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Composer Phillip Keveren Brings JS Bach Into The Jazz Age

Composer/pianist/teacher Phillip Keveren, who earned musical pedigrees from Cal State U and the University of Southern California, was driven to re-interpret the fugues and cantatas of Bach into jazz. Why, one may ask? Phillip says to blame it on the Swingle Singers.

 This early acapella group from the 1960s “sang” the classics. “They captured my imagination,” says Phillip. He decided to blend Bach and bop.

Have you always ‘heard’ classical through a jazz lens?
I have always loved jazz, and when I listen to classical music I am especially drawn to the harmonic progressions and colors.

Why did you choose these particular Bach works to transform?
The song list grew out of trying to find pieces that would respond especially well to a jazz-centered point-of-view. Is the harmonic progression particularly applicable? Does the melody seem to float well over a jazz try?

How do you find your groove if your primary training is in classical?
The intellectual part of the translation process is not that long of a road. The “groove” aspect is difficult. If one hasn’t listened to a lot of jazz and soaked up that rhythmic world, it’s difficult to learn.

Why did you write this book?
I have always been a fan of this kind of thing. The “Swingle Singers” captured my imagination decades ago.

You also work in liturgical music. What inspires you there?
My writing in the church music world dates back to the founding of my musical journey. I learned to improvise in church; accompanying singers, filling in the “empty spaces” between sections of a worship service. etc. “Seasons” is one of dozens of efforts in that arena (like choral and orchestral).

Who have been your musical influences?
I grew up in a rural area of the northwest, and hearing live music was a rarity. I listened to LP’s of all flavors – classical, jazz, pop, rock. I loved it all. I discovered Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 early on. I was a huge Maynard Ferguson fan!

Have you performed with any jazz ensembles?
I was part of the jazz program at Mount Hood Community College in my first two years of college. Jazz band and vocal jazz (pianist). That is where I found my true love, writing.

Who is your favorite jazz artist?
Artists who can live in both worlds (classical and jazz) have always been important to me. Wynton Marsalis. Leonard Bernstein. I love vocalists like Diana Krall who are solid jazz musicians, but also have a great sense of keeping a melody intact that doesn’t need embellishment.

Check out these books by Phillip Keveren at

A Ragtime Christmas
17 holiday tunes masterfully arranged by Phillip Keveren for easy piano with a ragtime flair. Includes: Bring a Torch Jeannette Isabella * Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy * The First Noel * Good King Wenceslas * The Holly and the Ivy * Joy to the World * Up on the Housetop * We Wish You a Merry Christmas * and more.

George Gershwin Classics
18 timeless classics carefully arranged for easy piano: But Not for Me • By Strauss • Embraceable You • Fascinating Rhythm • A Foggy Day (In London Town) • How Long Has This Been Going On? • I Got Rhythm • I’ve Got a Crush on You • Love Is Here to Stay • The Man I Love • My One and Only • Nice Work If You Can Get It • Of Thee I Sing • Oh, Lady Be Good! • ‘S Wonderful • Someone to Watch Over Me • Strike Up the Band • They Can’t Take That Away from Me

The Nutcracker – Big Note Piano
Accessible even to early-level pianists, these big-note arrangements still capture the magic of Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic. This collection includes: Arabian Dance • Chinese Dance • Dance of the Reed-Flutes • Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy • March • Overture • Russian Dance • Waltz of the Flowers

Blues Classics
15 of the best blues classics arranged for solo piano by Phillip Keveren: Basin Street Blues • Caldonia (What Makes Your Big Head So Hard?) • Darlin’ You Know I Love You • Every Day I Have the Blues • Fever • I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good • It Hurts Me Too • Kansas City • Kidney Stew Blues • My Babe • Night Train • Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out • Route 66 • Stormy Weather (Keeps Rainin’ All the Time) • Sweet Home Chicago

By Debbie Burke

Debbie Burke is the author of The Poconos in B Flat and the upcoming Glissando: A Story of Love, Lust and Jazz (Waldorf Publishing, February 2018). She lives in northeastern Pennsylvania.

4 replies on “Composer Phillip Keveren Brings JS Bach Into The Jazz Age”

I love Phillip Keveren’s arrangements. Did you list the name of the book Keveren wrote based on JS Bach? Don’t see it here. What’s the title and where is it sold? Thank you, Debbie, for all your work in music.

I am surprised not to read a mention of the great French pianist Jacques Louissier (b 26/10/34), who has devoted his career for well over five decades to interpreting JS Bach’s music in jazz, most famously with the best-selling recording series of albums “Play Bach” starting in 1959 on DECCA (with the great Pierre Michelot on bass, who famously played with Bud Powell and many other giants throughout his own distinguished career and featured in the film “Round Midnight”), and in the many decades since has reinterpreted huge amounts of Bach in jazz with his trios – and other composers in recent decades also (e.g. Debussy, Satie). He really made his mark a long time ago, and has stayed at the top of his game ever since and remains beloved by international audiences, although the critics have not all been favourably disposed to him (listen and make your own judgment I say – not all jazz has to sound like Blue Note or Prestige – or for that matter, like ECM). Perhaps he is not well known in the USA, but he is certainly well regarded in Europe and UK, has toured here around Australia. Check him out. I think he deserves more recognition. Playing Bach in jazz has been done for over 58 years, ‘ain’t nothin’ new”.

Hi, Debbie! It was great to read your blog on the jazz music and the famous composer/pianist Phillip Keveren. You have also mentioned his books on music. Can you please mention some more books on his latest musical work? I would really love to read them. Thank you Debbie for this blog and keep up the good work.

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