Learning the blues

Over at “Dial M” last week, Phil issued his iPod challenge, while Jonathan offered some career advice. Jonathan said that popular music, in his opinion, wasn’t necessarily the best musicological wall to toss your prospectively employed cap over, but of course, popular music was what turned up in spades on the hard drives of those to took up Phil’s dare. (This led to its own Brundlefly-like combination meme.)

In the spirit of things, here’s a little souvenir of the initial incursion of pop into the ivory tower. The first jazz theory class, ever, wasn’t offered in the United States—it was at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, Germany, taught by a young Hungarian composer named Mátyás Seiber. Seiber started the class in 1928, and by 1931, had achieved enough notoriety that he and the Hoch Conservatory jazz band were invited to perform for German radio—and you can listen to their performance of Peter Packay’s “Oh My” courtesy of the Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv. (Real Player only, which is a mild annoyance.) How do they do? Not bad at all—except for a few ragged syncopations, they could easily pass for an American or British “hot” band of the period.

The Nazis, pretty predictably, didn’t take kindly to Seiber’s class, and, upon its cancellation in 1933, Seiber emigrated to London, where he kept busy as a teacher and composer, appropriately working in a wide variety of styles and genres, from avant-garde to pop. (His cantata on Joyce’s Ulysses, which I remember perusing the score of, is an unjustly neglected gem.) He died in a car crash in 1960; Ligeti dedicated the score of Atmosphères to his memory, which gives you some indication of the breadth of his career and influence.


  1. There’s a fascinating book by Michael Kater called “Different Drummers (Jazz in the Culture of Nazi German)”.

    It made me realize that jazz music had been stronger than the Nazis, who tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to control it when they couldn’t eliminate it.

  2. I would venture that at this point, the European contribution to jazz proper has been significant enough to warrant the attention of most anyone who fancies themselves a historian of European art music. But I’m biased.

  3. By leaps and bounds, the Europeans appreciated it as art music way before us pinheads across the Atlantic did, that’s for sure. Robert Schlauffer’s (admittedly unreliable) <>The Unknown Brahms<> even mentions Johannes saying that he would have attempted some ragtime, had he been a younger man at the time. And Milhaud’s “Creation” still rocks pretty hard (and, surprisingly, hasn’t dated at all).

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