It has never been a secret that a substantial number of jazz musicians have impressive credentials in classical music. Wynton Marsalis' two-world career has merely reaffirmed a point that became evident half a century ago, when Benny Goodman recorded Mozart's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings with the Budapest String Quartet.
What has escaped many observers, though, is the fact that these reverential breezes blow in both directions. Stravinsky wrote "Ragtime" in 1918. Darius Milhaud, in 1923, praised the "enormously beneficial influence" of jazz. Aaron Copland has long been similarly enthusiastic; Gunther Schuller has been a major force in the so-called "third stream music" uniting classical and jazz elements.
A cogent reminder has emerged lately with the increasing jazz activity of Richard Stoltzman, whose virtuosity as a clarinetist has been on display in many symphony and chamber settings around the world. Last week, Stoltzman went on a tour in tandem with Woody Herman's Thundering Herd; they will be concertizing jointly through the end of the month. (Monday they will be at the Orange County Performing Arts Center; Tuesday and Wednesday at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena; Friday at the Haugh Performing Arts Center in Glendora, and Saturday at El Camino College in Torrance.)
The centerpiece of each evening will be Igor Stravinsky's "Ebony Concerto" composed by the maestro as a Christmas gift to Herman's orchestra in 1946 after having spent an evening listening to the band's records. (Originally Herman himself played the clarinet part; Stravinsky not only attended the rehearsals but conducted the recording.) Rounding out the concert program will be various short works out of the immense Herman repertoire.
"This tour is a little scary for me," says Stoltzman, whose affable personality, lacking in egotism, belies his chameleonic talent. "Of course, it's not a new experience; I first performed the concerto with Woody's band three or four years ago. We did it at Symphony Hall in Boston and then in 1986 at the Hollywood Bowl in a celebration of the band's 50th anniversary.
"When Woody became ill last year, I filled in for him several times. Then we decided to record an album for RCA with the Herd, and Woody kept promising to get out of the hospital and drop in at the sessions, but he never could make it." Herman died Oct. 29, 1987.
Born in Omaha and reared in San Francisco and Cincinnati, Stoltzman was exposed to jazz from infancy, hearing the big-band sounds in a record collection owned by his father, a railwayman and amateur saxophonist.
"I was lucky. When I was a little kid, my first teacher happened to double on clarinet and saxophone. For one of our first concerts at a music school, he wrote out a couple of choruses for me to play on 'Stardust.' So I think I always grew up with that sense that there were two overlapping cultures, American and Western European.
"My dad was a firm believer in American music, jazz, as the best music. We didn't have symphony or chamber music records in our house. While I was in high school in Cincinnati, he would take me to the Sunday park concerts, where I heard Stan Kenton and all the great bands--including Woody's. He pointed to the bandstand and said, 'That's what music is all about.'
"I played with dance bands all through high school and college--first Ohio State University, where I majored in music and mathematics, and then Yale, where I earned my master of music degree. Studying with chamber music performers, I learned that there was a great deal of classical literature for the clarinet--also that a different discipline was called for, without a vibrato."
After some very stern lectures ("You're not going to get the jobs you want unless you learn to fit in"), and after flunking several auditions, Stoltzman developed the requisite technique and sound. By 1967, he had begun a 10-year association with the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. Through relationships established there, he became a founding member of the chamber group Tashi in 1973.
"I remember a concert we played that began with works by Beethoven and Nielsen, then after intermission consisted of jazz standards. We had Eddie Gomez on bass, and he seemed a little up-tight. I thought to myself, 'How can this great musician who spent so many years with Bill Evans' trio be nervous?' But Eddie said, 'I have a sense that you're doing things I can't do.' And I told him, 'It's just the opposite--you're doing things I can't do!' So we both had a good laugh."
Over the years, Stoltzman came into frequent contact with Gomez, who he says was of great help in introducing him to the jazz literature, as well as with other jazz musicians.