“Ebony Concerto” (1946) Woody Herman/Igor Stravinsky

“Ebony Concerto”

Composed and orchestrated by Igor Stravinsky.

Recorded by Woody Herman and His Orchestra for Columbia on August 19, 1946 in Los Angeles.

Igor Stravinsky, directing: Conrad Gozzo, first trumpet; Pete Candoli, Cappy Lewis, Shorty Rogers and Saul “Sonny” Berman, trumpets; Bill Harris, first trombone; Ralph Pfeffner and Ed Kieffer, trombones; Woody Herman, clarinet; Sam Marowitz, first alto saxophone; John LaPorta, alto saxophone and clarinet; Flip Phillips, tenor saxophone; Mickey Folus, bass clarinet; Sam Rubinwitch, baritone saxophone; Jimmy Rowles, piano; Chuck Wayne, guitar; Joe Mondragon, bass; Don Lamond, drums. John Cave, French horn; Stanley Chaloupka, harp.

The story – Part One – Stravinsky:

Many unusual musical things happened during the swing era. Although it is difficult to generalize as to why these things happened, if one digs deeply enough, one usually finds that the reason for these occurrences was that creative musicians found themselves thrown together by circumstances, and then did what they do best, which was to create music. The creation of music is something that, especially in the case of the great composer Igor Stravinsky, was intensely personal. Stravinsky was a composer who created a lot of music, and almost all of it bears the stamp of his very strong musical personality. (Above right: Igor Stravinsky: He exuded a European cool that American jazz musicians found attractive. His music expanded their aesthetic horizons.) (1)

The musicians who performed Stravinsky’s music throughout his lifetime, and indeed since his death in 1971, were almost always conservatory trained musicians who worked with symphony orchestras in the concert halls of the world. They brought to his music a level of skill and understanding that was developed over decades of study, practice and performance. Musically, he spoke their language and they spoke his. The Woody Herman band of 1945 and 1946 was a superlative swing band filled with musicians who were fluent in that musical idiom, and were also (mostly) crack readers of music. But their sensibilities were those of jazz musicians. In large measure, despite their appreciation for Stravinsky’s music, they did not speak his musical language. Hold these thoughts.

After several conducting tours of the United States in the 1930s, Stravinsky finally emigrated here in the wake of the chaos that was created in Europe by the beginning of World War II, when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. He arrived in New York on September 30, 1939 before going on to Boston, where his initial employment in the United States was to deliver a series of six lectures on music at Harvard University.

When Stravinsky came to the United States to live, he was in very poor condition financially. Even though he had composed several towering works of music, including for the ballets The Firebird  and The Rite of Spring, his copyrights in those works and others were in disarray, and he was receiving almost no royalties when his music was performed. In fact, management of Stravinsky’s career at that point was in disarray. He had no professional management in the United States, and relied upon well-intentioned friends (sometimes mere acquaintances), to broker work for him, usually as a traveling conductor.

He had made a few visits to Los Angeles in the mid and late 1930s to conduct. Inevitably, he was introduced to movie people. At one dinner in March of 1936 at the home of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard, George Gershwin and Mr. and Mrs. Edward G. Robinson were in attendance. Chaplin, who was in very good condition financially, in a lordly manner, proposed that he and Stravinsky should collaborate on the music for a Chaplin film. Stravinsky’s interest was piqued. Nevertheless, this proposal was just another of Chaplin’s flights of fancy, because nothing came of it.(2)  A bit earlier, Stravinsky was the guest at a dinner with Boris Morros, who was a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, but more importantly, head of music at Paramount Pictures. At that dinner, Morros and Stravinsky discussed Stravinsky composing the music for a Paramount film, and supposedly coming to a contractual agreement for this whereby Paramount would pay Stravinsky $25,000.00, more than a quarter of a million dollars in the value of the dollar today. It is unclear if there was ever a written contract, or if Paramount paid any money to Stravinsky, but he discussed this project with a number of people, including a French journalist over a year later.(3) Unfortunately, this project also was never undertaken.

Despite these (and other) false starts involving Stravinsky and Hollywood, the great composer was delighted by the climate of Southern California, and he gradually decided that was where he wanted to live. Eventually, he would.

