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Jazzing the Classics: Race, Modernism, and the Career of Arranger Chappie Willet

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The American popular music tradition of “jazzing the classics” has long stood at the intersection of discourses on high and low culture, commercialism, and jazz authenticity. Dance band arrangers during the 1930s and 1940s frequently evoked, parodied, or straddled these cultural debates through their manipulations of European classical repertoire. This article examines Swing Era arranging strategies in the context of prevailing racial essentialisms, conceptions of modernism, and notions of technical virtuosity. The legacy of African American freelance arranger Chappie Willet, and his arrangement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, op. 13 (“Pathétique”) for the black dance band of Jimmie Lunceford, suggests that an account of the biography and artistic voice of the arranger is critical to understanding the motivations behind these hybrid musical works.

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