At first, purists were astonished. What was a classical flutist like Jean-Pierre Rampal doing blowing jazz? Why was violinist Pinchas Zukerman keeping time to syncopated piano rhythm? Their corrupter was Claude Bolling, a French composer and pianist who eight years ago created a new genre called “classical jazz.” Today, Rampal includes a Bolling work in almost every recital and speaks for many artists when he says, “I’m not a jazzman, but what Claude does pleases me. It’s marvelous music by a great musician.”
Bolling’s irreverent blend of melodic classical chords with upbeat jazz phrasing turned out to be commercial too. When established record companies wouldn’t touch it, Bolling founded his own label to release his 1975 collaboration with Rampal, Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano. It made the LP Top 10 in the classical and jazz categories, and now 230 weeks later is still on the classical charts, along with Bolling’s classical-jazz effort with Spanish guitarist Angel Romero and pianist George Shearing plus a third album with Pinky Zukerman. For Picnic Suite, his newest release, guitarist Alexandre Lagoya and Rampal joined together. “I did it initially as a game,” says Bolling of his mix. “But many great classical musicians ask me to write them a classical-jazz connection, and I can’t refuse.” As for his next collaborators, he discreetly won’t name the artists, just the instruments: oboe, trumpet, French horn and cello.
Bolling, 50, a true Renaissance music man, also has written seven books on jazz and swing plus the score for 32 films, including the Belmondo delight Borsalino and Neil Simon’s California Suite. When the “solitary work of composing,” as Bolling calls it, becomes too oppressive, he performs. He conducts a popular Parisian swing group called the Show Biz Band four times a month “as a hobby” and gives piano recitals that take him around the world. In 1976 he played Carnegie Hall with Rampal.
His musical heritage stretches back to the reign of Napoleon III: Bolling’s great-great-aunt was a court pianist. Young Claude discovered the piano at age 11. His father, an auto parts salesman in Cannes, and his mother, who got a divorce when he was 7, had little interest in music, but his maternal grandmother, Marguerite Chabellard, was herself an accomplished pianist. She made sure Claude had the best piano teachers on the Riviera. By the time he was 15 Bolling had quit school and moved to Paris to pursue music with the likes of Rex Stewart and Sidney Bechet. Wearing short pants and propped up on telephone books, he would pound the keys in jazz clubs. “I was,” he admits, “the curiosity of the Left Bank.” Within three years he was the leader of a seven-man Dixieland group titled Bolling and His Hot Seven. Then, after playing his way through military service as a slide trombonist in French army bands, he jammed and performed with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Hines. “They taught me a lot,” says Bolling.
In 1959 he married Irene Dervize, then a reporter for Paris Match. Outside the church a jazz band serenaded the newlyweds, and after that auspicious beginning the Bollings settled into a pattern of musical domesticity in the Parisian suburb of Garches. Irene mothers their two sons, David, 12, and Alexandre, 9, and works for the TV magazine Télé 7 Jours. Claude composes at home, stopping occasionally to play with his model train collection or to fastidiously rearrange their three-story house. “I dread losing time,” he says. “So instead of doing nothing, I organize.” As for his classical-jazz fusion, he shrugs, “I didn’t want to create a new musical system; yet now I’m the prisoner of it.”