music history

  • Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

    We introduced you to composer George Gershwin in an earlier post and now we would like to share some information on one of his most notable compositions – Rhapsody in Blue.

    The Composition

    In 1923, Paul Whiteman asked George Gershwin to write a jazz piece for his band but Gershwin did not take this request seriously until an article appeared in the New York Tribune on Jan 4, 1924, announcing that he was working on a “jazz concerto” to be premiered by the Whiteman Band at Aeolian Hall in New York.

    The Premier

    February 12, 1924, “Rhapsody in Blue” was premiered by Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra. Inspired by the rattle of the Boston train and James McNeill Whistler’s painting “Nocturne in Black and Gold,” “Rhapsody in Blue” earned him over $250,000 during the Great Depression.

    The performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” was the first that Gershwin would make as a concert pianist performing his own work. “Rhapsody in Blue” was composed in a week’s time. Its style is an assimilation of European and jazz styles with a slight blues appeal.

    The release of the piece had mixed reviews from serious music critics and the general public. “Serious music critics were often at a loss as to where to place Gershwin’s classical music in the standard repertoire. Some dismissed his work as banal and tiresome, but it always found favor with the general public.” (PBS, 1) Rhapsody, however, was the work that defined his career and elevated him to a level of greatness he had not before attained.

    Due to public popularity, the entire concert was repeated multiple times. Then, in a play, “The Vortex,” Rhapsody was introduced to England which soon demanded the piece.

    The Piece

    The piece is known for its opening glissando; the playing of a chromatic scale from the designated first note to the second note in the time allowed. During its premier, Ross Gorman played this on clarinet. The music is compared to high wire balancing with various city sounds. There is a variation of “Rhapsody in Blue” because some segments were too difficult and therefore omitted in its publication. The omitted portions were later discovered and reinserted by Alicia Zizzo, a pianist and composer. “Rhapsody in Blue” combined classical and jazz styles. It was originally written for piano, but was arranged for piano and jazz band later.

    After the composition of “Rhapsody in Blue,” other musicians began to take Gershwin more seriously as a musician and composer. The complexity and genius that went into the composition of the piece, especially when considering it was written in under a week, is incredible.

    August 10, 2015 • Teen Jazz • Views: 2030

  • The Development of the Saxophone

    A History of the Saxophone, its Performers, Styles and Pedagogy Prior to World War II

    Almost every musical style where the saxophone is heard today initially resisted and rejected inclusion of the saxophone because of its abrasive and “primitive” sound. As both its players and the instrument itself have been refined and players have improved, the distaste musical society once held for this instrument has significantly diminished. Over the last century, the saxophone has overcome its initial rejection to become one of the most popular instruments in Western music. More and more people have learned to play saxophone as its popularity has grown, with the instrument available to buy in music stores in Lincoln Nebraska, as well as all other good music stores. There is one particular genre of music that eventually accepted the saxophone as one of its predominant instruments and is, in fact, the style most frequently associated with the saxophone – jazz.

    The Origins of the Saxophone

    Adolphe Sax, a Belgian musician and instrument maker, was the inventor of the saxophone. Sax initially received music instruction from his father, Charles Sax, the Instrument Maker to the Court of the Netherlands. He later received formal training at the Brussels Conservatory where he studied voice and flute and later, clarinet.

    Adolphe Sax was acknowledged as a skilled instrument maker and was known to frequently experiment with currently produced designs. These experiments lead to the development of the valved brass saxhorn family, the vastly improved clarinet, and eventually, the saxophone.

    The saxophone was debuted at the Brussels Exhibition in 1841 where the instrument was “sent flying with a kick by an unknown person at a time when the inventor, Adolphe Sax, was away.” Shortly after, Sax was visited by Lieutenant General Comte de Rumigny, who encouraged Sax to move to Paris and aid the revitalizing of French military bands. Once arriving in France, he was highly praised in an article by Hector Berlioz in 1842, which included an early description of the saxophone.

    In France, Adolphe established the Adolphe Sax Musical Instrument Factory at No. 10 Rue St. Georges. His craft and growing business challenged existing instrument makers who were also attempting to design new instruments for the French military bands resulting in a series of threats, thefts, and legal battles that would continue throughout the rest of Sax’s life.

    On 22 April 1845, Sax competed against another instrument maker as part of the invitation to submit improved instruments for the French military’s use. The opposing band, directed by Michele Carafa performed on existing instruments, while Sax’s group directed by M. Fessy demonstrated Sax’s reforms including the saxhorn and the saxophone. Sax’s ensemble was declared the winner of the competition, instating a ‘near monopoly mandating the use of his instruments’ in military bands.

    The results of the competition outraged his competitors who responded through the establishment of L’Association Generale des Ouvriers en Instruments de Musique (The United Association of Instrument Makers) to “protect their rights” as instrument makers. However, evaluation of the acts of the organization reveals that it was merely a disguise for a combined effort to attack Sax and his inventions. One of its first moves as an organization was to challenge Sax’s patent of the saxophone claiming that it already existed in other forms, that it did not in fact, actually exist, and that if it did exist, it was not a musical invention. To support their side, several saxophones were purchased and the engraving removed and then re-engraved to indicate another manufacturer. These forgeries were not well executed and quickly proved false. In response to this lawsuit, Sax withdrew his patent and gave other manufacturers a year to create a rival instrument, but the plaintiffs were incapable of doing so. Sax was granted a patent on the saxophone family on 22 June 1846. Several similar lawsuits ensued, and in combination with an unfortunate incident with a loan from an anonymous benefactor, eventually lead to his bankruptcy and financial ruin.

    On 7 June 1857, Sax was asked to establish a saxophone class at the Paris Conservatoire and remained in that position until 1870. Interestingly, the position was not reinstated until 1942.

    There are various theories regarding the invention of the saxophone. Frederick Hemke alludes to an Argentine instrument made of a cow’s horn with a tip shaped similar to that of a single reed instrument. Another presumable ancestor of the saxophone is the alto fagotto invented by London’s George Wood in 1830. The instrument is similarly shaped to the bassoon, but performed with a single-reed.

    There are four different schools of thought regarding how Sax invented the saxophone. The first is that Sax was attempting to design a clarinet that played octaves rather than twelfths. The second is that he substituted the cup mouthpiece of an ophicleide with the single reed mouthpiece of the clarinet. The third theory is that he used the single reed mouthpiece on a bassoon, while the fourth is that the saxophone was invented through experimentation and was unintentional or “by accident.” Sax’s son, however, claims that his father’s work was intentional.

    The theory regarding improvements made to the ophicleide appear the most probable. The first saxophone was constructed of a metal body similar to that of the bass ophicleide with extended keywork and a modified bass clarinet mouthpiece. Sax, in fact, first described the instrument as a ‘new ophicleide’ or ‘ophicleide à bec’, and this particular bass saxophone was the one introduced at the Brussels Exposition in 1841. The term “saxophone” was first introduced by Berlioz in 1842 upon Sax’s arrival in Paris.

    The saxophone was originally conceived in two sets of keys, F and C for orchestral use and Eb and Bb for military band use. Both groups were invented simultaneously as a family of fourteen saxophones. The patent date for this “new system of wind instruments, called the saxophone”, as stated in Sax’s application, is 1846. The alto saxophone became a popular choice because its small size allowed for virtuosity. The saxophone was designed to play three octaves, however most musicians were not able to perform in the upper range. George Kastner, with the assistance of Sax, created the first saxophone method book. It is believed to contain the truest picture of how Sax conceived the saxophone, including the original three octave range use of the saxophone intended by Sax and its use as a melodic, solo instrument.

    The Beginnings of the Saxophones Use in Ensembles

    When Parisian musicians first heard the saxophone, they exclaimed its beauty, “You cannot imagine the beauty of sound and the quality of the notes”. The first performer on the saxophone was probably Adolphe Sax himself. He performed on the instrument in Brussels in 1841, Paris in 1842, and on various public occasions. In 1853, he also founded his own five-piece saxophone “brass band.”

    Outside of Adolphe Sax’s performances, saxophone was first used for teaching purposes at the Gymnase Musical Militaire in Paris from 1846 to 1848. In 1854, he reintroduced the instrument to French military bands and taught military bandsmen at the Paris Conservatoire from 1857 to 1870.

    Sax asked many European clarinetists to play his instrument, including Louis-Adolphe Mayeur and Henri Wuille, who performed on the instrument as soloists. Henri Wuille (1822-71) was one of the first soloists to perform on the saxophone in both England and the United States while Edouard Lefebre (1834-1911) was known as the most “outstanding” soloist in America from the 1870s to the 1890s with both the Patrick Gilmore Band and the John Philip Sousa Band.

    During the mid to late 1800s, the tradition of military and amateur wind bands was flourishing throughout Europe and North America. After the Civil War, brass bands captivated America, and every town boasted at least one. In Europe, the saxophone was employed in military bands from the time of their invention. This excluded Germany and Austria, which did not include saxophone until 1935. From 1845-8, French military bands had two saxophones, and then in 1854 the number rose to eight, and finally settled at four in 1894. By the 1890s, saxophone quartets had also become a staple in regimental bands in Europe.

    After hearing the French Garde Republicaine Band’s six-piece saxophone section at the International Peace Jubilee in Boston, P.S. Gilmore became the first to welcome the saxophone into his brass band. Among the saxophonists to join Gilmore’s band, was French saxophonist Eduoard A. Lefebre. Saxophonist Eduoard A. Lefebre was first featured as a soloist in Gilmore’s band on 18 November 1873 and was the leading member of its three-piece saxophone section by 1878. In 1892, Gilmore’s band had grown to include eight saxophones including soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and contrabass. The standard saxophone instrumentation in American military bands was only alto and baritone sax, and the inclusion of tenor, bass, or contrabass was rare until the early 1900s. After Gilmore’s death, Lefebre joined Sousa’s band.

    Saxophone Becomes a Popular Instrument

    There were several things going on in the early 1900s that led to the sudden popularity of the saxophone. In the United States, touring military, municipal, and circus bands and music hall performances, such as Vaudeville, led to the increasing exposure of the instrument to the American public. Until 1916, Lefebre’s solo playing was the only exposure to the solo and virtuosic qualities of the saxophone, but it never gained significant popularity. Around 1916, C-melody saxophone player Rudy Wiedoeft began recording and promoting the saxophone as a “high-class” instrument, changing the public’s perception of the saxophone. This began a saxophone craze in the 1920s that launched the saxophone into dance and jazz bands.

    Saxophone Becomes a Jazz Instrument

    After the turn of the century, brass bands were the main musical training for African American musicians. During the band era, some black bands differed from the white bands by their “syncopated” style known as ragtime. This style initially included very little improvising, but as it developed into jazz, improvising became a dominant part of the style. An important bandleader of this style was James Reece Europe. He directed the Dixieland Brass Band and was the first to incorporate saxophones into dance bands because he saw them as a more effective counterpart to brass. The addition of saxophones into his band was influenced by his performance with the French Garde Republicaine, while he was stationed in France during the First World War. However, this did not become a staple in groups until arrangers began to write for saxophone sections.

