John Duffy: The Composer as Statesman

Respecting America's Many Classical Musics

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, there’s something that you’ve said for years that I think is one of the most beautiful things and this regards jazz improvisation; that the solos of Charlie Parker and the solos of all the great jazz performers are compositions, spontaneous compositions. This is not such a radical view any more but when you said it, it was, and I think it’s because of you in large part that the field is now open to this notion that jazz is part of the canon of the classical music of America.

JOHN DUFFY: Well, to me it’s central to our culture. And an interesting thing—when the Philadelphia Orchestra played a work of mine there were a number of students there, and there was a pre-concert talk and I spoke briefly and youngsters raised their hands. They asked me my favorite composer, and I said, “Well, Charlie Parker and J. S. Bach,” and a lot of people were quite stunned by that and that to me is the truth.

FRANK J. OTERI: When was the first time you went to a Broadway musical?

JOHN DUFFY: I heard them, of course, on radio. You would here, in the past: A Broadway musical would have songs that would be on the top of the hit parade and so forth, and you would hear all about the stories. But I guess I was about maybe 14 or 15.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, getting back to this word composer and deciding to be a composer—what did the word mean to you at the time and how has it evolved since then?

JOHN DUFFY: Well, you had composers at Schirmer at the time in New York off 5th Avenue at a store. When you went in that store, you had a statue of Bach, a statue of Mozart, Verdi… they didn’t make their way to Mahler, they were still a long way from that. So you had those composers; then you had Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser. These are glorious people. Then you had Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie and Parker were interesting, going to hear them. Gillespie was very playful; he had a nice kind of easy, playful way. They would introduce their music with no big acclaims, just play and improvise. And to me these were all composers, but they were presented to the public in different ways. I don’t think that the public understood that Parker and Gillespie and so forth were the composers. I think they said, “Oh, Gillespie plays trumpet, Parker plays alto sax.” “Oh yeah, that musical that Mary Martin was in, South Pacific—Now, who was the composer? I’m not so sure who is…” so there were no accolades in that sense to the composer.

FRANK J. OTERI: Except there were ‘Best Score Awards’ that people got, and I think—it’s interesting—Richard Rodgers really came into his own as a composer when he and Hammerstein started producing the musicals as well and really taking artistic control of the production that way.

JOHN DUFFY: Absolutely, and in a sense they were the precursors of Glass and Reich. They, in fact, as you say, they would own 30, 40, 50, 60 percent of the show, which would provide money which gave them then the leisure of composing and producing their work, but they also made artistic choices.

FRANK J. OTERI: And Frank Loesser as well. In fact, Frank Loesser is probably one of the earliest successful self-published composers.

JOHN DUFFY: Yeah, Frank Music Corp. And also, Loesser wrote Guys and Dolls—this is fabulous theater work.

FRANK J. OTERI: And Irving Berlin was a self-published composer, so this idea of composer as entrepreneur—and we really didn’t see that so much in the early part of the 20th century with American so-called “classical” composers, whatever the word classical means. I hate that word, classical.

JOHN DUFFY: Yeah, ‘classic,’ I guess you could say that Guys and Dolls is a classic, or you could say that Charlie Parker’s “Loverman” is a classic, or Thelonious Monk‘s “Round About Midnight,”…

FRANK J. OTERI: Or “Bemsha Swing,” “Pannonica”…

JOHN DUFFY: They are wonderful names; those are classics.

FRANK J. OTERI: But, when we use the word “classical,” it has a different meaning even to this day. When we think of American “classical” composers we think of people like Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and to people who really plunge into it, Henry Cowell… Who were some of these early mentors to you, when you were studying music?

JOHN DUFFY: Just to comment on the classical and popular and folk, Cowell had an interesting idea, though I’m not so sure it’s such a good idea in retrospect. He thought music should be broken down into fine art, folk art, and pop art. But then you have questions of which goes in to what category, what goes in to which category. I think that classical, that idea “classical,” comes from almost a social strata—the people on top. The power, so to speak, of symphony orchestras, their boards, their centers, and so forth—they’re classical. The club down here is not classical. Ornette Coleman isn’t classical. “So-and-so who has done jazz is now suddenly going to be doing a classical work.” In a certain sense, it’s demeaning to what this person has already done… Burt Bacharach told me that when he had a great success with his songs, I think it was Stokowski who asked him to do a symphonic work. He said this would help to raise his stature, and he said, “Naw,” he said, “my work is already what I want.”

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