It certainly can and has been argued that jazz is America’s foremost original contribution to the serious music tradition – a hypothesis that only gains in credibility as jazz continues its evolution toward an academic and grant-driven art of the concert halls. This is not to discount the global significance of such American composers as Gershwin, Copland or John Cage (or Amy Beach or Virgil Thompson or William Grant Still); but even into the early 20th century, in music as in literature, Americans followed the lead of the imposing, centuries-old continental achievement. We spawned some undeniable contenders and original voices, but there was never a question about the direction in which the tradition flowed.
With jazz, starting with Armstrong and then especially with jazz’s greatest composer, Duke Ellington, the lead/follow narrative flipped, and the world – all of it – stood in awe of this uniquely American and indisputably formidable new artform. One only need to listen to Maurice Ravel’s brilliant Piano Concerto in G, in which the French master appropriated the sound of his good friend George Gershwin’s appropriations of African American jazz music, to hear the flow of influence and relevance reversed. Ravel’s take on jazz sounds only a little like Gershwin and nothing like jazz, really; but it is astonishingly good nonetheless, and a telling expression of how the New World had become the new font.
Jazz, it bears mentioning, was not a folk source mined by composers and gussied up with reharmonization and thematic horseplay into high art, in the way that Bartók mined Hungarian folksong or Copland his Shaker hymns. Jazz was high from go, harmonically radical and evolutionary in a way that challenged serious music on its own turf.
All of which is to say that Bard College’s long-running, fruitful collaboration with the Catskill Jazz Factory (CJF) is the natural culmination of a cultural recognition many decades in the making. Jazz is high. Kneel to it. Bard has long been a beacon of serious music performance and stewardship under the baton of college president and eminent conductor/scholar Leon Botstein. For seven years now, the Catskill Jazz Factory has been an especially stellar and opulent example of a jazz incubator and advocacy organization dedicated to nurturing young talent, sustaining jazz’s great careers and advancing jazz appreciation and understanding in our community and worldwide.
The Jazz Factory defines jazz with refreshing broadness, inclusive of its “outlaw” avant-garde and free variants while still respectful of the canon as defined by Marsalis/Lincoln Center. CJF has also evinced a keen interest in jazz composition and song: always the slipperiest and most problematic dimension of this form known for its improvisational ethic and genius, for at what point does it become chamber music?
On Thursdays in July and August, Bard opens the fabulous Spiegeltent to the curatorially adventurous Catskill Jazz factory. It is a lineup of shows not to missed. The Spiegeltent programming accounts for barely a third of CJF’s own multivenue summerlong festival, but it is, in Bard’s spirit of deeply focused inquiry, a thematically coherent branch of CJF’s program, and that theme is vocal music. The “Singers & Songbooks” series feature close studies of Frank Sinatra by Benny Benack III (July 18), Fred Astaire led by Michela Marino Lerman (July 25), Anita O’Day by Veronica Swift (August 1), Joni Mitchell led by Sam Reider with the Human Hands, featuring vocalist Kéren Tayár (August 8) and Horace Silver (August 15). All CJF Thursday Spiegeltent shows begin at 8 p.m. Ticket prices start at $25.
Again, this stellar program is a mere fraction of CJF’s summer programming. Many shows take place in Chatham’s PS21, others at the Mountain Top Library, the Falcon, All Angels Church and the Hudson-Chatham Winery in Tannersville, the Windham Civic Centre Concert Hall, the Mountain Top Arboretum and the Kaaterskill United Methodist Church. For more event information, visit www.catskilljazzfactory.org.