How these five jazz musicians take influence from classical music

I’ve been attending concerts by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra ever since I moved to the city in 1980. As I grow older, I appreciate it even more and go much more often.

Of course, JAZZ.FM91 listeners know me primarily as a jazz man. But at recent concerts, I’ve been surprised about how many familiar faces I’ve seen — including many JAZZ.FM91 listeners and donors and several of our best-loved jazz musicians. That said, it’s not actually surprising, because jazz and classical music are a logical marriage.

For one thing, they’re both primarily instrumental forms of music. Jazz ensembles are led by a bandleader; classical orchestras are led by a conductor. Each genre has its own rich history. Over the course of centuries, classical music gradually evolved from its origins in medieval, renaissance and baroque music. Similarly, jazz also had its own slow path from ragtime and Dixieland to the jazz forms we recognize today.

By the beginning of the 20th century, classical music included “expressionism” which featured irregular meters and rhythms. This new form of classical heavily influenced the birth of jazz. Jazz respected classical music, but it incorporated African rhythms and featured multiple instruments improvising simultaneously. Some may say the two genres are hundreds of years and hundreds of miles from each other, but they both reveal the human spirit and transcend the spoken word.

There are even some composers who slip some jazz in their classical: Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Bolling and Aaaron Copland, for example. There are also those who have classical training and incorporate it into jazz: Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Adam Makowicz come to mind.

I spoke to several of Toronto’s well-established jazz musicians and composers, and I asked them about their own unique relationships with classical music. In this Q&A, you’ll find Thompson Egbo-Egbo, Chelsea McBride, Christopher Simmons, John MacLeod and Hilario Durán discussing how classical music influences their jazz.


What are your earliest memories of classical music? Did you study?

Hilario Durán: My parents had a vast collection of records by Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian… so I grew up listening to classical music. After a few years of studying piano with private teachers, I was admitted to the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory of Music. I studied classical music during all those years with intense schooling and classical training.

Chelsea McBride: I never studied classical music formally, but I practise (and still do) lots of classical études in my downtime. I started on some classical piano as well, but honestly it never stuck — when I found pop and jazz, I really found the space where I was most comfortable.

Christopher Simmons: My first studies with classical music was as a percussionist in my teenage years. I then studied piano technique and classical composition in New York with Lynne Arriale and Richie Beirach.

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: I studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music to Grade 10.

John MacLeod: I think it would be fair to say that most brass players have some classical study and experience, even if only at or near the beginning of their playing lives. I studied études and orchestral excerpts and even played a season with the North York Symphony.

How do you incorporate classic music into your jazz compositions?

Hilario Durán: Studying the works of the significant classical composers gave me a better musical education and appreciation of music. Classical music inspires me, and yes, in my improvisations, I usually incorporate elements of classical music in jazz, which also applies to my playing style. In the improvisations, I use many classical music resources.

Chelsea McBride: I don’t think a lot in terms of genres when I write, but one of my upcoming projects is based on 12-tone techniques, which comes out of a more classical frame of reference. Before that, I was focusing on melodic minor modes, which is more of a jazz thing.

Christopher Simmons: When it comes to original compositions, I always incorporate classical through-composed elements into my jazz compositions. Depending on the piece, the amount of improvisation will vary. How about “jassicle” or “clazz”?

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: I incorporate classical music in my jazz all the time. The relationship is much closer than one might think.

John MacLeod: Jazz music evolved out of African and European musical traditions. Most of the forms, composition and harmonic language come from European music. In that sense it is impossible not to incorporate classical music into jazz composition. I’ve also recently composed a symphony for my own amazement.

Who are some of your favourite composers?

Hilario Durán: Several classical musicians have inspired me in my artistic career, but some of my favourites are Chopin, Gershwin, Bach, Liszt and Debussy. I cannot fail to mention the influence I have received from Cuban classics such as Cervantes and Lecuona.

Chelsea McBride: Debussy. Berg, interestingly. Bach, obviously. Clara Schumann. Stravinsky, at least some of the time. But I think in terms of comfort listening, Debussy is always number one.

Christopher Simmons: Bach, Corea, Debussy, Gershwin, Gismonti, Mahler and Scriabin.

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: Debussy, Mahler, Sibelius, Beethoven.

John MacLeod: Bartok, Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Bach.

