We all have James Thurber cartoons and stories impressed upon our brains, whether we know it or not. And, of course, I firmly believe that Walter Mitty was based on me, though I wasn’t born yet when Thurber invented him. I think I had absorbed Thurber and Mitty before I even knew what the New Yorker was, and I didn’t read The Years with Ross until I was doing my MFA at Iowa. So it’s just a wonderful pleasure, flooded with nostalgia, to offer you Diane Moser’s gorgeous (and complete) jazz suite Music for the Last Flower, based on James Thurber’s eloquent anti-war parable by the same name. All of Thurber’s work, aside from the wit and comedy, was touched by a melancholy, the shadow of loneliness, poignant and sweet. The emotional complexity of his work, it seems to me, makes him especially amenable to a jazz interpretation.
Diane Moser is a brilliant jazz pianist and composer, also a repeat offender at Numéro Cinq, also a person under the spell of Thurber. She is a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, an indefatigable performer, possessed also of a circle of musical collaborators second to none (Mark Dresser, bass; Gerry Hemingway, drums; Marty Ehrlich, woodwinds; Ben Williams, trombone). And she can write, which is a great help, because along with the music, we have her description of the work and how it relates to Thurber’s book. Music for the Last Flower is a large piece, six parts, complex and orchestral, originally composed in 2003, recorded in a flash one-day session in 2012, and just released as a CD this year. It breaks out with a shocking cacophonous clash (as in war) and modulates into moments of Big Band swing and sweet piano solo, a gamut of jazz tropes bent around a narrative and a message, touching and wonderful.
The first time I read the book The Last Flower-A Parable in Pictures by James Thurber (1939), I was in high school. I was incredibly moved by Thurber’s passion to tell this story of destruction, hopelessness, hopefulness, love, and a deep conviction for a better world. This story is a story for all the ages, and at the time that Thurber penned his words and drawings, it was being played out again, this time as WWII. At the time that I read the story, my classmates and I were vehemently protesting and calling for President Nixon to resign and for the end of the Vietnam war, so once again the story was being played and would end and recycle continuously.
My generation is the first generation to see what was going on in the world through television. Growing up in a small town in Iowa, this was an “eye and ear” opening experience for me. The visuals and sounds of war; assassinations, bombings, people pleading for help from all over the world, riots in the cities and on college campuses, all on the appointed news time slots each day. For me, this translated not only into a profound sense of compassion for all of those who were suffering, but also a deep awareness of the sounds of that suffering, which propelled me to translate those feelings and sounds into music.
My goal with this music was to tell the story in a way that would immediately evoke images in the minds of the listener and move the heart and soul through the vibrations of sound. It isn’t necessary to read the Thurber book to understand this music, although I would highly recommend doing so if you haven’t. All you need to know is the general outline for the story, the story of all ages, war and destruction, hopelessness, hopefulness, love, rebirth, war and destruction, a prayer for peace, and for the rest, your imagination will take care of that for you.
1) “…towards the end of WWXII”
Book images via Ommas-Aarden.net
This movement begins with the full ensemble, exploring the sounds of military aircraft flying over head; bombing, exchanging gunfire and the chaos that ensues on the ground. The repetitive figure that comes in, played by piano and quickly joined by the bass, represents the rolling motion of tanks. The melody played by the alto sax and trombone represents a kind of “theme song” for the soldiers. I’ve read that some soldiers listen to specific music before they engage in battle, and it seemed a very important element to bring into the music. After several bouts of charging tanks and chaos, the music takes on a staccato quality that represents the big guns, trying to end it all. A drum solo follows this, representing the last few soldiers exchanging fire, until it is over. The piano comes in, revisiting the theme of the tanks, but slowly, to give a sense of the senselessness of what has just occurred. The piano continues with a repetitive motif, the aspect of time marching on, but with no one to march with it. The bass solo comes in soon after, portraying the barren landscape and extreme loss of life.
2) “…when love is no longer….”
This movement features piano, bass and clarinet in a trio setting that is part folk, part ballade and part blues. While I was working on this movement, I decided to take a break and go for a walk in the park. The opening melody in the piano is what came to me on that walk. I came home and played the melody, exploring and improvising over the motif. When I finished, I listened to it (I record my improvisations when I compose) and decided that this was the second movement. I transcribed everything I had played and then arranged it for piano, bass and clarinet. In this movement, the music goes in and out of “through composed” music, improvisation through a harmonic structure, and free improvisation between the bass and clarinet, with a repetitive motif in the piano, again, simulating that time is marching on. Musically, the repetitive device creates tension, letting the bass and clarinet improvise freely, but not really letting them go either. The trio comes together restating the opening theme over another “time motif” in the piano, ending this section.
3) “…she finds a flower…”
This movement is for solo piano and depicts the part of Thurber’s story where a young woman excitedly tells everyone that she has found the last flower standing. She dances her way throughout the war torn and savaged landscape, oblivious to the dire surroundings, only feeling joy of her miraculous find.
4) “…love is reborn”
This movement features the full band. While expressing her joy, the young woman meets a young man who is as equally thrilled about the flower. They come together, create a family, and suddenly love is reborn and civilization begins again which is represented by a motif in the music that harmonically climbs higher. Latin and Swingin’ Jazz are the dominate styles in this movement. I have to say; I didn’t purposely decide on that while I was working on the idea for this movement, instead it just came to me. One of the things I always tell my students is to let the music show you where it wants to go, and that’s exactly what happened with my creative process for this movement.
5) “…still not learning the lessons of war….”
In this part of the story, the generals and dictators come back and war begins again. I chose to let the previous movement disintegrate into chaos and revisit the first movement, which in sonata form is called a recapitulation. Interestingly enough, this also happens in Thurber’s story, a recapitulation of the exposition, war.
6) “…a hope for peace”
Now we are at the end of the story and all is destroyed except for one woman, one man and one flower. I used the theme of the solo piano section here to represent the young woman and young man finding the last flower, played by both piano and bass. The alto sax and trombone are in harmony, playing freely over the piano and bass improvisations with variations on their theme. The drums improvise a beautiful, shimmering palette using only cymbals, sending the hope and prayers for peace out into the universe.
Diane Moser, pianist and composer, works as a featured performer and composer throughout the US with jazz ensembles, big bands, orchestras, chamber music, dance and theater. Since 1996 she has been the music director/contributing composer/pianist for her 17-piece Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band, dedicated to developing and presenting new music for big band. Her other groups include the Diane Moser Quintet, and the Diane Moser Trio. She is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Arts and in 2011 was named the Mid-Atlantic Arts Creative Fellow at the Millay Arts Colony. She has received composition awards from Chamber Music America, Meet The Composer, the American Music Center, New Music USA, the Mary Flagler Carey Charitable Trust and the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University.
She has been a featured pianist and composer with Mark Dresser, Marty Ehrlich, Gerry Hemingway, Howard Johnson, Oliver Lake, Tina Marsh, Charles McPherson, Lisa Sokolov, Yale Strom, and many others.
She is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Music Composition Program, and since 2006 she has been a member of the core faculty for The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music where she teaches composition, improvisation and performance.