Jazz by Classical Musician


As I asked the master himself: Why didn’t W.A. Mozart play Jazz? I understand that Jazz was created by black folk down south but still, didn’t Beethoven play a 12-bar blues every now and then? Is Jazz that abstract that it wasn’t possible to think of it given the level teaching back then? Or was it a lack of reefer and smoky juke joints?

Many thanks,

Don’t know about Mozart, but Baroque music was rather jazz-like in the playing. Trumpet parts were often improvised. Prior to the invention of notation, music was played from memory and improvisation was inevitable.

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Well, Mozart wasn’t all that much of an innovator (at least in my limited understanding). He just did the music of his time better than anyone else. That said, he was certainly capable of improvisation. Beethoven (or Haydn) was certainly more innovative. Perhaps what he was creating was the jazz of his time? And then you get twentieth-century “classical” musicians, who were exposed to and influenced by jazz. Satie comes to mind. I don’t hear any jazz influence in Stravinsky’s music, but maybe it’s there.

The level of teaching wouldn’t have had anything to do with Mozart or Beethoven not playing jazz – they were certainly taught at least as well as, say, a graduate of Julliard today. They had a thorough knowledge of theory, could sight-read perfectly, and could pretty much write an entire score straight from their imagination.

As you point out, jazz comes out of a folk tradition – African music imported by slaves, then blended with the music they would have heard in the new world. Classical musicians, then and now, are working in a different stream of music. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

Improvisation is only one of the elements of jazz. Others include syncopation and swing. Some people insist that a blues feeling is also an essential element. There are other performance practices that contribute to jazz, such as polyrhythms. I don’t think, though, that it’s possible to completely define jazz in a reductionist way, nor is it necessary to understand all the elements to recognize jazz.

Also, twelve-bar blues and jazz are two different things. It’s not that blues can’t be jazz - a lot of jazz is in blues form. It’s that blues and jazz are different types of categories. Blues is a form - a blues piece can be written out and recognized as blues by someone who reads music. Jazz is a performance style (or set of performance styles) - a way of playing a piece of music. A lot of blues performers don’t play in a jazzy style at all. For example, I wouldn’t classify Robert Johnson’s recordings as jazz.

As for why Mozart et al. didn’t play jazz - it hadn’t been invented yet. Jazz isn’t so simple that even a great musician would start producing it by accident. Jazz was developed by many people over a period of time, and its elements came from the environment of its birth. The great classical composers weren’t living in that environment.

As for the blues: it uses a scale that wasn’t used in Mozart’s time. I suppose Mozart (or one of his contemporaries) could have invented it, but it’s different enough from the scales they were using that it would probably have sounded “wrong” to them (and more importantly, to their audiences and patrons).

Play jazz? Beethoven invented it. (Ragtime, at least.)


This is quite important. It can be helpful to view music history as a gradual acceptance of greater and greater dissonance. One of jazz’s main features is that it uses chords that would be thought of as dissonant in other musical forms. Sure, a classical piece might have a Dmaj7 in it, but it was on it’s way to a more consonant chord. In jazz, Dmaj7 is considered a consonant chord. Most other chords are much more dissonant.

I’ve heard it said that, if you went back to the days of monastic chants, adding a third to the music would sound very dissonant to the chanters’ ears. On the contrary, adding a third today is what we tend to consider the most basic way of harmonizing. It’s what people pretty much think of when they think of a song with a single harmony part.

It would not surprise me, though, to see a 12-bar chord pattern in older music. You can do it all with classical chords. The biggest obstacle here is how the pattern is very simple and repetitive, and does not follow the circle of fifths. It is also all major chords. These sorts of things were not how music was conceived back then. In other words, most classical composers would find the basic 12-bar pattern boring, and would lack the knowledge and tolerance of dissonance to “jazz” it up.

IME, classical musicians have a hell of a time playing jazz. Their training, experience and aim is to play very, very precisely, even with individual nuance and feeling. Jazz is the other end of the scale, to be played with variations every time as the individual and group spirit moves things. Jazz players can more easily tighten up and play ‘rigid’ works than classically-trained players can step outside their training and play jazz.

For all the jazzy bits in Mozart, Beethoven etc. - those bits are never played jazz-style. They’re played as meticulously as all other formal music.

(I am not a musician, but I am a keen appreciado… and the only non-musician in a very talented house of them. Mrs. B. is a conservatory-trained concert pianist and mother nature chose to pass her relevant genes forward and not my unmusical ones.)

