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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

25. Take Jazz Seriously! The Creation of My “Jazz Cats,” Op. 20

The original Jazz Cats image

I have written very little so far about my compositions here at MusicCentral. But, I also haven’t composed much since starting at TicketCentral nearly a year ago, so there’s been little occasion. This evening, however, I would like to share some thoughts on a piece I finished recently, called Trio, Op. 20 for clarinet (or saxophone), double bass, and piano, and subtitled, Jazz Cats. The idea had been to write the music that the cat-musicians on my jazz cats t-shirt were playing. This shirt was a favorite with my friends, and we were always wondering what music those hip-looking cats in sunglasses were performing. While the idea might sound preposterous, it has yielded quite a good work. I had drafted the first few measures just after graduation while still living in Natchitoches, but it was not until March of this year that I resumed work after a lightning strike and week-long power outage gave this project a new sense of urgency. I wrote the Second Movement in two sittings on March 30 and April 5. Then, while at the Little Walter Blues Festival on May 24, I found the remaining inspiration I needed. The later it got and the more blues I heard, the more I became preoccupied with a complex idea for merging the twelve-bar blues and the twelve-tone row via a twelve-part passacaglia bass line. I rushed home to compose, and by the next afternoon, the Third Movement was finished; by May 30 I had completed the First Movement too.

Jazz Cats is in essence an abstraction on the characteristics of jazz: the walking bass, blue notes, irregular rhythms, irregular rhythmic patterns, improvisation, and in the rigorously-constructed final movement the twelve-bar blues form essential to so many jazz pieces. Although for years I devoted my entire attention to classical music, I first began to consider that jazz could also be art when researching Maurice Ravel during summer 2012 for an internship I had with the Rapides Symphony Orchestra. In 1928, when jazz was just beginning, Ravel wrote an article called “Take Jazz Seriously.” He had befriended George Gershwin and toured the Harlem jazz clubs with him; Ravel had also begun incorporating jazz elements into his compositions. “If Ravel valued jazz so highly,” I remember thinking, “so could I.” I listened to the two-disc set, The Essential Louis Armstrong, that fall and then, in the spring, albums by Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, and contemporary jazz bassist Christian McBride. It took a while for me to get into jazz, but as I continued studying twentieth-century classical music and listening to traditional and modern jazz, I realized that jazz had become an integral part of the classical mainstream. You certainly cannot understand the Third Stream music of Gunther Schuller, nor can you really appreciate Leonard Bernstein or many others without first knowing jazz. Further, many of the musicians disregarded only as “jazz men” were among America’s top composers—starting at least as early as Duke Ellington, but also including Miles Davis and Schuller’s collaborator John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Maurice Ravel (at piano) and George Gershwin (far right)

So, Jazz Cats is my response to this artful jazz. With the exception of the Second Movement, it probably does not sound very jazzy to most ears. But, consider the elements listed above: they permeate the piece so densely as to result in almost total dissonance throughout. My characteristic usage of tone rows—as a “tonal” element among “chromatic” non-row-based material—is also a guiding principle in much of this trio. And, in Movements I and III, when tone rows are used, they are constructed to emphasize blue notes and half-step intervals. After I was finished composing, I assigned each movement a name which is a pun or joke to flesh-out the cat theme. In the First Movement, the double bass and piano’s left hand provide a walking bass accompaniment throughout most of the movement, thus it was named “That Cat-Walking Bass.” The name of the Second Movement, “Midnight Serenade,” refers to late-night, feline musicmaking the sort that is in Tom and Jerry cartoons and the Disney movie, The Aristocats. Finally, the name of the Third Movement, “Cool Cat Jazzy-caglia,” is a pun on the Baroque form, the passacaglia, with its reiterated bass progression.

Movement One begins with an introduction for clarinet purposefully reminiscent of the opening clarinet line in Gershwin’s famous Rhapsody in Blue. From there each instrument gets a chance to introduce its own main theme: the clarinet in E-flat major in measures 7-9, the piano in G major in measures 13-14, and double bass back in E-flat major in measures 34-35. Together the three instruments give variations on these three themes—often atonal, row based ones. The double bass theme is witty in that it is the first time the double bass is allowed to use its bow the joke being that, in the early history of jazz, bassists seemed to have forgotten their bows at home for they rarely use them. After sufficient variations on these themes, everything breaks down and the clarinet reintroduces the introduction theme as the start of a cadenza which plays on the half-step interval—the difference between a key’s standard pitch and the flatted blue note—which is taken over by piano and bass. In performance, I plan to give the musicians the option of improvising this cadenza, a nod to the improvisatory nature of jazz, despite that Jazz Cats is thoroughly notated otherwise. From the cadenza, all three instruments hurry into a coda completed by the return of the walking bass.

The Second Movement plays on a blue note-inspired six-note motif. This motif is actually inspired by the similar theme from Christian McBride’s “King Freddie of Hubbard” on his debut album Gettin’ to It. I do not remember if this was a conscious reference, but it is the rhythmic bounce of the theme that matters. Another idea that started in the Second Movement but can be heard elsewhere too is that instrumental lines often repeat the same notes several times in a row. This lent a bluesy expressive feel which I had avoided in previous compositions.

The complex structure of the Third Movement warrants special attention. In this movement’s slow introduction, the double bass presents the root notes of the twelve-bar bass chordal sequence (I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I) over the course of twelve measures. The bass then shortens the durations while maintaining the proportions to create a rhythmic sequence (4:2:2:1:1:2) which becomes the repeating bass line of the passacaglia referenced by the movement’s title. The clarinet introduces the movement’s tone row (E-D-Db-G-Ab-C-B-F-Bb-A-Gb-Eb) which, notice, places the key of E-flat’s blue notes (G-flat and D-flat) in prominent places so as to maintain their bluesy feel. In the initial row statement by the clarinet, we hear the row in the same twelve-bar blues ratio established by the double bass. This ratio remains important for determining rhythms throughout the movement, just as the tone row remains important for determining the pitches. After the initial statement of the passacaglia’s bass line, it continues to shift keys, according to the tone row itself. In short then, I have combined the jazz elements of blue notes and twelve-bar bass with classical elements of passacaglia, pitch-based, and rhythm-based serialism. This is the scheme I dreamt up at Little Walter that night!

Over the last few weeks, I have shared Jazz Cats with several people. It has become my default introduction to my newer music for it is a fun, witty piece but also entirely serious in its construction and harmonic language. Some have commented how far away this piece is from their regular impression of jazz, mentioning its atonality or likeness to Third Stream, while others have not understood anything more than that they like the piece. No listener though has disliked it. I myself am still amazed at just how good, complex, and accessible a work Jazz Cats is, and I hope to find an opportunity for it to be performed in the near future!

JSH 14.06.26

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a graduate of the Louisiana Scholars’ College—Louisiana’s designated honors college located on the campus of Northwestern State University. There, he studied music history, completing an undergraduate thesis entitled “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” Now living in Alexandria, he continues to pursue his musical interests through individual research, original compositions, writing program notes for the Rapides Symphony Orchestra, and as director of the new Abendmusik Alexandria music series. He is also one of the founding members of TicketCentral.


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