The blossoming of jazz fugues during the 1940s

In the jazz world, there was a blossoming of interest in counterpoint and, specifically, written-out fugues during the 1940s. This was an exciting time for jazz, since it was the beginning of an exciting new style called bebop. But perhaps less remembered is that jazz musicians of all types were experimenting with new sounds and musical forms. Some of these musicians expanded their sonic palette by adapting the contrapuntal technique called “fugue” from their classical counterparts.

A “fugue” is a type of composition where a melody is stated and then imitated by second instrument. Meanwhile, the first instrument continues to spin our melodic lines as new “voices” enter, each beginning with the original melody in turn. The resulting musical tapestry is formed by how the various melodic lines intersect with one another, like a kaleidoscope turning.

Here are four recordings that show how much jazz fugues were “in the air” during the 1940s. (Even though 2 of the recordings are from 1950, their composers were obviously studying fugal techniques and for at least a year or so beforehand!)

Let’s start with a short fugue composed by the great Duke Ellingon, from his 1946 Carnegie Hall concert. The volume on this recording is a little low, but listening to it is well worth the effort. This is a unique piece in Ellington’s output!
Duke Ellington: Fugueaditty (1946)

Pianist Dave Brubeck also enjoyed bringing classical techniques into jazz. Here he is, playing David van Kriedt’s Fugue On Bop Themes. I love this delightful piece!
Dave Brubeck Octet: Fugue On Bop Themes (1950)

Bandleader Stan Kenton also liked his band to incorporate classical techniques into their arrangements. Fugue For Rhythm Section combines fugal writing with Latin percussion and lively rhythms.
Stan Kenton: Fugue For Rhythm Section (1947)

Finally, here’s Gil Evans’ arrangement of Moondreams for The Birth Of The Cool sessions. It’s not a strict fugue per se, but the ending section is a kind of fuguetta, or semi-fugue. It was very innovative for its time and apparently gave the musicians a lot of trouble at the recording session.

This arrangement of Moondreams is one of my favorite recordings in all of jazz. The baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan was also a driving force behind this band and I remember listening to this recording in awe when I first became his assistant in 1987. My first trip with Gerry was to Stockholm, Sweden, and I couldn’t get to sleep the first night we were there. I’ll never forget lying on my bed in the Grand Hotel, headphones on, listening to this track over and over. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to work with one of the musicians in the Birth Of The Cool Band! Enjoy this masterpiece!
Miles Davis: Moondreams (1050)

Jazz musicians have often adapted classical compositional techniques into their music. It’s interesting to see the similarities between there four wonderful pieces, all composed within a few years of each other!

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