Portrait of J. J. Johnson

n 1948, band leader Stan Kenton contemplated replacing all the slide trombones in his band with valve trombones. Under the influence of the new bebop style, all of the instruments had to play much faster than they had just a decade earlier. Kenton thought the slide trombone had become a jazz has-been that could never keep up.
He was probably unaware that a young trombonist named J. J. Johnson had already begun to demonstrate that the slide trombone could indeed keep up.

James Louis Johnson learned trombone as a school student in Indianapolis and played with such big bands as Illinois Jacquet, Benny Carter, and Count Basie. In the 1940s, swing band musicians gathered after gigs to keep playing informally. Bebop was born at these meetings.

Instead of winding down after a long evening of work, these sessions became highly competitive displays of improvisational virtuosity. Musicians attempted solos over complicated chord changes at breakneck speed. The earliest bop standouts included saxophonists, trumpeters, pianists, drummers, and, in short, everyone but trombonists. Then Dizzy Gilliespie heard J. J. Johnson in 1946 and introduced him to other boppers.

People who heard Johnson play only on the radio or on recordings assumed that he must have been playing a valve trombone. Surely no one could play that fast and that cleanly on a slide trombone. But Johnson did. He paved the way for numerous other slide trombonists to demonstrate their own virtuosity. No one has surpassed him yet in the breadth of his accomplishments or the reach of his influence.

After a brief hiatus from music in 1952-53, Johnson teamed with Kenton stand-out Kai Winding. For two years, “Jay and Kai” treated the musical world to the sound of two virtuoso slide trombonists playing at once.

Inevitably, Johnson and other boppers began to explore what else they could do besides play very fast. In Johnson’s case, he not only developed a more expressive approach to melody, but also turned increasingly to arranging and composing. In addition to original jazz works, he scored several movies and television shows.

After Johnson’s wife Vivian suffered a stroke in 1988, he canceled all of his commitments in order to take care of her during the last three years of her life. Upon his return to active music making, he dedicated his first recording, a set of ballads, to her memory. He resumed touring and recording from 1992 to 1996 and then retired for the last time. He continued to arrange and compose until he committed suicide in 2001. He left behind a tremendous legacy.

Here is at least one unique picture. In 1999, Chicago had its “Cows on Parade” art project, including one cow named “Music.” Probably lots of people took pictures of the cow, but I suspect I’m the only one who also took took a closeup of its portrait of J. J. Johnson.

What’s in a number (Dvořák)?

Some music has distinctive titles, like Romeo and Juliette or The Tree-Cornered Hat. More than one composer might use the same title, but so long as we specify whether we mean the Romeo and Juliette by Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev, or anyone else, there is no question of which piece we refer to.

Other music has form titles, like Sonata, Concerto, Symphony, etc. Not only have many composers used those titles over a long period of years, but many use them more than once. We keep them apart by numbering them, among other things. When we see or hear a reference to one of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, one of Brahms’ four, to name only two of many examples, we know exactly what piece is meant.

Not every sequence of numbers is that straightforward. The conductor of the orchestra I play in announced that he intended to play Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony on our next concert, but had second thoughts before the first rehearsal. He said he wanted to decide among that, Franck’s Symphony, and Dvořák’s Ninth. Everyone’s folder included parts for Dvořák symphonies number 2 and 5. Most of the orchestra was confused.

Antonin Dvořák composed five symphonies before he had any published. He issued one now known as his Sixth Symphony as his Symphony no. 1 and the present Seventh as no. 2. Before he wrote another symphony, he decided to publish one of the earlier ones (his Fifth) as no. 3, and so of course he published his last two symphonies as no. 4 and no. 5.

The thematic catalog of Dvořák’s complete works, now universally used as the definitive source of numbering and dating them, restored the four earlier, unpublished symphonies. After it appeared in 1955, it took a while for the new numbering to become accepted worldwide. Somehow it just didn’t seem right for the New World Symphony, known since its first publication as no. 5 to suddenly become no. 9. Now, it’s the older printed music and recordings that people find confusing.

