Sowerby’s Jazz-Tinged Compositions


THE PAUL WHITEMAN COMMISSIONS & OTHER EARLY WORKS / SOWERBY: Synconata, H. 176a (1924). Serenade for String Quartet (1917).* String Quartet in d min., H. 172 (1923).* Tramping Tune for Piano & Strings, H. 122 (1917).*+ Symphony for Jazz Orchestra, “Monotony,” H. 178 (1925) / Andy Baker Orchestra; *Avalon String Quartet, +add Winston Choi, pno & Alexander Hanna, bs / Çedille CDR 205

Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) occupies a compromised place in jazz history. The son of an outstanding concert bandleader and musical pedagogue, Wilberforce Whiteman, who also taught music to Jimmie Lunceford, Paul was a violist in the Denver Symphony Orchestra in his younger days and clearly knew good music from bad, both in the classical and jazz fields. His problem, when he formed his own popular orchestra at the age of 29 (1919), was that he had a burning desire to “make a lady out of jazz.” Although he clearly loved the free spirit of improvising musicians, he stocked his band with formally-trained musicians who could play rings around most of their rivals but couldn’t swing if you put a keg of dynamite under their butts. The first bona-fide jazz musician he had in his group was New Orleans clarinetist Gus Mueller, who can be heard on his early hit recording of Wang Wang Blues, but Mueller got tired of the “symphonic jazz” angle and left. This was followed by several years in which only a few of his musicians really understood the jazz beat, though they tried their best, before he lucked out by hiring star cornetist Red Nichols and some of his famous Five Pennies, namely clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey, guitarist Eddie Lang and virtuoso jazz drummer Vic Berton, in early 1927.

But Red, Eddie and Vic also got tired of the bucketful of pseudo-jazz dished out by Whiteman and left after a couple of months (Jimmy Dorsey stayed through 1928, briefly bringing his brother Tommy into the band). Then, at the end of 1927, Whiteman lucked out again. Detroit-based bandleader Jean Goldkette was forced to cut his highly gifted but also highly paid jazz stars loose in order to meet payroll at his Graystone Ballroom, which put such stars as cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, C-melody saxist Frank Trumbauer, trombonist Bill Rank, arranger Bill Challis and the swingingest white bass player of his time, Steve Brown, at liberty. They first joined a band led by fellow-jazzman Adrian Rollini, but when the venue they were playing in caught fire and burned down, they all signed on with Whiteman. Brown, whose swinging bass propelled some of the best jazz records that Whiteman made with Bix et. al. (particularly Lonely Melody and the February 1928 take of From Monday On, an arrangement by Tom Satterfield that even impressed Louis Armstrong), had enough by the end of February and walked out, but the rest stayed. Some of their records thereafter were kind of hot, but many still weren’t. The quota of pretentious over-arranged drivel began to overwhelm the little bit of jazz content; Beiderbecke drank himself into a stupor due to the job stress, was sent home to recover, came back for a short while in 1929 but was never quite the same. Only Trumbauer stuck it out into the mid-1930s.

We all know about Whiteman’s commissions for George Gershwin, the 1924 Rhapsody in Blue and the 1925 Piano Concerto, both of which were recorded (Bix Beiderbecke, of all people, played the solo cornet part at the beginning and end of the second movement in the latter), as well as his later commissions for staff arranger Ferde Grofé, Metropolis (1928), a pretentious “tone poem for orchestra” now virtually forgotten, and the Grand Canyon Suite (1932), but this album brings forth two works that Whiteman never recorded but did commission, Leo Sowerby’s Synconata and his Symphony for Jazz Orchestra, subtitled “Monotony.”

In the long view of history, Sowerby (1895-1968) would seem the least likely composer to have his music commissioned by a “jazz” orchestra because he is much better known for his religious music. He began composing at age 10, turned to the organ at age 15 and had his Violin Concerto premiered at the age of 18 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; he had moved to the Windy City to study composition with Arthur Olaf Andersen at the American Conservatory of Music in that city. Indeed, by 1924 Sowerby was himself on the faculty at that institution, and in 1927 became organist-choirmaster at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Chicago. He later won the 1946 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 1944 cantata, The Canticle of the Sun. Yet this is the very same Leo Sowerby who wrote the pieces you hear on this album, all of which are premiere recordings.

