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These five musical pieces show classical and jazz aren't as different as you'd think

A black and white photo of a white man at a podium with his hands in the air, conducting a jazz ensemble.
Eric Rasmussen
NEC Archives
Gunther Schuller leads the NEC Jazz Orchestra in rehearsal in Jordan Hall, 1990. Schuller coined the term "Third Stream" when referring to the genre that blends classical and jazz.

From jazz to classical, there's no lack of great music in Kansas City. Whether you're a frequent flyer at the Blue Room or a Kauffman Center regular, there are many ways in which these two genres intersect. Here's a beginner's guide to the rich history of the blending of these vibrant musical sounds.

Kansas City may be well known for its jazz scene, but its classical music scene is just as vibrant. There's more in common between these musical forms than you may think. If you're a fan of both and want to expand your understanding and appreciation of these genres, here's five essential works to explore.

"Afro-American Symphony" by William Grant Still (1930)

Still’s first work, his "Afro-American Symphony," contains four movements of fervent Black American music. These movements are titled "Longing," "Sorrows," "Humor," and "Aspirations," and were written to dispel racist stereotypes of Black music like the blues. Though the first movement has a loose sonata form, like most symphonies you're familiar with, the first melody is played by a muted trumpet that sounds like a 12-bar blues form (giving the movement a reminiscent swinging, jazzy feel). Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry is a great example of this kind of form. The second melody projected by the oboe sketches a Black spiritual. Definitively American in passion and timbre, Still captures African American life at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. 

Symphony No. 2 “The Age of Anxiety” by Leonard Bernstein (1948)

"Jazz is the ultimate common denominator of the American musical style." –Leonard Bernstein

A young jazz pianist in his teenage years, Bernstein heralded his love of jazz music and sought to harness this adoration into his own work. Symphony No. 2 is teeming with the best of both worlds. This piece toys with dissonance, jubilance, pulsing bass lines, and dramatic melodies that are a testament to his writing style. Out of the six movements, the fifth movement (The Masque), stands out because it's only written for jazz piano and percussion. Nearly a decade later, in 1957, the iconic Bernstein musical, "West Side Story" premiered. These works share certain characteristics that can only be captured by Leonard Bernstein. 

"Sketches of Spain" by Miles Davis (1959-60)

Miles Davis was wildly influential to many different jazz scenes during his lifetime, and impressions of his impact still echo through music today. Around the late 1950's to early 60's, a totally new genre was emerging: Third Stream music. This music was not jazz and not classical music, but the pursuit of something in between, resulting in a fusion of ideas and inflection. Davis himself was transfixed by flamenco music after he attended a flamenco dance performance. With support and collaboration from composer/conductor Gil Evans, five pieces of Spanish folk music were arranged for a 28–piece symphonic jazz band, resulting in "Sketches of Spain." Davis plays flugelhorn as well as trumpet and his role throughout this music was to emulate the melodies of the Spanish guitar. According to Evans, recording the first piece from the album, "Concierto de Aranjuez," (originally written for Spanish guitar in 1939 by composer Joaquín Rodrigo), was their only goal in mind. After further exploration into this Spanish folk music, four more pieces were added, completing the album. Joaquín Rodrigo was allegedly not impressed with the arrangement, and although not critically favored for its innovative melding of genres, it has stood the test of time as a creative endeavor of Third Stream music.

"Epitaph" by Charles Mingus (1962)

Charles Mingus, who spent his childhood listening to classical records, also had the privilege to work and spend considerable lengths of time with great jazz composers like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. This background gave Mingus tremendous perspective into a well-rounded awareness of musical expression. Mingus’ influences were far and wide. Written as a thirty one-piece orchestral work, spanning two and a half hours and nineteen movements, this five hundred page score was discovered in an old trunk ten years after his death. "Epitaph" is a massive expressive example of how grand symphonic jazz music can sound. Composer Gunther Schuller, who coined the term, "Third Stream", conducted this work in its rarely performed entirety during its 1989 and 2007 concerts. Kansas City's very own jazz great, Bobby Watson, performed in Epitaph's 1989 realization. Some movements are cacophonous and brash, others are gentle and lyrical – just as some have described Charles Mingus himself. Schuller has this to say about "Epitaph" and how listening to this music details what it was like to know the musical icon: "He could be as gentle as a baby, and he could also be so full of tantrums and explosive and angry, and all of this range of feelings is in this piece. It's all there: It's like a musical picture of Mingus' personality."

"Quartet +" by Helen Sung (2021)

You may already be familiar with the other works on this list, but Helen Sung's "Quartet +" is a contemporary work that deserves just as much attention. The sounds of the string quartet, the Harlem Quartet, shows the forward-thinking, contemporary, and exploratory natures of modern classical and jazz music on this 2021 album.

This album shows the possibilities of a small group jazz mixed with string chamber music. Sung arranged pieces all by prolific female jazz composers like Toshiko Akiyoshi, Mary Lou Williams, and Carla Bley for strings and jazz quartet, alongside original compositions inspired by Chopin and Clara Schumann. From Brazilian ballrooms to ballads, eerie to lovely, there’s an immense breadth of influence contained in this album. It’ll tear your heart out and sew it up again. One piece that stands out is an arrangement of Carla Bley's "Wrong Key Donkey". Funky in more ways than one, this song suggests what it would sound like switching the dials on a radio in between the funk and the classical channel. The piano might sound a bit odd since there are sheets of paper to mute some of the strings for rhythmic effect. A taste of free-jazz intermixed with formal string lines distinguishes a unique palette amongst the rest in this album. Sung pushes all of the musical boundaries and blends them into cohesive music that modern classical listeners and jazz lovers alike can appreciate. 

Want to explore more? Here's a conversation between Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington about jazz and classical music are intertwined.

Listen to our playlist featuring music from this article and more:

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R.J. Schultze is a Fall 2023 intern for Classical KC.