Jazz and the Brandenburg Concertos

Mark Twain

“Johann Sebastian Bachs music is better than it sounds.”

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan lead the selection of music on the Golden Record that is on the Voyager spacecrafts – the only human objects to leave our solar system. He was the one who selected Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra version of the 1st movement of the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto to be the first music on the record. When asked why he didn’t include more Bach hesaid, “That would be bragging.”

Charlie Parker

According to Al McKibben Charlie Parker used to call other musicians at 3 or 4 in the morning with the Brandenburg Concerto playing in the background and Charlie Parker improvising over it.


Christian McBride on Bach and the Brandenburg Concerto

His taste in music, however, is not bound by category. “I have a reputation for acoustic, straight-ahead jazz,” he says, “but what I listen to at home is fusion, funk, classical. The music I like participating in is open, heady. You listen to the bass parts in Bach, the Brandenburg concerto, they’re like bebop lines.” Hot Fusion; by Peter Mcelhinney; Style Weekly, 2011

Jon Batiste On what he loves about Bach

I think that Bach is really the mysticism of music, spirituality of music, the depth of how he’s able to be so systematic and logical, symmetrical at times, super symmetrical, to the point of it almost being a musical game of sorts, yet it harboring such a depth of human feeling, the range of human emotions and asking questions about the afterlife.

The St. Matthew Passion, I was listening to that maybe yesterday, a couple days ago. It’s about three hours long and just listening to that makes you realize what’s possible. He’s arguably the best at a thing that anyone has ever been in the history of doing a thing.

[Bach is] arguably the best at a thing that anyone has ever been in the history of doing a thing.

Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Sidney Madden adapted it for the Web.


Bobby McFerrin

I gotta tell you a story about the Bach Violin Concerto in A Minor.
I sang the entire concerto with members of the San Francisco Symphony standing behind me in a semi-circle.   And in the second movement, I got completely turned around and lost.   And the musicians were playing and you could see in their eyes, are we gonna stop, are we gonna stop, 
are we gonna start over again, and they were wondering what I was going to do.   And so I improvised my way to a spot that I recognized and then took it from there.
Anyway, we finished the piece, intermission comes, and I’m very embarrassed  and sorry that I had put them through this experience, and I’m apologizing profusely to the players,  I was a brand new conductor and I had messed up and all that kind of stuff.   But one of the women in the orchestra was this older woman and she came up to me 
and she looked at me and said, “Bach would have loved it!”  And it was because I was improvising,  I was just sort of making something up.  I’ll never forget that, I’ll never forget that.

Art Farmer

In June 1994, Farmer was awarded the Austrian Gold Medal of Merit, and in August 1994 was honored for lifetime achievement at a concert at Lincoln Center in New York. The same momentous year brought the debut of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “A Great Day in Harlem,” inspired by a day in 1958 when 60 jazz greats, including Farmer, gathered for a photo. Also in 1994, Farmer recorded the “Brandenburg” Concertos with the New York Jazz Orchestra and performed Haydn’s First Trumpet Concerto with the Austrian-Hungarian Haydn Philharmonic Orchestra.

Bill Evans

“You can never play enough Bach.” •The Surprising Influence of J.S. Bach on Jazz Great Bill Evans By DEBRA LEW HARDER MAR 18, 2018  

Dave Brubeck

SS: Dave, you often identify Bach as your favorite composer. What influence has Bach had on your musical career in terms of both composition, and your improvisations?

DB: Well, I love the Brandenburg Concertos, and I think they’re so rhythmic, and so full of life, and so related in a way to jazz. Or, jazz is related to it (laughter). 

The fact that many people at his time knew how he could improvise, and he liked to improvise on Sunday in church, and the minister would usually not like it at all that he was improvising because the audience, the congregation would get so wrapped up in his improvisation that they wouldn’t listen to his homily.

And so, he would ask Bach not to improvise so much, and would say, “The congregation doesn’t like it when you change the harmonies,” which probably he didn’t like it — the minister. But, 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 that you improvise in these progressions.

And, that again relates it to jazz. And, he must have been a tremendous improviser. There are certain organists to this day that improvise so great, that in classical music, it’s been the organists that have kept alive the old tradition of improvisation, while most symphonic music has let it die out. That, again, I credit to Bach’s great legacy of improvisation. It carried over into Mozart and into Beethoven.


John Steinbeck

“The detailed lives of clerks don’t interest me much unless, of course, the clerk breaks into heroism.  But I have no intention of trying to explain my book.  It has to do that for itself.  I would be sure of its effect if it could be stipulated that the reader read an obligato of Bach.”

Robert Louis Stevenson

RLS put his poetry to Bach’s music and said, “‘Bach is adorable; so singularlyunspewy. I wish I could get the Pentecost air with more than one finger; but … the attempt to introduce the other notes knocks the time to old Harry …”

  • Links and Bibliography
  • The True Life of J.S. Bach; by Klaus Eidam (recommended by David Gordon, Dramaturge, Carmel Bach Festival

Eddie Palmieri

•I like to read. I’ll read a little philosophy, and about the great composers. My favorite is Johann Sebastian Bach — he was really the first jazz player, with his inventions and what he did for the keyboard in the 1600s and 1700s. He’s a genius! (Why a legendary pianist says Bach was the first jazz great  By Raquel Laneri)