Synconata opens up with a bang but quickly moves into the sort of pseudo-classical melody line that Whiteman thought would make jazz a lady. Yet for the most part, this is interesting music; like so many “jazz” compositions of that period, it leans more towards ragtime than real jazz, but the structure of the piece goes far beyond the ragtime composers. There’s a nice melody played by a solo trumpet, accompanied for a time only by the piano, which is then picked up by a solo violin and moved around the orchestra during its development. I would characterize it as more of a classical work with syncopation written with popular band orchestration than a jazz work with classical structure. There are some interesting moments of “sliding trombone” and the like to give it a 1920s “flapper feel,” but it’s clearly well written if stylistically dated. Gershwin could have taken some lessons from Sowerby. If a modern-day band were to replace the banjo part with guitar and swing it a little, I think it would work even better.

The 1917 Serenade for string quartet may be claimed by some to be in the same vein, but I heard it as leaning more towards the “American Indian” style that became popular with MacDowell and stayed so through the late 1910s. Here, Sowerby is even a bit more adventurous harmonically than in Synconata, possibly because he was comfortable writing for a string quartet by this time.

The full-length String Quartet, which dates from 1923 (one year before he wrote Synconata), is a very serious classical work using some harmony which was experimental for those days  (some of it modal) without going too far in the direction of Bartók or, heaven help us, Schoenberg. There are syncopations galore in the latter part of the first movement, but they’re classical syncopations, not really jazz-inflected (though you could make an argument for their being ragtime-inflected). I found the second (slow) movement to be pleasant but much less interesting save the faster middle section.  The third movement is built around a repeated rhythmic cell that dominates the first couple of minutes until the tempo suddenly relaxes into a more Romantic theme. Again, however, the problem is that Sowerby beats this rhythmic motif to death. Both the second and third movements are far too long for their good; some judicious editing would actually strengthen the structure and make them more interesting. The 1917 Tramping Tune adds a piano and double bass to the string quartet, and is a very interesting and concise little piece with some chromatic and whole-tome harmony thrown in for fun.

Then we get to the “main event,” so to speak, Sowerby’s jazz symphony Monotony. This is an utterly fascinating piece, more classical than jazz despite its use of muted trumpets, banjo and the like, at least in structure. Sowerby builds the first movement around a little sliding chromatic figure played by the trombones in their low range, which is then transformed a bit and moved up to the saxophones as the music develops. Suddenly, a bright little clarinet tune pops up (probably played by Ross Gorman, Whiteman’s virtuoso clarinetist at the time who created the upward opening glissando in Rhapsody in Blue), before the strings and brass get in on the fun. Once again, the syncopations are much closer to ragtime than to real jazz of the era (for examples of this, listen to contemporary recordings by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and The Wolverines with Beiderbecke on cornet), but Sowerby’s composition skills kept him and the piece going.

Yet you can clearly hear why Whiteman never recorded this with his band. The music isn’t nearly as direct and easy to digest as the Gershwin pieces; there are a lot of little nooks and crannies in it that don’t fit into the scheme of Whiteman’s concept. The contrasting rhythms in the second movement alone would be enough to confuse listeners more attuned to dancin’ their pants off to Charleston or Black Bottom, particularly in the second movement, titled “Fridays at Five.” The next movement, “Sermons,” harks back to Sowerby’s church-music roots but turns them a bit on their ear; using a sort of broken waltz rhythm, the music limps along a slightly bitonal harmonic base that slyly slips up and down chromatically. This clever harmonic “slippage” continues on and off throughout the movement as the theme develops (yet another reason for the casual listener to lose track of the music). Interestingly, too, this movement really has zero jazz or ragtime content but for the slightly syncopated beat and one passage where he uses “laughing” clarinets.

I’m not sure exactly who “Critics” was aimed at, the audience or music reviewers, but here Sowerby turns a bit sour, using a repeated motif in D minor with strongly syncopated figures. Again, the music is developed along formal lines, once again leaving the average flapper or flapperette scratching their heads wondering what this music is really all about.

My friend for the last 20 years of his life, Ralph Berton, was someone who lived through this era (he befriended Bix Beiderbecke when he was still with the Wolverines in 1924) and knew good music from bad, once told me that the best jazz-classical hybrid of that time was John Alden Carpenter’s Skyscrapers. It took me several years to actually hear a performance of it, but he was right. On the other hand, I don’t think he bothered to go to Whiteman’s concert to hear the Monotony symphony, because to my mind it’s clearly in the running. This is an interesting piece no matter how you approach it, even with the waltz melody in the last movement, obviously thrown in to please the public.

A very interesting album, then. Kudos all around, to the performers for doing such a good job on the music as well as to Çedille Records for recording and releasing it. This is a valuable missing piece in the early discourse between jazz and classical music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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