Musical Borrowing as an Act of Self-Definition in John Coltrane’s Impressions

Jeremy Grall


Historically, jazz has had a mixed reception in the classical world. For example, during the 1930s and 1940s critics often disparaged classical composers for borrowing from jazz, yet simultaneously complemented those same pieces for their catchiness and popularity. Inversely, when jazz musicians began to borrow classical themes, critics often rejoiced that jazz musicians were working to legitimize jazz. For example, in a 1940 New York Times interview, Paul Lavalle of the NBC Orchestra said, “The proof that jazz writers are at present trying to make their tunes more highbrow, is that pieces of great composers are being used and with great success. Debussy’s Reverie, has become ‘My Reverie’ and Ravel’s Pavane pour l’infant defunte has developed into ‘The Lamp is Low’…” While Lavalle rejoiced in this musical borrowing, many other critics, such as Theodor Adorno, proclaimed that jazz was nothing more than the childish mimicry of others’ works. The tendency among classical and white jazz critics has been that the distinctly African traits, such as repetition, and musical borrowing, are often derided, while those associated with European classical music are often lauded. It is arguable that the same bias is still present in musical criticism and music theory pedagogy. Even today, courses in jazz history and theory are generally taken only after students have been indoctrinated into classical theory—and then conceivably through the lens of classical practices.

I contend that the rhetorical significance of repetition and musical borrowing is a vital tool in the analysis of jazz and popular styles. In this article, I focus on the reception of John Coltrane’s “anti-jazz” and the rhetorical structures within his composition Impressions to illustrate the influence of African American oral traditions on popular styles. Coltrane makes his musical statement through his use of borrowed melodies from Maurice Ravel, Morton Gould, and Bert Shefter. In this context, the rhetorical redefining of familiar melodies is an act of self-definition. Therefore, this type of analysis looks beyond the immediate melodic and harmonic structures and instead relies on the social context in which the music was derived and created. 

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