.
Nonetheless, history, at least for now — the last batter hasn’t gotten to the plate yet — still sides with Lopato and Teachout, remembering another Powell….
When Benny Goodman hired Mel Powell, the Goodman fanbase was fascinated by this new prodigy. Powell had just turned 18, but he played virtuoso piano and added several admired items to the Goodman book. Powell’s tribute to Hines, “The Earl,” is an enjoyable listen, in part because Powell swings the horns with no help from a drummer.
Loren Schoenberg interviewed Powell in 1983 about his jazz years. This valuable document just recently came online.
In 1990, Powell told Allan Kozinn, “At the time, swing music, big-band music and Benny Goodman in particular were so boundlessly popular that people who made room for it in their lives have never forgotten it. So I get calls from people who are in a kind of time warp.”
I myself am touched by a little Goodman/Powell nostalgia. “Six Flats Unfurnished” was originally the B-side of Peggy Lee’s 1942 performance of “Why Don’t You Do Right” and later anthologized on the 1966 LP Benny Goodman’s Greatest Hits. That LP was owned by the parents of my best childhood friend, and “Six Flats Unfurnished” quickly became my favorite track.
Composer Richard Maltby apparently contributed little else to the jazz history books. Too bad, because this chart is simply awesome! Over the years I’ve periodically returned to “Six Flats Unfurnished” and been freshly impressed. Not everything you love when you are 12 or 13 stands one’s personal test of time, but “Six Flats Unfurnished” is just goddamn great. It’s still great!
Maltby takes the droning, riffing, Kansas-City style of Count Basie and gives it a few harmonic and contrapuntal bells and whistles. Jon Walton plays a soulful tenor solo that comes out of Lester Young. The short Mel Powell bit near the end doesn’t sound like Basie, but it serves the same dramatic function as a mild-mannered Basie piano interlude.
Maltby’s own recording of “Six Flats Unfurnished” is a bit brighter and far less swinging overall. The piano solo is different, thus proving that those eight immortal bars of C-flat blues on the Goodman recording were authored by Mel Powell.
Of the jazz Mel Powell I’ve heard, “Six Flats Unfurnished” is somewhat exceptional for its casually intense blues feeling. However, Loren Schoenberg has shared some remarkable rare items with me, including two choruses of “St. Louis Blues” in 1942 with Goodman that just knocks me out. Loren described this playing as “timeless,” which is proving to be quite literally true: While not released at the time (it eventually came out on LP in the 60’s), here I am all these years later, transcribing the notes.
Powell’s jazz piano was frequently praised for something quicksilver and lively in affect. Two choruses of “I Got Rhythm” with the Benny Goodman sextet are representative. Unlike “St. Louis Blues,” this track was released in a timely fashion and would have been heard by fans and fellow musicians during the Swing Era.
Powell had chops to burn, but he doesn’t always dig that deep. On that Vanguard session with Page and Crawford he’s swinging, but something remains rather ordered and obvious. Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines duck and weave, with their right hand moving unpredictably back and forth against the beat; much of Mel Powell unrolls in a comparatively straight line.
In the above interview with Loren Schoenberg, Powell describes the shock of hearing Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach after returning from the war. He loved it, but also knew at once that he could not learn how to play bebop. It was a big change for everyone, everywhere. Even Wilson and Hines got lost in the shuffle for a few years.
After he focused on formal composition, Powell would have time to think about each phrase and get everything in exactly the right order.
Powell gave Whitney Balliett an honest and provocative quote: ”I had done what I felt I had to do in jazz. 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.”
There’s no doubt in my own mind that the early black jazz pianists were greater than the white jazz pianists. Period.
A certain strain of Swing Era fandom would vehemently disagree. Open up any DownBeat from the 40s or 50s. There are even two relatively recent books that champion the white players as somehow overlooked, Richard Sudhalter’s Lost Chords (1999) and Randy Sandke’s Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet (2014).
There’s plenty to learn from Sudhalter and Sandke, but their grand themes about race are nonsense. The authoritative masters are obviously people like Jelly Roll Morton, Lil Hardin Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Mary Lou Williams, Jimmy Yancey, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Meade “Lux” Lewis. Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum…
The best white players are good, though. Really good. And their artistry rounds out the history, a time when jazz was a dominant force in American life.
Art Hodes was a soulful blues stylist, someone who could really get a charismatic and mysterious sound out of the piano. Mel Powell’s eight bars on “Six Flats Unfurnished” reminds me Hodes. Hodes recorded for the fledging Blue Note label (one of the few white pianists ever to record for Alfred Lion), was an influence on Horace Silver, and edited a magazine, The Jazz Record, devoted to lifting up black practitioners. (In the Swing Era, DownBeat rarely had a black musician on the cover.) Selections from the Gutter, a late European recording of solos and duos with bassist Jens Sølund, is in my personal pantheon.
