Since the appearance of jazz in the early 20th century, jazz and classical have mostly lived on opposite sides of town, separated by tracks that most listeners won’t cross.
This has long remained the case despite the efforts of a few classical composers like Ravel and Stravinsky, who were curious enough about jazz to incorporate its energy into their compositions. American composer and educator Gunther Schuller tried in the 1950s to change this, urging classical and jazz not to remain in separate camps and vilify each other but to combine into what he called “Third Stream” music. His complex definition of that didn’t catch on, but the spirit of that idea endures.
Today, classical and jazz musicians with rich knowledge of many genres are unafraid to integrate them into entertaining hybrids, like local pianist and Steinway Artist Jim Martinez.
Martinez began his musical studies with classical. Later, jazz became his focus and in his career has created jazz versions of both church hymns and classical compositions.
“I love when a melody, from any genre, is melodic...especially if it’s catchy,” Martinez told CapRadio. “...Classical composers already did the work. Every jazzer can...create fun ideas that will hopefully dazzle the listener and have energy.”
Over the decades, there have been countless jazz interpretations of classical music. These range from simple appropriations of a classical melody to richly textured adaptations of entire compositions sounding more like what Schuller described as “Third Stream.” Let’s have a look at some.
The Many Jazz Lives of Chopin’s Prelude in E-Minor
One of the most performed pieces of classical music for solo piano is Frederic Chopin’s Prelude in e-minor. Here it is as Chopin wrote it:
The Prelude in e-minor has been popularly interpreted by many jazz musicians, including Dutch jazz pianist Peter Beets and his trio. Here’s their take on Chopin’s Prelude, which they energized and gave an uptempo, Brazilian feel:
Perhaps Beets got the idea for his Brazilian take on Chopin from jazz artist Antonio Carlos Jobim, who more loosely based his song “Insensatez (How Insensitive)” on the Chopin Prelude:
In 2012, jazz singer Tessa Souter released an album titled “Beyond the Blue” which features her own recompositions of classical music into new jazz ballads.
The album’s title track is yet another take on the Chopin Prelude discussed above. But she also wrote new songs to themes by Ravel, Borodin, Debussy, Rodrigo, Brahms and more. She based her song “Prelude to the Sun” on this movement from a Beethoven symphony:
And here is Souter’s song based on it:
“Kismet” Musical Pays Tribute to Composer Alexander Borodin
In 1954, 19th century Russian composer Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) won a Tony Award for the Broadway musical “Kismet,” for songs in the production based on his music. For example, the show’s song “Stranger in Paradise” comes from Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” from his 1890 opera “Prince Igor.”
“Stranger in Paradise” has been recorded by Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and countless others. Here’s jazz saxophonist Tina Brooks playing it on his 1961 recording that (eventually, in 2002) was released as the album “The Waiting Game”:
Also from “Kismet,” the song “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” derives from the second theme of the second movement of Borodin’s String Quartet in D (heard starting at 0:23 seconds below):
Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Lena Horne are just some of the greats who have recorded “Baubles,” and it’s a favorite of instrumental jazz musicians to this day. Here are flutists Herbie Mann and Buddy Collette with their take from the 1957 album “Flute Fraternity,” released just a few years after “Kismet” won the Tony Award.
Another Favorite: Gabriel Faure’s “Pavane”
Gabriel Faure’s “Pavane” is another popular favorite for jazz musicians. Here’s Faure’s original:
Evolving musical traditions and even sociological factors affect the sound of music over time. Here is Faure’s “Pavane” in an arrangement as jazz sounded in 1970:
A further demonstration of musical evolution and different traditions is heard here in violinist Regina Carter’s 2002 take on Faure’s “Pavane”:
While studying under Faure at the Paris Conservatory, Maurice Ravel composed “Pavane for a Dead Princess (Pavane pour une infante défunte)” in 1899 for solo piano. Ravel orchestrated it in 1910, and then others adapted it into the jazz standard “The Lamp is Low” in the 1930s.
Here is Ravel’s original version for solo piano:
And pianist Steve Kuhn and his trio performing a jazz version of it:
And how Ravel’s “Pavane” was changed into “The Lamp Is Low:”
“Vocalise” In Classical & Beyond
Have a listen to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s familiar and beautiful “Vocalise”:
Don Sebesky, who has arranged for countless jazz musicians, pop singers, symphony orchestras and Broadway productions, arranged multiple classical tunes with a jazz spin for his 1973 album “Giant Box.” Here’s his take on Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise”:
Gil Evans, A Master of the Crossover
Perhaps the most notable arranger of classical-jazz crossovers was Gil Evans (1912-1988). His work was so complex and unique that jazz musicians in the late 1940s looking for a new sound sought him out specifically.
Influenced by classical music’s orchestral sound, Evans arranged tunes for Miles Davis on recordings that would become “Birth of the Cool,” a seminal album in the post-bop evolution into “cool jazz” (Gunther Schuller played French horn on these recordings).
Miles would enlist Evans for three more albums including “Sketches of Spain” in 1960. For that, Evans arranged 20th century classical music by Spanish composers, most notably the adagio movement from Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez…”
… which Evans arranged into the now classic Miles Davis take.
Classical “Alla Turca”
Mozart borrowed Turkish themes for the “alla turca” movement of his Piano Sonata #11:
American pianist and composer Uri Caine creates inventive modern jazz takes on classical music, including works by Mahler and Mozart. More than simply borrowing a melody, Caine’s adaptations are rich and complex, more like what Gunther Schuller described as “Third Stream.”
Here is his ensemble of contemporary jazz musicians with their take on Mozart’s “alla turca”:
There are countless additional examples of classical and jazz hybrids. Rock musicians have also borrowed melodies from classical music or "re-orchestrated" entire works in that genre's harder style. Because whether jazz or rock or anything else, all these musicians know and love classical music and want to pay tribute to it in their own voice to create music that, as pianist Jim Martinez said, "will hopefully dazzle the listener."
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