By Eric Dundon
Leonard Slatkin, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Conductor Laureate, leads the orchestra in three concerts in January 2024 that explore the intersection of jazz, blues, and ragtime music with traditional classical forms. The concerts, performed at the Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, reveal how these and other pop culture genres—referred to by Slatkin as the vernacular—influenced composers throughout the 20th century and changed the face of concert hall music ever since. Each concert is anchored by a George Gershwin work that Slatkin recorded with the SLSO in the 1970s—one of the first orchestras to record Gershwin’s concert works.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
SLSO: What are some of your earliest memories of jazz music?
Leonard Slatkin: Because my parents were involved in the musical end of the film industry as well as being part of the classical music industry in Los Angeles, I had a rather broad understanding of many genres. I went to studio sessions all the time. I was on sound stages, and I also got to know the important jazz musicians on the West Coast. I would spend a lot of time in the clubs, and I got to know all these people.
Jazz music and what we think of now as Baroque music shares some similarities, correct?
If you look at J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, or any of the Baroque composers, generally, they allowed for a lot of freeform thinking over what they composed. Take, for example, the blues. Blues music has a formal structure. There's a specific set of chords that go with any blues work, and a musician improvises over those chords. You improvise the melodies; you improvise some of the harmonies that go around it. That's a carryover from the Baroque era.
And there’s also the idea of bringing popular culture into the concert hall as well.
Everybody thinks the first use of jazz vernacular in the concert hall is George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 1924. Well before that, we had other composers who were flirting with this introduction of popular culture into the concert hall. We had that when Mozart used folk tunes in his operas as did Verdi, Schubert, Mahler, so many others. They're taking music that was more of the people and putting it in this world for concert presentation. Today, we have no problem accepting the wonderful composers who combine idioms.
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How did ragtime, blues, and jazz influence how music was written for the concert hall?
Composers liked the freedom. The idea of incorporating jazz gave more stylistic liberty to the composer, and certainly also to the performer.
Throughout the 20th century, composers like Igor Stravinsky try to find how they fit within a cross section of these various genres. Is that something that we see from other composers?
Almost every composer of the 20th century, certainly Americans and many Europeans have tried to figure out how to incorporate pop culture into their music. We can go back to William Schuman or Roy Harris or Aaron Copland. They didn't think about it as being jazz. They just thought about it as being American and they wanted to reflect the sights and sounds of the country. European composers got interested and experimented with jazz all the time. And we continue to see it today.
What was your concept for the three concerts you lead with the SLSO in January?
I wanted to go back to an early time in my relationship with the orchestra. In 1974, I suggested recording Gershwin’s music would be a good idea. No orchestra had ever recorded the very few complete works for orchestra by Gershwin. Those recordings never ever went out of print ever. What do you program around that? I wanted to look at some of the history of music that delved into combining American originality with classical design and formal structure.
We see in the programming some names not often associated with the concert hall. Talk a little bit about those composers.
Jeff Beal may not be the most familiar name to everybody, but I guarantee you almost everybody knows what he has done on the big screen. He is great jazz trumpet player who wrote a new Violin Concerto that will be premiered in St. Louis. Mary Lou Williams was one of the great pianists. She wrote this piece called The Zodiac Suite. It's one of the interesting pieces that combines a jazz group with symphony orchestra. And John Alden Carpenter was one of the important composers in the early 20th century. Krazy Kat was a cartoon, and he wrote a ballet based on this character and incorporates jazz elements into the ballet scenario. The music is delightful.
Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Director.