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Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.


By Judith S. McCue
Chicago, IL, USA        

"1,000 Questions, One Answer"
Recorded in Poznan, Poland

“I'm always thinking about creating. My future starts when I wake up every morning... Every day I find something creative to do with my life.” Miles Davis

“Jazz is the next level of classical music.”  Orbert Davis

Orbert Davis is known internationally as the founder, conductor, and artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and composer of an exciting genre that fuses jazz with classical music. His innovative education programs strive to raise student academic achievement in schools by fusing music with the three R’s. I wanted to interview Orbert for two reasons: I confess to being a devotee of both jazz and classical music and, for me, his music enriches both genres in unexpected ways; and, like Orbert, I had spent many years on an educational crusade to engage students through creative art, in my case literary art − the music of words. But there was also another reason. When I was a kid in high school I lied to my parents about spending the night at a friend’s house. Instead I sneaked out to hear Louis Armstrong perform in Sydney during his 1964 Australian tour. I always had a thing about trumpet players. Still do.

To meet Orbert is to meet an approachable, unassuming man with the quiet, confident manner of someone who knows his creative passion is making a difference in the world, whether as an educator, composer, or leader of the 55+ piece Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and the Orbert Davis Jazz Quintet.

THIRSTY: In November 2009, I had the pleasure of attending your concert, “Strings and Things That Swing: The New Third Steam,” at International House, University of Chicago. How does the term, “The New Third Stream” describe your music?

ORBERT DAVIS: It was Gunther Schuler who, in the late 1950’s, coined the phrase “Third Stream” to describe a musical genre, which is a fusion of European classical music  and jazz. What I compose is based on the historical innovation of Third Stream, but I’m determined to take it to higher levels in multiple ways. Many times when listening to Third Stream, one can easily distinguish the classical elements from the jazz, such as rhythm, interpretation, improvisation, historic relevance and styles of orchestration. These aesthetic qualities have been defined as different, sometimes as polar opposites. What I try to do is redefine those qualities. In doing so, the lines between jazz and classical music are blurred; and in result they create an entirely new genre. However, I don’t have a personalized formula that I follow in composing my music. My methodology is different for each composition. For instance, now when we contract the performers for our concerts, we have many musicians who are devoted to each performance. That allows me to compose with the distinct personalities, musicianship, and special gifts of each musician. Also, it is important for me to spend significant time in research mode before I begin to compose. This is where inspiration, experience and discovery allow each composition to have a life and identity of its own.

Orbert Davis
(credit: Andrew Northrup)

THIRSTY: After the concert at International House, I spoke to one of the classically trained violinists in the orchestra. She had never played jazz before and had never tried to improvise on the classical pieces she plays. She was trained to stick to the text. Why did you include in a jazz orchestra performance musicians who not only had never played jazz, but who had never played together? Wasn’t that a risky thing to do?

OD: The musical pendulum can swing (pun intended) all the way to the left where there is collective free improvisation with the entire orchestra; and to the right where all musicians must perform the written work. I don’t consider it a risk at all. In regard to musicians playing what they are given, the music is classical. I wouldn’t force musicians to perform outside of their element or comfort zones, yet depending on the composition there is room for unplanned, unrehearsed creativity. Of course “soloistic” improvisation is given to those with jazz experience. There are so many variables to the equation. It’s also a learning process for the musicians. They have to learn and adapt to the language and the many idiosyncrasies of performance styles. It all starts with having an open mind. Classical music contains predetermined composition. Jazz can be predetermined in part, but it leaves room for spontaneous composition.

THIRSTY: When you are conducting and leading the CJP, do you call on individual players to improvise or must everything be scored and rehearsed over and over?

OD: There is a combination of both improvisation and scored music in every CJP performance. It depends on the composition that we are presenting. It’s a combination of both. I actually love to rehearse! Sometimes it takes hours to perfect a particular passage. And sometimes it takes hours to perfect a certain concept or process. I don’t have any set formulas. I do what the music and musicians require. I recently conducted a weeklong series of rehearsals and workshops with the CJP rhythm section, a few of our soloists, and university students in Poland. By Wednesday we had accomplished our goals in terms of rehearsing the music for the Saturday night concert. With the remaining three days we were able to practice concepts of swing, improvisation and style, while remaining incredibly relaxed and confident that the performance would be executed well. It was during that time when the most learning took place. The students were able to “own” the music – even though jazz was extremely new to them. The musicianship within Chicago Jazz Philharmonic is also at an extremely high level. I’m finding that the bar is raised at every concert. I believe it’s because our new brand of Third Stream is becoming more and more developed in the minds and hands of the musicians.

THIRSTY: I'm curious to know how your tour in Poland came about. Why Poland?

OD: Lauren Deutsch, the Executive Director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago (who happens to be the person who hired us for our very first performance in 2004 at the Chicago Jazz Festival) has been sending Chicago musicians to Poznan, Poland, for the “Made in Chicago Jazz Festival” for five years. This past November she convinced Polish producer, Wojciech Juszczak, to do something different – something that involved student performers. Wojciech ran with the idea. Their vision includes creating ways for students to experience the uniqueness of Chicago Jazz and continue its performance in Poland. The idea of combining classical and jazz excited Wojciech. It would take hours to describe the experience and the phenomenal impact our music had on the students. I believe that I am a Facebook friend to each member of the orchestra! That single performance renewed my faith in humanity and the possibilities that people of different backgrounds, races and cultures can truly co-exist and work together at an amazingly high level, sharing common goals. These sixty students, who for the most part never played or experienced jazz, were swinging and improvising in a few days, without losing the integrity of their classical backgrounds!

THIRSTY: In an interview with Jazz Inside New York, in November, 2009, you made the comment that, “Improvisation is life. In it we find many skills found in life itself…….”  When performing, do you improvise on your own compositions, or do you see them becoming part of the musical canon, like the compositions of Duke Ellington?

OD: Yes and yes! And often at the same time! The answer is at the very core of my mission as a composer and performer and for the orchestra as well. History and tradition are so important to my music, but so is creative innovation. I could not even take a breath to blow into my trumpet, if it were not for the masters, both jazz and classical, who created the paths that I strive to follow. My music is highly programmatic. Even if it is not readily obvious to the audience, you could say that it is classical in that sense. I recently composed a piece, “Variations on a Train,” the final movement of my “Four Tone Poem for Jazz Quintet and Orchestra.” It doesn’t take the listener long to realize that its harmonic structure is based on Billy Strayhorn’s (with Duke Ellington) “Take the A-Train.” It begins with me improvising over the structure and moves into an orchestral interpretation of a solo Ellington performed in the 1970s. So it is precisely that, “…improvisation on my own compositions and part of an ‘Ellingtonian’ musical canon.”

THIRSTY: Audiences don’t usually think of classical music and jazz together. What makes the marriage of these two different genres so satisfying for you and your audiences? 

OD: There are so many qualities that are the same in both genres. Take, for example, a medium tempo eight note pattern can be transferred into a fast tempo (double time feel) jazz bass line. The aesthetic qualities within the rhythm remain constant and with the stroke of the composer’s pen they can co-exist. There are many qualities that are different, for example, performance traditions. Improvisation can occur during a classical moment. Jazz can be structured. With the mention of the word “classical,” the mind conjures images of a large orchestra performing on the stage of a large hall. With jazz, a small group playing at a club is the usual setting. Jazz performance on the concert stage is no longer a foreign concept. 

Orbert Davis
(credit: Bob Black)

When juxtaposed, the "differences" between the two genres are simply contrasts that can merge. It’s up to the composers, musicians, and audience members to know and appreciate the differences and similarities between genres; and to allow a stretching of the limits and a breaking of the “rules,” all the while being in the moment. 

There are so many possibilities that have yet to be explored. I believe that jazz should have been considered the final form of the classical music tradition during the early to mid 1900’s. I also believe that improvisation should be addressed in classical performance repertoire as well as in the general education curriculum. If I get my way, it will.

THIRSTY: You are a classically trained musician, as are many great jazz musicians. There have been just as many other “greats”, maybe more, who couldn’t even read music. Has your classical training got in the way of your creative drive or has it been an asset?

OD: Never! My classical training has never been in the way of my creative drive. There was nothing or no one to stifle it. I had a phenomenal teacher in Mark McDunn during my high school and college years. He taught me to be well rounded and “employable.” Jazz is the next level of classical music. I believe that if we trace the evolution and progression of the development of classical music and its century by century breaking of the rules of music theory, then improvised music, where the performer becomes the creator, is a the logical next step. If it weren’t for the unfortunate racial social conditions throughout our history, jazz (or improvisation in general) would have been widely accepted in artistic circles.

Classical training is necessary to learn instrumental technique. I wouldn’t even call it “classical.” Maybe “proper” or “formal” is better. I’m a classically trained jazz musician and a jazz composer living in a classical world! But I’ve learned to do away with the labels. Music is music, each note with its own personality. Everything else is just spice and flavor.

THIRSTY: You have referred to "improvisation as composition." Isn’t that a contradiction?

OD: I didn’t develop this concept until I started composing and arranging full time. I’ve discovered that I use the same creative process to compose for a sixty-piece orchestra and improvise on the trumpet. The differences are composing for the orchestra gives me a much larger template and must be accomplished before the first rehearsal. Improvising jazz on the trumpet requires just one voice and is spontaneous. The creative process, reliance on theoretical knowledge, and compositional techniques remain the same. Plus viewing improvisation as composition allows me to view it as an art with a high aesthetic value, not just “faking it” or “playing anything,” as many people still view improvisation.

THIRSTY: You have said elsewhere that, “Jazz is more than a musical genre. It is the soundtrack of America and it provides lessons for us all.” What are those lessons and do you fear America is in danger of forgetting them?

OD: I do fear a danger of America forgetting the lessons. In fact, so many of them are indeed lost. That is why I devoted so much time developing my education programs and curriculum. This is due in part to America’s focus on the external and on fast profit. Just look at our popular music today. There is a heavy emphasis on how an artist looks and on seemingly constant regurgitations of what has been “successful.” We are a “microwave” culture of the “instant artist.” Instead of individualism in creativity there is mass assimilation. Music has become about entertainment and visual stimulation. Jazz is an interactive music that connects to the audience through emotional and intellectual involvement. The listener must listen creatively and openly. Though recordings are important, jazz is about being in the moment, as the music is created.

Lessons found in a jazz performance includes democracy, teamwork, a balance of leadership, integration, resiliency, creative and spontaneous problem solving, individuality within group dynamics, historic relevance, and the list could go on and on. When we think about the important innovations that jazz musicians have made throughout history it’s a shame that the music is so ignored. Jazz is the foundation of all American music. Yet, I have found that even at the college level, so many students do not know about Duke Ellington, Clifford Brown, John Coltrane, or even Miles Davis. I remember in my own education experience, having classes on music history where jazz was an after-thought or even totally ignored. 

Orbert Davis
2004 Chicago Jazz Festival
(credit: Jerome Simmons)

THIRSTY: Why does American music education still allow so many of our great jazz composers and musicians to pass virtually unacknowledged?

OD: It has to do with our history, focus, and education. Jazz has to be discovered. It is not as obvious as other art forms. I’ve had many students who were quick to say, “I don’t like jazz.  I can’t get into it.” Then I’ll play a certain recording and they’ll respond, “That’s jazz?  Wow, that’s kinda cool!” I am optimistic, however. I am finding that as young students are discovering jazz, they are demanding higher artistic qualities in what they listen to. As jazz becomes part of mainstream education we will experience an increase in its presence in society.

THIRSTY: It has been well established that children benefit academically from music and other arts programs that stimulate and engage their imaginations and creativity. Jazz Alive (the education arm of Chicago Jazz Philharmonic) programs are outstanding for doing this. If the research is in, why has it been difficult to convince education administrators to support music programs that can help their schools meet higher academic standards?

OD: In most cases, it has to do with three factors… money (or lack of), administrators’ musical experiences, or extreme pressure to focus on core subjects. I cannot argue the fact that schools are experiencing economic problems. But to ignore the role that music and the arts play is tragic – especially with the plethora of music advocacy that trumpet the many benefits of music participation. There has to be a shifting of core values and long-term planning. Many administrators may feel that music programs cater to a chosen few – those who participate due to have parental support, special gifts, etc. Music is often viewed as a performance art of a select few. I believe that all students should have some sort of music education experience and exposure with more programs focused on music in education and cross-curricular learning. We’ve had great success with our cross-curricular programs. Music connects with reading, math, history and other subjects as well. Jazz Alive (formerly MusicAlive) was founded based on those principles. I’m confident that there will be a time where administrators will be forced to search for new creative ideas, once it is proven that current strategies are not producing the desired results.

THIRSTY: Where does funding for your education programs come from? How would a poor neighborhood school pay for your program if they wanted it?

OD: With Chicago Jazz Philharmonic being a non-profit organization, our funding comes from, grants, foundational giving, and individual donations. Once we have targeted a school and have developed a partnership with its principal and administration, we cover most of the costs for the first few years. Every year the percentage of the school’s fiscal responsibility increases. After five years the school is ready to hire a full-time music teacher and band director. We also help each school develop a parent support organization. We get great support for our summer jazz camp, the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic /UIC Jazz Academy, as well.
THIRSTY: For young people who have not yet found their jazz ear, what artists would you suggest they start listening to?

OD: Oh, my goodness! There are so many! I’m not sure if focusing on one or a few artists is the way to start. Many artists have multiple musical personalities. I would suggest exploring the sub-genres of jazz and keeping tabs on what moves them. If I were to say, “start with something that is more on the commercial side or influenced by hip hop,” I would be assuming that other sub-genres of jazz is not easily accessible. It’s O.K. not to understand some things at first hearing. Jazz covers a wide area of expression and human emotion. Even in my own music. I don’t have a formula that I adhere to when I perform, compose or record. Every composition is different and is influenced by many components. My suggestion is simply to start listening, especially to live jazz. Use the creative mind while listening. Let the music trigger emotions, spark a memory, and inspire creative thinking. Then get up and be creative!




Judith S. McCue is a Senior Acquisitions Editor for Stay Thirsty Publishing.


All opinions expressed by Judith S. McCue are solely her own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.



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