Bach, The First Jazzman?

In the film High Society, Bing Crosby takes to the stage to educate “the great and the good” of Newport about the basics of jazz:

Take some skins,

Jazz begins,

Take a bass

Steady pace,

Take a box,

One that rocks,

Take a blue horn New Orleans-born.

Take a stick

With a lick,

Take a bone,


Take a spot,

Cool and hot,

Now you has jazz jazz jazz, jazz, jazz.

“Now You Has Jazz”–Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong

Well, Bing knew a thing or two about jazz, but, with all due respect, many of the fundamental principles of jazz were centuries in the making. He might well have started, “Well, you take some pipes. . .,” because one of the great improvisers of all-time plied his trade behind a church organ in Leipzig, Germany during the first half of the 18th century. Some contemporaneous accounts report that Bach’s frequent bouts of virtuosity at the organ distracted parishioners from the sermon, much to the consternation of the minister. Quite possibly, however, many parishioners were there for the music first and foremost, with a bit of salvation on the side.

Of course, improvisation during the Baroque period was not new and certainly didn’t begin with Bach. But much like Corelli, Bach was a true virtuoso and, possessed with the greatest compositional mind in history, his flights of musical fancy must have been breathtaking. Here is one account:

It was on May 7, 1747, that Bach visited Frederick the Great at Potsdam. The Prussian king preferred the pianoforte — then called ”forte and piano” — to the less nuanced harpsichord or the organ; so much so that he had 15 of the instruments built for him. During this visit the king led Bach from room to room to try them out. (Bach had encountered pianos before the royal visit; he had complained that their action was too heavy, their treble too weak.) Frederick played for Bach a theme of his own and then asked Bach to improvise a fugue on it. After Bach obliged with a three-voice fugue, the king demanded a more spectacular six-voice fugue. Bach improvised a six-voice fugue on a theme of his own, but on his return to Leipzig wrote out a six-voice fugue on the royal theme. He had it printed with a number of other works all based on the same theme, and sent it to Frederick as ”a musical offering.

Charles Rosen, “Best Piano Compositions: Six Parts Genius”

The parallels with jazz go deeper than just Bach’s ability to improvise. Dave Brubeck notes that “the similarity between the figured bass that Bach used with the choir, and the chord progressions that a jazz musician uses are kind of a similarity in that you improvise in these progressions.” That’s where my ears keep going–back to Bach’s revolutionary bass lines. The man could swing.

Consider Bach’s Prelude in C. First, listen for Bach’s use of diminished harmony. A diminished chord “sounds wrong” and thereby creates tension in the music. So much of composition is about creating this musical tension and providing a release. In Baroque music, the release is almost always immediate. Richard Wagner would set the world on fire in the late 19th century by sustaining that tension over the course of a five hour opera; Claude Debussy would throw out the need to resolve tension altogether, opening up soundscapes that still dominate our musical language. But in Bach, the tension resolves quickly, if not immediately.

Second, listen to how Bach’s use of secondary dominant chords create a lush harmonic landscape in his music, something that jazz musicians would come to rely on centuries later. While dominant chords resolve to the tonic, a secondary dominant, which is an altered chord, resolves to a related chord — a scale degree — to the tonic. This technique opens up harmonic possibilities in composition. Bach opens with a C major chord, thereby establishing the key of C major. That chord leads to a standard ii-V-I progression, bringin us back to another C major chord. But the next measure begins with an inverted D minor 7 chord, followed by an inverted G7 chord, whcih brings us back again to C. Sounds familiar? This is the Circle of Fifths in action. Another example: Bach introduces a D7 chord, which is different from the Dm7 chord in the second measure because it has a F# rather than a F. Why? Because he’s going to move to G major next and then back to C. The secondary dominants give us a taste of G major, while allowing Bach to reassert C major in the end. The unexpected resolves to the familiar. And that final cadence, resolving to the tonic? Deeply satisfying.

Is this jazz? Let your ears decide. A Spotify playlist is embedded at the end of this entry.

J.S. Bach, Prelude In C:

Did a dusty old composer who rarely strayed from his home influence the development of jazz some 200 years later? Yes, he did. First, Bach inspired many jazz pianists, especially the great John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Here they are doing, more or less, straight Bach. Note that swinging bass line!

Modern Jazz Quartet (after Bach), Fugue in A Minor:

Fats Waller studied Bach, as did Bud Powell and Bill Evans. Here are some of their works that have their roots in Bach’s music.

Fats Waller, Bach Up to Me

Bud Powell, Tempus Fugue-It

Bill Evans, Valse

This is where Evans drew his inspiration (and quite a bit of the melody) from:

But it’s not just jazz pianists who revere Bach. Let’s take one of my favorite sax men, Lee Konitz, along with fellow sax legend Warne Marsh:

Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, Two Part Invention, No. 1


Benny Goodman, Bach Goes to Town

How about guitar? Here’s Django Reinhardt jazzing up Bach’s Double Concerto, which will feature later on in this blog.

Django Reinhardt, Improvisation Sur le Premier Mouvement du Concerto en Re Mineur de J S Bach

So, it’s clear that Bach can swing, but can he cha-cha-cha? Funny you should ask.

Tiempo Libre (after Bach), Fuga Cha-Cha-Cha

So, what would a swinging J.S. Bach sound like today? Possibly quite a bit like the great Barbara Dennerlein, whose swinging version of Bach’s iconic Tocca & Fugue in D Minor sounds like it was written yesterday (or at least in the 1950s).

J.S Bach, Toccata & Fugue in D Minor (improv. Barbara Dennerlein)

And that, folks, is “precisely how jazz music is made.”

One thought on “Bach, The First Jazzman?

  1. Finally had the chance to read this entry, still working through all the songs, but by far my favorite entry so far (with tons of competition). This is tryuly a new insight for me, the embedded playlist will be playing all summer!


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