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Blending Jazz and Classical for Carnegie Hall

When pianist and Brigham Young University professor Scott Holden began reviewing applications for the 2018 Mormon Arts Festival, he noticed one name missing. LaGuardia Community College Professor and composer Lisa DeSpain recalls getting a phone call not long thereafter. “He contacted me and said, ‘Why didn’t you submit?’” she recounts. “I said, ‘Scott, I’m a jazz pianist. I haven’t written a concert classical work.’”

But their ensuing conversation about the interplay between the languages of classical and jazz soon changed her mind. “My hands had played jazz for so long,” she says, “and I was like, ‘What if I put this new idea of a concert classical work on top of it?’” From there, it clicked. “All of a sudden everything just started flowing out, and I wrote it.”

Holden played that commissioned piece “Toccata for Jazz Piano” to close the Mormon Arts Festival at Carnegie Hall on June 29, 2018. Toccatas typically showcase a player’s dexterity, moving at a fast clip and involving particularly intricate fingering. DeSpain was nervous she’d gone too far, though. “There’s kind of a bebop section about two-thirds of the way through the piece — the melodic line in the right hand is very bebop, and the left hand is doing a stride figure — and I labored and labored and labored over it. ‘Did I get this right? This seems so complicated.’” But Holden was up to the task. “I sent it to him, and he sent back a YouTube video of him shredding the bebop hand. He learned it so quickly. It was really hilarious.”  

Composer Lisa DeSpain
Composer Lisa DeSpain

Since then, DeSpain has gone on to win a 2018 Barlow Commission to create a 15-minute suite, “Symphonic Jazz Etude.” The work is aimed at younger classically-trained pianists who want to play more jazz, but often feel intimidated by the difference in how the hands move. “To create a piece of music that speaks in a classical language yet brings in these jazz elements to train their hands about how does it feel to play jazz,” she says, “that’s what this whole symphonic suite of etudes is going to be around.”  

DeSpain was also recently named among the 2018 recipients of the OPERA America Discovery Grant for Female Composers. She’ll receive support to develop her very first opera, based on the short story by Psycho author Robert Block, “That Hell-Bound Train.” DeSpain intends to make it a blues-jazz opera.

Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

Toccata for Jazz Piano
Premiered at Zankel Hall/Carnegie Hall, Mormon Arts Festival, 2018

Work By

Lisa DeSpain (Associate Professor, Music and Theatre) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Colleges and Schools

LaGuardia Community College