Hello? Ebony Concerto? That little number he wrote for Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd?

This is true in general, but the very good classical pianists I find tend to be pretty decent improvisors, as well. Maybe not jazz-style improv, but improv within the genre (after all, cadenzas were meant to be improvisatory sections.) I’m not sure why classical music, or at least classical teaching methods, moved away from improvisation, when it used to be a fairly important skill in classical music, especially if you go back to the Baroque era.

As for “Why didn’t Mozart play jazz” it’s a bit like that scene from Back to the Future where Marty plays “Johnny B. Goode” and goes into that metal-esque lead guitar solo, complete with fret tapping and fast scale runs outside the music key, etc., and the band stops playing and the crowd just stares at him completely nonplussed. The musical vocabulary for that music hadn’t been invented yet, or hadn’t become established. A 12-bar blues based on dominant 7th chords on the I,IV, and V, would have been very odd harmonically in Mozart’s time, especially that tonic dominant (I7). Plus the pentatonic minor scale with a flatted fifth/sharp four wouldn’t have really been in their melodic arsenal, either. I mean, I can sit down and improvise 12-bar blues all day long, but that’s because I know what it’s supposed to sound like and I have decades of being surrounded by it, so I know how melodies/phrases resolve, what melodic patterns (licks) I can throw in to fill the spaces, etc. Mozart would not have any of that. Similarly, I have no idea what music will sound like 200 years from now. How would I be able to play it now?

One word for you (and this works better if you hear it in Anna Russell’s voice): Cadenza!

But apart from that, the answer that “Jazz wasn’t invented back then” is the primary one. They had improvisation, they had “chromatically interesting” music (check out Gesualdo sometime - writing chords in the late 16th century you don’t hear again until the 20th), they had all sorts of stuff that jazz uses. They just didn’t put it together in that particular way until the 1900s.

Cadenzas were originally opportunities for the performer to improvise and play around, but nowadays they’re typically as polished and pre-planned as the rest of the concerto. Still, a cadenza would be an opportunity to inject some jazz into an otherwise strictly classical piece. I have a recording of Haydn’s cello concertos that include delightfully inappropriate cadenzas.

I realize this is just a generalization, but I’ve seen exceptions at both ends of the spectrum. I’ve met plenty of classically-trained musicians who play jazz very fluently; one notable example is John Williams (yes, the Star Wars guy) who was also known as a very capable jazz pianist early in his career. Howard Shore, the composer of those big Wagnerian scores for the Lord of the Rings films, was the original bandleader on Saturday Night Live in the 70s.

Jazz musicians can play in what they call “legit” style, but occasionally I can spot them from a mile off. They either overcompensate and play in a foursquare, almost robotic style, or they allow little jazz inflections to creep into their performances.

I can’t dispute your premise too vigorously, however, because I’m one of those classical musicians who just can’t do jazz.

Sideline question, was the major 7th chord considered dissonant in Mozart’s time? When did it become consonant?

Meant as nothing but.

I have contrary evidence right at home - while Mrs. B. is almost completely unable to loosen her classical training, Junior B. can go from Chopin on the piano to Sousa on the tuba to Bird on the trombone with ease.* He can play with great control and precision, and riff around just as easily. (He was noodling on the piano as soon as he could reach it… and I’ve heard very few 2yos I *wanted *to keep playing…) I guess it’s a matter of preference, ability and above all breadth of training.
*He’s working on some killer bass work on his Xmas gift, as well.

I wonder if it has to do with exposure/training during the more formative years. if I’m not mistaken, people who grow up around ‘odd’ time signatures have it easier than people who grow up in a 3/4-4/4 world.

Most jazz doesn’t use odd time signatures. What distinguishes it rhythmically is swing, which can be applied to any time signature.

Well sure, that was an analogy. I was suggesting that someone who does only classical from, say, 7-20y/o may have more trouble getting into a jazz feel than someone whose exposed to jazz even if the focus on classical.

Wynton Marsalis and Keith Jarrett are two more that have had success on both sides of the musical spectrum. Jarrett’s recording of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues is sublime.

I’d add Andre Previn to that list, although he’s not very active these days. Back in the 60’s he was doing both genres with gusto.

A lot depends on how rigidly one defines “jazz” and “classical.” There were some efforts in “Third Stream Music” that attempted to blur the lines. Not overly successfully, but at least a try.