88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

George Gershwin‘s synthesis of jazz styles and concert music in the 1920s presented the best of the American spirit in a new light, and established a fine example for large ensemble and orchestral jazz for years to come. Gershwin was interested in all aspects of music, studied formally in Europe, and explored the avant-garde as a pupil of Henry Cowell and the experimental theorist Joseph Schillinger. All of his music is filled with character and an affirmation of the human spirit, even when the scene is a bit blue; his exuberant moods are direct, neither overwrought nor restrained.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) challenges the performers ability to “swing,” and to contrast and balance the intimate blues sections, the steady strumming passages, the out-front modernist rhythms, and the sweeping romantic melodies. Many of the themes for this piece were taken from the composer’s tragic 1922 opera Blue Monday.

The Eight Preludes for piano solo are miraculous miniatures—and miniature miracles. Preludes I and III (both 1927) use exuberant Spanish bass rhythms in the New Orleans style; Prelude II (“Blue Lullaby”) obsesses on the 7th step of the so-called blues scale (mixolydian mode with alternate third steps), while the steady bass searches for the neutral (blues) third that can only be approximated on the keyboard; the overall mood is doleful yet comforting, and the contrasting middle section is slightly more upbeat with the steady banjo-inspired “strumming” of 1920s ensembles like the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band.

The Prelude “Fragment” (1925) in G minor is a rhythmic study that was incorporated into the 3rd movement of the Concerto in F (1927). The Prelude (“Sleepless Night”) is a 1946 version by Kay Swift of the Prelude (Melody No. 17) (1925-1926) which, like the “Blue Lullaby,” has a riff that is repeated and slightly varied—this use of a pattern restricted to a small pitch range suggests the influence of Bessie Smith who would linger soulfully over three or four pitches in a song and create exquisite tension by singing “through” any chord changes and not adapt to them: she would sing a blues third or seventh or sixth step against the IV and V chords. “Novellette in Fourths” (circa 1919) uses an “Asian” harmonization that was also used by Earl Hines. The melody of “Rubato” (1923) has wide interval leaps, a chromatically rising bass in tenths and unusual harmonies that create a sophisticated, sultry and wistful atmosphere.

Gershwin’s Concerto in F (1927) contrasts an energetic yet structurally formal study in angular rhythms in the first movement, an elegantly singing blues in the second, and a propulsive jazz scherzo in the last. The “I Got Rhythm” Variations (1930) for piano and orchestra are built on rhythmic shifts, pitch interval stretches, floating fourths like those in the Prelude “Novellette”, and stark, bright modern chords built in fifths.

Like Gershwin, Aaron Copland also composed music that was overtly American in subject and sound. Gershwin’s Preludes and Aaron Copland’s Four Piano Blues (1926-1948), the first of which was written contemporaneously with Gershwin’s Preludes, are both based on so-called “city blues,” and reveal these composers’ different take on the same influence. Aaron Copland’s curious pieces utilize a single small pattern each, unlike Gershwin’s Preludes which exhibit longer melodies— Gershwin is more of a romantic than the stark Copland. Blues #4 (1926), played “with bounce”, is the most “minimal” yet most extroverted of the set. Copland begins the piece in a kind of bitonality with the right hand playing chords based on the blues tones—in the key of E-flat—of the left hand’s simple progression in C. As the upper line gradually descends, the bitonality almost disappears. The rich modality gives this short song a warm, jazzy feel. Blues #2 (1934) again uses the right hand in high harmonies to imply another bitonality, but here the sound is more pointed, juxtaposed with a flowing melody. Blues #1 (1947) is marked “freely poetic,” with a strikingly modern sparse texture that sets the stage for momentary melodic statements and Thelonious Monk-like suggestions of chords. Blues #3 (1948) is the most Gershwin-like in its rich, intimate harmonies, yet Copland still gives little shocks to the ear by rapidly changing modes. Throughout all these pieces runs the composer’s unfailing sense of rhythmic variety and counterbalance.

One of America’s most prolific and influential composers, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington created hundreds of songs, many instrumental fantasies, rhapsodies and suites, the inspired Sacred Concerts, film scores, Broadway shows, and dance music. His harmonic sense is innovative in its use of chromatic root progressions and the delicate handling of inner voices, layered in with bitonality, altered chords, unusual progressions and chord voicings, unresolved dissonances, and a whole host of other things. Ellington was influenced by Gershwin‘s “sound” in the early 1930s but soon introduced more improvisation into his own work. Much of Ellington’s output exists in piano arrangements, while Ellington’s own pianism can also be heard on recordings. Among these are his legendary duet recordings with pianist/composer Billy Strayhorn (“Tonk,” 1940, and other pieces), his solo recordings of 1932, 1941 and 1967 (heard on the Bluebird label’s Solos, Duets, and Trios), and his work with a trio on the Capitol Records release Piano Reflections which contains sessions conducted from April through December, 1953.

