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Rick Lawn: The Evolution of Big Band Sounds in America

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Jazz Scores and Analysis is a major work that has very sophisticated insights into the actual scores as well as interviews with the composers. Its full thrust is better left for another occasion, but could you give us a glimpse of how it helps to understand big band sounds and scores in the current era?

RL: It was fascinating for me to look at these scores from the standpoint of harmonic and melodic content; how they develop their ideas over the course of a piece; how they introduced and framed the solo improvisations; and what kinds of embellishments and backgrounds they created to compliment the soloist. I was also interested in how they voiced the harmonies, assigning notes of the chord to specific instruments and how they derived harmony. Each chapter of the book concerns a specific writer and includes a full score with analytical annotations. The chapters conclude with an interview where I focus on their training and influences and their creative process, how they handle challenges, as well as their methodologies.

A common thread among these writers is how they work to break through some of the older traditions, for example, thinking more melodically rather than about traditional chord structures. How do the melodies themselves inspire the harmonies? In fact, in many cases I couldn't use traditional chord symbols to represent their harmony. Their harmonies are often inspired by the melodies themselves, rather than the melodies being forced to adhere to a chord progression, so they're much less bound to the big band traditions that earlier writers conformed to.

AAJ: It sounds roughly like the change from impressionist painting to cubism. With cubism the objects themselves could be altered in all sorts of ways.

RL: Precisely. They build on the tradition. John Fedchock, for example, takes the Thad Jones tradition to a new level. John still uses chord progressions, especially for the soloists to blow on. In general, I was really pleased that the musicians I asked all agreed to participate and were more than willing to share their ideas with others.

AAJ: A wonderful thing about the interviews is that they show in depth how the score is influenced by the personal and musical struggles of the writers. McNeely in particular talks about how his writing reflects his personal life, even his unconscious mind. At times, he almost psychoanalyzes himself!

RL: The music and the person's life experiences are closely intertwined.

AAJ: Charlie Parker said, "If you haven't been through it, it won't come out of your horn." Big band composing and arranging seems to be increasingly reflecting that idea. Certainly, Maria Schneider's work has a deep personal current running through it. It's almost autobiographical.

RL: Absolutely, and for me, it's as if Maria writes like a dancer. If you watch her conducting, she's choreographing the piece as it develops in time. She doesn't just beat time, she conducts the music as it evolves, painting a picture. And all the senses come into play, not just the ear.

Closing Thoughts

AAJ: I can't thank you enough for sharing so many wonderful ideas. Now, as we wrap up, perhaps you could offer a few reflections about big band music right now and what's on the horizon?

RL: Not to end the interview on a negative note, I have to say that now the biggest challenge to advancing this particular part of the jazz continuum is the daunting economic situation of maintaining a big band, keeping the art form working and vibrant. Europe is doing a lot more than the U.S. in keeping big band music alive instead of it becoming a museum piece. Jazz musicians and writers are very resourceful, and I have to believe they'll continue to find a way.

The music itself will I think continue to be influenced by classical music. The avant-garde and free music will continue to exert an influence on big band writing. And world music will also have a greater impact. Also, I think other art forms will play a role, especially through collaborations between musicians, visual artists, dancers, the cinema, and so forth. I think innovations in big band music may come about through those collaborative efforts. I also think that composers will continue to grapple with that old problem dating back to Jelly Roll Morton, that is, where and how does the improviser fit in a jazz composition for large ensemble? Small group jazz is an art for the player but big band music is more of a vehicle for the writer, but without the players we are nothing.

AAJ: One very special example of integrating the art forms is Daniel Schnyder's Yardbird Suite, an opera that integrates large ensemble music, including improvising, with a libretto, dramatic acting, and visual stage effects. And films, in which background music has always played a key role, are becoming more ingenious in their use of music, not to mention everything else, in creating an effect. Daniel Pritzger's recent film, Bolden, about the first New Orleans jazz trumpeter, is a kaleidoscopic concatenation of Jazz Age music contributed by Wynton Marsalis, with post-modern visual effects.

RL: Jeff Beale, who studied with my teacher Ray Wright, started out playing trumpet and writing arrangements for big bands. He's huge now in scoring for TV and film.

AAJ: To summarize, big band creativity and writing have always been remarkable, and future developments are very promising. But more and more the finances are difficult. Yet, thanks largely to European audiences, there's a thriving big band culture today.

RL: European audiences seem to be more curious and open-minded than we Americans are. It's a cultural difference. For many years, the radio orchestras throughout Europe were government funded and the bands got so well-established that they've been able to keep the funding coming through other sources. But, money aside, big bands have always been an important aspect of jazz around the world and will continue to be.

Top Photo: Alto saxophonist Dick Oatts solos with the Village Vanguard Orchestra, 2012; John Rogers/NPR.
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