Jazz in the Context of Chamber Music – Part I

October 27, 2015

By Eugene Marlow, Ph.D.

Jazz is not usually considered chamber music in the classical sense, but, technically all small ensembles of jazz musicians perform in the “chamber music” tradition, whether in a traditional venue (jazz club, performing arts center) or a non-traditional venue (educational or religious institution, museum, et al).” Or do they?

The perception of classical chamber music performance vs. jazz small ensemble performance (as opposed to big band) is varied, depending on whom you talk to. But in some instances “never the twain shall meet,” as if there is a strict demarcation line between the two styles of music. For several centuries up until the beginning of the 20th century, so-called “amateur” musicians would get together on a Sunday afternoon to play “classical” chamber music. Later in the 20th century there are numerous examples of “jazz” jam sessions in people’s homes. Aren’t both instances examples of “chamber music”? 

This subject is of special interest to national service organization Chamber Music America (CMA). On March 1, 2012, CMA designated May 2012 as National Chamber Music Month—a celebration of the many styles of small ensemble music performed and presented today. “Chamber music is a vibrant and diverse field,” according to Margaret M. Lioi, CEO of Chamber Music America. “It includes contemporary music, jazz, world music, European classical music and styles that draw from all of these.” 

 Chamber Music America defines chamber music as works for small ensembles of 2–10 members, playing one to a part and generally performing without a conductor. The organization has 6,000 members—ensembles, presenting organizations, festivals, individual musicians, music educators, composers, artist managers, and other music professionals. Founded in 1977 to develop and strengthen an evolving chamber music community, CMA provides members with grant programs, consulting services, access to health and instrument insurance, conferences, seminars, and several publications, including Chamber Music magazine. 

To address the issue of “jazz” in the context of chamber music, I asked Ms. Lioi to suggest some CMA members to contact who are in a position to comment on this. Below are the responses from these “chamber music” experts: 

Rufus Reid

Rufus Reid

“I didn’t like classical music because I was ignorant of it. Most individuals who don’t like jazz are ignorant of it. Become more knowledgeable about any music and you will be less ignorant of it. Who knows, you might enjoy it. 

“The definition of the term, chamber music, has significantly changed from its original centuries old definition meaning classical music that is performed by one musician to a part and without a conductor. This definition has been and continues to be broadened and redefined significantly to embrace music from other cultures and genres. In my opinion, this occurrence is very healthy for all music, particularly, jazz music. Tradition is powerful and much, if not all, of what we do as humans is, primarily based on tradition as a basis of our actions, whatever they may be. Jazz began in an intimate setting and definitely fits the definition of chamber music as well. Generally speaking, the act of “change” is difficult for everyone. 

“The immediate fear, in my opinion, is by altering or changing the tradition, the outcome will be less than satisfactory and mediocre. In order to really change tradition, it cannot be a fad. The change must be thought of it as good and be long lasting to coexist. Time is the proof. Jazz music has been embraced and enriched by many illustrious classical composers for years, i.e., Ravel, Debussy, Gershwin, Milhaud, Stravinsky, to name a significant few. They listened and adapted concepts into their own and the outcome has broadened their compositional breadth. Jazz musicians also listen to more classical music than the opposite. Why? They listen because of the vast richness, depth, and the ideas the music gives them that might be interesting to improvise upon. Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Benny Golson, Bob Brookmeyer, Chick Corea, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Billy Childs are a hand full of musician/composers who have changed how vast and rich the music can be when enriched by music of the world. 

“Books upon books have been written to explain why one music is better than the other or not. Chamber Music America is an organization that is not trying to change anyone, but to only enlighten the uninformed. To each his own, but let it be clear, if the music is great, it will always be great, no matter what it is.”

– Rufus Reid
Grammy-nominated composer, bassist, educator

Susan Mascarella

Susan Mascarella

“The qualities embodied in a small instrumental jazz ensemble extend beyond the practical definition of chamber music: a small instrumental ensemble with one on a part, traditionally found in intimate performance settings. In particular, the ‘one-on-a-part’ requisite has broader implications in jazz due to the element of improvisation. 

“In the context of chamber music, the terminology ‘one on a part’ generally refers to one musician per voice in a written score. However, the term ‘voice’ could also be interpreted in a different way – it could also refer to individual self-expression. In fact, these two nouns, ‘expression’ and ‘voice,’ are often used interchangeably – ‘express’ is a synonym for ‘voice.’ 

“Consistent with this interpretation, the small jazz ensemble epitomizes the ‘one-on-a-part’ paradigm. That is, individual self-expression – one ‘voice’ on a part – is integral to collective jazz improvisation. To quote CJC faculty Dr. Anthony Brown, ‘The search for one’s musical identity, ‘finding one’s own voice,’ is a jazz performer’s imperative.’ Therefore, by extension: ‘one on a part’ is an inherent requisite of the small jazz ensemble. There is literally and figuratively one and only one on a part. Thus, the small jazz ensemble not only qualifies as chamber music, it is the epitome of chamber music – the ultimate ‘one-on-a-part’ art form.”

Susan Muscarella
founding president, California Jazz Conservatory, Berkeley, California

British-born Eugene Marlow, Ph.D., is an award-winning composer/arranger, producer, presenter, performer, author, journalist, and educator. He has written over 240 classical and jazz compositions for solo instruments, jazz and classical chamber groups, and jazz big band. Three of his big band charts appear on three Grammy-nominated albums. Under his own MEII Enterprises label, he has produced 14 critically acclaimed CDs of original compositions and arrangements. Marlow is senior co-chair of the Milt Hinton Jazz Perspectives Concert Series at Baruch College (The City University of New York), now in its 22rd season, where he teaches courses in media and culture. Author of 11 books and 400+ articles, he has drafted a book on jazz in China entitled Jazz in the Land of the Dragon. He also writes “The Marlowsphere,” a bi-weekly blog dealing with music, media and culture.

Look for Part II of “Jazz in the Context of Chamber Music” in the November/December 2015 issue of JAZZed.

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