A Great American Modernist Gets Jazzed

Aug 21, 2014

Jack Cooper rearranged eight works by Charles Ives into big band jazz tunes. A new album, "Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra" has just been released.

Loved by musicians but often overlooked by listeners, Charles Ives never made popular music. Jazz arranger Jack Cooper gives him a new groove most can agree on.

Charles Ives (1874-1954), modernist composer of works such as "The Unanswered Question" and "Camp Meeting."

Without a doubt, Charles Ives is one of America’s great composers. But he isn’t played much on classical radio.

WKNO’s classical music host, Kacky Walton, says his music can be dissonant and off-putting for some listeners. She never gets requests for an Ives melody.

Jack Cooper, director of jazz studies at the University of Memphis, wants to put the music of Ives in a new light. His latest album, Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra, features eight works re-imagined as big band jazz pieces.

“I hear him as a jazz composer,” said Cooper. “And that is the thing: he’s messing with the harmony. He’s messing with the rhythms. He’s messing with standard forms the way I do it as an arranger.”

The unexpected blue notes, harmonics and rhythmic complexity in Ives’ music may not sit well with classical music fans, said Cooper,  but “those are the unexpected places you hear in jazz, and we want to hear in jazz.”

Ives’ father had been a Civil War bandleader. His son grew up with a head full of marches and hymns. Through Ives’ sensibilities, a rewrite of an old hymn such as “Shall We Gather At the River” has new twists, turns and blue notes. Jack Cooper said that Ives' compositional style lends itself to jazz arrangement.

"Mists" features New York's Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. It was recorded in a single day last April.

Cooper chose Ives, at first, just to push himself in a new direction, away from Gershwin and Cole Porter. He wrote the album's charts in 2003. But it wasn’t until this year that he raised enough money to make the record. He was able to hire soloists like Terell Stafford.

Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra is available now on planetarts.org, amazon.com and itunes.