Just a few days after hearing Wynton Marsalis's "Swing Symphony" at the opening-night concert of the New York Philharmonic season, I was still puzzling over the problems inherent in crossbreeding jazz and symphonic music when I went to check out the jazz orchestra of the Manhattan School of Music. I left the concert hall of the conservatory unpuzzled. I found an elegant solution in some music by the composer and arranger Gil Evans that is rarely, very rarely performed by any orchestras, jazz or symphonic, student or professional.
I am lucky enough to have heard Evans himself half a dozen times in the 1980s, when he was leading a spacey, erratic group at Sweet Basil's in Greenwich Village once a week. (Arrogantly, I showed him some of the gimmicky music I was writing at the time, and he talked to me once about Billy Strayhorn with admiration so deep that the conversation led me to wonder if a book had ever been written about that Strayhorn guy.) But until this week, I had never heard concert performances of the orchestrations Evans had composed early in his career for expanded jazz orchestra, and the students at the Manhattan School of Music played them beautifully, with fervor and precocious skill. (Loren Schoenberg, director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, performed some of this music several years ago, but I missed the event.) I caught three concerts in the past week—one of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra combined with the New York Philharmonic, one of Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, and one of apprentice musicians at the Manhattan School (some of them freshmen just a few weeks into their first term) —and the students provided the greater revelation.
Hearing Evans’s gorgeous, quirky, uncategorizable music, I saw the wisdom in his strategy of bringing the tonal warmth and grandeur of the symphony orchestra to the jazz bandstand, instead of trying to make the symphony swing. (Not even Ellington, with and without Strayhorn, fully succeeded at the latter.) Since there are no videos of the student concert I saw this week, we’ll just have to settle for this clip of Evans with Miles Davis on the “Sound of Jazz” TV show in 1959. The tune is Ahmad Jamal’s “New Rhumba,” one of the selections Evans arranged as a movement in the song suite released on LP as “Miles Ahead.” Time has removed its newness, but not its originality.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic.