Is jazz really America's classical music?

Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, shown on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in 1963, was known as the First Lady of Song and worked with great orchestrators such as Nelson Riddle.Ronald Dumont/Express/Getty Images

February 22, 2022

“Jazz is America’s classical music.”

Utter this phrase in earshot of devotees of either genre, and you’re bound to provoke a strong reaction. Although it is not entirely inaccurate, it can tend to diminish what was trying to be accomplished on both sides of the fence. 

Clint Eastwood, who might have known jazz and American sensibilities better than many of his generation, had a probing insight: He felt Americans struggled to recognize and appreciate the uniqueness of jazz simply because they didn’t think themselves capable of producing what he called “high art.” A low artistic self-esteem has often fueled apathy.

The truth is that many jazz musicians began by studying classical music and certainly music theory. Some chose jazz to focus on swing and improv. Others took it up due to the sad fact that they weren’t embraced by the establishment. African Americans, Creoles, women, Latinos and virtually all non-Europeans would eventually discover that the best way through the door is to build a new entrance.

With the hope of tearing down a fence or two, here are 10 prominent jazz performers who went beyond dabbling or slumming in classical music. 

Scott Joplin, along with W.C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton, was arguably the first in the art form. The syncopated sound of what later became known as “stride” or “ragtime” evolved from Joplin’s unique contrapuntal solo piano compositions, which spread like wildfire in the media of the time, piano scrolls and sheet music.

Duke Ellington began his prestigious career playing and reinventing dance music, especially boogie-woogie, blues and swing. He was always interested in the African diaspora and quickly worked it into his music, not always with subtlety. He would spearhead the Harlem Renaissance, arguably the most important cultural phenomenon of the 20th century.

Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, did not come by that nickname inauthentically. Like Ellington, she established her fame with the swing of Chick Webb’s orchestra. But she had more far-reaching passions. She perfected scat. And through great orchestrators like Nelson Riddle, she would elevate the art from the clubs to the finest concert halls in the United States and in Europe. Even Paganini got his nod, as one of her signature songs shows.

North Carolina-born Nina Simone was a product of the deeply segregated South. Today, she is thought of as a pioneer of soul and jazz who is both elegant and gritty. Few people can get past her muscular songs and lyrics. But her first love was classical piano. Her concert debut, a classical recital, was given when she was 12. She later recalled that during this performance, her parents, who had taken seats in the front row, were forced to move to the back of the hall to make way for white people.

Sadly, the jazz establishment, which embraced Black male composers, was reluctant to let women sit in the lead chair. Although vocalists, referred to as "girl singers," were let in, instrumentalists struggled. A rare, practically lone exception to that rule was pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams. She caught the ear of Count Basie, who was quite supportive for the time. She led some of the greatest swing bands and went on to develop a catalog on par with women like Florence Price.

Miles Davis was never one to lay fallow. Like an edgier version of Beethoven or Haydn, he would dominate any form he chose to enter. He often invented or completely altered instrumental music. It's not a stretch to point out that most of what the irascible trumpeter recorded is still being analyzed and enjoyed, decades after his death. He began with hopes of his formal education leading to classical composing. After tiring of the waning bebop scene, he met arranger Gil Evans and recorded "Flamenco Sketches." Shades of De Falla, Rodrigo and his own subtle muted signatures created an instant classic.

Wynton Marsalis is also a trumpeter and, in many ways, the antidote to Miles Davis. Davis was not an early cheerleader, to put it mildly. Marsalis and four of his brothers learned their craft at the feet of their father. Ellis Marsalis was a beloved patriarch in the cradle of jazz, New Orleans. Wynton Marsalis was a traditionalist at first: more committed to reviving older styles, especially hard bop. Probably owing to his virtuosity, Marsalis is a rare example of a jazz star who has been simultaneously embraced by the classical world, with many recordings to show for it.

Bill Evans came from the so-called lyrical school of piano playing. His softer sounds gave him instant fame with the laid-back West Coast school. Chet Baker, Vince Guaraldi and others were big names in that movement. But Evans was anything but low key. He was an improvisational genius with a keen ear for side players. He also had great credibility with African-American musicians. Miles Davis thought so much of him that he recruited him for the Kind of Blue sessions, a quintessential recording in any genre.

Dave Brubeck, in a similar vain to Bill Evans was initially tossed into the lyrical/West Coast bin. But that was never his jam. Brubeck's largest influences came from French composer Darius Milhaud. He studied with him in Europe, and the two men were close. Brubeck became intrinsically associated with "Take Five," a song that was actually written by his saxophonist, Paul Desmond. It wasn't until much later that his music contained more overt references to Milhaud and other European impressionists.

Jon Hendricks should be on this list for many reasons, not the least of which is his            creation of a school of lyricism. The term "vocalese" has an entirely different definition in jazz thanks to Hendricks. His gift was in creating lyrics, written and improvised, to well-known instrumentals. Practically every jazz star, from Thelonious Monk to Duke Ellington, was eager to have him add words to their sonic gems. Whether through his group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (with Kit Lambert and Annie Ross), or on his own in the ensuing five decades, he would reshape the entire vocal landscape.