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Teaching The Symphony To Swing

It's 9 a.m., and 30 composers are sucking the last drops of coffee out of their paper cups. It's hard to gauge their excitement. After all, people in the jazz world aren't exactly known for being early risers.

In his own way, guitarist Joel Harrison musters some quiet enthusiasm.

"I kept writing them and saying, 'Is this happening? Is this happening?'" Harrison says. "And they said, 'Don't worry, we'll tell you when it is.'"

Like many jazz players, Harrison writes much of his own music. He was awarded a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship for composition, and was a student of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Joan Tower at Bard College in the 1980s. He has long wanted to write for orchestra. Until now, he's had to make do with composing for small ensembles.

"When I was in school, the fences were that much higher," Harrison says. "I never had the opportunity to play with or learn about orchestration."

Particulars aside, Harrison's story isn't too different from those around him at the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute. Even as jazz has become more accepted in universities, the concert world tends to keep classical composers on one path and jazz composers on another.

When it comes to creating new pieces for orchestra, opportunities for composers today are few and far between for anyone, let alone composers who work primarily in jazz. So Columbia University's Center for Jazz Studies and American Composers Orchestra devised a workshop to give jazz composers the tools they need to conjure new sounds from the imposing symphony orchestra.

Worlds Apart

"You become identified as jazz, and even if you're a composer, you don't really interact with those people down the hall that are studying classical composition," says American Composers Orchestra Executive Director Michael Geller. He says that classical composers still have advantages.

"They're introduced to techniques and composers and music," Geller says. "If you want to study jazz composition, you might be limited to some classes in big-band arranging or something like that."

Geller was among those who wanted to level the playing field. So he helped enlist a group of distinguished composers to lead seminars on contemporary orchestration, orchestral techniques and notation.

These composers, including Cuban-born composer and pianist Tania Leon, also happen to be well-versed in jazz and other traditions.

"This is how I grew up, when I was at the conservatory training to be a concert pianist," Leon says.

The Negro Orchestra

Even though there are longstanding institutional divisions in the concert world, the music itself has a long history of blending. In the first half of the 20th century, the works of composers such as Igor Stravinsky and George Gershwin drew overtly on jazz.

Across the color line, jazz composers like Duke Ellington ventured into the elite terrain of classical music -- but not without obstacles. It wasn't until 1931 that William Grant Still became the first African-American to receive a premiere by a major orchestra.

Still wrote about the viability of having a "Negro orchestra," and he didn't mean a segregated orchestra of black musicians. That already existed, says George Lewis, the MacArthur Fellowship-winning composer who directs Columbia's Center for Jazz Studies.

"Negro was a metaphor for people who were code switchers," Lewis says. That's a term he uses for people fluent in multiple musical traditions. "You had to play classical music. You had to play popular music. You had to be a conductor. You had to be a pianist. You had to be an oboist. And then you had to learn to improvise, because that's what it is in the vernacular music world -- it's all about improvisation."

Lewis says that Still "figured a symphony orchestra of people like this, the so-called 'negro orchestra,' would be able to play the written page and to do improvisation. He talked about doing improvisations with the orchestra, and this was 1930."

Jazz is all about improvisation, but the orchestra hasn't evolved much in that direction. Composer Derek Bermel is also on the institute's faculty, and he says that improvising isn't the only thing that separates jazz musicians from classical players.

"They probably can't swing in the way that a jazz musician can swing," Bermel says.

That was the point of the Institute: to help jazz composers figure out what you do with all of those non-improvising, un-swinging orchestral musicians. The answers have the potential to shift the course of concert music.

"With jazz composers writing concert music, anything can happen, because there's that freedom," Bermel says, "that freedom of improvisation, of being in the moment that's such a part of jazz. That could really combine beautifully with that sense of tradition and exactitude that's in the classical world."

But maybe not first thing in the morning. You'll have to wait until June to hear the results from the Institute's participants. Eight of them will be selected for an American Composers Orchestra reading of their works.

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Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Timesand the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.
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