In the autumn of 1938, Stravinsky received word that Walt Disney wanted to use The Rite of Spring music “…for a sequence about prehistoric animals in a full-length animated cartoon film. Somebody had brought a recording of The Rite to one of Disney’s Hollywood planning meetings in September, and he got very excited and began, as was his wont, to visualize the setting, ‘with dinosaurs, flying lizards and prehistoric monsters.’ Fantasia was made at a time, Disney later recalled, ‘…when we had the feeling that we had to open the doors here…that we could do some very exciting, entertaining and beautiful things with music and pictures and color.’ The time (Disney referred to), he might have added, was when Snow White was making him so much money that he felt able to test the market for somewhat more esoteric fare.”(4) In January of 1939, Stravinsky signed a contract with Disney that allowed Disney to use The Rite of Spring music in any way he chose in exchange for $6,000.00.(5)

Disney settled on the concept for Fantasia in 1938 as work neared completion on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, originally an elaborate free-standing Silly Symphony cartoon designed as a comeback role for Mickey Mouse, who had declined in popularity. As production costs surpassed what the short film could earn, Disney decided to include it in a feature-length film consisting of eight animated segments set to eight classical pieces, with the music  conducted by Leopold Stokowski, seven of which are performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Actually, a total of twelve pieces of music made it into the final film, including an astonishing 22 1/2 minutes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.) Music critic and composer Deems Taylor acts as the film’s master of ceremonies, and  introduces each segment in live action. Fantasia was released on November 13, 1940 amid a barrage of advertisements and promotion.(6)

The circumstances that threw Igor Stravinsky and the Woody Herman band together would have made a delightful screenplay for a mid-1940s B-grade Hollywood film. Here is the story line: Stravinsky, though a towering figure in the musical world, who had composed the music for The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Right of Spring ballets, and many other great works, found himself living as an expatriate in the United States after World War II broke out in Europe. For many reasons, the copyrights for his music were in disarray. Although his music was being performed, he was not always receiving the royalties he should have received. He did what he could to ameliorate that situation, but he also had to do other things simply to make ends meet. He gave a superb series of lectures on music at Harvard(7), and he conducted orchestras in the U.S. He attempted to ply his trade composing music for Hollywood films, but found it impossible to adjust his methods of composing to the demands of the directors of films who required bits of music called “cues” that often lasted no longer than a few seconds, and had little or no relationship to each other. He needed work and he needed money. Enter Woody Herman and his band. What a surprise!

The story – Part Two – The Herman Band:

How then, did Igor Stravinsky come to compose “Ebony Concerto” for Woody Herman, the leader of a very strongly jazz influenced dance band in 1945? Woody’s band in 1945, great though it was, had almost nothing in common musically with the compositions and performance techniques Stravinsky worked with. Although a few of the musicians in Woody’s band then, particularly trumpeter/arranger Neal Hefti (shown at left) and trumpeter Pete Candoli (shown below right in his Superman costume), listened to and enjoyed some of Stravinsky’s music, they had little expectation that as musicians who made their living working with the music of the swing era, they would ever have the opportunity to play Stravinsky’s music.

The official blurb published with the score for “Ebony Concerto” says that Stravinsky had been impressed by the mid-1940s recordings of the Herman band. Consequently, that when asked, he agreed to write a piece for that ensemble. However, according to Herman’s then-trumpeter and arranger, Neal Hefti, this story was apocryphal. Hefti and his trumpeter colleague in the Herman band, Pete Candoli, were both fans of Stravinsky’s music, so after Hefti returned to the band after six months spent in California, Candoli wanted to know if he had met the great man. Hefti had not, but pretended he had, and he embellished the tale he told by claiming, “I played him the records (of the Herman band), and he thought they were great.” (We must remember that these two men, despite their musical maturity, were both still very young, in their early twenties, and that there was a lot of craziness in the Herman band.) The rumor spread quickly, and within a few days, Lou Levy, who worked for the publishing house Leeds Music, had arranged for Herman to contact Stravinsky (who probably had never heard the music of the Herman band up to that point), and this led to Woody Herman commissioning Stravinsky to compose a piece for his band. “Ebony Concerto” was the result.(7A)

The music:

The music of “Ebony Concerto” is almost totally outside the realm of the music the men in Woody Herman’s band usually worked with. When they first saw it and began rehearsing it, they struggled with it. Woody later remembered: “Everybody’s part was hard, but I had this so-called solo part. …I was never a serious clarinetist by any stretch of the imagination. I’ll never forget how hard I struggled and sweated and made myself a gibbering idiot trying to play (it). I went to fine clarinetists – people in (symphony) orchestras, …and asked if there was anything I could do to play the thing a little better. They all looked at it and said ‘Why that’s the hardest goddamned thing in the world.’ …He wrote pure Stravinsky: it had nothing to do with a jazz band. To him, the challenge, if any, was that he wrote for this bastard instrumentation, and also, that he did like the idea of having jazz players trying to scuffle with these parts. …He knew he couldn’t pull this off with guys from the Philharmonic. After the very first rehearsal, at which we were all so embarrassed, we were nearly crying because nobody could read (what he had written). But he walked over and put his arm around me and said; ‘Voody, what a beautiful family you have here.’ Okay, so he was getting his jollies, I could tell that. When we finally recorded it, which was a long time later, he was there, and he conducted.” (8)

