American Music is like a Gumbo Stew

Gumbo Stew according to Wikipedia
“The dish combines ingredients and culinary practices of several cultures, including French, Spanish, German, Filipino, West African, and Choctaw. Gumbo may have been based on traditional West African or native dishes or may be a derivation of the French dish bouillabaisse, or Choctaw stew, but most likely all three dishes contributed to the original recipe.”

Just what defines American Music? If you hear it what is it you are hearing. Like Gumbo American music comes from many cultures. Great food and music often come from a mix or clash of cultures.

When most of us think of American music we usually think of Rock, Jazz, Blues, Rhythm and Blues or country. That is certainly American music. Do you think of Latin music such and Salsa and Tango? Do you think of Aaron Copland, William Grant Still, George Gershwin and Bernard Hermann?  These are all uniquely American music.

Bernard Hermann was born in New York City as Max Herman. His father, Abram Dardik was from the Ukraine. Like many emigrants, there was a family name change. Hermann is one of three Russian-Jews represented on the Westwood Ensemble all Americana Oct. 4th concert. Hermann wrote many film scores and many for Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock wanted Hermann to do the score for Psycho but did not have the usually funding because the studio would not back him on this picture. Hitchcock funded this movie himself as a low-budget black and white film. He did not have his regular fee for Hermann so Bernard did offer up his usually musical score. Psycho is a string orchestra score only. Bernard Hermann knew Gershwin and heard bits of Porgy and Bess in the Gershwin home long before the score was complete.

When the Stars Began to Fall or “My Lord What a Mornin”
Many slave songs and spirituals have double meanings. Slaves were not allowed to read. A slave could be punished for reading and anyone teaching them could also be punished. “Mornin” here can mean morning (beginning) or mourning (the end or great sadness). Of course, just because a person cannot spell the two words it does not mean they cannot know and feel the difference. The composer or composers of this piece of music is anonymous.

The title means liberty or free tango, a break from traditional tango now called Nuevo Tango.

Tango, from Argentina, has similar a history to American Jazz in that it went from the brothel to bars and dance clubs then onto the concert stage. String players that perform in Tango especially violin and double bass players are highly skilled and have very advanced techniques. Piazzolla is one of  many composers who studied with the great French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. Her other students include Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland.

George Gershwin is a hugely important American composer. His influence covers; Broadway musicals, popular standard songs, jazz, opera and the symphonic concert. Gershwin went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger based on the recommendation of Maurice Ravel. She rejected him saying he was already George Gershwin and “there is nothing I can do for you”. George handled this rejection well and got busying writing “American in Paris.” Gershwin had much success and failure with music and women. After failing he would quickly move to the next music project or new lady. Gershwin was primarily a self-taught musician after some private study on the piano he would pay people to help learn composition or orchestration. “Lullaby” was most likely an assignment on how to write for strings. It is unclear whether it was meant to be for string quartet or string orchestra. Composed around 1911, it was performed in private parties many times according to brother Ira. However, no official public performance happened until 1967.

Danzas de Panama
William Grant Still, an African-American, was the first American composer to have his Symphony performed by a major American orchestra. He was also the first black American to conduct an American major symphony. In his “Danzas de Panama” for string orchestra, he blends Latin and African rhythms from the people of Panama. Still was associated with Harlem Renaissance as is Duke Ellington. Still, like Gershwin, Hermann and Ellington worked also as a composer and arranger in the Hollywood movie industry.

In a Sentimental Mood
It would be impossible to imagine American music without the likes of Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong. Ellington like Mozart wrote in all the music formats; vocal, instrumental, dance, party, religious and concert stage. “In a Sentimental Mood” is a piece in what we call now American standard song form. The form consists of normally 32 bars of music repeated. The form is 8 bars with a repeat in one key known as the “A” section than the “B” section in new key often known as the bridge then the “A” returns to the original key for 8 bars. In this arrangement by Marcus Lewis, he has created a short introduction for strings alone before the melody begins. There are many songs in this form, Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and Duke’s “Satin Doll” are classic examples. Both Gershwin and Ellington were masters of this form.

Hoe Down from “Rodeo”
“Beef its what’s for dinner” from the 1900’s was the commercial that brought this fiddle song back to audiences. However, the Ballet Rodeo and this music have always been popular. Aaron Copland is another of those Russian Jewish New Yorkers that define American music. He was also a student of the French teacher Nadia Boulanger. Many a politician has tried to use Copland’s music as their theme song. Copland was under pressure from the FBI and the McCarthy era harassments of artists and musicians. Eisenhower wanted to use Copland’s music as his theme music and it was not welcomed, later Ronald Reagan would use it. Copland was a liberal in his time, but not highly political.

I hope you enjoy the Westwood Ensemble playing our All-America program. What defines American music for you? American music is loved around the world and it is one of our greatest exports.

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