Can a Symphony really Swing?

Short answer? Not this one. But after listening to the U.S. premiere of the “Swing Symphony” on WQXR live from Lincoln Center, I feel like I learned something about the man behind the work, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

I tuned in with morbid curiosity, not sure quite what to expect. On one hand, it seems to me that Wynton is a classical musician at heart, and has always shone brightest in a classical setting. But the idea of jazz being brought to the premiere of the New York Philharmonic season … well, it just feels a little funny.

Being the conservative jazz stylist that he is, Wynton’s composition stuck closely to stereotypes and older sounds. His trombones slide around, his saxes sound like they’ve been lifted from a film noir score, and the strings were usually used as textural pads behind more wind-oriented melodic statements. He throws in a few novelty jokes, such as an exposed contrabassoon fart noise which would have made Buddy Bolden (author of such notable compositions as “Funky Butt”) proud.

The piece was generally un-adventuresome from a harmonic standpoint as well, and his attempt at jazz-like polyrhythm usually felt contrived, relying too heavily on obvious 3-over-2 cross-rhythms. The winds, augmented by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, have a pretty solid swing feel. Ironically, it was the percussion section that sounded the most stilted.

The symphony’s narrative follows a pretty obvious linear path through Wynton’s narrow, linear jazz canon. Like the Ken Burns movie he advised, it follows New Orleans sounds northward and into the Swing Era (even featuring an extended riff on the famous Gene Krupa tom-tom riff from “Sing Sing Sing” and a baritone sax solo blatantly derivative of Harry Carney,) through bebop (the strings, it turns out, can’t play bop lines. Are you surprised?) into a Latin section (my favorite part — the orchestra should program a full concert of mambos!) through a movement reminiscent of mid-century film scores, and ending with a noble, somber attempt at divine elevation. The titles of the movements, “St Louis To New Orleans,” “All-American Pep,” “Midwesteern Moods,” “Manhattan to LA” and “Up On High” tell a similar story. Ironically, the compositional model to which Marsalis adheres most readily is that of Paul Whiteman’s composer/arranger, Ferde Grofe. I have a feeling that’s not intentional, but the similarities are striking.

Wynton is, however, unceremoniously imitating Duke Ellington; as I did after Wynton’s undeserved Pulitzer for Blood on the Fields, I feel the weight of the tragedy that Ellington never had access to the cultural resources like the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center to play his pieces — it would have been so much better than Wynton’s attempt to duplicate what might have been.

The stuff that’s just JLCO sounds way nicer than the full orchestration. It’s really disappointing to hear how square and conventional this all sounds — what a waste of a potentially awesome palette. What would Bob Brookmeyer have done with something like this?

It really began to drag on by the end, but just as the last movement lulled me into losing focus and looking for Toshiko Akiyoshi records on Amazon.com, they brought things to a close with a bombastic final chord, over which Wynton got the last word with a short cadenza. That was a brilliant compositional touch, because everyone knows this is Wynton’s show, and it really does give his star an opportunity to really shine. His final statement was not mind-blowing from a melodic or virtuosic standpoint, but it was musically whole, and unlike much of the piece, felt genuine and personal, as if he was saying, “don’t forget about all of the black musicians — Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, the list goes on — who never had this chance.”

At that moment, I felt like I understood Wynton’s point of view. A black man for whom classical music touched his soul at an early age, he finally had the chance to stand at center stage, backed by the New York Philharmonic and on the shoulders of his jazz musician forefathers, to declare (not with triumph, but melancholy) that their music could no longer be ignored by the cultural elite who come to hear the performance of great art.

The final result is a complicated one — I will say that the orchestra probably sounded better on the rest of the program (Hindemith, Strauss) but am glad that I listened. I’m also glad that Wynton’s piece was programmed. Still, I hope that the next major commission by a jazz composer for orchestra manages to be a little bit more adventuresome.

About arodjazz

Writer, trombonist, and PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology exploring the complexity of today's jazz world
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6 Responses to Can a Symphony really Swing?

  1. paul says:

    Alex, I can’t say I don’t agree with most of your observations, however, does this piece change in the hands of another baton and perhaps change our perspective. What about Alan Giberts’ role in the interpretation; Wynton is in a chair playing his part. That being said thanks for sharing your knowledge and insights.

    • arodjazz says:

      Hi Paul,
      Thanks for pointing out that omission — I am of the opinion that a different conductor wouldn’t have made much of a difference. I see Gilbert’s role in this as similar to Burns’s role in the “Jazz” documentary: he followed Wynton’s advice to the letter, acting more as a rudder than an engine of the work’s overall narrative. But that’s just from a casual listen on the radio …

  2. Austin says:

    Great piece Alex. It’s a shame Wynton is the polarizing figure that he is, representing so many different things to different people, but I guess that’s jazz

  3. Jamie says:

    I think the problem for Wynton is there is no strong history for jazz/classical pieces to pull from. I would suggest to him to start smaller, maybe strings and a horn section or drums and strings anything but a full orchestra. Mingus has some interesting integrations of the classical sound and jazz but his combos are very organically developed. Or Chris Potter’s CD Song for Anyone has Chris with strings and woodwind. There is a real reason for the strings to be there with Mingus and Chris. That said if you have ever been up to Lincoln Center Jazz you have to hand to Wynton no one else could have made that happen. And is trumpet solo in his piece was out of sight.

  4. Pingback: Winter JazzFest and the White Jazz Narrative « Lubricity

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