INTERLUDE: On Authenticity

By 1962, Previn, even as he was beginning his pursuit of a classical-music career, was, at least to the public, a major figure in jazz. There were plenty of external markers for this prominence, some more meaningful than others—that Previn had won two Grammys in a row for his jazz performances (on his Harold Arlen solo and West Side Story albums), is, like all Grammys, vague data—but my favorite might be the reviews of his 1961 Columbia Masterworks recording of music by Paul Hindemith, Samuel Barber, and Frank Martin. “Jazz man gone serious” was William Flanagan’s capsule review in Hi-Fi/Stereo magazine, and Edward Tatnall Canby, in Audio magazine, thought that “The most striking thing about this somewhat erudite disc of modern piano music is that its performer, André Previn, is a jazzman”. Jazz was a prominent dimension of Previn’s celebrity.

(In the wake of “Like Young,” Previn had even attained that traditional bounty of piano-stylist fame, a sheet music folio. The two volumes of Play Like André Previn issued by Wise Publishing in 1960 and 1961 featured short, often technically-challenging Previn arrangements of standards and familiar Previn originals. Play like André Previn, huh?

Like they say: close enough for jazz.)

That was the public, though. While Previn had started out garnering generally respectable reviews for his earlier efforts, the wheel began to turn around the time of the Previn-Vinnegar-Manne My Fair Lady album, and, before long, jazz critics were, by and large, belittling Previn, complaining that he was a facile technician with no real soul. Ralph J. Gleason admitted that Previn “has technical equipment as a pianist that makes him the envy of all his contemporaries,” but insisted that he “has struggled with the aesthetic requirements of jazz playing for almost a decade.” 

He has progressed from a mere imitator of Art Tatum without any of the solid jazz roots, to a very practiced exponent of the modern jazz idiom. It is all here; all, that is, except the total artistic commitment that marks the true jazz artist. 

Nat Hentoff was skeptical about the West Side Story album. “Previn, a man of many skills, is not an original jazzman,” Hentoff wrote. “His technique is first-rate but his ideas are eclectic and his beat is brittle.” Henry A. Woodfin, Jr.’s review of King Size! is worth quoting at length, as it rather neatly summarizes Previn’s place in the contemporary critical pantheon.

The public success of ANDRE PREVIN is one of those phenomena which one is sometimes forced to acknowledge because of their persistence. From what little I have been able to glean of Previn’s musical scope as a jazzman, his imagination rarely rises above the commonplace—or the genteelly vulgar. As a jazz pianist he lacks taste, feeling and ideas, but he makes up for it by copying the styles of Horace Silver and Red Garland rather freely. On “King Size” (Contemporary M 3570) I was unable to find a track that might merit more than a horrified awe at what technical facility and lack of sensibility can do. Much Too Late and “Low and Inside” are travesties on the blues, and they deserve disdain when one thinks of the essential nobility of the blues piano tradition. The other tracks are just as tinklingly banal. However, on nearly every number Red Mitchell shows what jazz is and how it should be played.

It’s all there: Previn’s popularity is suspicious, his abilities are mere imitation, his relation to the blues is shallow and synthetic, his collaborators vastly outclassed him. (At least Woodfin backs me up re: Red Garland.) It’s easy enough, in context, to be wary of these judgements—Hentoff was lukewarm about West Side Story, he admitted, because he didn’t think much of Bernstein’s score, and Woodfin had thought that John Coltrane’s solo on “Giant Steps” was marked by “rhythmic stiffness and melodic sameness.” But the critical consensus that Previn was not a “jazzman,” not a “true jazz artist”—that he was inauthentic—only grew stronger once Previn started making piano-and-orchestra albums. Peter J. Welding, a Hi-Fi/Stereo Review writer who would go on to be a Downbeat editor and a record producer specializing in blues, rolled his eyes at Thinking of You: Previn “spins out his glib, mannered solos against a bank of petulant, whining strings, playing it safe all the way and never showing the faintest glimmer of originality.” Welding managed to twice excoriate The Previn Scene (an MGM compilation album, heavy on Previn’s collaborations with David Rose), writing in the August 1961 issue that “Previn plods along stolidly in his best simulacrum of Horace Silver or in his own floridly rhetorical manner,” then somehow reviewing the album again in the September 1961 issue.