The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi


Ottorino Respighi became what seemed unthinkable a hundred years ago: an Italian composer of orchestral music. He composed no successful operas at all.
Instead, he wrote the first significant Italian contributions to orchestral music since the Baroque era. He studied composition with the Russian Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Under his influence, and that of the French Impressionists and Richard Strauss, Respighi wrote some very successful symphonic tone poems, foreign in form, but  very Italian in subject matter.
The Pines of Rome (1924), the best known of them, is one of three tone poems that celebrate Rome–along with The Fountains of Rome (1918) and Roman Festivals (1929). It owns the distinction of being the first piece of live electronic music: Respighi wanted the sound of a nightingale and didn’t believe that any combination of instruments, or even a coloratura soprano, could achieve it. The score, therefore, includes a part for a phonograph recording of a nightingale in the third movement.

The work has four movements, played without pause. Resphighi provided the following program note in the score:

I. The Pines of the Villa Borghese (Allegretto vivace)

Children are playing in the pine groves of Villa Borghese. They dance in circles and march to mimic soldiers and battles. They are excited by their own cries and, like swallows at evening, they disappear in a swarm. Suddenly the scene changes and. . .

II. The Pines Near a Catacomb (Lento)

We see the shadows of pines crowning the entrance of a catacomb. The sound of mournful psalm singing rises from the depths, floating solemnly on the air, gradually and mysteriously dissipating.

III. The Pines of the Janiculum (Lento)

In the trembling air, the pines of Janiculum Hill stand, outlined distinctly in the light of a full moon. A nightingale sings.

IV. The Pines of the Appian Way (Tempo di Marcia)

In the misty dawn on the Appian Way, solitary pines guard the tragic country. Indistinctly, incessantly, we hear the rhythm of innumerable steps. The poet imagines a vision of ancient glory; at the sound of trumpets in the brilliance of the sunrise, a consular army bursts forth towards the sacred Way, triumphantly climbing to the Capitol.

Photo credit: AttributionSome rights reserved by Sakena

Budget cutting: follow-up to Joshua Bell post

I have just learned from another blog that the Monroe County school district (Bloomington, Indiana) has decided to eliminate the string program. Joshua Bell started playing violin in that program. Could one of the 150 elementary school students who can no longer learn string instruments in that school system have become as renowned an artist? No one will ever know, but it is certain that the move will deprive all of those children of the opportunity to learn to love great music by playing it, not to mention a possibility of a satisfying career (or at least life-long hobby) in music.

Elementary school music programs feed into junior high or middle school programs, which likewise feed high school programs. Bloomington, of course, is no ordinary city. It probably has more excellent music opportunities per capita than anywhere else in the country. Therefore, in this case, the decision to cut the string program also hampers the future growth of the Hoosier Youth Philharmonic.

In junior high school and high school, music performance groups are much larger than most classes. If a school orchestra has 45 members (probably a conservative estimate), it will require at least two other classes or study halls to make room for all of those students if it, too, falls to the budget axe. Students in a music program generally have better grades and fewer disciplinary problems than the school population as a whole.

So let’s see, the district cut a music program, thus disrupting a social and perhaps professional outlet for students, the future health of school and community music programs for older children, and possibly the children’s academic and social development. And the savings? $20,000 a year. I sure hope that’s someone’s typo. Even at a savings of $200,000, the school system will probably have to pay a heavier price down the road than it proposes to save in the short term.

Joshua Bell in the subway: what does it mean?

On January 12, 2007, Joshua Bell took his Stradivarius violin to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in Washington, D.C. and played great classical music for 43 minutes. According to the subsequent article in the Washington Post, more than one thousand people passed by. Only one person recognized him; only seven stopped to listen for even as much as a minute, but some people tossed money into his case as they hurried by. Bell collected just over $32.

The incident probably says a lot about American culture, but apparently no one agrees just what. Just the other day, it was retold on NPR’s “Morning Edition” as a story of how Americans are in too much of a hurry to stop and appreciate beauty.

