Why Charles Ives and the Jazz Orchestra?

By Jack Cooper

This is a the first in a series articles about the music of Charles Ives arranged for a Jazz Orchestra and my thoughts on classical and jazz musical composition.  Some other things will gets mixed in there too (bear with me…I do have opinions).  Some of this ‘frame work’ I have for you is taken from a dissertation I wrote in 1998/99.  I have edited and updated a lot of this to give more current thoughts since a successful commercial recording now exists and there is a great deal of composition has come from me since that time more than 17 years ago.    First let me get into the jazz concept of why in the world I take on doing big band charts based on Charles Ives music.

Many have thought of the jazz orchestra as a vehicle more associated with popular music than as a viable medium for art music.   Most of the music written for the jazz orchestra during the past eighty to ninety years draws on familiar American popular song forms such as twelve-measure blues and song forms (32 measure AABA or ABAC).   Jazz was first associated with dancing during the swing era of the late 1920s and 30s.   Such music also tends to rely on the use of standardized harmonies, chord progressions, and melodies that are derived almost totally from American jazz, folk, and popular music genres.

Considering the conservatism of the jazz orchestra idiom, I find it is easy to observe the compositional “inbreeding” that has occupied composers of this genre. My own frustration as a composer has been to find my own voice in a jazz world clogged with a mainstream log jam of sameness.   This situation has led me to the following conclusions.     Whether it be an original composition or an arrangement, my compositional voice had been greatly derived from many well-established jazz and popular artists.   Though my background as a musician is certainly grounded in both classical music and jazz, I probably let certain fears get in the way of moving in a different direction.

There are a few modern jazz composers, such as Jim McNeely and Bob Brookmeyer, who realized through jazz the compositional techniques of twentieth-century composers like Bela Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, et al.   Primarily what McNeely and Brookmeyer observed in these composers were the harmonic innovations as well as the spontaneity and freedom of approach to traditional form.   Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” which had shattered classical notions of form, served as a particular example for both McNeely and Brookmeyer.

Both McNeely and Brookmeyer realized that many breakthroughs had already been accomplished in jazz due to innovative uses of harmony, melody, and improvisation, but they also noticed that little attention had been paid to new ideas relating to form.   One specific idea Brookmeyer and McNeely have tapped into is to avoid recapitulating the main statement of the piece at the end–in other words, to write in a “through composed” design.   Examples of this are Brookmeyer’s “American Express” and McNeely’s “Off The Cuff.”

Jazz composers have primarily used source material from American popular song composers such as George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, or Jerome Kern.
The focus for these composers from the first part of the twentieth century was on short, Tin Pan Alley vocal songs designed for movies, stage shows and musical reviews.   Following this trend, I began to think ‘What if shorter, classical “lead sheet” songs (lieder) could be used as direct source material for jazz composition?   Furthermore, I wondered if there could be more melodically and harmonically daring music written that reflects the language of present-day jazz?’

There exist two good examples of what I wanted to accomplish.   In the mid-1970s Gary Anderson adapted Gabriel Faure’s “Pavane” for the Woody Herman Orchestra, and Don Sebesky produced an adaptation of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” to feature trumpeter John Faddis with jazz orchestra.   These provided good examples of how to adapt Western art-music to the jazz idiom.   I found that both Anderson and Sebesky had selected adaptable material that had good, interesting melodic lines.   Both arrangers had also recognized that the harmonies were interesting and functioned well within the overall harmonic rhythm of the piece.   Still, I needed to find a composer’s songs that could best suit the project I wanted to undertake.

Instead of using Faure’s and Stravinsky’s works, I was determined to try and use a native American composer’s music.   In addition, I wanted to utilize vocal pieces that might be considered comparable in the art-music genre to the American standard popular song.   I found that Charles Ives’s work seem to function better as source material for these purposes as opposed to other American art-music composers.

In comparison, both Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland are American composers who have produced a large collection of songs.   Both composers had studied the European Western art song tradition of vocal writing with Nadia Boulanger.   For me, neither of these composers’ works had the appeal of Ives’s vocal compositions.   The most prominent characteristic of Barber’s and Copland’s works is the angular and squared off quality of the phrases and harmonic cadences.   The vocal pieces of both composers are much more “complete” as works unto themselves and therefore are much less inviting in terms of adaptation or rearrangement.   Their work features melodies which resolve as expected with standard harmonic cadences.   Both Barber’s and Copland’s vocal writings are inspired by the tradition of Schubert or Brahms in that each piece a complete package that is not especially flexible for refitting into the jazz idiom.   This tradition of song writing tends to present each melody as a finished entity.

Ives own flexible and open-minded attitude towards music composition and the arts stemmed from a family tradition of Transcendentalism. Though Ives did secure a solid traditional, technical musical foundation from composer Horatio Parker at Yale, his commitment to creating an independent musical voice became the prevailing element in Ives’s compositions.

I first heard Charles Ives’s vocal piece “The Cage” in the early 1980’s (many of his works I had heard growing up around my mom in the 1960s/70s, she was fine pianist).   But, in 1995, I listened to Ives’s music with vastly different ears.   There was something there that immediately unlocked compositional doors that I had been trying to open.   Ives provided a new perspective on how I composed for the jazz orchestra.   Based on the analysis provided by Antokoletz his book “Twentieth Century Music” Prentice Hall), I started to analyze “The Cage” at the keyboard.   I also examined a number of Ives’s other vocal pieces.   Ives’s vocal pieces contain curious examples of asymmetric phrases, polytonal harmonies, and what seem to be incomplete melodies.   The pieces seem at times to be written in fragments, which appear almost “through composed.”   This was the type of material I needed.

Examples of the choices I made while creating adaptations based on Ives’s work were inspired by a wide variety of music in my background.   For instance, in the midst of writing the second of my Ives adaptations the idea came to mind of a certain type of electric guitar sound, much like that used by Carlos Santana.   In contrast, I wanted that sound to fit into a section of music that I imagined to be much like a segment of Ottorino Respighi’s “The Pines Of Rome.”   In addition to Charles Ives’s music, many other compositional influences were involved in order to produce my adaptations.   Other prominent influences include the music of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Alban Berg, Heinz Werner-Henze, George Russell, Gil Evans, and Duke Ellington.

I will have more for you one some of the stages of the compositional process that resulted in my adaptations of Charles Ives’s “Tom Sails Away,” “The Last Reader,” and “The Cage.”   Those will give you a very good overview of the way the commercial CD eventually came together as a set of 8 works for the Planet Arts release.  You can email me or ask questions also.   ​

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