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Fragile Beauty, No. 9: Maintaining Historical Perspective or Insert Individualism

When I first attended college at Fredonia State in 1974, I studied trumpet with Herbert Winters Harp. I felt like a learned so much from him and not just pertaining to music and the trumpet before his passing in 1976. We would talk about historical perspective as a trumpet player in an orchestra, that it was expected that you understand the style of the music you are performing and be true to the composer. In looking at this today, my question to him would have been, with the passage of time - larger orchestras and modern equipment - shouldn't we also reconsider re-evaluating this notion? After all, much of the music being performed in the 20th century is no doubt, as we speculate, played at faster tempos and with greater dynamic range than what was attainable for many of the great composers of orchestral music in their time. None the less, part of our lessons included an understanding of orchestral articulations examining 1) how you hit (attack) the note and 2) that notes relationship with the succeeding notes.

He taught seven different orchestral articulations as follows: Normal Attack, Staccato, Tenuto, Legato Tongue, Slur (legato), Wagnarian Attack and Tchaikovsky Attack. There is no doubt that in orchestral music as you perform pieces within the stylistic periods of the past, the performer must give up a certain amount of individualism to perform as the composer intended. History dictates this and it is accepted and our responsibility to perform in a stylistic correct fashion. And I have passed this practice and understanding to my students over these many years.

Now jump ahead to the great composers of the early 20th century (I have intentionally left out the designation of great "Jazz" composers. Composers are what they were within the Jazz stylistic periods and I believe that they should be regarded as such), for example, Duke Ellington, who wrote his compositions with specific players in mind. Through the masterful work of David Berger, Wynton Marsalis, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Competition we now have full scores and parts of the Ellington repertoire including the transcribed solos from the original recordings. I should mention here that with those recordings we have a somewhat better understanding of how Ellington's music sounded as compared to, let's say Bach, Beethoven or Mozart's.

When I was directing my student Jazz Ensemble at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in playing the music of Duke Ellington, we strove to play the music and the solos in a historically accurate style as possible as has been the expectation for high school bands performing at the Ellington Festival. Through much of the writings, education and performance practice of Wynton Marsalis since the early 1980's he has been driven to authentically represent the history of the music from Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong through Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in an approach for historical accuracy putting Jazz on an equal frame with the masters of orchestral music from Bach through Wagner and Tchaikovsky.

So this brings me to my question. Recently I was in a big band rehearsal and we were performing an early Count Basie composition written and performed around the 1930', 1940's. As is common today, there are recordings of the original Basie band performing the piece and it is clear that the composer had certain players in mind and as in the Essentially Ellington scores, the solos in the Basie piece were transcribed as well. As we were playing the written parts, as in any orchestral work, the band was true to the stylistic elements of the composition and made every attempt to play it "similar to the recording and the Basie style". However, when the first player began their solo, they did not play the written solo and in their improvisation, spoke true to their own voice. Admittedly, it was a dramatic departure from the bands more historic representation, but wouldn't that have been expected even at the time of the recording of this piece, that each player was and is free to express with their own voice?

In the rehearsal, there was a discussion afterwards on making the attempt to solo in a more stylistic way, true to the history of the piece. We speak often of players seeking their own voice, their individual spirit. What are your thoughts? Should players stay true to themselves or should they understand the complete history of the music and incorporate that into their playing? Can it be one without the other or should both be the goal?    


Bill Stevens Artist, Composer, Educator


  • September 29, 2019
    The Shadmoor, New York, NY
  • October 6, 2019
    Tomi Jazz, New York, NY
  • October 27, 2019
    The Shadmoor, New York, NY

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