The Inherent Compatibility
of Jazz and Classical Music

by Paul Hofmann

The rich and varied history of Western music, from the Baroque era through the early years of the twentieth century, has profoundly influenced the music of our time. Concert artists continue to perform masterpieces of the great composers to appreciative audiences, and many elements of more recent styles can be traced back to these earlier genres. As a pianist rooted in this tradition, I have often observed the parallels that exist between different musical approaches (playing Bach and then improvising jazz melodies over similar harmonies, for instance).

This, coupled with the stimulating experience of teaching, has helped provide the impetus for my composing and recording a good bit of ‘chamber jazz.’ Many jazz writers have experimented along these lines; works by Duke Ellington, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett are particularly impressive. Yet for many listeners, the connection between jazz and classical music is (surprisingly, to me) difficult to appreciate.

I’ve encountered attitudes ranging from total disapproval (even from some college music professors who shall remain nameless: “After all, isn’t jazz merely a clever entertainment? Isn’t classical music more ‘legitimate’?”) to simple unawareness (in this case, I’d include most casual jazz fans). Here, then, is a brief attempt to assist our grasping the inherent compatibility of these two vibrant musical categories.

It’s surely true that jazz music, strictly defined, contains at least one unique element: its rhythm. The ‘swing beat’ is something fundamental to jazz and is not (to my knowledge) prominently found in any other musical genre. By contrast, the art of improvisation has a long history; no doubt dating from when the earliest music was made.

Certainly the great Baroque, Classical and Romantic keyboard composers were all proficient at this skill: Bach, Mozart and Liszt to name a few. Thus, the other defining characteristic of jazz – improvisation – is certainly not limited to it. Indeed, some of today’s best musicians are proficient improvisers in other styles (I immediately think of the brilliant sitar performer from India, Ravi Shankar; or of the late, great American blues-rock guitarists Jimi Hendrix, Terry Kath and Stevie Ray Vaughan).

If jazz is defined by its two fundamental elements (the swing beat and the prevalence of improvisation), it also should surely be appreciated for ‘where it came from.’ Its rhythms aside, the harmonies and melodies of jazz stem directly from European music. In theory then, the boundaries between jazz and classical music seem to me to have been falsely erected. After all: What is jazz but ad-libbed classical music with a swing beat? Granted, this definition isn’t perfect, but perhaps it is more on the mark than most others I’ve heard (!).

To clarify: This amalgamation is NOT about blurring the lines of two mature musical categories in order to come up with a false hybrid (thus depreciating the value of each, often resulting in a less-than-satisfactory outcome). Indeed, one of my biggest frustrations continues to be those radio station formats which claim to feature jazz but more often than not play a variety of other styles: jazz-rock (or, fusion); so-called New Age; World Beat (now there’s an interesting term!); and the latest fad, a mainly instrumental pop format called Smooth Jazz (huh? I thought Stan Getz used to play smooth jazz…).

Actually, I have nothing against these types of music; I enjoy a lot of it. I’ve played and written a good deal of jazz-rock. But again, I’ve always found it somewhat disconcerting to turn on a self-proclaimed jazz station only to hear, on balance, more Steely Dan tunes than Louis Armstrong or Kenny Dorham sides. Again, I do appreciate the music of Steely Dan – much of it is outstanding – but there are pop and rock stations for this, aren’t there?

What this IS about is combining the improvisational language of jazz with the structures and forms of classical music; arriving at something that is admittedly difficult to ‘name.’ Should this be called jazz music? Probably not; particularly if the rhythms don’t ‘swing’ with regularity (if at all). Is this then classical music? To a greater degree, perhaps; yet because some or all of the notes may be ad-libbed, it might prove too daunting for classical musicians to play – unless it were first recorded and then transcribed for performance. Even then, most classical players have a famously difficult time with authentic jazz inflections. Obviously, this musical blend is difficult to categorize.

In my view, the most musically successful examples of this hybrid have invariably been created by jazz musicians with classical training, and not the other way around. Again, as the language of jazz has its origin in classical forms, harmonies and melodies, the jazz artist by definition has an intimate understanding (whether implicitly or explicitly; or even whether he or she is classically trained or not) of how classical music ‘works.’ Indeed, many contemporary jazz artists have extensive classical compositional experience.

By contrast (and this is not a criticism): Most highly-educated classical performers simply cannot play jazz very well, unless they’ve been able to spend years taking the time learning to ad-lib, while at the same time studying and absorbing jazz music in some depth. From its earliest days (almost from its origin), jazz’s development has been well-chronicled via recordings – something for which we should be grateful – and yet jazz is still first and foremost a folk music, after all. It’s something when performed most authentically comes from the deep recesses of the soul, like playing the Blues. Experience counts for far more than training. But both can be helpful.

Some notable examples of chamber jazz I’ve been privileged to record include works by Bud Powell and Duke Ellington. Glass Enclosure, recorded as a trio number in 1953, is perhaps Powell’s most impressive composition. It’s an exciting ‘extended piece’ famous for its contrasts (differences in dynamics and tempos; consonances/dissonances). Like Bud’s Dusk at Saudi, there is no improvisation; strictly speaking, these aren’t jazz pieces but rather combine elements of jazz with ideas found in traditional piano music. Ellington’s Melancholia, Retrospection and Reflections in D, all again from 1953, are hauntingly elegant compositions; like Glass Enclosure, these pieces are primarily interpretive rather than improvisatory.

Of course, this approach needn’t be all solemn and sober! “There With A Smile” features a lighthearted original piece whose performance is reminiscent of a piano student playing a Baroque keyboard invention in a lesson. When the teacher leaves the room for a moment, the student begins ad-libbing over the same harmonies, being careful – every twelve measures – to return to the written melodies.

The compatibility of jazz and classical music is something I sincerely hope will be further explored. As more musicians grasp the concept, we’ll then start hearing a wider variety of music in this idiom. Here’s hoping! The genre is waiting to be mined.

[Note: Since the original publication of this essay, Paul has released a number of additional discs which feature the same sort of ‘chamber jazz’ referenced here. Here’s an up-to-date, comprehensive, linked list: “When You Dream;” “Serenades, Waltzes and Romances;” “This Beautiful Love;” “There With A Smile;” “Hashoah Lamentations;” “A Child Is Born;” “By Candlelight;” “New Inventions;” “Letter to Sarah;” “The Flood and the Rainbow.”]