Written by Chris Brubeck
People often ask me what it is like to play jazz while being accompanied by a symphony orchestra. When the Brubeck Brothers Quartet (Dan Brubeck, Chris Brubeck, Mike DeMicco and Chuck Lamb) comes to Erie later this month to play with the Erie Philharmonic with Daniel Meyer conducting, we will all experience this exciting fusion of two musical genres. As a jazz musician who also wears the hat of an orchestral composer and arranger, I can report that this kind of performance can be an incredibly thrilling experience! I am very lucky because I grew up hearing my father's pioneering work in bringing together the classical and jazz worlds. He was fortunate to collaborate with one of the most amazing musical geniuses America ever produced: Leonard Bernstein.
As a young man Bernstein played jazz piano and therefore appreciated the skills required to be a fine jazz musician. If you doubt this, think of the brilliant West Side Story score which sparkles with incredible rhythmic and harmonic energy. Of course, Bernstein also loved Mahler, and had an impressive command and understanding of classical music. He totally embraced the idea of improvising jazz combos integrating with the symphonic world. The music that Dave Brubeck, Lenny Bernstein and my uncle Howard Brubeck produced together was somewhat controversial and revolutionary in a sense during the early 60s. My father first depended on his older brother Howard to compose and arrange while Dad learned the art of writing for orchestra. He achieved this a few years down the road. My father and I would talk about how improvisation used to be an important element in classical music. Bach, Mozart and many others were great composers who also attained fame in their time by dazzling audiences with their compositions AND their improvisatory excursions during expanded cadenzas. Both Bernstein and Brubeck thought the legitimate heritage of improvisation in a symphonic context was arbitrarily abandoned. From an audience point of view, witnessing the performer create music spontaneously right before your eyes was an extremely engaging musical practice that deserved a resurrection. Brubeck & Bernstein were trailblazers whose combined talents opened paths for other musicians to follow.
I grew up hearing their efforts and went on to perform with orchestras and various jazz groups for about 40 years. Quite a few things have changed over the decades. The biggest difference is the attitude of orchestral musicians. When I first started playing with my father and orchestras, about 20% of the symphony players thought it was a "cool" thing to be integrating classical and jazz music. About 50% of the orchestral musicians didn't like the idea at all. The remaining players were tolerant. It basically boiled down to classical players not understanding and respecting what jazz players did. There has been a big attitude adjustment throughout the 1970s to this day as many music conservatories such as Julliard (which produces superb classical players) now also feature jazz performance major programs. The classical students have roommates or friends that they hear honing their jazz skills and excelling at music theory and composition courses. The orchestra majors now comprehend that the jazz players' skills take serious study, practice, intuitive chops and something the classical musicians don't have -- the amazing ability and courage to instantly compose solos on the fly; in other words, improvising.
Then there are the orchestral arrangements themselves. The arranger who creates these orchestral "charts" is always looking for ways to allow the orchestra to sound great at what they do best, and to make sure the jazz combo gets to shine as well. There are certain things one learns to not write because the odds of a "train wreck" accelerate. It can be like walking a tightrope to get the two worlds to swing together on uptempo tunes. An additional factor that the audience doesn't think about is that often there is only a two-hour rehearsal to put a performance together. It costs a lot to get 70 musicians on stage, rent a hall, employ stage hands etc. Financial support from the government for the arts is constantly being cut, which adds to the real challenge orchestras face to pull everything together musically, financially and technically. It is a true testament to Erie's love of the arts and The Erie Philharmonic that your community supports its orchestra and exciting programs such as this one.
The Brubeck Brothers Quartet are looking forward to playing with the Erie Philharmonic October 28th. We have had many great experiences working with classical musicians in America and around the world. We played several unforgettable concerts with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra a few years ago. Another highlight was performing with the Russian National Symphony Orchestra at Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow. That event was completely sold out and was televised across Russia. The highly educated audience loved our combination of classical and jazz. We even played some movements of a chamber piece I had written for woodwind quintet and jazz quartet titled "Vignettes for Nonet." We also performed my new arrangement of "Take Five", my brother Darius' arrangement of "Blue Rondo a la Turk" and several other charts I had been asked by my father to write for him when he appeared with orchestras over the last few decades. The Russian orchestral musicians were very enthusiastic to be playing this music and it was a beautiful thing to experience. Obviously, America's relationship with a certain strata of Russians has deteriorated precipitously, but not with the musicians we played with. We shared something special with each other on stage and that was embraced by the audience. There was a level of joy and wonderful communication in our concerts. Remember that underneath the nasty rhetoric of competitive governments there are common people like you and me who get along great and can remain friends despite the stormy political seas at the surface.
This is the importance of cultural exchange and one of the reasons that collaborating with symphony orchestras is such a beautiful endeavor. Whether in a foreign land or right here in America seeing two different genres come together to create something exciting on stage is a rewarding experience. We jazz musicians love to hear the rich colors of the orchestra integrate with the essence of the composition we are playing. Most of the time we have to be content with imagining these sounds in our minds. When I play with an orchestra, my musical fantasies become real for everyone in the concert hall.