    Jazz developed out of the popular ragtime style. The definition of ragtime is rather vague because at the height of its popularity, ragtime was actually used to define any style of syncopated popular music. The style now known as New Orleans Jazz was originally known as New Orleans style ragtime. It featured the syncopated rhythms of ragtime, but featured a modified brass band as the instrumentation. These instruments included clarinet, cornet, trombone, tuba, and a drum line, which was assembled into a drum set. It was during this era, that the first well-known saxophonist emerged – Sidney Bechet.

    The switch from clarinet to saxophone, in the jazz dance orchestra, was a slow process. Although a few New Orleans Jazz players switched to saxophone, such as Sidney Bechet, saxophone did not truly become associated with jazz until the Kansas City Jazz era. By the 1920s, once jazz had moved out of New Orleans and into Chicago and other parts of the United States, bands began experimenting with saxophone in their ensembles. There is very little photographic evidence of the inclusion of saxophone in bands prior to 1915 and very few written sources suggesting its use until after World War I.

    Larger bands began to appear during the 1920s due to the availability of larger performance space for dancing. During this era, Eb, Bb, and C saxophones were included in the jazz and dance bands (C-melody saxophones lost popularity in the 1930s). Well-known jazz groups’ clarinetists began to double on the saxophone when greater volume or a sweeter sound was needed. Some of these groups included the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Fletcher Henderson, and even King Oliver who used a C-melody saxophonist.

    In the 1920s, saxophone was only beginning to root itself in the jazz idiom, and was still primarily a double for clarinet players. It is in the late 1920s and 1930s during the swing or big band era that the saxophone emerges as a solo and leading instrument in bands and true pioneers of the instrument appear.

    The dance bands were divided into three sections; reeds, brass, and the rhythm section. Most bands had a saxophone section including three or four saxophones, and the first full (modern) five saxophone section (two altos, two tenors, and one baritone) appeared in the Benny Carter band in 1933. By the 1940s, as the swing era evolved and big bands flourished, most bands hosted the full AATTB section. The 1950s and the advent of rock and roll and the electric guitar essentially signaled the end to the popularity of the dance bands and the saxophone.

    Exceptions to the saxophone’s decline in popularity during the rock era include “Honkers” Big Jay McNeely and Louis Jordan. These players implemented a “screeching and honking” style that was popular during the early rock period.

    Pioneers of the Saxophone

    There are many notable players that pioneered the use of the saxophone in the jazz genre. The first musician to become well known as a saxophonist was clarinetist, Sidney Bechet. Bechet first started at the age of six on the clarinet and soon became well known in New Orleans as the best clarinet player. By the age of 15, he was performing with Willie “Bunk” Johnson’s Eagle Brass Band. Bechet was first exposed to the saxophone while he was in Chicago, but did not began playing on the instrument until he purchased one while he was in London in the 1920s. He remained a saxophone player for the rest of his performing life, preferring it to clarinet because of its loud volume.

    Another notable player from the big band era is tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins began on C-melody saxophone and in 1921, switched to tenor saxophone. He claimed that his unique sound was because he tried to sound like he was trying to play C-melody saxophone on tenor saxophone. Coleman Hawkins is regarded as the first major jazz improvisor on the saxophone. He denied this and attributes improvisation to saxophonists Prince Robinson, Happy Caldwell, and Stump Evans. He is, however, most certainly the first to develop a style of playing unique to the saxophone. Prior to Coleman Hawkins, saxophone players adapted the clarinet style of playing to saxophone, but Hawkins created a sound distinctive to saxophone.

    Other important early saxophone performers include alto player Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Bud Freeman, Jimmy Dorsey, and Benny Carter. C-melody saxophonist Frank Trumbauer was an important pioneer on the instrument, and most alto and tenor saxophonists modeled their playing after him. Harry Carney, the baritone saxophonist in Duke Ellington’s band was also an important pioneer. He proved the baritone saxophone to be an important solo instrument.

    The Legacy of the Saxophone

    Since its creation, the saxophone has faced a great deal of rejection and hesitation. Despite its rocky beginnings, it has become one of the most frequently appearing instruments in a variety of genres and ensembles. It can be seen performing as a solo instrument in classical, jazz, and popular styles or in a section in wind ensembles, orchestras, marching bands, all styles of jazz, and as part of the so-called horn section in pop and rock. The saxophone’s current popularity is largely attributed to the jazz genre and its performers. During the swing era, as the saxophone rose in popularity and refined instruments and performers emerged, the saxophone became accepted as an expressive and dynamic instrument ensuring its place in music ensembles of all genres.



    June 29, 2015 • Teen Jazz • Views: 4246

  • Pianist Dave Brubeck Biography | Teen Jazz Legend

    Pianist Dave Brubeck has been lauded as one of the most influential jazz artists of the 1950s and 60s. As cool jazz began to reach its prime, Brubeck succeeded in finding an audience for his more complex music (both tonally and time signature-wise).

    Born in Concord, California, on December 6, 1920, David Warren Brubeck was immersed in a musical environment from an early age. His mother was a classically trained pianist and both of his older brothers would become professional musicians. At the age of 4, he began piano lessons and with a good ear, he was able to hid the fact that he wasn’t good at reading music for quite some time (it wasn’t until he was in college that his teachers found out he couldn’t read music).

    In his teen years, Brubeck performed with a local dance band, but unlike many of his musician contemporaries, he continued through school to study veterinary medicine. He enrolled at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California, playing locally to help pay for his education.

    During WWII, Brubeck was drafted into the army where he served under General George S. Patton. He was asked to play piano for troops by the Red Cross which saved him from having to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. He later formed a jazz group with fellow soldiers called “The Wolfpack.”

    After being honorably discharged in 1946, he re-enrolled in university at Mills College in Oakland, California where he studied with Darius Milhaud. This is arguably where Brubeck was inspired to incorporate unusual time signatures into his compositions.

    He debuted the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951 with Paul Desmond on sax, and a rotating rhythm section. In 1956, Joe Morello became the permanent drummer and in 1958, Eugene became the steady basis.

    The popularity of the group’s records led to their touring college campuses across the US. In 1954, Brubeck became the second jazz musician to grace the cover of Time Magazine (after Louis Armstrong).

    In 1959, Brubeck released his most adventurous and ambitious albums, “Time Out” which featured a collection of tunes written in unusual time signatures like 5/4 and 9/8. His label, Columbia, were worried about releasing the album, but thankfully they went through with the release. It sold more than a million copies (the first jazz album to do so), and it attained a position at #25 on the Pop Charts.

    He continued to do several projects, and even formed a fusion/rock group with his sons in the 1970s called Two Generations of Brubeck.

    Brubeck received several awards recognizing his contributions to jazz including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a lifetime achievement Grammy, a Smithsonian Medal, and at least five honorary degrees from universities around the world.

    He passed away from heart failure in 2012 on December 5. It was one day before what would have been in 92nd birthday. Some of his notable works include “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo à la Turk”.

    June 24, 2015 • Interviews • Views: 2188

  • Composer Cole Porter | Teen Jazz Legend

    Best know for his work as an American composer and songwriter, pianist Cole Porter led a life filled with both scandal and luxury amidst his successful career as a musician.

    Born into a wealthy family on June 9, 1891, Cole was doted on by his mother. He began the violin at 6 and the piano at 8, and even wrote his first operetta at the age of 10. He attended Yale University in 1909 where he majored in English, minored in music and studied French.

    While a student at Yale, Porter wrote over 300 songs and joined the Glee club as well as several other music clubs. He also composed the music for several comedy skits put on by his fraternity brothers, preparing him for his future career in Broadway.

    Upon graduating from Yale, Cole Porter enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1913 but it was not long before he switched to the music program under the suggestion of the dean.

    His first Broadway tune appeared in the revue “Hands Up” in 1915. It was quickly followed by his first Broadway production which was a failure compared to the success of his debut, closing after only 15 shows. It was the first of many failures for Cole Porter.

    In 1917, after a move to Paris and his marriage in 1923, Porter finally ended his streak of failed works with the success of “(Let’s Do It) Let’s Fall in Love”. His next work, Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929) was also a success and established Porter as a talented lyricist and musician.

    The 1930s saw the addition of many more successful titles to Cole’s repertoire including “Night and Day,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and more. In 1937, he was involved in a riding accident and lost one of his legs. He would live in constant pain for the rest of his life. Although this led to Porter withdrawing from his previously extravagant social life, it did not hinder his success as a composer.

    After the passing of his wife in 1954, Porter suffered the loss of his other leg. In 1958 he stopped composing entirely and withdrew into seclusion for the remainder of his life. He passed away due to kidney failure on October 15, 1964 at the age of 73.

    Throughout his career, Porter wrote more than 800 songs. His production “Kiss Me Kate” was the first to win a Tony Award for the category of “best musical”.

    February 25, 2015 • Interviews • Views: 2003

  • An In-Depth Introduction to Breton Music with Jean-Michel Veillon Pt. 4

    Read Part 1: An Introduction to Breton music and the history of the region
    Read Part 2: Read Part 2: the instrumentation of Breton music and how Jean-Michel Veillon became involved in the genre
    Read Part 3: includes of discussion with Larry Rone about Breton music in the US

    SK: Well those are all the questions I have for everyone, thank you both so much for being a part of this conversation. Unless anyone has something else to add?

    JM: The problem with the Breton language is still really important here. You know, it’s a political problem for a simple reason. It’s a political and I was going to say mechanical problem. France, like your country [the US] has a strong constitution and the constitution of France stipulates very clearly that only one language can be official in France which is French. It’s not like in the States, I remembering touring in the States once and there was a friend, was it in Florida or California? To know people would accept that Spanish would be used. Well, in France, the problem you see is that people, the Basques, the Corsicans, the Bretons, the Alsatians, try to keep their languages alive. The problem is that, take a simple example, you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Someone who is rather Leftist here in Brittany, which means he is in a way, he wants more equal society and all that, more guaranty of the defense of the workers. No expectations of the workers by huge enterprises and all that. Let’s say he is from a sort of Left feeling. But when it comes to the defense of the Breton language, it means that we should change the constitution and there people would say if we open Pandora’s Box, if we start to change the constitution, it could change not only for languages but also for the basic rights of the citizen. So it’s a mechanical problem. So even people who would support the Breton language would think it’s not fair, “We should have the right to use it more in schools, in offices everywhere.” The problem is the barrier is the constitution but at the same time the constitution guarantees equality between citizens. Do you see what I mean? It’s complicated. It’s quite complicated, so I don’t know what the future will be for that language, I have no idea, but one thing is for sure. If the language goes, the music will lose enormously. Because it’s so much attached, the rhythm of the Breton language has it’s responsibility in the way the music is shaped. Especially in the West of Brittany, of course. So the way the language goes, our music will be very weakened I’m afraid.