But it is his recording of “Clothed Woman” (Dec. 30, 1947) that deserves special attention, as it reflects the pointillistic style that was only to occur later in free jazz, then prevalent in European serialist music. Re-issued on New World RecordsMirage: Avant-Garde and Third Stream Jazz, the opening and closing statements of this short work are in open time (with no real pulse or rhythmic impulse), and are made from chord forms abstracted from Ellington’s punctuation accompaniment style. Avoiding the usual idea of a bridge, the mid-section places seemingly random gestures over a chromatic boogie-bass figure that serves as a non-modulating nervous drone suspended in time.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, serialist techniques were employed by several jazz composer-performers: in the lyrical “T. T. T.” (Twelve-Tone Tune) by pianist Bill Evans; in John Coltrane‘s “Miles Mode” (a.k.a. “The Red Planet.” Like many of Coltrane’s compositions, especially “Giant Steps,” this piece is highly symmetrical, and employs a retrograde version to balance the opening original row); in saxophonist Don Heckman’s complex “The Twelves” (1962). Various types of dodecaphony appeared in Gunther Schuller‘s Abstraction, Don Bank’s Equation Part I, Buddy De Franco‘s “12-Tone Blues,” Jimmy Giuffre‘s Densities I, Harold Farberman‘s …Then Silence, Lalo Schifrin‘s The Ritual of Sound, and Bill Smith‘s “Elegy for Eric.” Earlier amalgamations of 12-tone technique and jazz were Mátyás Seiber‘s Jazzolette (1932) and Ernst Krenek‘s operetta Jonny Spielt Auf (Johnny Strikes Up The Band) (1925-1926).

Besides twelve-tone and fugal techniques (for example, as adopted by The Modern Jazz Quartet), jazz performers also enjoyed “jazzing the classics”, as in Ellington’s variation on Liszt‘s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 called “Ebony Rhapsody” (1934), the Benny Goodman Band’s version of Mendelssohn‘s “Spring Song,” and the elegant interpretations of Dvorak‘s Humoresque and Massenet‘s …légie by the celebrated pianist Art Tatum.

An extraordinary blind pianist like Bethune and Boone, Art Tatum possessed a flawless and astonishing technique admired by the likes of Horowitz, Rubinstein, Gieseking, Oscar Levant, Godowsky, Rachmaninoff, and Gershwin. After performing four or five shows at the RKO Palace in Cleveland, he would top off the night in a small club called Val’s In The Alley where he would play a battered upright until morning. Tatum would play standard tunes, and even throw in classics, treating them all as material on which to improvise: he once played a non-stop hour of improvisations on Bach motifs for a woman who asked him if he knew any of that Baroque master’s works.

Like Bethune, Tatum would sometimes play several tunes simultaneously while weaving a startling display of pyrotechnics, and, like Ives or the later Bebop artists, he would occasionally throw in a brief musical quotation as a message or comment—or just for fun! But Tatum was more like a spontaneous composer, and a master of substitute and complex harmonies, as well as unique, sudden modulations. He played gracefully, with a refined melodic sensibility (influenced by Earl Hines), and his embellishments, improvised counterpoint, and scalar runs (mixes of chromatic and diatonic) were breathtaking. He would redefine rhythmic patterns and turn them into labyrinthine twists (influnced by stride piano) to be later resolved at the piece’s conclusion.

Although he didn’t record many, Tatum knew the blues well and would sometimes play the earthier styles in intimate situations. During a mammoth series of recording sessions in 1953, Tatum, at the height of his powers, played over 200 selections, at times astonishingly repeating some 20-year-old performances note for note. These final recordings proved his originality and uniqueness as a solo performer and as a bridge across 30 years of keyboard creations.

Like Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson gained renown for his phenomenal technique, the richness of his harmonies, his dexterity and speed, and the uniqueness of his personal style that combined elements of both swing and bop. He would sometimes punctuate passages rhythmically with full chords, or play exquisitely wide-ranging bop lines gracefully dropping in offbeat accents and forming fleeting “micro-gestures.” In his masterpiece “Joy Spring,” Peterson creates a new angle on the standard II – V – I progression by modulating seamlessly back and forth through the keys of A to B-flat to B major. He brightens the spectacularly running melodic line by accenting upper notes and dissonant passing tones, and occasionally peppers the line with “funk jazz”-like voicings (blues figures under an inverted pedal point in the same hand). Along with Bud Powell and Tatum, Peterson is widely considered one of the finest pianists in the history of jazz.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox