Aug 25, 2018
"Jazz is the ultimate common denominator of the American
Today would have been the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), a towering figure in American musical history. If he had only been the master of one area of music – the stage, the screen, the concert hall, television – his legend would have been assured. Instead, he mastered them all.
Much of his fame derived from his long tenure as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, from his conducting of concerts with most of the world's leading orchestras, and from his music. He wrote for Broadway (West Side Story,collaborating with Stephen Sondheim – pictured above), Peter Pan,Candide, Wonderful Town, On the Town); the Movies (On the Waterfront); Ballet (Fancy Free); and for the Classical canon, his Mass, and Jeremiah Symphony. He also wrote a range of other compositions, including two more symphonies and many shorter chamber and solo works. The orchestral version of the overture from Candide is a staple of concerts around the world.
Bernstein was the first conductor to give a series of television lectures on classical music, starting in 1954 and continuing until his death. He was a skilled pianist, often conducting piano concertos from the keyboard. I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Bernstein conduct two Brahms symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the symphony’s summer home of Tanglewood in the Berkshires, a place that had a special place in Bernstein’s heart.
He championed American composers like Copland and Ives, as well as Europeans like Messiaen, Mahler, Nielson and especially Gustav Mahler. It is fair to say that none of the work of these now acknowledged masters would have become staples of concerts across America without his tireless support.
Bernstein was immersed in jazz from his youth, working as a jazz pianist in his teenage years and directing a swing band at a summer camp. His 1939 undergraduate thesis at Harvard, “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music,” argued that jazz is at the foundation of all American composition, and his initial post-graduate employment included transcribing jazz for a music publisher, exposing the young composer to the inner workings of the improviser’s art. Click here to listen to Bernstein’s 1956 recording What is Jazz?
Podcast 634 is my tribute to Leonard Bernstein, as jazz artists both new and old have recorded and rearranged his tunes. Obviously, this small sampling is heavy on West Side Story, but also features songs from Candide, Wonderful Town, On the Town and “Big Stuff, sung by Billie Holiday. That latter tune was written with Lady Day in mind as an introduction to his ballet score Fancy Free (choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who would also create the dances for West Side Story) but not recorded by Ms. Holiday until months after the ballet premiered in 1946. Musical selections include:
Stan Kenton & His Orchestra - "I Feel Pretty"
Oscar Peterson Trio - "Something's Coming"
Sue Halloran & Ken Hitchcock - "I Can Cook Too"
European Jazz Trio - "Maria"
Don Byron - "Glitter and Be Gay"
Bill Charlap Trio - "Ohio"
Kurt Elling - "Lonely Town"
Oliver Nelson - "Cool"
Billie Holiday - "Big Stuff"
Manny Albam - "Tonight"
Mark Whitfield - "Some Other Time"
Carmen McRae - "It's Love"