The full Woody Herman band in the summer of 1946. Front, L-R: Jimmy Rowles, Flip Phillips, Woody, John La Porta, Sam Marowitz, Mickey Folus, Sam Rubinwich; middle: Don Lamond, Ralph Pfeffner, Bil Harris, Ed Kieffer, Neal “Biggie” Reid; back: Red Norvo, Chuck Wayne, Joe Mondragon, Sonny Berman, Carroll “Cappy” Lewis, Conrad Gozzo, Pete Candoli, Shorty Rogers. Norvo and Reid did not play on the recording of “Ebony Concerto” presented with this post.

In the intervening five months between the initial rehearsals of “Ebony Concerto” and the recording of it by the Herman band for Columbia, they performed it in Carnegie Hall (8A), and continued playing some or all of it before audiences, who were baffled by it. Finally, the time came for it to be recorded. Pianist Jimmy Rowles recalled his personal encounter with Stravinsky at the recording session: “When we were in California, we made the record with Stravinsky. I’d been practicing that thing, and I thought I had it right. He had one thing written for me (as a solo), and I had to reach underneath, …and play it with one finger. (When I did this, Stravinsky, who was conducting) stopped the orchestra and came over to the piano. Igor Stravinsky! I’m scared to death! Then he said: ‘My darling, I did not write that.’ I thought, Jesus, what have I done? Now I’m in trouble. …He reached over my shoulder and said: ‘You’re using the wrong fingering.’ He was in front of the orchestra (conducting when he heard what I did), yet he knew. And he showed me that I’m to use two fingers. Then he said ‘do it,’ (which I did) and then he said ‘Now that’s it.’ and he patted me on the back.

Then he said, ‘Could I have some vodka’? Conrad Gozzo jumped up from the trumpet section and said, ‘Maestro, I will take care of you,’ and ran out, and came back with a great big glass of vodka. And Stravinsky knocked that mother off like a real Russian. Then his old lady came up and toweled him off and changed his shirt. Then we did the record.“(9)

The Columbia Woody Herman recording of “Ebony Concerto” was issued on two sides of a twelve-inch Masterworks 78 rpm disk. Side A contained the First Movement Moderato, and the beginning of the Second Movement Andante; Side B contained the conclusion of the Second Movement and the Third Movement Moderato. The First Movement is a sonata-allegro in B-flat major with a change to E-flat major. The Second Movement is a blues in F-minor, changing to F-major at the end. The Third Movement is a theme and variations with a coda.(10)

Stravinsky’s music, as always, speaks for itself. I will however add a few observations about the performance of this piece by the Herman band, which is augmented by a French horn and a harp.

Woody Herman and his band in an early rehearsal of Igor Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto. L-R: Woody, guitarist Billy Bauer, Maestro Stravinsky, Tony Aless, Chubby Jackson, Don Lamond, Flip Phillips, John LaPorta, Sam Marowitz, Bill Harris, and Mickey Folus.

In the first movement, we hear Stravinsky using rhythm as vigorously as he ever did, employing the open brass with the reeds, which in the early measures and throughout contain a bass clarinet part, performed brilliantly by Mickey Folus. (Shown below.) The first of several appearances of the piano, played by Jimmy Rowles, is also heard early on. Stravinsky’s syncopations in the first movement are devlish, but are handled very well by the Herman bandsmen. The clarinet in the ensemble was probably played by John LaPorta, in conjunction with some doleful trombone notes, probably played by Bill Harris.  (I think LaPorta played all or almost all of the ensemble clarinet parts.) This is all done over a long, sustained bass clarinet note, which evolves into a bubbling bass clarinet sequence blended with the Harmon-muted brass. The open brass then return for a reprise of their earlier playing, followed by the woodwinds, the harp, the open brass and the piano. The open trumpet passage is played by Pete Candoli, whose sound is contrasted with that of the baritone saxophone, played by Sam Rubinwitch.

