The centenary of a sacred scandal: it’s a jazz affair

Leonard Bernstein once hailed Le sacre du printemps as “prehistoric jazz”. The statement alludes to the primitive elements Stravinsky explored in his work, the fact that at the time of its premiere jazz hadn’t particularly gained notoriety yet, and finally to some sort of prediction that jazz would soon fall victim to the spell of this influential piece.

Many remarkable jazz musicians have acknowledged the impact this groundbreaking work has made in their careers. Miles Davis considered Stravinsky one of the greatest composers; Charlie Parker, as I will later elaborate, even had the chance to pay a tribute to the composer; and John Coltrane, according to his son Ravi, often played Stravinsky’s records in his house.

Other artists have even registered their esteem to the composition: Ornette Coleman recorded Sleep talking based on the opening melody played by the bassoon, Hubert Laws and Don Sebesky did jazz arrangements for some of the themes of Le sacre in their record The rite of spring and Alice Coltrane recorded the section Rondes printanières for her album Eternity. 

That being said, how could the alliance between Le sacre du printemps and jazz be explained? Jazz pianist Julian Joseph centered that connection to The Guardian around rhythm: the notion of adding melodies on top of persistent rhythmic structures in the piece is very similar to what jazz musicians are used to when they improvise over fixed rhythmic patterns.

Stravinsky was an artist who paid close attention to the cultural trends of his time; hence, he quickly took a hold of the popularity of jazz at the beginning of the 20th century and his affinity to the genre was naturally materialized in some of his works. In L’histoire du soldat, composed in 1918 and considered by his creator as “an essay in jazz portraiture”, he included a section called Ragtime. In 1942, he wrote Circus polka for a young elephant (for a ballet George Balanchine choreographed for the Ringling Brothers Circus). The following year, he composed Scherzo à la russe for a jazz ensemble. And finally, in 1945, he wrote some sort of a clarinet concerto for Woody Herman entitled Ebony concerto.

One of classical music-meets-jazz’s greatest anecdotes is represented by the encounter between Igor Stravinsky and Charlie Parker that took place in New York City in 1951. The saxophonist’s quintet was performing that night at Birdland. His trumpeter noticed Stravinsky’s presence in the crowd and informed his bandleader, who didn’t dare to confirm it –he just set off to start the show with the piece Koko. Unexpectedly, he included the opening melody of L’oiseau de feu. Stravinsky could not control his excitement and, according to Alfred Appel, he “roared with delight pounding his glass on the table, the upward arc of the glass sending its liquor and ice cubes onto the people behind him, who threw up their hands or ducked.” Two years before, at La Salle Pleyel in Paris, Parker had also incorporated the opening melody of Le sacre in Salt peanuts.

(Another interesting meeting featured Frank Sinatra approaching the Russian composer at a restaurant. The singer expressed his admiration to Stravinsky and asked for an autograph. The latter courteously signed it, but didn’t recognize him.)

More recently, Darryl Brenzel made an adaptation of Le sacre for a big band entitled The Re-(w)rite of spring, and The Bad Plus even went further in boldness and arranged it for jazz trio, calling it On sacred ground: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The trio’s pianist Ethan Iverson, in an interview with Jazz Times, said that the arrangement was based on the version for two pianos (which you can hear in a previous post of this blog). He also confessed that he wasn’t entirely sure that they had written a “jazz version” of Le sacre. He rather thinks that The Bad Plus’ take lies on “a whole other avenue”.

Le sacre du printemps
is not only one of the most technically demanding pieces ever written in the orchestral language, it is also hard to deal with in genres accustomed to virtuosity like jazz. This is another evidence of the greatness of this masterpiece –its endless reserve of inspiration it continues to serve to music, no matter what form it takes.  

This a live performance of On sacred ground: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by The Bad Plus


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