Focus on jazz

Jazz greats bridge the gap between Chopin and swing

Classical, schmassical

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Chuck Berry sang ‘Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news’ in 1956. But the truth is Beethoven rolled over long before that. Decades earlier, young, classically-trained musicians turned away from Tchaikovsky and started playing jazz. It’s a common thing. Almost every musician I’ve interviewed for this series started with a classical background, but could not resist. The following three are no exception, but each one’s journey away from the old and into the new serves as a roadmap of their shared experience.

Before I knew his name, I had already listened to Aaron Sachs many times. He plays clarinet on some classic jazz recordings, including one of my all-time favorite songs, Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.”

The song has been played many different ways by many different musicians, but Mr. Sachs is on the 1944 “Interlude” version by Dizzie’s orchestra, with Sarah Vaughn singing the famous melody. If you talked with Mr. Sachs for hours, he’d probably never mention it. He’d probably never mention that he also played with Benny Goodman, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa, Tito Puente, Stan Getz, Earl Hines and on and on and on. His clarinet sound is ingrained in the history of jazz, but he’s very humble about it. He’s just happy to still be playing.

“I’m glad to be alive and be able to play,” he said to me more than once while I visited him and his wife Phyllis. They showed me pictures of the “good ‘ole days” and I dragged some history out of Mr. Sachs.

He started playing clarinet when he was 13 years old. He was classically trained and he studied with Leon Russianoff, a famous teacher of clarinet. Mr. Russianoff’s book on clarinet method was still sitting on Mr. Sach’s piano when I visited.

By the time Mr. Sachs was 21, he had turned completely from classical music to jazz, originally influenced by Mr. Russianoff and one of the better-known clarinet players, Benny Goodman.

“I guess I was influenced by Goodman’s playing to start with, but then I realized I had my own way of playing that was a little far off the beaten path of Goodman’s playing … I don’t think anybody plays like me anymore, ‘cuz they don’t think like I do.”

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