Bach and Jazz – Melodic Presentation

Posted on 2012/01/11


Feature Image - Bach and Jazz

During the first half of the 20th Century, there was a shift in stylistic choices for both pianists who interpreted Bach, and pianists who improvised in the jazz idiom. It is curious that these two groups developed concordant preferences on how to to articulate melody, considering their differing motivations.

Whether either group had influence upon the other is a question too big for this small analysis. However, I shall try to suggest how these coincident styles came to dominate two seemingly disconnected genres of music.

Melodic Improvisation

In a television interview from the 1970s, Oscar Peterson, sites “the two fingered percussiveness of Nat Cole” as one of his main influences. In addition he spoke of Cole’s approach to improvisation as one that ensures “each note has its own articulation rather than being an insipid phrase…”.[1]

By this time, Peterson’s opinions were in agreement with the majority of notable jazz pianists. However, this style of playing only began to emerge in the 1930s, and was in stark contrast to pianists of the early 20th century.

For instance Art Tatum, who perhaps influenced Peterson the greatest, performed from the late 1920s to the 50s with a “beautiful soft legato touch” (with no silences between tones).[2] In addition, his exceptionally fast right hand improvisations required him to use the sustain pedal sparingly, so not to blur the melodic lines. This resulted in a greater staccato (silences between tones) in his left-hand stride playing compared to pianists who had slower right-hand lines (and could utilize the sustain to their advantage).

A contemporary of Tatum who took a different approach was Earl Hines. Hines is often attributed with developing the ‘trumpet-style’ jazz piano, playing solos in octaves “to produce a clear melodic line that stood out over the sound of a whole band”.[3] As any pianist knows, this requires the right hand to be held in a rigid position so that the thumb and 5th finger play octaves. Consequently, it is very difficult to play legato phrase at any speed (although, if one can stretch sufficiently, the fourth finger can be used interchangeably with the 5th to attempt legato between the top tones).

And so, silences between tones (stacato playing) was a byproduct of a soloing technique devised to add volume to a pianist within a large orchestra. As Tatum preferred to play solo, or in small groups, he never found need to play in this way.

During the late 20s and early 30s, many young jazz pianists were greatly influence by Hines’ type of playing. While many went on to play in Big Bands, others worked in much smaller groups.

We have already heard of Nat Cole, who Peterson cites. Living in Chicago in the 20s and 30s, Cole would frequently listen to Hines’ residency gig in the Grand Terrace Cafe. Inspired by Hines and others, Cole later went onto form a successful piano trio, the launchpad for his success as a vocalist. Around the same time, and at the same cafe, the pianists Teddy Wilson worked as an understudy for Hines. A few years later, he gained fame working in Benny Goodman’s Quartet – the first black man to perform in public with a previously ‘all-white’ band.

Working in smaller groups than Hines, both men adapted the style they so admired. No longer requiring the greater volume one could achieve from playing in octaves, they switched back to Tatum-style single lines. However, they retained the silences between tones, this time as a deliberate stylistic choice, rather than the accidental by-product.

In the coming decade, when the Swing Era went into decline, jazz musicians increasingly found they needed to play in smaller groups to get work. This was one of the contributing factors that led to musicians searching for new ways to play, along with a disillusionment with the lazy patterns they had found in periods of over-worked success.

Pianists such as Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk were central to the development of the new melodic ideas that would come to be categorized as be-bop, yet their playing still retained the this single-line staccato style that Cole and Wilson pioneered a decade before. And so, this style came to be the dominating influence for new jazz pianists for decades afterwards.

Melodic Interpretation

During the same period of development Artur SchnabelRosalyn TureckDinu Lipatti  and Glenn Gould (among others) started interpreting Bach on the piano, also with a staccato approach.  A clear motivation for this was that they could get the piano to sound closer to the harpsichord (the instrument on which Bach played his own compositions), while enjoying the dynamic and tonal advantages of a piano.

There were several other reason to play a piano rather than a harpsichord. Firstly, harpsichords are not easily available for beginner musicians. Then there are the performance advantages. Pianos are louder and can be used in concert hall performance without the need for amplification. Modern pianos are also far better than harpsichords at staying in tune.

Secondly, any musician who wants to play a wide repertoire of modern keyboard music needs to specialize in piano. Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt (among others) all composed keyboard music exclusively for the piano.

To be proficient at both piano and harpsichord is surprisingly difficult. The 18th century harpsichord has much narrower keys than the modern piano. To compare, the world champion of snooker is rarely also the pool champion.

For this reason, when Glenn Gould recorded Handel’s suites on a harpsichord, he decided to use a Wittmayer – the brand harpsichords with the widest keys.[4] Otherwise, it was likely he would have performed at a lower pace than he wished, in order to compensate for the unfamiliar parameters.

The desire for the piano to sound like a harpsichord is not necessarily coupled with wanting to reproduce the instrumentation of Baroque Germany. For Gould, the melodic aesthetic was derived not from Bach’s instrumentation, but his composition. It was the contrapuntal nature of Bach’s music that lead Gould to his style of playing. For these ideals, the sustain pedal was not required, and mostly ignored (as can be seen in photographs with Gould’s right foot tucked under his chair).

What is interesting is how Gould’s ideas of note relationships closely resembled those of his jazz contemporaries.

In a 1981 radio interview with Tim Page, just after recording Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a second time, Gould remarked: “I think really that the primary tonal concept that I maintain with regard to Bach is (…) a non-legato state, a non-legato relationship.  A pointalistic relationship, if you want, between two consecutive notes is the norm, not the exception. That the legato link is the exception.”[5]

This was not so to conform with what he supposed to be Bach’s performance intentions. Indeed, Gould questioned whether Bach had any preferences at all with regard to these particulars:

“I just think that all the evidence suggests that Bach didn’t give a hoot about specific sonority, or even volume.  But I think he did care, to an almost fanatic degree, about the integrity of his structures.”

Conforming Requirements of the Piano

The coinciding stylistic choices of jazz pianists and players of Bach led to a very interesting friendship between Bill Evans and Glenn Gould:

[Gould] did admire Bill Evans, the legendary jazz pianist, who for a while in the 1960s was a recipient of Gould’s famous late-night phone calls. Peter Hm, a jazz critic in Ottawa, told me that Gould even loaned CD 318 to record his landmark Conversations with Myself. (On the album, Evans experimented with multitrack recording – hence the name – in so many places CD 318 can actually be heard in triplicate.)[6]

‘CD318′ refers to the Steinway Grand piano that Glenn Gould and his tuner Verne Edquist spent decades trying to modify to Gould’s specifications. He desired a piano with an exceptionally light action (so it took little force to initiate a note). Clearly, this would appeal to jazz pianists adopting the Cole & Wilson approach to soloing, where a light action is required for rapid staccato playing.

Since Gould’s death, the piano has been requested and used in performance by many jazz pianists including Brad Mehldau and Hiromi Uehara.



[1] The Dick Cavett Show on PBS (1979) Interview with Oscar Peterson

[2] Duning, George (10/1/1935) ‘Impressions of Art Tatum at the Grand Piano’ for Downbeat Magazine

[3] Biography of Earl Hines at:

[4] Hafner, Katie (2009) ‘A Romance on Three Legs – Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano’ Bloomsbury USA pp 180-181

[5] Gould, Glenn (2002) Audio: ‘A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981′ Sony (3 CDs). [The third CD contains the interview with Tim Page]

[6] Hafner, Katie (2009) ‘A Romance on Three Legs – Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano’ Bloomsbury USA pp 237-238 [Note: The original hardback of 2008 does not include the epilogue which discussion jazz musicians use of CD318]

Posted in: Music