Little Theatre Logo

The Influence of French Impressionist Music on American Jazz
Neil Olmstead
Professor of Piano
Berklee College of Music

Wayland Concert Series
April 1, 2016 at 8:00 pm

The term “impressionism” was first applied to the French visual artists of the late 19th century and subsequently used to describe the music of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, British composer Frederick Delius and Spanish composer Federico Mompou, among others. Much of their music depicted subjects in an aural manner (e.g. La Mer) and, like their counterparts in painting, conveyed the mood and emotion of a subject rather than a detailed tone picture.

Jazz originated with the African Americans. Its major innovations and developments were derived from them in rhythm, melody, form, harmony, timbre, and improvisation. The roots of jazz lie in its African heritage, yet its development is an amalgamation of European and African music.

Influences of Impressionism in jazz appear in varying forms and levels. Early on, ideas were merely imitated or even commercially motivated (Harry James filched of Ravel’s entire Daphne and Chloe for his By the Sleepy Lagoon). Phrases and motives from specific pieces were often borrowed and used in new jazz works (Beiderbecke’s In a Mist). But it was not until the 1940s and ‘50s that jazz artists formally adapted the harmonic language of Debussy and Ravel in their compositions, arrangements, and improvisations. Arranger Billy Strayhorn’s utilization of the harmonic and tonal palettes of the Impressionists was further augmented by jazz pianist Bill Evans’ use of space and perspective in his playing.

This lecture describes the origins and evolution of French Impressionist music and American Jazz and the influence Impressionism had on jazz. Through audio recording and live piano performance of Ravel, Debussy, Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and others, the listener is able to draw an aural connection between the great Impressionist composers and the writers and players of American jazz.