Why do jazz musicians like Bach so much?

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Of all European classical composers, the one who enjoys the greatest popularity among jazz musicians is certainly Johann Sebastian Bach. Let us try to answer this question: why do jazz musicians like Bach so much?

Many jazz musicians have been confronted with Bach’s music: from the Modern Jazz Quartet to Bud Powell, from Dave Brubeck to Bill Evans. Many jazz pianists have a classical background, but the relationship with Bach seems to be privileged, more so than with other equally important composers. Let us therefore try to explain why jazz musicians like Bach so much.

Theme and variations

A first common element between Bach’s music and jazz lies in the principle of variation. Both a fugue and an improvisation are born with the desire to develop an initial theme and explore all its possibilities.

Many good soloists often begin a solo with a variation of the original theme. This is the case with Lester Young, for example. Miles Davis, on the other hand, used to play the theme always in an original way, different from the original. He, too, was very skilled in the art of variation.

After all, Bach also cultivated the art of improvisation as well as composition. He was a virtuoso on keyboard instruments (organ and harpsichord) and was capable of improvising music on themes proposed on the spot.

2. The importance of rhythm

Another common aspect is the relationship with rhythm: the music of the 18th century is often based on a stable, rigorous rhythm. Just as in jazz, the rhythm is pulsating and without hesitation.

We must note, however, that in Bach’s music, the pulse tends to push ‘forward’, almost anticipating the next beat. In contrast, jazz is played ‘backwards’, i.e. in a more relaxed and soft manner.

This is one of the main difficulties that classical musicians encounter when they switch to jazz repertoire, without having listened to it long enough to have internalised this different way of bringing time.

Although jazz and Bach’s music thus have a different approach to pulsation, they both give it great importance, unlike other musical genres or periods.

Chopin, for example, improvised on the piano at least as much as Bach, but the uncertain rhythm of romantic music, with its ritenuto and rubato, makes it more difficult to compare it with jazz music.

3. Form and the sense of proportion

In the jazz repertoire, the question of form is resolved in very different ways in different eras. In 1920s jazz, songs often had a very elaborate form, such as the compositions of Jelly Roll Morton.

In the 1930s, with the development of big bands, the form began to simplify somewhat, although some composers attached great importance to the formal aspects of the music. Some interpreters of this attitude were Duke Ellington, and later Charles Mingus.

In the 1940s, a more abrupt way of solving the question of form took hold. Most jazz pieces were in fact limited to proposing theme-axe-theme, in a scheme where the central part, the improvisation, had absolute centrality.

Even in jazz based primarily on improvisation, however, the issue of form arises within the solo. The improviser in fact tries to create a logical and proportionate musical discourse, even if it is composed on the spot.

In this respect, Bach does what every jazz musician aspires to: everything he writes is logical and inevitable. This is also why his music is so fascinating for a jazz musician.

4. The differences

We have therefore found that there are certain similarities between jazz and Bach’s music. Perhaps, however, the jazz musician is seduced not only by the points of contact with Bach’s music, but also by the differences.

For the jazz musician nothing is really certain. He lives and plays in uncertainty and doubt. Every improvisation is a challenge that can be won (sometimes) or lost (more often). Bach’s music, on the other hand, is reassuring, in all its logic and coherence, it is music that affirms its own truth.

The Modern Jazz Quartet - Blues On Bach cover
The Modern Jazz Quartet’s album ‘Blues On Bach’ is one of the most successful attempts at fusing the two languages

Conclusion: mixing Bach and Jazz?

The attempt to mix Bach and Jazz has produced music that is more often than not mediocre. For example, the famous records by French pianist Jacques Loussier are pleasant but not entirely convincing. Other interpretations are more successful, but the result is often forced.

As musicians in love with both Jazz and Bach, we do not need to mix these different passions. We can switch from one music to the other whenever we want, and be stimulated and inspired by them. What counts is the pleasure and emotions that both give us.

And you, what do you think about this topic? Do you think that there are indeed points of contact between Bach’s music and jazz, or that the juxtaposition is too bold or completely wrong? I would love to hear your opinion, if you would like to write it in the comments below.

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