Previn’s pre-eminence as the foremost purveyor of schmaltzy pop-jazz is based on the fact that what he offers is a concoction that’s easy for the listener who is not a jazz fan to swallow…. The music here fulfills these terms admirably, with Previn spinning out vapid insipidities against the lush, whimpering strings of the David Rose Orchestra.

Welding’s animus was such that he even found space in a review of Ella Fitzgerald’s Get Happy! to take a swipe at Previn, writing that Fitzgerald “even manages, for example, to infuse Andre Previn’s treacly Like Young with a semblance of life—no mean feat, to be sure.” (There are many pejorative words that a critic might plausibly apply to “Like Young,” but treacly is not, to my ear, one of them.)

There’s a very good (and, in many ways, beneficial) reason for this sudden censure, and that’s the professionalization of jazz criticism. What used to be the province of sincere but amateur enthusiasts had been taken over by full-time writers, many emulating the New Criticism in literary studies. The lantern in the church of this new jazz criticism was the 1958 founding, by Martin Williams and Nat Hentoff, of The Jazz Review, a decidedly serious, intellectual, in-depth magazine. In simple terms, the original goals of the New Criticism were twofold: to approach texts in and of themselves, without the distortion of the societal conditions that surrounded their creation, and to use that analysis to establish a canon against which any new work should be judged. Applied to jazz, the two aims were often in tension—how could you establish a jazz canon, a catalog of what really mattered in jazz, without reference to where the music came from and who first made it? The first goal might have been benign toward someone like Previn; the second goal most definitely was not. Williams laid out his idea of the canon most explicitly in his 1970 book The Jazz Tradition, which established the lineage of an art form originated by black musicians in New Orleans, then spread via the Great Migration to Kansas City, Harlem, Chicago, and from there to the rest of the world—King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton to Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker. In the original edition, Previn received but a single mention, as a “borderline jazzman” who played a “glib, virtuosic” imitation of Horace Silver.

It’s hard to tell what Previn made of all this. In his memoir, there are a few witty cracks of a kind to indicate that Previn regarded (or wanted the reader to think he regarded) critics as passing irritants and necessary evils. One might consider some recordings a sign that he took critical brickbats more personally: King Size! showing that Previn could work outside the Broadway-show album format, Like Previn! proof of his abilities as a jazz composer, 4 to Go! a demonstration that, whatever the critics might say, the “real” jazz musicians with whom they kept comparing Previn were his peers. (Maybe all the insistent exclamation points were intentional.)

It’s interesting to see this critical tack unfold against the one constant in Previn’s image: his versatility. In 1962, Previn was one of Life magazine’s “Red-Hot Hundred,” their pick of the leaders of the younger, “take-over generation” in government, business, academia, and the arts. Alphabetical order put Previn in kindred company.

He excels at both jazz and the classics. From the start, it was part of his brand. Even on Sinatra’s radio show back in 1946, the host made sure to mention that Previn had just finished working on this movie or that at MGM. A 1951 re-release of Previn at the Piano, his first album for RCA Victor, added liner notes.

Every so often you will meet a person who claims to like all kinds of music; every once in a while a jazz musician will admit to some familiarity with the classics—he may even have played them at one time. But rarely is there a musician who is at home with Chopin as he is with Ellington. Such a musician is André Previn.

A short profile in the December 1958 issue of Playboy let Previn himself make the sale.

If it weren’t for the perennial bugaboo, Making a Living, Previn would probably give up his film career and concentrate solely on conducting and composing. Jazz or classical? “Both,” he insists. “Outside of technical and interpretive differences, there isn’t much of a boundary between them. To me, there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. And there is so much bad music around these days, good music can use all the help it can get.”

Even as the critical winds shifted, the frame remained. In February of 1961, Previn was a guest on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall. As was customary, the host (after a few bars of “Like Young,” naturally) made much of Previn’s multiple musical careers. And then Previn gave a demonstration, conducting a bit of his score to Elmer Gantry and some music from from Gigi, then playing a blistering (and a bit perilous) “Just in Time” with Mitchell and Capp, then shifting into piano-and-strings mode with an arrangement of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” that eventually included the Ray Charles Singers.

