Johann Sebastian Bach loved to jazz things up, sometimes to a degree that others didn’t like or understand. In 1706, his fanciness caught up with him when he was chastised by his employer in Arnstadt: “Reprove him for having hitherto made many curious variationes in the chorale, and mingled many strange tones in it, and for the fact that the Congregation has been confused by it” (from The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, edited by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, p. 52). Bach also used to improvise lines in pre-existing compositions. As his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach reported, “Thanks to his greatness in harmony, he accompanied trios on more than one occasion on the spur of the moment . . . and on the basis of a sparsely figured continuo part just set before him, converted them into complete quartets. . . .” (The Bach Reader, p. 277). This spontaneous polyphonic enrichment is akin to what Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers did in the 1920s and any group of jamming jazzers has done since then.
Of course, my earlier usage of the phrase “to jazz things up” is a bit anachronistic since jazz didn’t emerge until the twentieth century. But many contemporary musicians have found a special relationship between Bach’s music and the jazz idiom. John Eliot Gardiner, in his book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (2013), finds several jazzy aspects to Bach’s music, comparing the corno and oboes in Christus, der ist mein Leben (BWV 95) to a jam session with trumpets, talking about being “in the groove” and being able to “swing the inégale semiquavers with a blues-y lilt” in the Et resurrexit movement of the B Minor Mass (BWV 232), and describing figures in Freue dich, erlöste Schar (BWV 30) as “boogieing triplets.” Jacques Loussier and Ward Swingle famously jazzed up Bach in the 1960s, a tradition continued more recently by pianist Matt Herskowitz.
To critics who may find my arrangements “turgid” and “confused” (terms Johann Adolph Scheibe used in 1737 to critique Bach’s music), I would cite Bach’s 1729 double-choir motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (BWV 226) (see p. 54). Not only does each SATB choir of this motet get its own accompanying ensemble — choir I doubled by strings and choir II by reeds — basso continuo players further augment the texture, just to make sure we aren’t sonically deprived and that we get the harmonies! Compared to BWV 226, the textures of my arrangements are simple.
There may be some present-day musicians who have a negative reaction to my combination of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” art forms. But in Bach’s day, there was a similar commingling of the sacred and the secular, music heard in a church one day rearranged and performed in a coffee house the next. In a 1752 treatise, Caspar Ruetz defended dance music in churches (“hopping and jumping in the hearts of upright Christians”), a stance that may have offended pious Lutherans but surely justifed Bach’s animated musical language.
I certainly think Bach’s music can stand by itself without adornment. But something about Bach’s musical genius inspires me to co-create. While it is true that Bach did not write “drinking songs, lullabies, or other insipid galanteries” (a phrase used by Johann Abraham Birnbaum in 1738 to rebut Scheibe), he was forever amalgamating different styles and compositions, such as his incorporation of Martin Luther hymns, the British jig, the French allemande (itself a version of a German dance), and the Italian corrente, just to name a few, into his own works. My addition of a second jazzy piano part to the Sinfonias is no weirder an amalgamation.
Even at the virtual beginning of jazz, musicians began to impose jazz harmonies and rhythms on classical music. Paul Whiteman, in his 1926 book Jazz, recalls “ragging” the classics as far back as 1906 (they didn’t use the term “jazzing” back then), with pieces such as Franz von Suppé’s Poet and Peasant Overture and Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite. In the 1940s, Art Tatum came up with a swinging, virtuosic take of Antonín Dvořák’s Humoresque. By the 1960s, Jacques Loussier and The Swingle Singers had done the same to J.S. Bach. So Jazz Up the Sinfonias continues a tradition begun over one hundred years ago.
Jazz Up the Sinfonias is the successor to Jazz Up the Inventions (jazzuptheinventions.com), both emanating from aesthetic stances articulated in Add On Bach (addonbach.com). My secondo additions in Jazz Up the Sinfonias and Jazz Up the Inventions play different roles, sometimes providing what jazz musicians call “comping,” in a strictly supportive and accompanimental function. Other times, my secondo addition becomes a musical protagonist, inserting and developing motifs or acting as a melodic collaborator with Bach’s original counterpoint.
By framing Bach’s original compositions in jazz harmonies and rhythms, I have dramatically recontextualized them, perhaps analogous to Arthur Miller’s 1983 production of Death of a Salesman in Beijing — how could the Chinese have understood the concept of “traveling salesman”? how was “Willy Loman” pronounced in Mandarin? — wherein the “essence” of the work may be questioned. Both Jazz Up the Sinfonias and the Chinese staging of Death of a Salesman lead to discussions of the concept Werktreue, and while I am a strong advocate of historically informed performance, I am equally committed to creative engagement with the text, even when that engagement crosses stylistic boundaries and transcends generic definitions. Let the Verzierungen begin!