Shan Sutton


SS: Throughout your career, you've been well known for experimentation with different musical techniques, in particular polytonality and polyrhythms. Can you give us a brief explanation about what polytonality means, and maybe give us a demonstration of polytonality?

DB: Yeah. It's using three key centers, or two at the same time. [PLAYS PIANO] That's in F. [PLAYS PIANO] Now we're in A flat and F at the same time. Now we add the E flat.

[PLAYS PIANO] Now a choir learning that, you just tell them the melody in each different key rather than being stuck to try and reading it the first time through, just sing this melody. But, you started on A flat, and somebody else starts on G or something, and stay with it.

[PLAYS PIANO] Now I'm in B flat in this hand, and I'm in G in this hand. And later [PLAYS PIANO] now I'm in D flat, still in G here. That's polytonality.

SS: So, in this case you were staying in one key with your left hand, and changing different keys with your right hand. Is that correct?

DB: Yeah. One of the early pieces I wrote in 1946 as a student with Darius Milhaud, I had three different clefs instead of two clefs -- treble clef, bass clef -- treble, treble, bass. And, I [PLAYS PIANO] -- I'd be playing a swing bass in this hand in one key, and then adding on these other things.

One time, a guy came to a concert I was playing. He had a tape recorder. And, he taped seven of my choruses. That's the length of the tune, where I'm in C in the left hand and E flat in the right hand, which I couldn't believe I did. See, I forget a lot of this stuff. It's gone right after I play it, never to be heard again. When somebody's out there in the audience taping it, and then shows it to me later, I'll say, "How? How could I do that?" That is weird because it's beyond me.

SS: So, your use of multiple keys and polytonality, was that something that was unusual in jazz at the time?

DB: I thought that my first feeling that there was polytonality in jazz, naturally Milhaud was the expert in classical music, was [PLAYS PIANO] Cottontail of Duke Ellington because he's in B flat in this hand [PLAYS PIANO] and he's in C in this hand.

And that really shook me up. I was so thrilled to hear something like that. But, I can't think of anybody that was pushing that except maybe Art Tatum way before everybody else.

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June 2017


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