When, in his 1964 blindfold test, Wynton Kelly cited Previn as one of the pianists he’d get up to go see, he applauded and defended Previn’s range of talents: “I can’t imagine why people put him down—someone who can get up there and conduct a symphony and then turn around and do something else, and do it well. Usually there’s a weaker side to everyone. But whatever he does, he does well.” By that time, though, what Kelly saw as a virtue had become a liability—in part, because the status and image of jazz itself had changed. When Previn started out, there was, maybe, still a lingering sense that jazz was lightweight music, dance music, unlearned music. The liner notes for that Previn at the Piano re-release hint at it: you might not think jazz is serious, but this serious musician with serious credentials is playing it, so you should listen to it. By the 60s, jazz was a highbrow art form with a full intellectual and critical apparatus devoted to its history and social significance. In that light, why listen to a dilettante like Previn dip his toe in jazz when you could or should be listening to artists who had spent their whole lives pursuing jazz excellence? Previn had risen to a certain level of fame on his cosmopolitan strengths, only for much of the jazz intelligentsia to reject cosmopolitanism as an inauthentic quality.

To be sure, Previn always had his defenders—Gene Lees, Leonard Feather. And Previn himself could be a tough critic. In 1963, for another Downbeat blindfold test, Feather played a track that put Previn off completely.

I’ll tell you what, Leonard, from now on I’ll take any saxophone player’s word for it that he can play 6,000,000 notes per bar, have the fashionable unbearably ugly sound, play what they call superimposed changes, which in plain English means wrong, and make tracks that are never any shorter than 10 minutes…. I can’t make head or tail of this. I think it’s annoying and horrible. No stars.

This is what Previn couldn’t stand:

A half-century on, it’s safe to say that denouncing John Coltrane is not the smoothest path to jazz credibility. Perhaps Previn was, at least in part, simply engaging in the spirit of the exercise—some of those Downbeat blindfold tests could get bracingly snarky—but he wasn’t exaggerating much. At other times, Previn could be more conciliatory, but only a little more. In a 1963 Downbeat interview, Previn acknowledged that Thelonious Monk was “a marvelous composer,” but that Monk’s own unorthodox piano playing had been an obstacle to that appreciation: “As soon as somebody else plays [Monk’s songs], I’m crazy about them.” In an earlier blindfold test, Previn had derided Ornette Coleman’s innovations as “an unmitigated bore… turning your back on any tradition is anarchy.” (Even decades later, Previn remained unconverted: “I personally don’t understand what Ornette Coleman was all about.”) Previn’s conception of jazz, his ideal, combined a classical-like mastery of technique with a knowledge of and connection to the American popular song tradition. Charlie Parker, for all his modernism, played the correct changes; Coltrane, to Previn’s ear, didn’t. But Coltrane’s approach was, by all evidence, where jazz was headed. And Previn didn’t get it.

One might think of Previn’s resistance to the newer jazz, his devotion to an older harmonic practice, his continued reliance on his toolbox of riffs and licks, in light of Charles Rosen’s analysis of Arnold Schoenberg:

Between Mozart and Schoenberg, what disappeared was the possibility of using large blocks of prefabricated material in music. The meaning of an element of form in Mozart was given essentially by the structure of each work, but the element was sometimes a large cadential formula lasting many measures. Scales and arpeggios were treated as units, as were a whole range of accompaniment figures. The common language in music was, in essence, the acceptance of such very large units at certain strategic points….

By the end of the nineteenth century, these blocks of prefabricated material were no longer acceptable…. To employ these blocks of material resulted immediately in pastiche: giving them up, however, led to a kind of panic. It seemed as if music now had to be written note by note; only chains of chromatic or whole-tone scales were possible, and these only sparingly. The renunciation of the symmetrical use of blocks of elements in working out musical proportions placed the weight on the smallest units, single intervals, short motifs.

The notion of Previn as a jazz Mozart among Schoenbergs (and their advocates) is not exactly right, but not exactly wrong, either.