Freddie Slack was slick and helped popularize boogie-woogie. His phrasing is a bit simple compared to Pete Johnson or Albert Ammons, but no less of an authority than Hampton Hawes cited Slack as an early influence.
Johnny Guarnieri sounds fabulously tough and swinging on an immortal quartet session with Lester Young. In general Guarnieri could hang with any Basie-ite and sound good. He also offers unexpected harpsichord with Artie Shaw and his Gramercy 5; by default this use of harpsichord comes across rather Stravinskian and “modernist,” a kind of distant cousin to Powell’s Recitative and Toccata Percossa. Much later Guarnieri would devote time to playing stride in 5/4.
Jess Stacy gets a gold star for his improvisation on “Sing, Sing, Sing” from the famous Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert. This impressionistic ramble still sounds like nothing else, a vivid example of what Whitney Balliett cherished as, “The sound of surprise.” Bud Freeman’s trios with Stacy and George Wettling are in the canon.
Joe Sullivan was associated with Bing Crosby and enough of a household name to get a namecheck in a the first Lew Archer novel by Ross Macdonald, The Moving Target (1950). Archer gets hung up while failing to successfully interrogate his suspect Betty Fraley:
But hot piano wasn’t my dish, and I’d picked the wrong words or overdone my praise. The bitterness of her mouth spread to her eyes and voice. “I don’t believe you. Name one.”
“It’s been a long time.”
“Did you like my ‘Gin Mill Blues?’”
“I did,” I said in relief. “You do it better than Sullivan.”
“You’re a liar, Lew. I never recorded that number. Why would you want to make me talk too much?”
“I like your music.”
“Yeah. You’re probably tone-deaf.”
Sullivan’s “Gin Mill Blues” is enjoyable but not overwhelmingly distinctive, while the hit “Little Rock Getaway” (later played by Keith Emerson) owes a lot to James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout.” A photo of Lester Young carefully watching Joe Sullivan at the piano hangs in the kitchen of the Village Vanguard.
Bob Zurke was another Bing Crosby associate. Zurke died very young but his legacy includes big band boogies like Freddie Slack and a rather manic approach to stride piano. Jelly Roll Morton liked Zurke’s playing.
Joe Bushkin had a brilliant piano technique and a kind of suave approach somewhere between Teddy Wilson and Hank Jones. He holds his own when playing with the likes of Buck Clayton and Jo Jones. Burt Bacharach has some wonderful anecdotes about studying with Bushkin in the Bacharach autobiography Anyone Who Had a Heart.
Mel Powell fits right in with this crew.
It’s impossible to comprehend the realities of that profoundly segregated era today. The black players created the genre and were more advanced practitioners than the white players, but the white players made more money in more comfortable conditions. Perhaps an ambitious soul like Mel Powell would want to leave jazz for racial reasons alone.
It’s easy to group Mel Powell with Hall Overton and Gunther Schuller. All three were noted modernist mid-century composers who had genuine practical experience with jazz.
Hall Overton, February 23, 1920 – November 24, 1972. In jazz: Thelonious Monk’s arranger of choice and a low-key bop pianist influenced by Horace Silver. Beloved teacher of circa-1960 jazz and classical scene, partly thanks to the loft he inhabited with photographer W. Eugene Smith, a meeting point for many of the era’s best and brightest.
Mel Powell, February 12, 1923 – April 24, 1998. In jazz: Benny Goodman’s “prodigy” pianist.
Gunther Schuller, November 22, 1925 – June 21, 2015. In jazz: Schuller never took an improvised solo on record, but he was the french hornist on many swinging sessions including Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool. (It must also be said that Schuller was the principal french hornist of the Cincinnati Symphony at age 17 before moving on to be the principal of the Metropolitan Opera from 1945-59.) Schuller was also an important jazz critic, producing two standard reference works, Early Jazz and The Swing Era, and argued fiercely for the serious intellectual consideration of Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman.
What about their contribution to the library of formally notated music?
Overton: The Viola Sonata is Overton’s best conventional piece, a major addition to the viola repertoire, beautiful in a mildly austere mid-century way. At that time, and certainly to his credit, Overton declared, “I am opposed to the practice of trying to make jazz respectable through the unnatural imposition of classical forms or materials.”
However, Overton did eventually embrace something rhythmic and chaotic from jazz in two 60’s orchestral pieces, and those works ended up being his most memorable music. Sonorities is a wonderful pocket “concerto” for legendary jazz/avant bassist Richard Davis, and Pulsations is a hilarious survey of free jazz and dedicated to Thelonious Monk.
