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The Jazz Artistry of Ron Thomas: Interfacing Jazz and Classical Music

By Published: June 10, 2004

AAJ: Here's a tough one. On your website, you imply that music 'should be of its own essence, free of influence, history, and culture.' You use Berlioz as an example. How can you make such a statement? It's clear to anyone that all music is profoundly a product of time and place.

RT: Yes, I understand that'.. but what I oppose is a specific evolutionary form of aesthetic philosophy sometimes called 'historicism' which says that in music the chronology of art works must fulfill a preordained historical destiny. I believe this is nonsense. Berlioz responded quickly to this 19th century monster of a doctrine. His was the first and strongest reaction to that deadening philosophy which says 'Destroy the old, and start new.' Take Stockhausen, for instance, who said, and probably still believes, 'Everything starts with Webern. We don't care about anything before then. If your music resembles anything before Webern, it is of absolutely no importance to us.' I disagree entirely. I say, 'Let's have everything available to us.' As Chopin said, 'I help myself abundantly from the laws of freedom'. Quite a different idea.

AAJ: That sounds like composer George Rochberg's philosophy. [Rochberg had a profound influence on pianist Uri Caine; see AAJ interview with Caine].

RT: Stravinsky too. Like Berlioz , Stravinsky said something like, 'I don't have any ancestors.'

AAJ: So what you're saying is that we need to utilize history and culture in our own way rather than rejecting it or worshiping it. The newness comes from how you use the influences.

Let's go a bit deeper into this. Now, here's some musical notation from your website. Give us a little education.

RT: That's from my pre-jazz composing. I wrote that work soon after I had finished my studies with Stockhausen, and was struggling to make some sense out of it in my composing. It's a classy example of 'graphic notation'. Cage experimented very beautifully with this sort of thing.

These are cluster shapes. Some of them might be black keys, others white keys, or both.

AAJ: So this is a type of composition where the exact notes are not determined?

RT: Yes, you're right. They are note-clusters.

AAJ: There are no measures.

RT: There are no measures, but you could use the relative distances as a way of judging the time frame.

AAJ: So, like jazz, each performance might be different, it would never be quite the same?

RT: Yes.

AAJ: You mention Berlioz, Liszt. You consider Berlioz a 'free spirit.' Many modern composers and jazz artists have, in a sense, rejected the nineteenth century classical and romantic music. Why does this particular century impress you?

RT: Well, when we look back, there's not as radical a break between classical/romantic and modern music as there once seemed to be. Schoenberg and Stravinsky are two of what I call 'the old moderns.' Bartok and Hindemith, as well. In the early part of the century, a polarity emerged between Schoenberg, more 'evolutionary,' building on the past while moving away from it, and Stravinsky, who opposed this 'historicism' approach. So there was a little 'war' between the two that never got resolved.

What I believe, in contrast to the prevailing view, is that in reality there is no substantive difference between the nineteenth and twentieth century. 'Modern' music begins with Beethoven. Russian poet and writer, Joseph Brodsky, who came to live in New York, said, 'You know, a piano sonata by Beethoven can serve as the soundtrack for any of the Star Wars films.' That says it all for me. The world that Beethoven created back then is part of the modern sensibility with which I can identify. So, I don't see that big a dichotomy between 19th and 20th century music and don't think I'm alone in that.

AAJ: Let's come back to jazz. You've been a figure on the Philadelphia jazz scene for almost thirty years. What have been some of your most enjoyable gigs, and which musicians have you found most productive and fulfilling to work with?

RT: The longest lasting relationships I've had have been, for example, Pat Martino, but not so much playing with him but as a very close personal friend and confidante. Then there's a drummer that I've been working with for many years now, Joe Mullen, one of the best innovative musicians I've ever known'.he worked with me on The House of Counted Days . We've done many sessions together. Outstanding. John Swana. Tyrone Brown, Bill Hollis, Eddy Battles, Pearl Williams, and Bobby Durham (what a marvelous time I had with him). Benny Nelson, Bobby Blackwell, bass players who've passed away. Intriguing people every one, and marvelous players'

AAJ: What clubs do you play at these days?

RT: Well, I don't play in Philly much these days. I've played at Chris' Jazz Caf', however, with perecussionist Bob Brosh, a faculty member of the University of the Arts. Currently, I play out here in the suburbs of Philadelphia: The Rose Tree Inn in Media, the Mendenhall Inn in Chadds Ford, and Sullivan's in King of Prussia, where I play Sundays and Mondays.

Getting back to the philosophy, I really regard jazz and classical music as being in the same category. I see jazz as a subspecies of 20th century music. Jazz is essentially a form of modern music, along with Stravinsky, Hindemith, Schoenberg, etc..

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