International Jazz Day: Igor Stravinsky - Jazz After Spring

By Logan K. Young | Apr 30, 2013 10:17 AM EDT

Igor Stravinsky's first encounter with jazz came as early as 1918--five years after The Rite of Spring. That year, the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet presented Stravinsky with a hodgepodge of stray parts and piano reductions that he had obtained while touring the United States conducting Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

By 1918, Scott Joplin was dead, and the ragtime craze was over. Ragtime paraphernalia was still available, though, thanks to the massive dissemination of folios some nine years earlier. Ansermet, then, had a wealth of material from which to choose; clearly, it had some influence on its recipient.

Stravinsky's Ragtime for eleven instruments dates from 1918.

Earlier that year, there was L'Histoire du Soldat's own "Ragtime" movement.

Stravinsky's Piano-Rag Music emerges a year later.

In their seminal work Het Apollinisch Uurwerk, Over Stravinsky, Louis Andriesson and Elmer Schonberger asserted, "Stravinsky would never compose true jazz, let alone third-stream music." The Dutch duo claimed that Stravinsky was "interested in the confrontation of styles and genres" but had no intention of "actually mixing them."

Perhaps nowhere is this assertion more astute, or more audible, than in the Ebony Concerto of 1946.

Premiered by Woody Herman and The First Herman Herd on March 25 at Carnegie Hall, the Ebony Concerto was commissioned by Herman, himself. Therefore, the long standing myth that Stravinsky, so impressed upon hearing Herman's ensemble on the radio that he, himself, approached the band leader asking to pen a chart, is most likely a notion perpetrated by an overzealous publisher.

Years later, in his legendary conversations with Robert Craft, Stravinsky cites the Ebony Concerto among commissions such as the Circus Polka of 1942 (for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, with choreography by George Balanchine) and 1944's Scherzo a la ruse (for The Paul Whiteman Band) as mere "journeyman jobs."

Stravinsky further laments to Craft that he was forced to accept these tasks because "the war in Europe had so drastically reduced the income from [his] compositions."

Surprisingly, the Ebony Concerto received an indifferent Carnegie Hall premiere due mostly to its failure to exploit the rhythmic vitality inherent in the jazz vernacular.  Listeners were astonished that the composer of a piece like Le Sacre du Printemps could produce such an un-swinging piece for such a lively group as Herman's Herd. If ever Igor Stravinsky was blessed with a particular musical faculty, it was his gift for rhythm. But as jazz historian Ted Gioia notes, the Ebony Concerto was a "turgid work" that "quickly disappointed any listeners who had expected the Russian composer to embrace Herman's laissez-faire swing."

Eventually, Stravinsky would dismiss the Ebony Concerto entirely--his own "personal favorite" of his oeuvre from the '40s: "It is remote from me now, like the work of a sympathetic colleague I once knew well."

This article appeared originally on the University of North Carolina's
Reflections on the Rite" blog--in honor of the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

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