Powell: As stated above, the Neo-Classical Divertimento for Five Winds, the Sonatina for Piano, and the Recitative and Toccata Percossa are Powell’s best pieces, at least for my taste, although devoted fans of high modernism might prefer his later work.
In 1954, two Powell bass-less trio sessions with Bobby Donaldson and either Paul Quinchette or Ruby Braff included the mildly experimental and small scale original Powell pieces “Borderline,” “Quin and Sonic,” “Bouquet” and “Thingamajig.”
The previous year, Hall Overton tracked four Overton compositions in a bass-less trio with Teddy Charles and Ed Shaughnessy, “Mobiles,” “Antiphony,” “Metalizing,” and “Decibels.”
Comparing these two contemporaneous sessions is instructive. Even the moderately goofy titles are next door to each other.
As a pianist, Powell can simply play Overton under the table. Yet the Charles/Overton/ Shaughnessy date is a discrete weird object, and in its own way quite lovable: The young modern jazz boys are being “out” together. Aw, isn’t that cute!
The Powell trios are better music, but they are also are slightly schizophrenic, with tiny bits of modernism dropped into what was essentially the Benny Goodman trio concept. The written material of “Bouquet,” transcribed by Guillaume Hazebrouk above, is mysterious and charismatic — but this mood is abruptly dropped for improvisations in a swinging style. (The chord progression for blowing seems to be original, but the general harmonic style is reminiscent of what Braff and Powell would play on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.”)
In conversation, James Newton pointed out to me how extraordinarily rare it was for a composer to not want to blend things together.
When they were colleagues together at Cal Arts, Mel Powell told James Newton about how Igor Stravinsky went to jazz great Conte Candoli for false fingerings when composing the trumpet part to Stravinky’s Agon. This kind of appropriation is the generative spark of all innovation. Mel Powell was certainly a genius, and apparently part of his genius was dedicated to keeping genres apart.
It worked for Mel…and yet, I’m still wondering what might have happened had Powell rolled up his sleeves and dared to compose a notated piece with a guest improviser in mind, the way Overton created Sonorities for Richard Davis.
Schuller: The Overton works list is short, Powell’s is a bit longer, but Schuller was wildly prolific.
Of the Schuller I’ve heard, the early Symphony for Brass and Percussion is a masterpiece, stylistically somewhere between Shostakovich and Berg, yet also infused with an American rhythmic accent. For a time Schuller was devoted to Babbitt-esque serialism, but (unlike Mel Powell) he eventually moved on to music with clearly defined melodies and pulse, crediting in part a “magic row” that gave his dodecaphony a tonal cast. The Sextet for Bassoon, String Quartet and Piano and the String Quartet No. 3 stand out as two beautiful and accessible pieces from Schuller’s later years.
Schuller was unafraid of mashing up jazz together with classical music, and even coined a famous term for the process, Third Stream. Schuller’s own Third Stream pieces include Abstractions, Concertino for Quartet and Orchestra, Transformation, and Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk. None of these is successful: Schuller needed to think about what Overton meant when Overton said, “I am opposed to the practice of trying to make jazz respectable through the unnatural imposition of classical forms or materials.”
At least two conventional Schuller orchestral pieces have a taste of “swinging” bass and drums. Contours is a hell of a piece; I listened to that with the composer himself, while Seven Studies on Themes by Paul Klee is one of Schuller’s most familiar works. It’s good music, but apparently Schuller thought he could write some 12/8 for a bassist and drummer reading a part in an orchestra with the expectation that it would actually lay right. Most authentic jazz doesn’t work that way. The players need to put more of themselves into the final product for the music to swing.
In the final analysis, Schuller was over-confident about how easily he could appropriate jazz for his own purposes. A similar misplaced sense of security mars many heavy-handed and olympian pages of Early Jazz and The Swing Era. When confronted with all of this Schullerian bombast, Mel Powell’s reticence concerning jazz is starting to look like the smart choice.
Still. Gunther Schuller was there, and we were lucky to have him. Likewise with Hall Overton and Mel Powell. Whatever formal composition is in America, Schuller, Overton, and Powell deserve special consideration, simply because they are also visible in the history of jazz.
Thanks to Mark Stryker, Will Robin, David Lopato, Matthew Guerrieri, Neal Kurz, Lewis Porter, Terry Teachout, Bill Kirchner, James Newton, Alvin Singleton and Alex Ross for help with this post. Very special thanks to Loren Schoenberg. Very extra special thanks to Mahan Esfahani for the inspiration — and also for playing the Recitative and Toccata Percossa so great on the NPR Tiny Desk concert!