I decided to look it up. Some folks at the time commented on how classical music is lost on the masses. Others claimed that the stunt simply showed that classical music is essentially irrelevant to modern society. Still others lamented that children wanted to stop and listen, but their parents wouldn’t let them.

The fact is that many people play music in public places and earn good money for it. It’s called busking. One successful New York busker noted that Bell is a great musician, but didn’t have any idea how to busk.

The story and its implications for classical music therefore are a bit more complicated than the Washington Post story implies. Surely the audience for classical music is small. It always has been in this country. On the other hand, it has always had an intense following. It still does. Joshua Bell is one of its big stars. Why then, did no one stop to hear him? Why did only one out of more than a thousand even recognize him?

As the busker said, a subway station is not a concert hall. No one has gone there deliberately to listen to music. A busker must work to attract an audience. Part of that work involves choosing spots to play where people are most likely to stop and listen. A subway platform, as noisy as it is, would have worked better. People standing and waiting for a train have no place to go. Once they get off the train and head for the street, they are in a hurry to get someplace.

Once in a suitable place, a busker must work to attract an audience. It’s not enough to put down a case and start playing without making some attempt to engage potential listeners. Bell, an excellent concert artist and inexperienced busker, did not do so.

That, and the fact that children wanted to stop and listen, sufficiently dismisses the argument classical music’s social irrelevance. Successful buskers can and do attract a paying audience playing classical music. Children, who have not yet learned to let someone else define their tastes for them, love to listen to it. There is nothing wrong with classical music.

As I have written in previous posts on the distinctions between popular and classical music, arguments about the relative merits of Beethoven and whomever else is more popular at the time (Henri Herz in the 1820s and 30s) have been going on since even before Beethoven died.

People all over the world pay good money to listen to Beethoven’s music. Who today but a scholar has ever heard of Herz? Where is a mass audience for any popular music more than fifty years old? Fifty years from now, who of today’s greatest stars will still be attracting an audience as big as Beethoven’s?

The Washington Post put Bell up to playing at the subway station more or less as a prank. The real lesson has nothing to do with how people are in a hurry to stop for beauty (although most Americans certainly seem to hurry past it all too routinely). Rather it has to do with what the busker pointed out about the difference between a concert hall and a subway platform.

Ever since Theodore Thomas took his orchestra on tour, classical musicians have worked hard to build an audience. One of his rivals invented music appreciation classes. The trouble with using either concert building or classroom experiences to “educate” the public is that it implies that the music is hard to understand and the people are somehow deficient in taste.

Neither message seems likely to produce more than sullen attention any more. And yet classical music, like Bell in the subway, sets up a concert venue and waits for people to show up. It gets the same small segment of society all the time. What can we do to attract an audience? To present music where they are in such a way they want to hear more of it? I’ll bet we can learn a lot from buskers.

Jeux by Claude Debussy


Debussy wrote his last ballet and last orchestral work, Jeux, (or Games for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, with Vaslav Nijinsky as choreographer and lead dancer. The first performance puzzled its audience, and as it took place only two weeks before the tumultuous premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, it was nearly forgotten in the uproar.

On closer inspection, Jeux was every bit as revolutionary and forward-looking as Sacre and even more daring harmonically. Debussy’s most nearly atonal work, Jeux‘s formal structure depends to an unprecedented degree on orchestral color and texture rather than pitch relationships.

In this way, it points in the direction of Anton Webern’s pointillism, to the search for new sonorities from electronic instruments, and through the teaching of Olivier Messiaen, to the techniques developed by postwar composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.

The story and choreography also refused to conform to any previous expectations, and it remains unclear whether the audience found the music or the ballet the more problematical.

In Nijinsky’s simple plot, boy loses tennis ball, finds two girls, forgets about the ball, and eventually wins both girls. By the end of the ballet, the three of them are kissing passionately. He made no room for fantasies, tutus and coronets, ensembles, or anything the audience might have expected to see–nothing but three people in tennis outfits.

