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Friday, September 25, 2009

Remembering Alex Ulanowsky

I seem to be recalling a lot about my former teachers...

Alex Ulanowsky (1942 - 1993) was an cool instructor I had at the Berklee College of Music for Jazz Harmony and Ear Training. He was a very skilled jazz pianist who had toured with the Buddy Rich Band in 1973. He performed with Pat Metheny (a fellow Berklee student) and many other well-known popular music groups and singers. He was a very serious person, and appeared to be somber most of the time.

I knew that Alex was the son of Paul Ulanowsky (1908 - 1968), the great pianist who had collaborated with singers such as Lotte Lehmann. I knew about Paul Ulanowsky, since I had heard my mom's 78 rpm recordings of Lehmann and Ulanowsky performing works from the German lieder repertory.

Before my time, Paul Ulanowsky accompanied the leading instrumentalists of the classical music world - including Gregor Piatigorsky for a command performance for President and Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt at the White House. He also accompanied William Kroll, Bernhard Greenhouse, Joseph Fuchs, and renown vocalists Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, George London, Hans Hotter, Herman Prey, and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.

So it was great to have Alex Ulanowsky (Paul Ulanowsky's son) as my instructor at Berklee. We did talk about his famous father on more than one occasion, but I don't think most people (students or faculty) had any idea who Paul Ulanowsky was.

Alex Ulanowsky began his teaching career at Berklee in 1971 and was appointed chair of the harmony department around the time that I enrolled. He held that position until 1981. Later he was promoted to head of core studies department and oversaw 90 faculty and 2,000 students. In 1983 he returned to teaching piano and jazz harmony full-time at Berklee, and authored a text titled "Harmony 4" that was published by Berklee Press. Alex was born in New York NY, graduated from St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., Dartmouth College, the New York School of Music, and Berklee College of Music.

Once in his class, I had made a comment that wasn't well conceived or thought out. I said something like, "Jazz harmony and classical harmony are different animals. They are unrelated."

Alex Ulanowsky perked up and strongly objected to my over-generalization about harmony. He had grown up playing the popular jazz standards and thought about all of this music in the context of a unified traditional harmonic structure.

After I thought about it, it does seem true that classical and popular music dating from a short period of time between the 1930s and 40s existed in worlds that were very close to one another. At that time composers did virtually share a common language and conception of musical organization. Works by Ellington, Gershwin, Stravinsky, and Ravel could be be analyzed and heard in the same context, although there were stylistic differences too.

Perhaps my narrow mindset in the early 1970s regarding jazz was influenced by the post-Bebop trend of musical aesthetics of that time. In my mind Miles Davis' album Bitches Brew was a long way from the 17th and 18th century harmonic practice of Mozart and Haydn.

Alex Ulanowsky died on Sunday February 28th, 1993 of an internal hemorrhage at his home in Concord at the age of 50. Berklee has established a Jazz Composition award in his name.

Let's listen to the great German soprano Lotte Lehmann sing Franz Schubert's "Winterreise" D. 911, No. 15 "Die Krähe" (The Crow) with Alex's dad, Paul Ulanowsky, on the piano (recorded February 26th, 1940).