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Reviewed by:
  • Leonard Bernstein and the Language of Jazz by Katherine Baber
  • Ken Smith
Compiled by Sandi-Jo Malmon and Colin Coleman Leonard Bernstein and the Language of Jazz. By Katherine Baber. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019. (Music in American Life.) [x, 268 p. ISBN 978-0-252-04237-9 (hardcover) $110.00; ISBN 978-0-252-08416-4 (paper). $27.95]

“Jazz is a very big word”, Leonard Bernstein told television audiences in “The World of Jazz”, his second installment for CBS’s Omnibus series in 1955. It was still a couple of years before West Side Story would shake up Broadway and Bernstein would take command of the New York Philharmonic, but for the multitasking maestro this was already old news. Starting with his Harvard honors thesis, entitled “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music”, public comments like this became Bernstein’s lifelong riff.

Others would likely call it Lenny’s leitmotif, and therein lies a telling difference. Composer Allen Shawn, in his 2014 monograph Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician for Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, recounts a gifted and ambitious youngster developing a fast-musical crush on George Gershwin. Bernstein was working as a music counsellor at a Jewish summer camp in Massachusetts when he heard word of Gershwin’s untimely death; turning to the piano in the mess hall, he announced the passing of “America’s greatest Jewish composer” and gave a haunting performance of Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2. Bereft of his personal hero, the young Bernstein would turn his allegiance to Aaron Copland, who later became a longtime mentor.

Despite their many shared affinities—both born in Brooklyn, two years apart—Gershwin and Copland had fundamentally different perspectives. Gershwin was a popular entertainer whose musical ideas soon transcended standard song forms; Copland was a thoughtful artist who embraced jazz as a “serious musical idiom”. In 1955, the same year of his Omnibus telecast, Bern stein revealed his own shift of loyalties in his essay “Why Don’t You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune”:

“[Rhapsody in Blue] is not a composition at all. It’s a string of separate paragraphs stuck together— with a thin paste of flour and water . . . I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky . . . but if you want to speak of a composer, that’s another matter”.

For a piece that would largely define Bern stein’s dual performing career, conducting orchestras from the piano, this is hardly even faint praise. And yet, in Katherine Baber’s account, that incongruity fueled much of his composition. Bernstein was neither a “latter-day Gershwin” nor a Copland with vernacular street cred; rather, the man and his work were more complicated, less categorisable. The most prevalent streams in Bernstein’s musical well were jazz and Judaism and—particularly with the symphonies—it was often difficult to keep them apart.

Bernstein’s initial solution to “the Gershwin problem”, Baber points out, was rearranging the Rhapsody, accentuating its strengths and downplaying the material he found weak. (He recorded his version, drawing on a youthful chamber arrangement he had made at his summer camp, with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in 1959.) His second solution was Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, essentially a concerto for clarinet fitting the vocabulary of jazz to the grammar of neoclassicism. Commissioned by Woody Herman (and eventually premiered by Benny Goodman on Bernstein’s Omnibus jazz episode), the piece’s construction owes a much greater debt to the works of Stravinsky and Milhaud—particularly the latter’s Création du Monde—than to Gershwin’s late-romantic throwbacks.

Jazz is indeed a very big word, and the “language” in Baber’s title is not merely musical but also verbal and ultimately symbolic. Beyond the existing hybridity of Dixieland, swing, and boogie-woogie in Bernstein’s youth, jazz was continuing to evolve. Populist entertainment throughout World War II gave way to a “rhetoric of conflict” (as one of Baber’s chapters is [End Page 375] entitled) in post-war styles like bebop and cool. As the country developed, so too did Bernstein’s notions of jazz and its cultural resonance...


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pp. 375-377
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