The French Gershwin

Copyright © Fred Flaxman, 1997

There are advantages and disadvantages to being the youngest child in a family. In my own case, one of the minuses was seeing my two older brothers try to kill each other every time my parents went out for the evening. But a more serious one was when they beat me up in advance, to keep me from telling on them.

One of my older brothers loved classical music, and the other preferred jazz. So one of the advantages I had was being exposed to both genres from an early age. Although I took to classical more than jazz, I like jazz and have a particular fondness for composers who combine the two: George Gershwin, for example, or Claude Bolling.

It's surprising how many people I run into who have never heard of Bolling. Surprising, because his recording of his first Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio on CBS Records (MK 33233) was on the Billboard list of classical best-sellers for over 530 weeks, a rare occurrence in the history of the charts. That composition was recently reissued on the Milan label (35645-2).

Bolling's music, like Gershwin's, is full of beautiful melodies and jazzy rhythms. But, unlike Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F or American in Paris, Bolling's musical scale is tipped more to jazz than classical. This is because he doesn't use big classical orchestras, and the few instruments selected almost always include drums and bass used as a typical jazz rhythm section.

Nevertheless, Bolling is a widely-heralded "cross-over" composer, and his appeal to classical musicians, as well as audiences, is undeniable. He has composed pieces for Jean-Pierre Rampal, Alexandre Lagoya, Pinchus Zukerman, Emmanuel Ax, Yo-yo Ma and Maurice André, all of whom have recorded these works with Bolling and his jazz trio.

Instead of two older brothers pulling him in two different musical directions simultaneously, Bolling's first piano teacher who had eclectic tastes introduced him to both classical and jazz. Born in Cannes, but raised in Paris, Bolling also studied music at the School of Life, going to jazz clubs, ballrooms and theaters. Above all he listened to records. His "teachers" were the jazz piano greats, especially Duke Ellington, who later became a good friend and admirer.

Bolling's own piano playing was so good, he began to make professional appearances when he was only 15, and cut his first recordings, with his own Dixieland group, when he was 18. He has since become one of the most popular jazz pianists in France.

Through the years Bolling also worked as an accompanist, arranger and composer. He has written more than a hundred scores for TV programs and films, working for such renowned directors as Philippe de Broca, Herbert Ross and Paul Mazursky. He did arrangements for Liza Minnelli and French singers Sacha Distel, Mireille Mathieu, Juliette Greco, Charles Trenet even Brigitte Bardot. But he is best known in this country for his suites for various instruments with piano jazz trio.

These originated in the early 1970's when a TV producer asked Bolling to create a five-minute musical segment. The producer wanted something "unusual," so Bolling wrote a brief piano duet for a friend of his who was a classical pianist. They played the short piece together and it was so successful that his friend asked him to expand the piece into a full-fledged sonata for concert performance.

Jean-Pierre Rampal heard that work and asked Bolling if he would write something similar for jazz combo and classical flute. The result was the Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano, which remained on the record charts for over ten years. Other classical performers then asked Bolling for compositions for their instruments, and one followed another. There was Toot Suite for trumpet, and suites for violin, cello, chamber orchestra, and the Picnic Suite for flute and guitar each using Bolling's distinctive and original melding of classical and jazz.

I own seven of these CDs myself, and noticed recently that all but one of them are still listed as available in the Schwann Opus catalog. No longer listed are the Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Two Pianists, recorded with Emmanuel Ax in 1989 the most recent of the Bolling CDs (CBS MK 45646). I guess it didn't do so well at the box office. Too bad, because these are highly enjoyable compositions, well worth repeated hearings, and not inferior to Bolling's other works.

It's hard for me to pick a favorite Bolling CD, but, if forced to do so, I'd bring the Suite for Cello and Jazz Piano Trio (CBS MK 39059) with Yo-yo Ma with me to the proverbial desert island. The fifth movement, called "Romantique," contains a hauntingly lyrical theme which I could listen to over and over again.

But I am also fond of "Romance," "Ragtime" and "Valse Lente" from the Suite for Violin and Jazz Piano (originally CBS MK 35128, now Milan 35647-2); "Tendre" from Picnic Suite for flute, guitar and jazz piano trio (CBS MK 35864); "Andante" from Sonata No. 1 in C Minor for Two Pianists (CBS MK 45646); "Drama" from Sonata No. 2 in G-Sharp Minor for Two Pianists (also on CBS MK 45646); "Vesprale" and "Rag-Polka" from Toot Suite for trumpet and jazz piano trio (CBS MK 36731); "Sentimentale" and "Irlandaise" from Suite (No. 1) for Flute and Jazz Piano (CBS MK 33233); and "Amoureuse" from Suite for Flute & Jazz Piano Trio No. 2 (CBS MK 42318).

As you can see, I go for Bolling especially his slow, romantic movements. I wish he would try a real, jazz-inspired concerto or symphony, a la Gershwin. I wonder what he's up to these days? We haven't heard from him, except for purely jazz releases, since CBS Records was bought out by Sony. Perhaps the new Japanese executives don't like his music. If so, they may be the only people who don't.

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