Is it easier for a jazz musician to play classical, or for a classical musician to play jazz? What are some similarities and differences between the two genres? 

Hilario Durán: For a jazz musician, it is very important to work on classical techniques that should not be neglected; it is also very important to have an extensive repertoire of phrases and ideas. In my opinion, it is easier for a jazz musician to play classical music, since jazz allows the musician to acquire a vast knowledge of harmony in general. An essential element that distinguishes jazz from classical music is improvisation. This element is a creative process that allows the jazz musician to be spontaneous in inventing music as he performs it. Classical musicians often interpret musical notes written on the page by a composer. However, in the past, significant figures such as Mozart and Beethoven were known for their improvisational skills. Many melodic lines used by Chopin sound like current contemporary jazz improvisations. Jazz music is a composition where improvisations can be extended without limits.

Chelsea McBride: I think it’s a benefit to musicians of all disciplines if they try something outside of their comfort zone. Also, a lot of what I practise as a jazz musician is similar to what you might see a classical saxophonist practising. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on scales and patterns, on long tones and overtones, on altissimo and extended-range exercises. That’s not that different from what a classical player is doing. Our rep is different, and the way we apply these techniques is different, and I don’t spend a ton of time on extended techniques that classical saxophonists use, but the basics of getting around the instrument are kind of similar regardless of genre. I think people tend to think of classical music as more scripted and jazz as more free and improvised, but there’s a lot of room for interpretation even within the notes on the page for classical music. The rhythmic concept is very different — the way you feel time throughout the piece — but the expressiveness is still there across genres. And I think both styles are incredibly virtuosic, even though getting there is different; classical players tend to be asked to play technically difficult things, but jazz players often improvise at that level. I think some people think jazz is more fun? But it just depends on what you’re in the mood for: if you want to be surprised (jazz) or hear something you might already know (classical). Regardless, I think it expands your musical world to listen to both, and it’s something everybody should try.

Christopher Simmons: I believe this depends entirely on not only the desired goal and nuances, set out by the composer, but the actual expression and interplay a musician can spontaneously achieve. Ultimately, reading music is a reference to acquaint oneself with a piece. Ultimately, a performer should eventually memorize and perform the piece without a reference and work from the foundation that was in place initially. Even though classical music is composer-driven and jazz is improvisation-driven, the musical language of soulful expression is the ultimate goal of the artist.

Thompson Egbo-Egbo: The key is the rhythm. Playing the notes is half the battle, but yes, jazz musicians seem to do both better but mostly likely because they do both more often. There are a lot of similarities in the harmony, just interpreted differently, and with a few broken rules. Swing is the biggest and most notable difference.

John MacLeod: A professional jazz musician who can read music could play with an orchestra and a professional orchestral musician could play in a big band, but in either case, the musicians around them would be aware of differences in interpretation. If we are talking about soloists, on the other hand, a classical musician without training or any background in playing jazz would not be able to play it. But then again, only a jazz musician with a strong background in playing classical music would be convincing as a classical soloist. There are very few musicians who have reached the highest artistic levels in both classical and jazz. Duke Ellington famously said there are only two kinds of music: good and bad.  Both classical and jazz have absorbed influences from each other and from every other music form, and the distinction between one style of music and another has become more and more blurred over time. The greatest difference is in the listening background, education and training of the musicians in either genre.

What is your favourite memory of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra?

Christopher Simmons: Roy Thomson Hall with the TSO last June 11. Maestro Gustavo Gimeno was in top form as he masterfully conducted a provocative evening of incredible works. It was so refreshing to start off the evening by witnessing two commissioned world premieres: The Drastic Irony by Iman Habibi and Elysian by Francisco Coli. They were equally appreciated by the captive audience. Pianist Javier Perianes delivered a powerful version of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op.16. The audience loved it so much, he played an encore before the intermission. A rare feat! The evening concluded with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major; it was so fitting that the fourth and final movement evokes an ending that keeps on giving, leaving the listener with a heart full of hope and gratitude. It just doesn’t get any more major. One would assume that the three standing ovations were a testament to the audience’s gratitude.

John MacLeod: Proudly watching my son subbing in the bass section playing Mahler’s 10th Symphony, and hearing my own symphonic arrangements featuring Bob DeAngelis with the TSO.