    PR: Well I was born in Brittany in [?]. I stayed with my Breton mother, she wasn’t my mother but she was my nurse mother. I stayed with her until I was eight years old and I remember when we would come down as children, I was one of several children, she and Maman Marie was talking to Jean-Louis in Breton, they would immediately stop speaking Breton to speak French because in those days it was illegal. I think you’ll agree that you could speak Breton, but now, I think it’s different. Things have changed in that, I live in Brittany, I live in the south part which is, I’m about one hour and 15 minutes from Rennes. And I’m about three hours from where Jean-Michel lives on the coast in the Cotes-d’Armor, and one of the things that has changed is you can now, Breton has certain [?] that, in schools, it’s amazing, they do have to teach Breton. The kids have to learn it. It’s not everybody, but when I was born that was absolutely out of the question. So this is encouraging, I think.

    JM: Yes, yes. You’re right. Well it was never really illegal, the language. It was not really illegal… Well…

    PR: It was frowned upon.

    JM: Well horrible things happened the second World War. Some Breton soldiers who had lost their regiment in the battle, were shot because in Breton you say Ya to say Oui, yes like Germans.

    PR: And they thought they were Germans?

    JM: Yeah. They thought they were German spies. And it happened a few times that Bretons were shot and they tried to say “we are Breton,” they didn’t speak French at all. And by the way, I have seen and old woman, one of the last. She died in my arms by the way, 1979, 1980 in central Brittany, she could hardly speak French. But you see, the problem is, it was not illegal, the problem is what has happened with the French government, all these last 40 years, that the more the Breton language is dying, the more they give a little bit of help. Not much. It’s like they want it to end up in a museum or something. They didn’t help it when it was time, you see what I mean?

    PR: Yeah

    JM: It’s still time, maybe, but it’s… Something needs to be done rapidly. Yeah we could go on with this for hours because I would have a lot to say about it. It’s hard to consider this music without trying to understand the background. Yeah, I wouldn’t say that most musicians are so political, but…

    LR: Of course, of course…

    JM: But the thing is whether they are not, what happens is they are often asked, especially professionals to play for political causes.

    LR: Right.

    JM: Or environmental… We are thrown into, we are not outside of the arena. We have to help. And we are asked to play and very often by the way, can you refuse your fee? Because we need to…

    PR: That does sound familiar, doesn’t it?

    JM: It happens all the time. And by the way, oh this is for Shannon, I forgot to say something. Apart from the fest noz, which is where you dance, but everybody will come to it. I know rock musicians will come to fest noz because they meet friends even though they don’t play that music or sometimes don’t even like it that much. But they know it and they often who have friends that play. And also, many musicians will play in a traditional band will play rock or jazz in another band. So there is a sort of melting pot of musicians if you like, but..

    PR: There is… There is Jean-Michel, it’s true. I’ve been to two fest noz or three since I’ve been here and one relatives came over from their living in Japan and Korea now and I said look, these people they’re going to dance these very traditional dances that go back hundreds of years and you’re going to see young people, old people dancing together in circles and they’re holding your hands and doing these gavottes and plinn, and they said “no dad, you’re wrong” and they went the fest noz and they were absolutely blown away. They had no idea. People dance and their music could go off in a jazz direction, in an African direction, all within, you know it’s Breton. It could be sung a cappella or with a full rock band or with a traditional band. No difference. And there’s a strength there and I find it very energetic and invigorating just talking about it.

    JM: And by the way, what I wanted to tell to Shannon is that, in fact, apart from the fest noz and the traditional music concerts. Traditional is a word that, by the way, is a little difficult for me. I don’t find it very adapted, but anyway, we have also festivals. Like there’s a huge festival in central Brittany called the [?] which means the Old Ploughs.

    PR: Ah, oui oui oui

    JM: And Bruch Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bob Dylan, blah blah blah, and you have always Breton music there as well. So all these big stars know about it, they see the big flags and we have lesser festivals where a traditional band will play just after a jazz band or just before a rock band. So the musicians get to listen to each other a lot which I was say was not necessarily the case 40 years ago. Is that good or bad? I think it’s good in a way. I don’t know what, well, what you can fear is always all music will eventually sound alike, but I don’t think so. I don’t think so.

    LR: I would love to go to a concert where Pennou-Skoulm played next to Bruce Springsteen. That would be really great. I would love that. That would be the greatest concert in the history of the world.

    JM: Well, I played with Barzaz last summer a few hours before Carlos Santana.

    SK: Wow. Well, thank you so much again.

    JM: Take care!

    SK: Merci.

    Everyone: Take care.

    Once again, another huge thank you to Jean-Michel Veillon, Patrick Ramsey, and Larry Rone for taking the time to talk to us. If you’d like to learn more about Jean-Michel and his music, you can visit for more information. For more information about Larry Rone and his group Poor Man’s Fortune, you can visit

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    February 18, 2015 • Podcasts • Views: 2593

  • An In-Depth Introduction to Breton Music with Jean-Michel Veillon Pt. 3

    Read Part 1: An Introduction to Breton music and the history of the region
    Read Part 2: Read Part 2: the instrumentation of Breton music and how Jean-Michel Veillon became involved in the genre

    If you come to Brittany now, one couple you will see play, one couple of instruments you’ll hear almost in every fest noz is saxophone-accordion. Or else the big accordion, the chromatic, the big one. Quite rare with a very special style, by the way, in a distinct part of Brittany, but mostly the button accordion. The button accordion and saxophone is a big thing and that started in between the two World Wars, but now it’s bigger. Much bigger. And some virtuosos, some excellent musicians play and also you will notice if you come to Brittany, a very strong interest of most young musicians for jazz and maybe especially this type of jazz that you would call manouche.

    Because as I said, to put harmony, to put chords on Breton music, is not that easy. You can easily destroy it by putting the wrong harmony. But the fact that many jazz musicians got interested in this music… every time I’ve played with jazz musicians they understood what type harmony you should put or not.

    I don’t know maybe it’s a reason why many of them were always, had always an open ear for music. I guess. I think of people like there’s an Italian…

    LR: Jacques Pellen.

    JM: Yeah, Jacques Pellen is Breton but I’m thinking more about people… Jacques Pellen knew about Breton music because he is Breton, but yeah he plays jazz.

    LR: Oh that’s right. Of course.

    JM: But more and more thinking of people who came from abroad and who got interested. Jacques Pellen invited several, Jacques Pellen would be the man who invited several international jazz men to play like the violinist (?) is from France, but he’s not Breton. But Paolo Fresu for example, a trumpet player from Sardinia. I played with him several times and he’s fantastic. Riccardo Del Fra who played with Chet Baker for 12 years.

    LR: Really?

    JM: Riccardo Del Fra. Italian. He’s the head of the department of jazz in the Conservatoire of Paris now. He was, he loved Brittany. He stayed here and played a lot. I’ve played with him several times. And other musicians who came very punctually once or twice who were very surprised by Breton music like the Canadian trumpet player Kenny Wheeler. I’ve played with him and he was very surprised with this music. Karim Ziad is an Algerian drummer who played with Joe Zawinul who was with Weather Report on his last world tour. Joe Zawinul died but Karim Ziad played with him a lot and he also played in the band with us, and he was very surprised, he was very interested in the music because sometimes some rhythms for dance, they apparently simple, but then you get into the details they are not as simple as they seem.

    So this interest from jazz musicians is obvious to us but the interest of young Breton musicians for jazz is stronger.

    SK: And umm, just because I’m curious, who are some of those musicians who are playing saxophone or gypsy jazz in the Breton idiom?

    JM: Jacky Molard. He has a quartet where the double bass player where the double bass player is very well known in France and beyond. They played in the states several times in the jazz festival in Minneapolis. She’s called Hélène Labarrière and the saxophone in the band is called Yannick Jory. He has played a lot of easter European music but he has played bombarde also and he knows very well the Breton music.

    And there is a young saxophone player, also excellent, near to where I live in the North of Brittany called Timothy Le Bour. He has a duet called Le Bour and the accordion player with him is called Bodros, Le Bour Bodros. Those would be two of the saxophone players that are, that have really great style and approach of Breton music or music inspired from the Breton tradition.

    Jazz manouche well, you’ll hear it with button accordion players. The way they put harmony in the Breton dances. Any little group you’ll hear in a fest noz many of them try these types of harmonies. They try at least. Fiddlers too. Jacky Molard and there’s a fiddler player. He’s back into playing now. He stopped for a while called (?) who plays that style too. But you’ll hear also a fantastic young fiddle player.

    LR: I’m sorry. He stopped what happened?

    JM: Well we haven’t seen him any more much. He was drinking to much. There’s a great fiddle player called Gregoire Hennebelle. Well if you go and try a trio called Zon, trio. It’s a young woman singing, (Faustine Audebert), who by the way, she plays jazz piano I think. And then there’s a button accordion player with brilliant called Youen Paranthoen and this fiddler called Gregoire Hennebelle. This is really great. Really, it goes, it’s still very rooted in the tradition but they go much further. And there are many bands like that.

    You can also listen this fantastic accordion player called Janick Martin. He has a duo and a quintet called Hamon Martin. You’ll find that, you’ll find videos.

    LR: They’re very good.

    JM: Yes they are very good and there is Ronan Pellen who plays cittern. A string instrument and it’s really excellent band. Really good.

    SK: And then, outside of the saxophonists and some of the gypsy jazz/Breton groups, who are some of the key players in the genre?

    JM: A very good, a man who has a very deep knowledge of the Breton music and we did interesting things. And he plays saxophone, by the way, as well. Oh yes, he plays saxophone very well. He plays bombarde and saxophone. He does his arrangements. He is Roland Becker. Becker. Actually his grandfather was German.

    Not Brecker! Becker! Not like Michael Brecker. Oh, by the way, I have a friend who plays uilleann pipes, but he plays Breton music and Jacques Pellen. They recorded with Michael Brecker. If you are in jazz, if you try to find a band called Celtic Tales there is a man there playing the vibes. I know them because they are from native from my area in Brittany. Called Jean-Baptiste Boclé, he played with Gary Burton and Pat Metheny. He lives in the states but he comes to Brittany often. Jean-Baptiste Boclé on vibes and his brother Gildas on double bass. Gildas lives in the states too. And they have a band called Celtic Tales and they invited Michael Brecker. And their drummer was from New York, I think, called Marco (?), something like that. Celtic Tales, you’ll find that on the net no problem. And they are, more or less, they’re, I wouldn’t say they are rooted in the Breton tradition, they know about it.

    Who else? Of course you have heard about, maybe, Alan Stivell. Alan Stivell is now in his seventies. He’s the man who back in the revival in the folk movement from the sixties, he knew well the tradition. He would play the Celtic harp, that was his sort of emblem. He plays the bagpipes, he plays the bombarde, he would play all sorts of instruments and he had a huge success in the seventies. His main success was because he played in one of the most prestigious halls at the time in Paris called L’Olympia. And he played in 1971 I think or 1970 and they said “okay, well it’s funny to have a sort of Breton bard coming to play there but we don’t think you’ll fill.” And actually he filled the room. He stayed two weeks. There were trains and buses coming from Brittany and it was filled every night. It was a sort of a very strong I couldn’t say nationalist, but identity movement. Very, very strong. And Alan Stivell can’t be forgotten. He has done a lot.

    Well there are so many musicians. If you go to this, check the names I’ve given to you, you’ll see others. You know, the Internet now, it’s mad. I don’t spend too much time on it myself because you get lost rapidly.

    SK: And, just to kind of go back to it, what are some of the key characteristics that define Breton music.

    JM: One of the main characteristics as I said is local styles for some reason have survived which means that dance is from that area and if you want to hear it well-danced and well-played it will be generally in that area. For some reason. People are quite still proud of the fact that, I mean by this, one century ago if you wanted to see that dance you had to go to the area where it is danced. But now, all those little limits have been blown up in smithereens. You could think it’s a boring monoculture everywhere, but still, the areas where the dance came from will dance other dances from all over Brittany, but still they are attached to the local dance. So the style, the rhythmic style will be very protected. If you don’t play it right, there will always be someone to tell you the rhythm wasn’t right. You didn’t play where you should.

    The other thing is, a very important thing with the Breton music that almost disappeared was as I said the non-tempered scale. There are several different scales and some people say it makes them think of Arabic [music], some people say “it makes me think of Eastern Europe.” Those scales are very, very old and they were once all over Europe. You still hear them in other traditions like if you listen to the fiddle tradition from Sweden, also you will hear micro intervals as we say. So in Brittany, when you hear Breton music, let’s say, let’s take wind instruments, clarinet. The clarinets as we say in French are preparé, prepared. And the people will put things under the pads so that the scale is what they want. The scale will not be the piano scale. The scale will be other micro intervals. So that’s very typical of our music. And the singers, some singers, I know at least one… He will sing always with a strange, do you say temperament? He will sing with a strange temperament, strange micro intervals in his singing and he can’t sing any other way. Because this is how we hear the music. So this would be the rhythm thing and the micro interval thing would be the two main characteristics apart from the fact as I said earlier on that the [?] of the tunes is generally smaller than what you would hear in Gaelic music. Hence the fact that many people would say, if the languages are from the same family, the music is very different. Also due, probably, to the fact that the Irish and Scottish had English neighbors when we had French neighbors. So it has probably shaped a little bit of the evolution of our music, I suppose.

    To explain more, it’s very hard for me but as soon as you will listen a few things on the internet you will see what I mean and you will see immediately depending on what you listen, you’ll see, I’m sure you’ll feel like most people listening to it for the first time, you’ll feel there’s some unity in it. Something in common, but also you’ll feel immediately the different styles. Depending on what band you hear and what area of Brittany.

    SK: Well, to make a bit of a transition, you talked about the different styles in Brittany, but now I ‘d like to talk about Breton music in other places around the world and Larry is a Breton musician in the US. Okay, so, Larry, I’m really curious as to how you got involved in Breton music.

    LR: Well, it’s umm… Probably like most people who get into Breton music. They came at it through Irish and sometimes Scottish music. There’s probably, I don’t know anybody in the states that didn’t do that, as few as there are. I’m an Irish musician first and foremost I guess. But, I first heard Kornog for the first time in Dallas. I was doing concert promotion, stuff with Irish music promotion. Getting Irish bands to play in Dallas. I was working with the Southwest Celtic Music Association. And we would basically, they run the North Texas Irish Festival now and did then and we booked, we’d been booking a lot of Irish bands and we booked this band called Kornog which is, the founder of which was Jamie Mc Menemy who was the founding member of a very famous Scottish band called the Battlefield Band, maybe you’ve heard of them. And Jamie had moved to Brittany after he quit the battlefield band and got into that music. And formed a band out of which sort of eventually became Kornog.

    They became pretty popular in the 80s and they toured Dallas three years in a row. One year two of them stayed at my house including Jean-Michel. Became good friends then, but I was, I listened to their albums and learned some of their tunes and played a little bit in the Irish bands I was playing in, but not very well. Breton music, this is another unknown fact about Breton music among Irish musicians, non-Breton, anyone outside of Brittany, they usually go through it from Irish and they try to play Breton music like an Irish tune and it doesn’t work that way which I found out years later. So anyway, I was playing some Kornog stuff in Irish bands in the 80s. Moved to Japan for three years in the early nineties. Came back and moved to Austin, Texas, where I am now. And looked up a guy I knew from Austin called Serge Laine, who is French. Who is also well-versed in Irish music. So he was the second person to get me into Breton music and it was obviously hands on experience. While he wasn’t Breton, he had been to Brittany a lot and studied it a lot. So we formed a band called Poor Man’s Fortune, still do that now. And it really started like the other bands I was in playing mostly Irish. But over the years, Poor Man’s Fortune has morphed into pretty much straight ahead Breton. And with Serge especially, starting in 1995 when we first got together, he taught me a lot of Breton. He actually knew the rhythms and much more melodies. All I really knew at the time was a few Kornog recordings and a couple of other records. Really I didn’t have much Breton music. Serge Laine, my band mate now, he’s the one that really got me ramped up big time on Breton music because before it was just me and other people trying to play Breton tunes as well as we could and the recordings from those days are pretty awful as far as stylistically.

    And so that’s pretty much how I got into it. And I’m a flute player, got in with a natural thing to pick up the standard Breton instrument, the bombarde, being a wind player. I picked up that. Serge had one and then I bought one and then I bought two and three and four and five. And then we had Richard Kean join the band in around 2000. He’s a very, very good Scottish piper and he got really enamored with what we were doing and he bought the Breton bagpipes, the binioù koz.

    SK: And what has your experience been with Breton music in the US as far as reception and audiences and performing it because it is a lot different from Irish music even though it does share some characteristics?

    LR: It does. Generally speaking, the way I see our band is that if we play good, we get a good reception and we’ve always had a very good reception. You know, we don’t play a lot because we’re quite loud and you can’t really do real Breton music without the bombarde and binoù.

    SK: And that’s a real different sound for people who are unfamiliar with it.

    LR: Yeah it’s a very interesting sound.

    There’s two sorts of situations. We’ll do smaller clubs and stuff and you know, really to tell you the truth, with respect to American audiences, they don’t know Breton music. They know good music, I guess… That’s what I like to think. None of us are under any preconceptions that people understand what we’re doing as far as the technicalities of it, “oh this is a gavotte, from the mountains and it goes a certain way.” I mean, we care about that, but the audience really, to tell you the truth, the audience here doesn’t really know Irish music either, so… And as a matter of fact we can, as long as the binioù and bombarde have been playing, I’m not sure that people really know if it’s Irish or Breton unless they really know Irish music. So really, and not to belittle an audience at all in any way, there’s just isn’t a lot of interest in it in particular, I think, but we do play a lot. Not so much any more because it’s kind of hard to get together, everybody’s in different cities but I think for us it’s, we want to play it right and we do, for the most part, having just worked with Jean-Michel last month, we realized we didn’t do everything right. But really, I mean, yeah, that’s basically it. The audience isn’t really versed enough to know it’s, to really appreciate, “oh this is a gavotte from the mountains and this is a plinn.” But if it’s played well they like it, and you know, we do use drums and bass on some tunes to really push it and make it sort of, you know… And that’s exciting to anybody. It doesn’t matter. I think music, now we’re getting to general music. Good music is good music. People like it.

    SK: Well I think another thing to is it’s a little bit difficult to understand here because we’re missing one of the most important elements of Breton music because it’s a participatory music, so…

    LR: It is very much.

    SK: In the natural setting, everyone is dancing and there are certain dances that go to each type of song and it’s something where even if you’re not performing, you’re involved, you know? And we don’t have that here because no one knows the dances. So I think maybe as far as reception goes it’s a little bit harder to understand because you’re missing that element.

    LR: We try and do it right but we don’t expect anybody to get up and dance. And really, in Brittany if you went to big fest noz, little fest noz, I went to house parties which is small house concerts and when someone starts playing, people get up and dance. Just automatic. It doesn’t matter where they play, you know? It’s just the way it is. It is absolutely, the first thing I was told by Jean-Michel was if you want to learn Breton music, learn Breton dancing. The dances are all for the most part quite easy to do and that’s why it’s so participatory because they don’t exclude people who have two left feet for the most part. Some of the dances are pretty hard as you’ve probably seen, the laridae gavotte, is pretty tough. But a plinn and certainly an an dro, the grandmothers and some of the women are “when do you dance the an dro?” because it’s a real easy step and they can do it, so there’s something for everybody. Young kids love the fast ones and the older people like the slower ones. Right. But yeah, I don’t know of any other tradition in Europe, or at least one of these revived traditions where dancing is such a critical part of it. But… which is why it’s hard to do. Which is why it’s hard to get right. Breton music, the melodies are, I always compare it all to Irish and Scottish music, much simpler melodies, much easier to actually play but much harder to get right. And Jean-Michel will talk a lot tomorrow about the variations, you know. He, like, on certain kinds of tunes, you have the first part is straight and the second part is not so much a variation in the melody but a variation in the time. It will go, two over three, what was he saying, I wish I could remember which dance he was talking about. The B part will always be a slightly different rhythm on certain tunes. I wish I could remember which ones he was talking about. This shows my limitation in how it really, and the dancers don’t know this kind of thing but he does and he’s a very integral part of that. The people who have kept it alive and sort of re-infused it, you know?

    Read Part 4: a discussion of the current music and political landscape of Brittany with Jean-Michel Veillon, Larry Rone and Patrick Ramsey

    February 11, 2015 • Podcasts • Views: 2054

  • An In-Depth Introduction to Breton Music with Jean-Michel Veillon Pt. 2

    Read Part 1: An Introduction to Breton music and the history of the region

    SK: So a moment ago you were talking about the early Breton music instrumentation, but I’d like to go back for a minute and talk about the way the instrumentation has evolved over time, especially after the folk revival.

    JM: What you would have heard was mainly singing, of course, in Breton, or in the East of Brittany, singing as well. You would have violin in many parts of the North of Brittany. Violin duets sometimes. You would have had early clarinets. You would of course had bombarde, this mad double reed oboe we have coming together with a little pipes, with one drone, very shrill called binioù-koz. And that would be basically the picture.

    One very emblematic instrument that was imported was the Scottish pipes. And this was because there was a strong sort of inter-Celtic feeling which dates back to the Romantic period of literature and music. Many people said “we must restore the old links between our cousins.” Scottish cousins, Irish cousins, Gaelic cousins, Welsh cousins, etc. Remember I said that the Breton culture, as well as Brittany itself, was in very bad shape after the World Wars. What happened is that a handful of young people an association called Bodadeg Ar Sonerion which means The Musician’s Assembly. And they decided, they said, “we must restore the pride of the Breton people.” And since many emigrated to Paris, they decided to create the equivalent of the Scottish pipe band, but this time, they added, so they imported Scottish pipes and people learned how to play it in Brittany, or in Paris, the Breton community in Paris. And they added bombarde, which is the oboe I mentioned, several bombardes. So a bagad is very loud, it’s louder than a pipe band actually because of the bombarde because those are very loud. Plus drums like in the Scottish pipe bands. So this started in the early 50s and even a little bit before. So the Scottish pipes were an important importation.

    During this time, unfortunately, the fiddler tradition disappeared almost completely because of the wars as I said. And many of the people who still could play didn’t want to play any more. It was true for other instruments and also for the singing. Some people came back from the war and didn’t want to sing nor play. So the fiddle had disappeared but it was restored later and we now have several fiddlers. Although, we have lost, we don’t know exactly, how they played back in the 1900s. We know more or less, one or two survived, but strictly in Easterm Brittany.

