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Brahms, Ellington, and the Elements of Suprise


The writer Whitney Balliett coined the phrase “the sound of surprise” to describe the essence of jazz’s appeal, and it remains as good a definition as any. Every jazz performance is by definition unique from a compositional angle, and in that regard differs from classical music (both “jazz” and “classical” are certainly limiting terms, but that’s the topic of another article, if not a book), in which the differences are for the most part interpretive. However, there remain jazz performances that are boring and classical ones that are electric, so clearly improvisation alone is not enough to ensure an element of surprise—that sudden moment of discovery shared by performer and the audience alike. And in the works of the great composers, regardless of idiom, there are to be found similar moments of inspiration that transcend any given performance and are inherent in the composition itself, nowhere more often than in the works of Johannes Brahms.


Artists have frequently noted that the rare bolts of lightning that strike them during a performance come from somewhere else, and that they are simply the messengers. Jazz players such as Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins, and Wynton Mars

alis would seem to be virtual lightning rods in their ability to consistently create inspired improvisations that stand the test of time. All of them, however, spent as many hours cultivating and perfecting their craft, with all the inherent editing that that implies, just as composers whose work emerges not from the bell of a horn or from the keys of a piano, but from the manuscript page. And we know that Brahms was wont to take longstrolls around Vienna’s Ringstrasse or in the countryside, creating the sort of extended meditation in which a culminating, organizational concept would strike him as he was in the midst of a composition. He also delighted in improvising at the piano, showing off his amazing ability to create spontaneous variations on a theme, while at the same time seeking the solutions to his own compositional problems.

It is here that we find the common denominators between seemingly disparate art forms. As much as classical musicians can learn from the way that Ellington used improvisation as a compositional element, the jazz musician would do well to heed Brahms’s ability to capture “the sound of surprise” both formally and expressively.

No one was more aware of the latter than Brahms’s disciple Arnold Schoenberg, who described what he took from his mentor in the classic essay “Brahms the Progressive.” Instead of rehashing the particulars of Brahms’s style, Schoenberg used the compositional equations that undergirded Brahms’s music to develop what he thought was their inevitable conclusion. The same challenge faces today’s jazz musician, who can easily be overwhelmed by the music’s century-long recorded legacy, as exemplified by the sheer proliferation of ensembles that seek to recreate past performance practices. To liberate themselves from mere shadowing of perceived “styles,” they should try and apply Schoenberg’s approach to divine the essence of their inspirations and not merely the surface.

One of Ellington’s mentors was Will Marion Cook, who had studied with Antonin Dvorak at Jeanette Thurber’s National Conservatory of Music in the early 1890s, as did Rubin Goldmark, head of Juilliard’s composition department in the late 1920s and '30s, and teacher of Copland and Gershwin. Ellington exemplified Dvorak’s passion for writing music that grew from their respective ethnic roots. Their experiences abroad were reflected through their own intrinsic idioms—hence the latter’s Ninth Symphony (“From The New World”) and the former’s Far East Suite. Dvorak was in turn a disciple of Brahms and inherited his mentor’s mandate to incorporate folk elements into his work to make it more personal and connected to the non-aristocratic elements of society.

Brahms and Ellington share not only these characteristics but also a refreshingly functional attitude towards the formal elements of their work. The sonata and related forms were only starting points of reference for Brahms, who treated them with the same freedom and creativity to which he subjected rhythm, harmony, and melody. Brahms was at once the keeper of a vaunted Germanic tradition and also, in context, an anarchist within defined limits who reveled in eliding demarcations of form until they became unquantifiable. Ellington similarly created within a set tradition of song forms but reinvented them to suit his own ends. He also refused to kowtow to the European forms, inventing his own as he went along, much to the consternation of both the classical and jazz critics who were at a loss in judging extended works such as Black, Brown and Beige.

Walter Frisch’s classic study Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation traces Brahms’s inexorable compositional logic, and offers a paradigm for reasoned and creative thinking that is applicable to virtually any enterprise. The principles of form and development from which a composer’s work grows are at least as (if not more) important than the external manifestations that come under the frequently misunderstood umbrella of “style.” Not surprisingly, much of Ellington’s work can be viewed through the Brahms-Frisch prism, the difference being that Ellington trusts some of the decisions to the improvisers who have to create solos within his compositional boundaries. How wonderful it would be to have a learning situation where both classical and jazz students would take apart Brahms and Ellington compositions, toying with improvisation as a tool toward coming to terms with what makes each respective composition tick. Each discipline would be strengthened by this innovative exposure and hands-on experience, and both composers’ works would be made ever more relevant. Talk about surprise!


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