A few weeks ago, I played an album by the jazz saxophonist Henry Threadgill to a composer I know, and asked him to guess who wrote it. Old Locks and Irregular Verbs is an extended suite for an octet, and, like many of Threadgill’s compositions, full of jagged rhythms and mind-teasing patterns. ‘Milton Babbitt?’ my friend suggested.
Babbitt was an academic serialist composer and the author of a notorious article, ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’ But he also dabbled in jazz, or rather, in ‘Third Stream’ music. The Third Stream, a synthesis of classical music and jazz, was first dreamed up by the French horn player and composer Gunther Schuller, in a 1957 lecture at Brandeis University. Schuller didn’t mean ‘jazz with strings’, that schmaltzy mid-century favourite, or injecting fugues into blues pieces, but rather a rigorous and probing combination of jazz sonorities and improvisation with modern classical techniques and structures. A lot of jazz innovators enlisted in Schuller’s project: Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Jimmy Giuffre and, above all, the pianist John Lewis. Babbitt contributed a piece of spiky, 12-tone jazz called ‘All-Set’ to a 1957 concert Schuller organised at Brandeis. For the few years of its existence, the Third Stream looked set to take off.
It was not to be. Schuller instead found himself ‘vilified on both sides’. Classical musicians mostly disdained jazz, while jazz musicians worried that the adoption of classical forms would sap their music of its vitality. In Blues People (1963), LeRoi Jones described Lewis’s Third Stream compositions as ‘frightening examples of what the final dilution of Afro-American musical tradition might be’. The power of black music resided in its ‘separation from the emotional and philosophical attitudes of classical music’. For all its revolutionary airs, the Third Stream represented a capitulation to white, European assumptions about high art.
Schuller continued to compose Third Stream music – ‘my baby’, he called it. But his project never overcame the prejudices against it. The Third Stream department Schuller established at the New England Conservatory was renamed ‘Contemporary Improvisation’ in 1992. When Schuller died last year, aged 89, the Third Stream seemed to have lost its one abiding advocate.
But there is another way of thinking about the Third Stream: not as a movement, but as an elastic sensibility or structure of feeling among musicians who work along the increasingly porous borders between contemporary classical music and avant-garde jazz. Threadgill – who won the Pulitzer Prize in composition this year – is one of many jazz artists whose work could be described as Third Stream. The trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith is another. Both Threadgill and Smith are founding members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a black musicians’ collective established in Chicago in 1965. They never called their work ‘Third Stream’, but many of the AACM’s composers were steeped in contemporary classical music, particularly the work of Cage, Boulez and Stockhausen.
Tyshawn Sorey – a 35-year-old drummer who studied with some of the key composers of the AACM – is one of the many younger musicians, equally at home in jazz and classical music, who are realising Schuller’s dream of a hybrid genre without having to resort to programmatic statements or manifestos. Sorey’s early albums are enigmatic, rich with silences, often reminiscent of Morton Feldman. But there’s a surprising romantic streak on his new record, The Inner Spectrum of Variables, a two-hour suite that integrates jazz improvisation with brooding writing for piano, strings and percussion, not to mention allusions to klezmer and Ethiopian jazz.
Last week at Lincoln Center, Sorey presented ‘Perle Noire’, a stirring arrangement of Josephine Baker songs performed by the exceptional soprano Julia Bullock and members of the International Contemporary Ensemble. ‘Perle Noire’ evokes the cabaret jazz of the 1920s with wit, sensuality and haunting touches of dissonance, as if to suggest the suffering that Baker endured off-stage. The audience at the Stanley Kaplan Penthouse was packed with musicians and composers – I spotted Aaron Jay Kernis and Vijay Iyer, among others – and they gave Sorey, a jazz drummer, and Bullock, a classical singer, several ovations. ‘Perle Noire’ doesn’t belong to a genre with a name, but it scarcely needs one: the walls that once divided the worlds of classical music and jazz, of art music and popular music, crumbled long ago.