    Clarinet was still in use a little bit and the style. Completely with a very strange scale, not tempered scale. Very common in Brittany, like for singers. You’ll find this scale on all wind instruments, singers, and now other instruments too. And later, the folk revival that was all over Europe, you know let’s say from the 60s, guitar started to be imported in Brittany in bands as an accompaniment instrument. The main influence about the style of guitar in Brittany, the main and first influence was definitely the influence of some Irish musician. You know bands like Planxty, especially Paul Brady, Andy Irvin. People were big fans of Woody Guthrie and all that by the way. Pete Seeger and all that. Those people would use the open tuning, the DADGAD tuning. That came to Brittany exactly the same and it always adapts quite well to the modality of the Breton music. So guitar and then of course electric bass or double bass. And a little bit later percussion. There was percussion in Brittany, there were drums. Napoleon period of drums, very rough drums. That’s what we had really. They would accompany clarinets, duets, or binioù/bombarde or sometimes duets of fiddles.

    But from the 70s, there was a main change in Breton music because bands, not this time bagad or pipe bands, but bands with various instruments were created. Meaning by this, you suddenly had bands with the accordion, the bombarde, a fiddle and the guitar for instance. That would change a lot of things in the Breton music. One of the main things that changed, and it’s also true with other musics by the way, other traditional musics, is, you know, Breton music before that, before the World Wars was a music played by duets of instruments, wind instruments or singers unaccompanied. Or solo instruments. Which means that, I mentioned the art of variation, people would do as many variations they wanted. They wouldn’t play in unison. And even a couple of binoù and bombarde would be completely wild. Some people listen that and say it’s like [?]. The bombarde plays a part and the binioù plays all the time and when he repeats part A or part B of a tune, he can improvise, well I wouldn’t say improvise, he is one the edge of variation and improvisation. So you see, when this music started to be arranged by bands, suddenly they wanted it to be efficient. They needed to play in unison. They needed to play the same thing. The same thing with the bagad and the pipe bands. So it reshaped in a way a big part of our repertoire and it was a main change after centuries of probably changing, but not as drastic I suppose.

    So a melodic, melodic music became a music for unison, more arranged and little by little is started to evolve into something more sophisticated.

    SK: So, I’d like to talk a little bit more, you said the style was kind of on the edge of variation and improvisation and I’m really interested in talking more about that. Some of the…

    JM: Yeah, um, many people will prefer a couple of singers singing for the dance, not necessarily because of the quality of their tone and voice is excellent, but rather because they are able to do variation, literally play with the tune. To change the rhythm inside it to have a good articulation like a tune, and they’ll do, you’ll often hear in the Western Brittany, especially in, because as I said, Western Brittany has kept the language, the eastern part of Brittany has a dialect called Gallo which is of the family of French. Which is literally French. But in both, on both sides on that linguistic limit, you will hear the same type of rhythmic supposition. Three on four, four on three, things like that. If you hear a simple tune going (sings), you’ll have, I don’t know if it’s clear enough, you’ll have accidentals all the time. All the time you’ll have rhythmic accidentals, it’s very common. It’s difficult, of course, to do when you play in unison in a band. So it’s typical of a soloist music I would say. And also, the scales. The scales are very, very strange sometimes and they almost disappeared. Everything was going to be, in a way, leveled like become universal like the piano scale, but it didn’t. It didn’t.

    And about variation and improvisation, to me, I make a very clear distinction and we know it in Brittany because many Breton musicians in the past thirty years have been involved in experiments with jazz musicians, and not necessarily jazz musicians by the way. I have been part of bands like that and I’ll come back to it. I’ve met some amazing musicians, jazz musicians. But let’s say that variation, you stay on a tune, you don’t, it’s melodic music so you don’t have harmony or, you don’t have a clear chart of harmony on which you can improvise, it doesn’t work that way, traditionally, I mean. So it’s not as if you had a piano playing chords and you improvise on it. It doesn’t work that way. You play with someone, possibly with a guitar but you can’t go too far from the tune traditionally, but this has changed. Now we have traditional musicians who improvise, but to me there is a clear distinction between the art of variation and the art of improvisation. You know, many people in Brittany are interested in other kinds of music like the taxim system of the Balkans, or in Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian and Hungarian, you have all this what you call makam, or taxim. Makam is the Arabic word for it which is a system of improvisation. Well, many Breton musicians study that a lot and they play sort of taxims with their own scale. And also, the improvisation, many people are interested and often Breton musicians have studied with Indian musicians, north India mostly where they are interested in the raga system which is with the talas, the rhythmic setup. And improvisation on a special phrase with ascending or descending scales. Well, this is old to me, music savant, classical music – old classical music.

    Well, more and more Breton musicians are influenced by that, so improvisation appears in the Breton music, but traditionally, it was not except in vocal tradition from central Brittany which was called kan ha paouez. Which means literally “sing and pause.” It was a very special thing. I met someone who had witnessed, who had heard some of the last of this improvisation in the very early 50s in a farm in central Brittany. What it was, it was a work in common in a farm, people worked in common as I mentioned earlier on, it was several farmers and people, all farmers and people living from the land. They were working the field and they had a pause at midday and it was very hot and one came inside the house where the woman of the house was waiting for them with food and everything, and this man came inside the house singing, improvising on a simple melody. He said basically, putting it in rhymes, improvising it in rhymes, he said basically “we have worked a lot this morning, it was very hot in the field and we didn’t get much cider, apple cider to drink.” So the woman of the house replied to him singing and more or less the same simple tune she could pick up rapidly, and also in rhymes, she said to him, she told him, “well, you have probably worked more than anyone to talk to me like that. To make such a reproach, a grief.” Then a third man started to sing and say “we have all worked hard, this woman has worked hard to prepare food for us so we are not going to raise a dispute.” So this was all improvised. And this is a vocal tradition of improvisation that is not only in Brittany by the way. It exists in other countries, in Asia. So this would be as far as I know, the only improvisation existing in the very old tradition.

    Everything you will hear now about improvisation in Breton music is inspired from other cultures.

    SK: So why don’t you go ahead and talk a little bit about how you got involved in Breton music.

    JM: I don’t think it’s an exception. Many young Breton musicians have more or less, the same thing that I am, I’m not from a musical family in the sense that my father was a great singer, but he wouldn’t sing really traditional songs. He would sing songs he heard from the radio, you know, cabaret singing from the 30s and all that. My father was born in 1917, he is now dead, but that’s what I heard. I didn’t like it very much. He sang funny songs, you know, very, with a lot of sexual connotations and things like that. Funny and he was people in the weddings would love him. He had a fantastic voice, very, very loud. Amazing and very much in tune. But the content of his songs was not exactly what I would expect.

    Because we were from an area where the tradition had more or less disappeared, the dialect where I grew up, Gallo, which sounds a little bit like what you would hear in Quebec, was still very lively and I heard a lot of it. I heard it a lot and I know it, but I grew up on a peninsula on the coast. It’s a bit remote, a place remote, a beautiful place, but a bit remote and even when I grew up, there were not many tourists yet. My mother didn’t play nor sing any music, but there was a group at the time and a little bit every where in Brittany, hence what I said about, I’m not very particular in that. Back in the mid, from the beginning of the 50s, started many, many groups to restore the pride of the Breton people and groups with costumes, local costumes and to teach the young people to dance and to go on stage to perform with the dance and the music.

    I was in a group like that which was a good thing. We would dance all summer and with the money we got the whole band would go to visit another part of France or go abroad. So my first trips in a bus where with a dance band. And we would stop anywhere in France and as soon as the bus stopped, we got down and we danced and we played. And the people everywhere else in France looked at us with big round eyes, wondering the [heck we were doing]. And they said, “oh, the Bretons, okay.”

    But this is how I started, but very rapidly. I got in contact with people who had never lost the tradition in Brittany, where it always stayed in use. So little by little I heard this and that and very early, I started with the bombarde, the double reed instrument. I started as a dancer, of course, then bombarde when I was 14, and later I heard wooden flutes, the transverse wooden flute played by Irish musicians.

    The first time I ever saw was in a big festival in Southwest Brittany, an inter-Celtic festival where there was a group from Ireland and I heard the flute and I thought, “hey that’s great.” A few years later I found a wooden flute which was not at all adapted to what I wanted to do but I started with that. And as I said, being from a remote place on the coast, I didn’t have anyone to explain to me so I was completely self-taught until I met some Irish musicians and that’s how I started. At first, when I played the flute I only played Irish music, you know, there was still in Brittany among young musicians and not necessarily young by the way, there was this very strong inter-Celtic feeling. Ah, the Irish, as they are our cousins, we need to play their music. We need to know it. The other way was not exactly true, the Irish people would come to Brittany, they didn’t travel much to Brittany anyway. But they would like [Breton music] but they wouldn’t try to play it. It sounded to weird to them I think. And so this is how I started until and that’s where maybe my personal history is maybe different from many people in Brittany. Is that people around me started to tell me, “why don’t you use the flute in the Breton music?” And I said, “well I guess I could,” and I started to work on it and it actually and it was the beginning of the long way. Far from being finished, but that the time there were not that many people playing the flute in Brittany. But that’s the story of flute now.

    But now there are many flute players but at the time there weren’t. What else could I say about my, well, I started to work on… It’s funny how when I started to play flute, I wanted to play, I said I wanted to play Breton music on flute because people asked me so I’ll be nice and I’ll do what I’m told, but then I had to find what will I play? How will I play it? I have no tradition, I have nothing to refer to. So I searched a lot, I listened a lot what I already knew with the singers, the binoù/bombarde player I was as a bombarde player myself. I listened to lots of styles and I started, you know, but the funny thing is, when I started to find the keys to many of the technical questions I was left with is when I started a very precise listening to extra European flute traditions. Strangely enough, what helped me to come back to Breton music and have new ideas to play it. I’m not saying I tried to imitate the shakuhachi from Japan or the bansuri from India, or the [?] from Turkey or Iran or North Africa, it’s not that. It’s listening to that and letting all this music sit in my mind I suddenly find a different way of articulating my playing on the flute.

    And the funny conclusion to that, and there is a conclusion is that one evening I was playing a very traditional fest noz, this dance night I mentioned before in central Brittany and this man from this very distinct style of music came to me and said “the way you played tonight shows very clearly that you have worked very hard on our tradition because the way you play it is really great.” But of course I didn’t tell him that all I was listening to in the past weeks before that was tradition from extra European music.

    SK: And what would your advice be to someone who was interested in learning Breton music but doesn’t have immediate access to it because they’re not in the Breton region?

