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More With Four: Jazz And String Quartets

What happens when a jazz artist meets a string quartet?

Artie Shaw and his clarinet.

What happens when a jazz artist plays with a string quartet? In this program we explore historical recordings of jazz soloists and ensembles with string quartets, ranging from Artie Shaw’s augmented orchestra of the late 1930s to Max Roach’s “double-quartet” of the 1980s. We’ll also hear music from:

  • saxophonist Lee Konitz (with arrangements by Bill Russo)
  • vibraphonist Joe Roland (playing Miles Davis’s “Half Nelson”)
  • pianist Andrew Hill
  • the Modern Jazz Quartet

…and more. Jazz meets a classic classical format this week on More With Four: Jazz and String Quartets.

From The Show

Although any combination of four stringed instruments can be called a string quartet, in classical terms it consists of two violins, a viola and a cello. Since the mid-18th century, the string quartet has been considered an important form in chamber music; most major composers have worked with it at one point or another.

Throughout jazz history, jazz artists have occasionally experimented with the string quartet, both on recordings and in performance: David Murray and Greg Osby are among the modern-day musicians who have made such records in recent years.

Artie Shaw And The ‘Swing String Ensemble’

Actually, it was a string quartet that gave clarinetist and jazz great Artie Shaw his first opportunity as a bandleader. In 1936 Shaw, who over the past few years had been working frequently as a soloist and sideman, was also periodically rehearsing concert literature with a string quartet. He appeared with them at a New York City concert, adding drums and guitar and billing the group as Arthur Shaw’s Swing String Ensemble. The performance drew raves from the crowd and the critics, inspiring Shaw to expand the group and take them into the studio. The group’s fusion of jazz and classical instrumentation was in some ways a forerunner of what would come to be known in the 1950s as “the Third Stream.”

Eventually the demands of the music business, driven by the desire for hot, danceable swing, forced Shaw to disband this orchestra. Many years later, he recalled it with both great nostalgia and bitterness: “I’m going to give them the loudest damn band in the world,” he remarked after breaking it up. This commenced a nearly twenty-year pattern of veering between commercially successful bands and groups that gave him greater aesthetic gratification.

Other Jazz-With-String-Quartet Groups

One such group was the small-group Gramercy Five, which in its second incarnation included vibraphonist Joe Roland, a little-known but talented mid-20th century musician. Roland, who had also played with George Shearing‘s popular early-1950s quintet, had already done his own jazz-with-a-string quartet date in 1950, leading a group that he called The Symphonette.

A better known musician from the same period is alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who made his first recordings with a string quartet in 1958 as part of an album project with arranger and writer Bill Russo. The two had gone to high school together and worked together in Stan Kenton‘s huge Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra. As roommates on the road, they frequently listened to the string quartets of Bartok, Ravel and Debussy. Several years later, Konitz asked Russo to help him put together an album for Verve, with a string quartet as part of the instrumentation.

Hear more about these and other jazz quartets on this episode of Night Lights.

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