(And in 1913, men’s tennis outfits were baggy long-sleeved shirts and flannel slacks. Women wore long-sleeved ankle-length dresses with petticoats. It is difficult to imagine anyone successfully either dancing or playing tennis dressed that way.)

Some people found the ballet a refreshing change. Others, apparently including Debussy himself, found it disconcerting. Debussy was so annoyed with what he saw that he left the theater to smoke a cigarette.

Even without the ballet, the music bewildered audiences. To some extent, it continues to do so. Unlike anything else he ever wrote, listeners continue to find Jeux Debussy’s most difficult work. With its predominantly scherzando mood, it continues to play games with audience’s expectations and requires repeated hearing to understand.

Beethoven plays a new concerto

Nowadays, soloists in a concerto play from memory, especially pianists. Occasionally, players of other instruments will use written music, but I have only seen one pianist using music. He was on the faculty when I was in graduate school, and students discussed the oddity for days afterward.

Since the piano requires the use of both hands, memorizing music for performances has the obvious benefit of not requiring a third hand to turn pages. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that pianists have not always performed from memory and audiences have not always expected them to.

For a performance of his C minor piano concerto, Beethoven asked his friend Ignaz Ritter von Seyfried to turn pages for him. Seyfried later reported that the pages contained mostly blank staves, with a few cryptic notes here and there that he compared to Egyptian hieroglyphics.

At the time of the performance, Beethoven had not yet had time to write out the solo part, so he played it from memory. He apparently didn’t want the audience to know that he had not prepared his own part, thus his request to Seyfried.

Beethoven gave a signal when to turn the pages. Poor nervous Seyfried stared at them as if the whole notation had been present but hard to read, much to Beethoven’s amusement.

The Fantasticks: book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt

Musicals, or at least so it seemed according to the example set by Irving Berlin or Rogers and Hammerstein, ought to be big, bold, impressive, with elaborate production numbers, fancy costumes, and lighting effects. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt thought so when they became friends at the University of Texas and dreamed of conquering New York.

Even while serving is different army units, they managed to collaborate on songs by mail. Once in New York, they tried to make an elaborate musical out of a one-act spoof on Romeo and Juliette by Edmund Rostand, Les Romanesques. In hindsight, they attempted a Texas version of West Side Story, even including a character and song called “Maria,” but after a three-year struggle they couldn’t make it work.

When Jones decided simple staging on a platform could solve their problem, another Texas alum promised to produce their musical at Barnard College if they could reduce it to one act in three weeks. Discarding everything except the opening song (“Try to Remember”) and the basic idea of adapting Rostand’s play, the two almost effortlessly beat the deadline.

The performances at Barnard (the week beginning August 3, 1959) might have been the end of the story, but producer Lore Noto was in the audience and asked Jones and Schmidt if they could make it into a full-length musical. It opened off-Broadway nine months later. No one could guess that it would run for 42 years.

It must have seemed an oddity. It had no scenery. Actors retrieved props from a large chest at one side of the platform. In place of an orchestra, two pianos, a harp, some percussion and one person doubling on bass and cello provided the accompaniment.

Behind the comic hijinks lay a philosophic meditation on the necessity of winter (or death) for spring (rebirth). “Try to Remember” sets the stage for a story about both the innocence and folly of young lovers and the necessity of suffering to achieve maturity.

Opening to mixed reviews, the play often had very sparse audiences in its early performances. Schmidt remembered, “We’d only have three people in the audience on some nights, but you’d look out and it’d be Tallulah Bankhead, Richard Rogers, and Vivien Leigh.”

Word got around, helped, no doubt, by Noto’s habit of carrying the original cast album around with him wherever he went. He also gambled by releasing stock company and amateur rights after only a few months. It paid off. No other musical ever had 17,162 performances in its original theater before closing.

An experimental brass band in 1832

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the only possible all-brass ensemble was the cavalry band, which could only play military signals. Once keyed bugles and valved trumpets and horns became available, massed brass could play real music.