    JM: It’s like learning an instrument. To me when learnt, I was learning on my own. I keep that in a way, I teach many workshops now, so sometimes I teach to someone something that took me two years to know how to do. Now in a workshop of three days, I can explain to a person how to do it, you see what I mean? And then now, someone who wants to approach Breton music, you have the Internet. You have videos. You have loads of music everywhere. Now you have so much that you don’t necessarily know what it is, what it means. So I would recommend, a good thing, is a trip to Brittany and meet some people to have different points of view and know where you are and what style you like. Or else you have some people in every country I suppose who know a little bit about Breton music. By the way, in the United States, there was a a woman who made a lot, who made a thesis about Breton music called “Glorious Culture.” She was from Philadelphia and she came here several times and other people like Larry who play bombarde, you have many people who are interested in this music. But coming to Brittany would be the best start I think, to see exactly. To see it with your eyes and feel it, go to a fest noz and know exactly how it works. And then, after that, you can go back to video and things and you know exactly what it is about. You know what it’s all about. But there again it will be only an introduction because it’s like any other music, and you know that, you all know that. It’s like any other music. It takes your life [to learn it].

    Read Part 3: includes of discussion with Larry Rone about Breton music in the US
    Read Part 4: a discussion of the current music and political landscape of Brittany with Jean-Michel Veillon, Larry Rone and Patrick Ramsey

    January 8, 2015 • Teen Jazz • Views: 1978

  • An In-Depth Introduction to Breton Music with Jean-Michel Veillon Pt. 1

    Hey everyone! I hope you all are doing well!

    Welcome to the latest session of Teen Jazz Radio. Thank you for tuning in!

    For those of you who are unfamiliar with what we do, Teen Jazz and Teen Jazz Radio are websites and a podcast dedicated to educating and featuring emerging young performers. We have a ton of advice articles on everything from the music business to performance and practice advice, and we feature the profiles and music of many talented musicians. If you’re interested in finding out more about Teen Jazz, please visit

    My name is Shannon Kennedy. I am the host of Teen Jazz and I myself am a performer. If you want to find out more about me, my website is

    So today, I’m actually going to start a new series. I’ve considered introducing the various genres of jazz and music to our readers and listeners for some time, but this latest interview has given me the opportunity to make that a reality. The first few styles are already lined up and so it is with great pleasure that I get to introduce a genre of music very near to my heart.

    During this episode, we’ll be discussing Breton music, a style of Celtic music that comes from North Western France. The music is deeply tied into that regions culture and its language, politics and history have all greatly affected it development.

    Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering how this ties into jazz and so first, I’d like to say that although we’re called “Teen Jazz,” the site isn’t just about jazz. It’s about all styles of music and we do our best to feature musicians from a variety of genres. Second, Breton music does feature a few aspects of improvisation and many recent artists have fused the style with jazz and fusion making it a close relative.

    So, to help me discuss Breton music, it’s history and it’s style, I have two very special guests with me. The interviews were recorded separately, but I’ve put them together in a way that will present a clear discussion of the music. Jean-Michel Veillon is a Breton flute player who has been a very important figure in the genre for the past few decades. One could argue, in fact, that he is one of the musicians who really brought the flute (now one of the most popular instruments) to the genre. I also have with me Larry Rone an American musician immersed in the Breton and Irish music genres who will discuss the style from an American perspective. At the end you’ll also hear a little bit from Patrick Ramsey who was sitting in on the call. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Jean-Michel Veillon.

    JM: Bonjour Shannon.

    SK: Bonjour, ça va? (Hello, how are you?)

    JM: Good.

    LR: Good.

    JM: (laughs) Okay, so, Shannon…

    SK: Yes?

    JM: How can I help you?

    SK: Because a lot of listeners are going to be unfamiliar with the style of Breton music, can you tell us a little bit about it in general and what some of the important characteristics of the music are?

    JM: Yes. So the Breton music is a music, is what they call modal music. It’s like what they call a drone music, you know. You have special modes. I don’t have much theory, especially not in English, but it’s a music based on – to the big difference of Irish music or Scottish music – let’s say Gaelic music, even though it’s not quite exactly Gaelic music. Gaelic music would refer more to really the music of the Highlands in Scotland and the Highlands north of Scotland and some parts of Northern Ireland, but, okay, let’s go to Gaelic music anyway.

    First thing, Irish and Scottish would write the music earlier and much more than the Bretons ever did. The oral tradition is very strong in Brittany still. I can’t read or write music myself. I’ve been involved in musical things with jazz musicians and all, but still, I don’t read music.

    The other thing is, one of the forms, Gaelic tunes have a [range], the stretch between the lowest note of a tune and the highest in a scale. It has a wider range of notes than Breton music. Wider. Breton music is often compared, some of the Breton tunes, some of the slow airs, are often compared to the Gregorian chant. Some of it sounds like it. And a lot of the things the Bretons, in their music and songs, would relate, would sing long stories about historical facts or crime or things that happened sometimes a very, very long time ago. Songs can be really, really long, but really the music, the melody, just the purpose for development of poetry, of diction. So a singer, he was considered, he was good because he knew many songs but also because he had fantastic diction. He would have good articulation in the language. And the best musician as long as he could keep the tune or make variations with it, he was considered to be good. And by the way, I’ll come back to it, but the art of variation, as we still call it l’art de la variation is very important in Breton music.

    And also, another thing that is maybe that used to be different with the Bretons… The Bretons like, they have been compared often to people in Western Africa or in some parts in Asia. We’re completely crazy for the dance, even more than the Irish. Of course, with show business now, the Irish River Dance and all that is much more famous and much more adapted to show business. Breton dance is different. Most of the dance is community dance in the west. Rond, la rond – round dances. And still today we have this thing called fest noz which almost disappeared during the Wars. The fest noz is a strange event. Originally we know and we have witnesses who explained that it was something used to bring the people of little farms, because the farms were small, before the 19th century, the farms were small in Brittany. The landscape was such that the farms were small but the people would help each other. They would get together for the main things they had to do like take care of the potatoes. They would get several farms together and in the evening they would dance, but sometimes they would also dance to level out the ground in farm yards. If a young couple, a young man marries a young woman, they settle in a farm, they would start with inviting many people to dance and level out the ground in front of the farm. And people would dance with wooden clogs and so the dance was in a way work. It’s very important. The dance was like, it had, it was used. There was a use for the dance. It was used for something.

    As I said, with the agricultural revolution, what happened is this function of the dance was going to disappear and then there was the Wars. Especially the First World War. Just after the Second World War, the man called Loeiz Roparz decided to bring some old people in a community hall, salle de fetes, of a little parish, or should I say commun because after the revolution, we don’t talk about parishes any more but commun because in France the church is separated from the state which is a very good thing.

    This man took a group of all Breton people in a hall and made them sing and dance. And they really started that day the fest noz, they reshaped it. It was not any more something necessarily outdoors to level out the ground and it was just a sort of social event which explains why now when you come to Brittany, you see fest noz every Saturday, sometimes Sunday afternoon, sometimes Friday and during holidays it could be any day during the week. You will see a fest noz and every time it’s an association who organizes it to get some funds. It could be a school to get some extra money to pay for a trip for the kids somewhere, it could be a protest, an ecological thing. It could be lots of things. It could be the local hunter society, it could be just a fest noz for fun. Then the people will keep the money and organize another one and the musicians are paid. Some bands sometimes professional are booked with a contract to play at the fest noz. And people take turn on stage. And everybody comes to it. Everybody has the right to come to it and dance. Kids. Babies even. You see old people, old people of the village. Everybody can dance, as long as the kid can stand, as long as the old person can stand, you will see those people without distinction of age or social class. Everybody dances.

    And then it’s also a place to meet. Many, many people meet in fest noz, you know. You meet friends, you see sometimes people you haven’t seen in a long time. You know, it’s a very, very typical thing and a very social event. So fest noz is a little bit central now. It’s central and it has just been, by the way, admitted into the universal patrimony of UNESCO which means in a way that the fest noz is a sort of emblem of Brittany.

    Probably I explain a little about Brittany geographically and historically what it is and all that.

    SK: Okay.

    JM: Briefly. So Brittany, Bretagne, in French and Breiz in the Breton language is the Western Peninsula of France, it’s in the Northwest of France. It’s just below Normandy, you know, D-Day and all that. And across the channel, North of Brittany is England, British Cornwell England and Wales, Scotland, etc. And to the Northwest, is Ireland. So we are not very far actually from neither England nor Ireland.

    Brittany is a place where it’s known, one of the last, so-called Celtic areas in the West of Europe. For the simple reason that the Celts were pushed, moved west, you know after the time they were all over Europe and mainly in central Europe, the Bronze Age and all that. They moved west more and more. And the region where they are, more or less, they stayed was Brittany and in the British Isles, mainly in the North, Scotland, Wales, the Southwest, Cornwall, the Island of Manx, and Ireland. So the main thing in common from all those families of different tribes of Celts is language. But two branches are very distinct, well quite distinct, let’s say. The Gaelic branch, the Gaels, having their, the Gaelic language which is the Irish and the Scottish, Gaelic. And Manx. There’s another branch called the Brittonic branch. And the Brittonic branch has had three languages, Welsh, Cornish in British Cornwell, just southwest across the channel from us and Brittany, Western Brittany. So that’s about it.

    The Cornish language is now extinct, but the Breton language until not so long ago was the first Celtic language for the number of people speaking it. There are more people speaking fluent Breton than Irish, Scottish-Gaelic, or even Welsh, but it has changed recently.

    So, all the languages are not, have no relation with Latin. Unlike French, Italian… They have no, not real relationships with Germanic or Saxon languages like English, German. They are a distinct branch called Celtic.

    Now, historically, this is about Brittany now… Brittany was attached to France, got attached to France in 1532 by a treaty and a wedding. The Queen of Brittany called Anne, got married at the time. So this is really, this is really the moment when Brittany got attached to France. So, which explains, in a way why some particular traditions and let’s say ways of life remained different from other parts of France. Now, this explains… was that clear enough?

    SK: Yes.

    JM: But I have to say something though, just before going on. It’s hard to make an opposition between Brittany and France because France is really just a puzzle of, a patchwork of very different cultures. The south of France with Corsica is really close to Italy, and even the language. Even Corsican is different than Italian but it’s related. The dialects from South[east] France were very close to Italian.

    The Southwest, north of Spain is as a Basque. You’ve heard of the Basque, I’m sure?

    SK: Yes.

    JM: And the Basque was really mysterious, very, very old language. Probably one of the oldest of all Europe. And the North of France was Flanders, linked to what they speak in the Netherlands, in Belgium, in the Flemish part. The Flemish language. The east is Alsace. And then you have a whole lot of dialects all over France. To the point, if you go back to the 1800s and even late 1800s, probably 80% of the French population couldn’t speak, actually, proper French. Or else dialects, related to French, or languages not at all related to French like Basque or Breton or Flemish. So this is a situation, this is the landscape in which Brittany grew up in a way. Brittany used to be powerful in the 1300s and then attached to France, when it got attached to France it started to decline. And then there were several things and especially after the French Revolution, the big change was that for the first time the Breton men could be taken into the French wars, Napoleon I. And a lot, by the way, of the Breton repertoire of music, the traditional repertoire talks about it, reports things about those wars.

    And then Brittany gradually got, in a way, more and more involved in the French problems. The first was probably the First World War where there was a huge gap in the male Breton population. The trenches. Many, many people were killed. Many, many. The Second World War was not much better. It was about the same. And then there was the Algerian War in North Africa and then started an enormous emigration. Bretons went massively to Paris and to wherever they could, but mainly to Paris and New York. That’s what I can say, it’s very brief and incomplete, but that’s what I can say about Brittany.

    SK: You know, you talked a little bit about how the wars played a big influence on the musical repertoire but what about some of the other things as far as the language and the instrumentation and things like that?

    JM: Well, the same. The instrumentation, like in any other part of the world, changed through history. But there was a big change after the industrial revolution, and what we call the agricultural revolution which means in that, the wars of course, changed a lot, not only Brittany but all regions of France. The wars were, helped France to become what it is. Meaning everybody had to learn French all of the sudden and everybody had to understand it. And new fashions, new ways, new influences, and of course, in the music came from abroad. The very typical thing would be the button accordion which came to France from Italy in a way and developed a lot in central France and then in Paris. Taken to Paris by Italian immigrants and people from central France and then being carried to Brittany as an instrument with chords and everything. It can do its own accompaniment. So in a way, it was suddenly very, it had a big success rapidly. And it replaced some of the instruments we had.

    So to talk about the instruments in Brittany, I won’t go into detail too much. Let’s say that in the very early period, like if you refer to year 500 and things like that. There were string instruments. {—?} sort of a little harp, not exactly. The rebec, which is actually the Arabic word for violin. There were strings instruments and the Celtic harp called tailin (sp?), in Breton language. But then gradually wind instruments started to take over. Sorts of shawms, and oboes, rustic oboes, old oboes with double reeds. Flutes, probably. There is a lot of questioning about flutes. We are not too sure. We are not too sure because they appear on early Christian settlements on the structures we have images of flutes. We don’t know exactly what it was the coming of flute in Western Europe is a long story with the fifes. The fifes and drums and all that battlefields and all that later. Of course, the singing and then much later other instruments like accordion and then much closer from us now, from our period, guitar, you know. Or electric keyboards or this today in bands and all that. But singing and wind instruments like bombarde which is a very loud double reed oboe. Binioù which is a sort of pipes, very shrill. Clarinet. Early clarinets, very simple clarinets with five keys or seven keys made out of boxwood. All those instruments were very common in many parts of Brittany.

    The language, you asked about influences. Of course, the language declined rapidly with the wars and also with the French Revolution. The main reason for that, one of the main reasons is that Brittany was divided into what we call pays in French. Little areas where the people had their own ways and all those little countries were separated like everywhere in the planet by rivers or any sort of, and often bishoprics. Brittany, by the way is mainly Catholic. It was Christianized early enough but after Ireland and all that. It was, it actually, well, there’s an important thing about Brittany which could explain things even about the music. Brittany was not evangelized by people coming from inland. Brittany was evangelized by people coming from Ireland and the British Isles. Early Celts.

    So since Brittany was Catholic, the division inside Brittany, there was an amazing variety of music style, dances and even costumes. And still now people define themselves with those names. Like some people play this style of music and they say, “Ah I am [? thistle] or I am [? plinn] which is a little area. All that of course, all those limits and little countries changed with the Revolution. The Revolution drew new administrative divisions called departements in France. So Brittany has had five departements, now only four, they say. But historically it had five. So you see, the division of the French administration didn’t necessarily fit with the way that people looked at themselves and the way they would trade together inside Brittany. So it’s, this, I try to simplify because it could be more complicated, but basically you see the problem. It’s a little mosaic of different people, but there is some constant thing you find everywhere in Brittany.

    Oh, one last thing that you said about the influences, the French language pushed, like in Ireland, the English with the Irish Gaelic. The language with the “winner” in the way, the strongest which was the French in that case, pushed the Breton language west. So to give you an example, where I grew up in the Northeast of Brittany, most of the names are Breton, but the Breton language hasn’t been spoken where I grew up since the 11th century. It was before, but it was pushed so the limit where you find where you find the Breton language is further west now.
    Read Part 2: Read Part 2: the instrumentation of Breton music and how Jean-Michel Veillon became involved in the genre
    Read Part 3: a discussion of Breton music in the US with Larry Rone
    Read Part 4: a discussion of the current music and political landscape of Brittany with Jean-Michel Veillon, Larry Rone and Patrick Ramsey

    December 1, 2014 • Podcasts • Views: 2571

  • Danny Elfman Biography | Composer & Guitarist | Teen Jazz Legends

    Despite a lack of formal musical training in orchestration, composing, counterpoint, or conducting, Danny Elfman has become one of the most sought after film composers in the film industry. Since his first major film about twenty years ago, Elfman has composed for more than fifty films and has received numerous honors including a Grammy, three Academy Award Nominations, and an honorary doctorate from the North Carolina School of the Arts in June 2007.

    Early Music Experiences

    Danny (Daniel Robert) Elfman was born May 29, 1953 in Los Angeles, California. Throughout high school, Elfman experimented with several instruments including violin, trombone, mallet instruments, and guitar (deciding much later that not one of them was of any use to him as a composer). He ended up settling on violin and guitar, and after high school, toured the world performing the violin as a street musician.

    At the age of eleven, Danny Elfman became enamored by film music and often frequented the local theater just to hear the music in the films. His “heroes” included film composers Bernard Herman, Nino Rota, Dimitri Tiomkin, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and Erich Korngold. Other influences include Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Orff, Bartok, Duke Ellington, Harry Partch, Philip Glass, and Lou Harrison. Elfman also attributes his diverse style of writing to other non-classical composers and groups such as old country artists, Hank Williams, Georgy Jones, and Patsy Cline, as well as pre-1935 to the 1940s jazz, current and contemporary music, Latin music, African music, and Cuban music.

    After high school, he and his brother, Richard Elfman, moved to France. It was here that he had his first professional music experiences performing and composing for a French theatrical troupe, “Le Grand Magic Circus,” at the age of 18. While he was with this group, he also learned to breath fire, a skill he continued once he moved back to California. After living in Paris, he moved to West Africa where he studied Javanese and Balinese Gamelan and embraced his passion for percussion. It was during this time that he contemplated becoming an ethnomusicologist, and was the only time when he actually “studied” music. He returned home when he ended up with malaria.

    Once he moved back to California, he collaborated with his older brother, Richard Elfman, performing musical theater on the streets. This group, then known as the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, was an avant-garde, comic troupe that later evolved into the popular music group Oingo Boingo when the Mystic Knights dissolved in 1978. While with this group, Elfman claims he began to develop the skills he would utilize later as a film composer. Elfman would often transcribe (but never play) solos and songs by composers and performers such as Duke Ellington and Stefan Grapelli so that the group could use them. Essentially, he learned how to read music by writing it.

    Oingo Boingo

    Oingo Boingo achieved substantial popularity during its seventeen years together. Although it never achieved true commercial breakthrough, they became very successful in Southern California. Oingo Boingo performed the music written by Danny for Richard’s troupe, but was arranged into a more manageable “rock band” format. Members included Danny Elfman on vocals and guitar, Steve Bartek on lead guitar, Richard Gibbs on keyboards and trombone, Kerry Hatch on bass and vocals, Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez on drums, Sam “Sluggo” Phipps on tenor sax, Leon Schneidermann on baritone sax, and Dale Turner on trumpet.

    Elfman’s stylistic model for Oingo Boingo was an African band called Highlife, which performed in a salsa-reggae style and used a horn section. It was also, in this group that he taught himself to write, transcribe, notate and orchestrate (for the twelve piece instrumentation influenced by the African band). The influence West African drumming had on Elfman is also apparent in the music of Oingo Boingo.

    One of the last pieces Danny Elfman wrote for the group was a five minute piece called Oingo Boingo Piano Concerto #1 1/2. It was the first time he committed himself to a full composition that included counterpoint. This discipline, he carried on with him when he was scoring for his first major film, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. In his own words, “if you can write for twelve pieces, it is not that big of a creative jump to write for a whole orchestra.”

    As Elfman’s career as a film composer grew, Oingo Boingo had difficulty remaining active. In 1995, the group retired with its final performance at the Universal Amphitheatre in Hollywood on Halloween. Some of the group’s hits included Weird Science and Dead Man’s Party. One of the most important connections to come out of this group, was that of Steve Bartek, who would become Elfman’s partner and orchestrator.

    His Career as a Film Composer

    Danny Elfman’s career as a film composer was created with an opportunity that arose when Tim Burton approached him to write the soundtrack to the movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Unlike many film composers who study and work their entire lives to become film composers, Danny Elfman never dreamed of composing film music. In fact, he had hopes of becoming a writer or director.

    As demand for Danny Elfman scores increased, animosity towards him grew amongst his peers. According to Elfman, jealousy exists in every field. Lacking any formal training composition, Danny was labeled as an imposter. Others often told him that they hated his music, and he faced the bitterness of others on a daily basis. However, the jealously and constant stabs regarding his competence as a composer did not bother him; it was when others were given credit for his work that he found difficulty handling. This resulted in Danny Elfman becoming protective of his composition drafts, which often contained “notational flubs”. According to his orchestrator, Steve Bartek, “Reading Danny is like reading E. E. Cummings. It’s different, but not a problem. But he’s paranoid about it.”

    Danny Elfman frequently collaborates with several directors in addition to the single-contract films he composes. According to Danny, there are a few directors that he always says “yes” to without even knowing what the film is about. Those directors include Sam Raimi, who he no longer works with (over a creative dispute after Spiderman 2), Gus Van Sant and Tim Burton.

    The most prolific and recognized of these is his relationship with Tim Burton (it is often compared to the relationship between Steven Spielberg and John Williams). The Burton-Elfman collaborations began when Burton introduced Elfman to the industry with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985. It was Elfman’s first major film. His only film scoring experience prior was when he wrote the music for the cult film, Forbidden Zone, which was directed by his brother, Richard. Paul Rubens, who was working on the film with Tim Burton, had heard the music to Forbidden Zone, and wanted the composer for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Coincidentally, Burton had also approached Elfman because he liked Oingo Boingo’s music and thought that Elfman would be qualified to compose the music for the film. After producing a demo, Elfman got the job.

    The pair went on to produce Beetlejuice (1988) and Batman (1989), which earned Danny Elfman a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition. His score turned heads and gave him a reputation as an “A-list” composer. In 1990, Burton and Elfman produced Edward Scissorhands, setting a new standard for fantasy score settings. Then again, in 1993, they astonished audiences and critics with the constant orchestral score and Elfman providing the singing voice of the main character, Jack Skellington, in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Other notable collaborations include Mars Attacks! (which reunited the pair after a fallout following The Nightmare Before Christmas), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for which Elfman sang all of the Oompa Loompa vocals, and Corpse Bride where Elfman provided the voice of Bonejangles, among others. In fact, Elfman has composed the music for all but two of Burton’s films, Ed Wood, and more recently, Sweeney Todd. Elfman claims that the relationship he has with Tim Burton works so well because “Tim will allow me to do my work.” In other words, Tim Burton allows Danny Elfman to be creative and produce strong scores because they are on the same page creatively.

