Five Musicians Who Crossed Over Between Jazz and Classical
Jazz clubs and concert halls can feel like two completely different ends of the musical spectrum. The crowded, intimate setting of the club, with musicians often within an arm’s reach of the audience, is a far cry from the grand, multi-story halls where you’ll find orchestras playing. And yet some musicians thrive in both settings, and just about everywhere in between.
Since April is National Jazz Appreciation Month, here are five musicians who found success across the jazz-classical divide. Some have looked to bridge that gap, creating new sounds from a mix of influences and genres. Others have kept their classical and jazz lives almost completely separate, as if they were two different musicians. Whatever their approach, all of them have proven that what ultimately matters isn’t style or labels. Great music, whatever you want to call it and however you want to play it, is great music.
In the 20th Century, not many musicians turned down a chance to study with music teacher and conductor Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Not many people, that is, except pianist Keith Jarrett, who made that decision in 1962 when he was 17, and (almost) never looked back. He knew that jazz was ultimately where his heart was, and instead headed to Berklee for a year before joining Art Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers. Stints playing with Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis brought him fame in the jazz world, but Jarrett still couldn’t quite shake his interest in classical music.
Starting in the 1970s, he began exploring that interest more, and began a parallel career as a classical pianist. While some musicians have found success mixing the two genres, Jarrett found that he worked best by keeping them completely separate, explaining that
[Y]our system demands different circuitry for either of those two things. The chosen insanity is to learn the circuitry, and to be sure you're not inhibiting the wrong circuit by acting in a different zone. I would guess it's almost impossible to do more than one thing well. So that's the insanity, you know that and yet you're still doing two things!
Still, Jarrett found a jazz-like kindred spirit in Johann Sebastian Bach, who was known as a master improviser in his day. And for Jarrett, who spent much of his performing career coming up with music on the fly, there was a certain comfort in handing the reins to someone else for a change:
I’m just throwing myself to this other guy, and asking him, “Show me something I still don’t know about music.”
In 1959, a young jazz pianist joined Henry Mancini’s band to record the theme for the TV show Peter Gunn. Johnny Williams, also billed as “John Towner Williams,” already had a trio of albums under his belt and would go on to play piano for the films West Side Story and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. By the late 60s, he decided to go simply by “John Williams” and turned his focus to writing film scores of his own, scoring his first of 51 Oscar nominations for Valley of the Dolls in 1967.
The idea that the composer for Star Wars, Jaws, Harry Potter, and countless other films and franchises started his career as a jazz pianist might seem surprising now. But Williams was just following in the footsteps of his father, also (confusingly) billed as “Johnny Williams.” The elder Williams was a well-regarded drummer who played with popular jazz acts like Tommy Dorsey, Kate Smith, and Benny Goodman. He also worked for Columbia Pictures’ in-house orchestra, playing on the scores to classics including On The Waterfront and Vertigo.
As a kid, the younger Johnny Williams would often shadow his dad, sitting in on jams and recording sessions. While still in high school he joined a quintet of teenagers that Time magazine dubbed “the hottest band in Hollywood,” playing three nights a week to packed nightclub audiences. Then, after a brief period in the Air Force, he moved to New York, where he studied at Juilliard by day and played jazz club gigs at night.
In another universe, people might bring up the trivia fact that “the great jazz pianist John Williams” once composed a couple movie scores early in his career. As wonderful as Williams’ jazz playing was, I’m glad things turned out the way they did. And he even managed to sneak some jazz into one of his most iconic film scores:
It might be easier to talk about the genres that John McLaughlin hasn’t tried out. He started out as a guitarist in London’s burgeoning jazz scene, but frequently dipped his toes into rock, blues, and R&B. He even gave guitar lessons to Jimmy Page! In 1969 he moved on to New York City, jamming with Jimi Hendrix and playing on albums with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, and Santana. There, he stood at the forefront of a new sound that blended jazz with rock, funk, and more, which became known as “jazz fusion.”
McLaughlin could have just kept to his well-regarded career as a jazz guitarist, but that just wasn’t his style. In the 1970s, he explored an interest in Indian classical music with his band Shakti. He teamed up with flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia in 1979, and in 1986 dipped into the classical world with his Mediterranean Concerto. Clearly influenced by Joaquín Rodrigo’s music for guitar and orchestra, it’s a lush neo-romantic piece filled with the sounds of Spain. For a musician who changes genre the way most of us change clothes, he feels remarkably comfortable trying on classical music for size.
Having started at Juilliard at the tender age of 8, pianist Hazel Scott had made a name for herself by the time she was a teenager in the mid-1930s, playing on national radio and alongside Count Basie’s famous orchestra. Her signature sound was “swinging the classics,” putting a jazzy spin on Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Bach for delighted audiences. “Classicists who wince at the idea of jiving Tchaikovsky feel no pain whatever as they watch her do it,” read a review in Time magazine, noting that she also often did the reverse: “into 'Tea for Two' may creep a few bars of Debussy's Clair de Lune.”
In many ways, this was as political a statement as it was artistic. Musical segregation between classical and jazz mirrored segregation between Black and white in society. Scott was a fierce advocate for civil rights, refusing to play for segregated audiences. She also turned down movie roles that portrayed her as subservient. And she wasn’t subtle about her views; check out this clip from The Heat’s On (1943), where she plays two pianos simultaneously, one black and one white:
In 1950, she became the first Black woman to host her own TV show, but sadly, it was short-lived. Her political activism brought her to the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee at the height of the Red Scare. She was defiant, telling the committee to their faces that entertainers “should not be written off by the vicious slanders of little and petty men.” Still, she ended up blacklisted, and like many Black jazz musicians of the day, left the US for France, where she continued playing for rapturous audiences.
Like John Williams, André Previn’s early jazz work paved the way for future success in Hollywood and the classical music world. Unlike Williams, whose jazz career is mostly relegated to a “did you know?”-type trivia footnote, Previn was a key player in the West Coast jazz scene in his teens and 20s. In 1958 alone he released five albums as a leader and played on six more, including two with Benny Goodman. A poll that year in the magazine Downbeat listed him alongside Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, and Erroll Garner as one of the top pianists in jazz. He is credited with further integrating Broadway music into jazz, and his album of songs from My Fair Lady with Shelley Manne and Leroy Vinnegar was the best-selling jazz album in the country for years after it was released.
But Previn found himself being pulled in other directions, even while his jazz career was taking off. He won his first Oscar in 1958 – at the height of his jazz stardom – for his score to Gigi, and followed it up with another in 1959 for Porgy and Bess. The 1960s saw him win two more Oscars and start his pivot away from jazz and towards classical, taking on conducting posts in Houston and London. He made a return to the jazz scene in the late 1980s, and continued releasing jazz albums into the 2000s.
Out of all the musicians on this list, Previn found the most success equally across both genres. Had he stuck to either one, or even just to composing and arranging for Hollywood, he’d have had a long and illustrious career. But fellow jazz pianist Wynton Kelly put succinctly why Previn never had to make that choice: “whatever he does, he does well.”
For more great music from these crossover musicians, check out this playlist: