I used to laugh at my classical musician friends when they tried to play jazz. They could play Beethoven like virtuosos but they could never really get into the groove. There was something about their classical training - rigid and disciplined - that got in the way.
That's how it was with all those violin duets recorded by Stefan Grappelli with Yehudi Menuhin. Don't get me wrong. I love the idea of a classical great reaching across the divide to hook up with a jazz legend but listen to the results. You can always tell when Grappelli is playing and when it's Menuhin you're listening to. Grappelli's tone is warmer and he's not afraid of sliding up to a note, whereas Menuhin tends to hit the notes dead on and never figured how to play behind the beat, to use a musician's term, to get that swingin' feeling.
It's with these reservations that I went to see the National Ballet perform Jerome Robbins incendiary dance numbers in the West Side Story suite. In a recent NOW article Guillaume Cote, who dances the role of Riff, commented on how hard it was to dance and snap his fingers at the same time. He said he'd originally thought that, because he could do 17 pirouettes in a row, West Side Story's jazz dance would be a breeze. He discovered that it was actually very tough - he's even developed a new respect for Justin Timberlake, for heaven's sake.
As it turned out, the ballet team didn't do too badly. They did have trouble singing, not because they couldn't hit the notes, though that was at times true, but because their phrasing was simply too stilted. But most of them got out of their ballet straitjackets and grasped the concept when it came to the movement.
To see the difference between ballet style and the style Robbins was looking for, have a look at this pic, especially the dancers' feet - everyone gets it but the guy on the left.
For more on West Side Story, cultural paradigm busting and the National Ballet's Jerome Robbins Tribute go to http://www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2007-11-15/news_story6.php