Mournful sounds follow, provided by the saxophones, augmented with the bass clarinet, and the open, softly played trombones. Contrasting sounds come from the muted trumpets. The harp provides added sonic contrast. (Stravinsky apparently did not feel he had to use the electric guitar to create these kinds of sounds.) The saxophonists, other than Folus, then pick up their B-flat clarinets, and play a dreamy sequence. Soon however, the mood changes via the clipped open trumpet and trombone sounds. The clarinets return, bubbling up in a brief and gentle burst. (It is at this point that the music ended on side A of the Columbia 78, and was continued on side B.) Stravinsky returns the music to the sounds heard previously. But the music soon spirals upward via a sequence of massed clarinets, possibly including Woody.

The second movement begins with the open brass playing against low-register woodwind sounds, provided by Folus on bass clarinet and Rubinwitch on baritone saxophone. A soft open brass chord leads to a solo played by Flip Phillips on his tenor saxophone against a background of rhythmic clarinets and harp chords, and a few choice Harmon-muted trumpet notes, played by Conrad Gozzo. Gozzo takes the mute out and then plays a small duet with trombonist Bill Harris as Phillips’s playing tails-off. The sound of a muted trombone is then added to this spicy mix as Phillips returns for more solo playing. The second movement then ends.

The third movement begins with the open brass again playing against the low-register sounds of the bass clarinet and baritone saxophone. This is followed by a solo clarinet passage at a faster tempo, played by Woody. The backing he gets from the harp and tapped tom-tom is soon eclipsed by the saxophone quartet (sans Folus) playing attractive jazz-like background notes. A brief rhythmic section follows, consisting of open trombones, a few piano notes, a few bass clarinet notes, and a few tenor saxophone notes. A more agitated section then begins, but soon subsides as the ensemble plays the soulful chords that comprise the finale.

To say that this music is content-rich would be an understatement. Woody was completely correct when he said that musicians who perform essentially in the concert music world “could not pull this off.” Yet at the same time, performing this music with the spirit Stravinsky intended continues to pose a staggering challenge for jazz-oriented musicians who are also crack readers of music. Benny Goodman recorded “Ebony Concerto” on April 25, 1965, with Stravinsky again conducting. The musicians who comprised his supporting orchestra were almost all jazz oriented musicians, including Doc Severinsen and Bernie Glow on trumpets, Buddy Morrow on trombone, Bill Slapin and Sol Schlinger on saxophones, Dick Hyman on piano, Barry Galbraith on guitar, and Bob Rosengarden on percussion. Their performance sounds quite different from the one by Woody Herman and his orchestra from 1946.

The title “Ebony Concerto” does not refer to the clarinet. It refers to African culture, which Stravinsky understood is at the root of jazz.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Trumpeter Pete Candoli, in answer to a question I asked him about Stravinsky, said: “Stravinsky was more cool than anyone in the Herman band. In fact, he was more cool than the whole band!”

(2) Stravinsky …The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971, by Stephen Walsh (2006), 62. Hereafter Stravinsky.

(3) The resulting article, by Andre’ Frank, entitled: Igor Stravinski va composer pour le cinema, was published in the French periodical L’Intransigeant on May 19, 1937. See Stravinsky, 61.

(4) Stravinsky, 89-90.

(5) Ibid., 90.

(6) Many of the details of the musical content of Fantasia were derived from the Wikipedia post on that film.

(7) Just how great those lectures were is readily apparent when one reads the book Igor Stravinsky …The Poetics of Music, which was first published in 1942. The six lectures he gave at Harvard in 1939 are published in it verbatim. Seldom has any book revealed so much about its author’s aesthetic orientation.

(7A) Stravinsky was paid $2,000.00 to compose “Ebony Concerto.” Stravinsky …The Second Exile – France and America; 1934-1971, by Steve Walsh (2006),180. The value of that $2,000.00 in todays dollars is about $30,000.00.

(8) The initial rehearsals of “Ebony Concerto” took place in March of 1945, between shows the Herman band was playing at the Paramount Theater. The partial premier of the work, the third movement which included the clarinet solo, took place on March 25, 1945 at Carnegie Hall. The Herman band continued to play and practice the “Ebony Concerto” until they recorded it in its entirety on August 25, 1945. The details about the early rehearsals of the piece come from Swing to Bop, by Ira Gitler (1985) 194-195, hereafter Swing to Bop.

(8A) “Ebony Concerto” was premiered at Carnegie Hall on March 26, 1946, with the performance being conducted by Walter Hendl. (Stravinsky had a conducting conflict.)

(9) Swing to Bop, 194.

(10) The technical descriptions of “Ebony Concerto” come from the Wikipedia post on it.

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