The movie Brassed Off provides a glimpse of the British brass band tradition. The band in that movie, where all the members worked for a coal mining company, reflects the working class origins of that institution. No one can identify the first British brass band with certainty, but several existed before the end of the 1830s.

I found an interesting article in the January 28, 1832 issue of the Times. Because it describes an ensemble of London’s leading brass players, it probably has no real connection with the development of the working-class brass band tradition. The article certainly takes no notice of it, but does show the quick response to new technology that transformed musical instruments and musical ensembles during the nineteenth century.

NEW ORCHESTRA

A novel combination of musical effect, at least in this country, was tried yesterday morning at the King’sTheatre, before a select audience of of professors and amateurs expressly invited to obtain their judgment on its results.

A complete band has been collected, consisting wholly of instruments of metallic formation. There are, for example, eight French horns, six trumpets, six keyed bugles, three trombones, and a double bass horn, of extraordinary compass in depth, being below the serpent and instruments of that class in military bands.

The pieces performed were the Overture to Spohr’s Jessonda ; the march of the Priests in the Zauberflote ; with some movements from Weber, Rossini, and Auber. The experiment, which, it should be observed, has been only six weeks in preparation, was decidedly a successful one. In passages of pure harmony is difficult to imagine any thing more perfect.

The movement seemed to have the same unity of design as if it proceeded from one stupendously grand and powerful instrument, and what is still more remarkable, was subdued when requisite to a degree of softness which might have been borne in the boudoir of a sick duchess.

The prevalent defect, in the judgment of the auditory, was, that the basses were inadequate, in strength, to sustaining so great a weight of harmony ; but this’ll admit of a very easy remedy. We think, however, that there was another defect, but perceptible only in those compositions written for a full orchestra, the violin parts of which have been transferred to the bugles and trumpets, instruments incapable of sustaining properly high and quick treble passages.

But it is very possible that instruments of the same genus may be invented, capable of continuing the scale up to the highest notes of the violin, and thus allowing the performance of the great symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven. In the mean time, up to a certain extent, the effect, of its kind, leaves nothing to be desired.

Bands of this structure have for some time, existed on the continent, but for their introduction here musicians have to thank Mr. Harper, the celebrated trumpet-player, who took a leading part in the performance, which was filled up throughout by professors of the first eminence.

The horns were most ably led by Mr. Platt, Mr. Rae, and others, who took the solo parts in succession. The trombones were also finely played, and with great discretion as to the strength of intonation.

All present appeared much gratified at the result of the experiment.

Trois gymnopédies by Erik Satie

Erik Satie, an eccentric composer of minor talent but great imagination, exercised enormous influence on twentieth-century musical thought. Above all a musical humorist, he issued his first published composition as op. 62. His longest work, Vexations, consists of just over a minute’s worth of music played 840 times without pause.

The Gymnopédies, composed in 1888 for piano solo, exhibit a different kind of humor, based on Satie’s conscious and deliberate antagonism to verifiable facts. In ancient Greece, the gymnopedia, or festival of naked youth, was celebrated every year in Sparta to honor Apollo, Pythaeus, Artemis, and Ledo. The days-long festival concluded with gymnastic exhibitions and frenzied dancing offered not to the four deities already named, but to Dionysius.

Satie composed slow, dignified, pieces utterly devoid of passion and chose to give them a title that conjured up images of a boisterous celebration. Having thus deliberately misrepresented the gymnopedia, perhaps he would be astounded to learn that the whole concept of serene classicism just as thoroughly misrepresents ancient Greek esthetics as a whole.

Scholars have since determined that the gleaming whiteness of the marble, which we admire so greatly, does not reflect the original intent of the artists. They did not consider their works complete without application of flamboyant colors, which the passage of centuries has stripped away.

That Satie became so well known and influential can be traced in part to his friendship with Claude Debussy. In 1911 Debussy orchestrated the third and first of the Gymnopédies, in that order. Many critics have complained that the orchestration obscured Satie’s clear outlines. Be that as it may, the pieces gained more in prestige than they lost in clarity. It is in Debussy’s version that they, and Satie himself, first became well known.