But consider again the term that was often applied to Previn as a jazz musician: dilettante. In the modern sense of the word, it’s an unfair assessment. Previn was too good and too accomplished to warrant the label. But in its old, original, literal sense, Previn absolutely was a dilettante, in everything he did. He delighted in music, in musical styles, in musical ideas, in particular songs and composers and performers and collaborators. (One could even extend the idea to explain his often-messy yet oddly-amicable marriage history; as Heather Sneddon, the fourth of Previn’s five wives, put it: “He loves being in love.”) If the type of jazz that garnered critical attention couldn’t delight Previn, he would devote his energy to music that did.

Previn gave up playing jazz in large part because he could. Had Previn been a jazz artist and a jazz artist only, maybe he would have felt compelled to come to terms with newer innovators, and, if not adopt or absorb their style, then dig deeper into his own to find a path forward. Maybe, like Ellington, he would have been driven to record with Coltrane or Mingus or Max Roach, enriching his own music by putting it in conversation with potent challengers. The comparison with Peterson is relevant—Previn and Peterson were similar players, similarly devoted to a few select collaborators, the targets of similar criticisms, with similar criticisms of their own. (Previn thought Coltrane played the wrong changes; Peterson thought Bud Powell played too many wrong notes.) But Peterson encountered the new jazz in person. He jammed with Coltrane. He recorded with Freddie Hubbard. He played in duet with Herbie Hancock. To be sure, some of those meetings were more successful than others. But it’s hard to imagine Previn doing the same thing. Previn didn’t need jazz the way Peterson did. He had several other musical vocations that he could pursue, at an extraordinarily high level. So he left jazz behind, at least for a good long while.

There is another factor here, one that surfaces in a more antagonistic defense of Previn’s jazz. “Jazz: The Happy Sound is Dying,” by one Jean P. Le Blanc, was published in the April 1962 issue of Esquire. (The magazine strongly hinted that the name was a pseudonym; according to Ralph Gleason, the polemic was written by Gene Lees.) The article takes to task those critics promoting Coltrane, Coleman et al., at the expense of the former mainstream—which is to say, artists like Previn.

Previn has all the wrong credentials. He is a European, white (the critics, though not anti-white, have a tendency to be suspicious of non-Negro performers), a former child prodigy, a best-selling record artist, a classical pianist who avoids mixing that part of his work with the rest, a jazz pianist who enjoys playing, a versatile writer who at nineteen was a composer-conductor in the despised Hollywood studios, a producer of popular (ugh!) songs, one of which won an Academy Award nomination, and winner of two Oscars for the movie scores of Gigi and Porgy and Bess. He might have lived down two or three such handicaps, but the tout ensemble makes him the persona least likely to be grata in all of jazz critical history.

Previn would “prevail,” the author argued, “simply because talent is a form of truth.” One can imagine Previn both agreeing with the musical point and being acutely embarrassed at the way the point was being made. The article’s use of a racial prism, in particular, might have made made Previn cringe. Previn habitually played on and organized integrated recording sessions and concerts when that was not yet a given. His jazz idols were mostly black, and his judgements were always expressed as opinions of purely musical merit, regardless of race. In his 1963 Downbeat interview, Previn made the eyebrow-raising (and, in all kinds of ways, incorrect) assertion that “if there’s going to be a new direction in jazz, it’s going to have to come, I think, from the more intelligent quarter rather than the primitive quarter,” but, setting aside the extremely questionable terminology, his examples indicate that, in Previn’s mind, neither quarter was the exclusive province of either white or black musicians.

But color-blindness is its own form of blindness. To put it another way: Previn certainly did not stop playing in a trio with Leroy Vinnegar because Vinnegar was black, but one wonders how much Previn understood how Vinnegar might have felt in a group where only the white members got leader status, or how much Previn was cognizant of the way his own status and identity might have been a barrier to that understanding. And to say that Previn left jazz because he could is not just a statement about his skill, and his confidence, and his work ethic. Doors swung open for Previn that remained closed to his black colleagues. Even in the easy-listening realm, Previn had his picture on the cover of his albums; Luther Henderson didn’t.

For the rest of the decade, Previn would drastically scale back his jazz activities, subsuming his jazz proclivities more and more into pop, then turning away from it almost completely. (But only almost.) Ironically, Previn’s best jazz-related efforts over the next few years will be prompted by collaborations with musicians better known for their work in Previn’s other spheres: film and classical music.

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