    In the mid-90s, Elfman’s sound as a composer began to change as he implemented the use of synthesizers and sequencing software. This is demonstrated clearly on the Dead Presidents and Mission Impossible soundtracks. Elfman uses many samples when composing – mostly for percussion and guitars. He says it is too costly and time consuming to record instruments such as hand drums and ethnic drums, and it is easier to sample the instruments independently in his home studio and have the orchestra perform to the track.

    Danny Elfman states that he is proud of most of his scores, but in particular, he likes Batman, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, which he said was very hard to compose. He also enjoyed writing Midnight Run in 1988, which lead to a wave of imitators, Dolores Claiborne, and composing for the Gus Van Sant films To Die For and Good Will Hunting.

    Other Works

    In recent years, Elfman has grown tired of film composing and has sought to explore other avenues of composition and creativity. He still enjoys film scoring as part time work, but admits that he hates doing it as full time work.

    Some of his outside compositions have included composing for television. In 1989, he met with Matt Groenig, and created the theme to The Simpsons, which he claims earns him $11.50 every time it is played. He has also composed themes for several other television shows including Tales from the Crypt and Desperate Housewives.

    In addition to television, he is interested in composing original musicals and musical versions of films of films he has scored, such as Edward Scissorhands. He has also explored writing full-scale orchestral works intended to be performed in a hall. On February 23, 2005, Serenada Schizophrana, was premiered at Carnegie Hall. It earned great acclaim from both popular music and classical music critics. Due to its popularity, it was implemented into the film Deep Sea 3D, which was narrated by Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. The piece is scored for large orchestra, electronics, two pianos, and female voices.


    Over the last twenty years, Danny Elfman has been recognized as a prolific composer across a variety of genres, namely film scoring and popular music. He is constantly surprising his audience with his diversity as a composer, and has created a strong reputation as a skilled composer despite animosity from others in the industry early in his career. Despite the fact he was initially labeled as a dark composer, he has eluded being put in a stylistic box by avoiding composing in any one style. According to Elfman, he does not feel it is necessary to have a trademark sound and prefers to be the composer that “you never know what he’s going to do next.” With over two decades of experience under his belt, Danny Elfman will continue to develop his reputation as an in-demand and well-respected film composer.

    Selected Discography

    1982 Forbidden Zone

    1985 Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

    1986 Alfred Hitchcock Presents
    Back To School
    Amazing Stories

    1987 Summer School

    1988 Beetlejuice
    Midnight Run
    Big Top Pee Wee
    Hot to Trot
    Face Like a Frog

    1989 Batman

    1990 Nightbreed
    Dick Tracy
    Edward Scissorhands

    1992 Article 99
    Batman Returns
    Batman: The Animated Series

    1993 Sommersby
    Army of Darkness
    The Nightmare Before Christmas

    1994 Black Beauty

    1995 Dolores Claiborne
    To Die For
    Dead Presidents

    1996 Freeway
    Mission Impossible
    The Frighteners
    Extreme Measures
    Mars Attacks!

    1997 Men In Black
    Good Will Hunting

    1998 A Simple Plan
    A Civil Action

    1999 Instinct
    Anywhere But Here
    Sleepy Hallow

    2000 Proof of Life
    The Family Man

    2001 Spy Kids
    Mazer World
    Planet of the Apes

    2002 Spiderman
    Men In Black II
    Red Dragon

    2003 Hulk
    Big Fish

    2004 Spiderman 2

    2005 No Experience Needed
    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
    Corpse Bride

    2006 Deep Sea
    Nacho Libre
    Charlotte’s Web

    2007 Meet the Robinsons
    Desperate Houswives
    The Kingdom

    2008 Standard Operating Procedure
    Hellboy II

    2009 Notorious
    Terminator Salvation
    Taking Woodstock
    The Wolf Man

    2010 Alice in Wonderland
    The Next 3 Days

    2011 Restless

    2012 Dark Shadows
    Men in Black 3
    Promised Land

    2013 Oz the Great and Powerful
    American Hustle

    2014 Mr. Peabody & Mr. Sherman
    The Unknown Known
    Big Eyes


    Glionna, John M. COVER STORY, A Different Beat. Danny Elfman Pinged From
    Oingo Boingo Front Man to Prolific Movie Score Writer. Now This Oddball
    May Pong Into Directing His Own Scripts. 1999.

    Gordinier, Jeff. ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY #422, MARCH 13, 1998.

    November 19, 2014 • Interviews • Views: 3865

  • The Biography of George Gershwin | Teen Jazz Legends

    Known as the American composer who bridged the gap between popular and classical musics, George Gershwin is an award winning composer and musician who got his start playing in a resort during his free time and as a song plugger for Tin Pan Alley.

    George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershovitz in Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish, Russian immigrants Morris Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin on September 26, 1898. As the second of four children, he had two brothers and one sister. He went on to become the most well-known member of his family even though his older brother, Ira (born Israel Gershovitz), was a successful lyricist.

    Some of Gershwin’s initial musical inspirations were a mechanical piano that played Rubenstein’s “Melody in F” and Maxie Rosenzweig, a violin-playing peer attending his school. Gershwin kept a musical scrapbook in which he glued music related things into as a child. In 1910, the Gershwin family brought a piano original intended for Ira. Instead, it was George who began to seriously study music. He soon began lessons with neighbor, and then, he was later referred to Charles Hambitzer. Simultaneously, he began taking theory lessons from Edward Kileny. George Gershwin attended the High School of Commerce. At school, he would play piano during the morning assemblies.

    Gershwin worked in one of his father’s restaurants while playing popular songs at a mountain resort in his free time. His mother was not supportive of his musical path because she had intended for him to become a bookkeeper or lawyer.

    Moses Gumble at Jerome H. Remick and Company (a music publishing company) eventually offered Gershwin a job as a song plugger. He was paid fifteen dollars a week, and after convincing his mother of the benefits, he dropped out of school at fifteen. The organization he “plugged” songs for was Tin Pan Alley. As a song plugger, he played a tune, hoping to convince performers that they wanted to buy the sheet music to perform it at home. While doing this, he also began to write his own music. These compositions were kept in a folder titled “GT,” an abbreviation for “Good Tunes.”
    + Get the Essential George Gershwin on Amazon

    In 1913, George Gershwin wrote “Since I Found You,” a ragtime song which was later followed by “When You Want ‘Em You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em You Don’t Want ‘Em” in 1916 which was not initially a success, but attracted a few Broadway composers. Also in 1916, another Gershwin song was used by Sigmund Romberg; Gershwin also began to make piano rolls.

    In 1917, he wrote “Rial to Ripples,” “Beautiful Bird,” and “You Are Not the Girl.” In this year, he also stopped working as a song plugger and began to travel the Vaudeville Circuit as a pianist. He was then hired to write songs for Max Dreyfus at T.B. Harms, another music publishing company. In addition, he also toured as Nora Bayes’ pianist.

    On October 24, 1918, “The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag),” the first song on which Iran and George collaborated, premiered on Broadway, sung by Nora Bayes. The same year, Gershwin also wrote “Kitchenette,” “If Only You Knew,” “There’s Magic in the Air,” and “When There’s a Chance to Dance.”

    In 1919, “Swanee” premiered at Capital Revue. It later became a hit when Al Jolson interpolated the song into his revue at the Winter Garden Theater. It was performed in the musical “Sinbad.” That year, Gershwin also wrote “La, La Lucille,” “Morris Gest Midnight Whirl,” “Lullaby,” “The Lady in Red,” and “Good Morning, Judge.” “La, La Lucille” was Gershwin’s first Broadway show.

    In 1920, he began to write for George White’s Scandals. This series of compositions lasted for five years. He also wrote “Piccadilly to Broadway,” “For No Reason at All,” “Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Soscha,” “Waiting for the Sun to Come Out,” “Back Home,” “I Want to Be Wanted by You,” “Ed Wynn’s Carnival,” and “Broadway Brevities of 1920.”

    In 1921 he wrote “The Perfect Fool,” “Blue Eyes,” “Selwyn’s Snapshots of 1921,” “A Dangerous Maid,” and “Phoebe.”

    In 1922, Gershwin composed the one act opera “Blue Monday.” He also composed “Molly on the Shore,” “For Goodness Sake,” “A New Step Ev’ry Day (Stairway to Paradise),” “Our Nell,” “The French Doll,” and “The Spice of 1922.”

    In 1923, Gershwin composed “The Rainbow,” “The Dancing Girl,” “Nifties of 1923,” “I Won’t Say I Will But I Won’t Say I Won’t,” and “The Sunshine Trail.”

    February 12, 1924, “Rhapsody in Blue” was premiered in Aeolian Concert Hal with Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra.

    Later in 1924, Gershwin wrote “Lady, Be Good” in collaboration with his brother which premiered on December 24 on Broadway at Liberty Theatre. This cemented the partnership between George and Ira.

    “Concerto in F,” “Song of the Flames,” “Short Story,” “Tell Me More,” and “Tiptoes” were composed in 1925. Then in 1926, “Preludes for Piano,” “Americana,” and “Oh, Kay!” were written.

    In 1928, “An American in Paris” premiered at Carnegie Hall with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony Orchestra. “Treasure Girl” and “Rosalie” were also written.

    “Show Girl,” “Impromptu in Two Keys,” “Three-Quarter Blues,” and “East is West” were composed in 1929.

    In 1930, Ira and George began to write musicals together and moved to Hollywood for seven years. One of these musical upon which they collaborated was “Strike Up the Band.” Written in 1927, the musical was a satire and it became a huge success. The later collaborated on “Funny Face” and “Girl Crazy” which featured Ethel Merman who introduced “I Got Rhythm” in this musical. It also featured Ginger Rogers at Alvin Theatre. This same year, George Gershwin composed his first film score, “Delicious” in Hollywood. He also composed for the film “The King of Jazz.” This year, “9:15 Review” was composed as well as a revision of “Strike Up the Band.”

    In 1931, the Second Rhapsody and The Cuban Overture premiered but the public did not enjoy them. In 1932, on December 26, Ira and George wrote “Of Thee I Sing” with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind which premiered at the Music Box Theatre. It was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama, but George was not recognized for this until 1998.

    “Pardon My English” and “Let ‘Em Eat Cake” were composed in 1933. Then, in 1934, “Variations on I Got Rhythm” appeared. In 1935, George wrote his first opera, “Porgy and Bess” which was released to mixed reviews and didn’t really become popular until Gershwin’s death. Then in 1936, Gershwin composed “The Show is On” and “Suite from Porgy and Bess.” In 1937, “Shall We Dance” and “A Damsel in Distress” were also composed.

    George Gershwin began to experience headaches, dizzy spells and blackouts in 1937. His spells became so bad that he was sometimes found crouched down between hotel room beds with all light blocked out, holding his head with no idea of how long he had been sitting there. On July 9, he collapsed into a coma and a brain tumor was diagnosed. The situation was found hopeless when surgeons went to operate. He never awoke from his coma and he passed away on July 1, 1937.

    Gershwin was one of the first American premier composers. He also did visual arts. After his death, thirty-seven of his works were exhibited in a one-man show at the Harriman Gallery in New York.

    November 10, 2014 • Interviews • Views: 2680