Billy Strayhorn wrote Chelsea Bridge in 1941, inspired by the French impressionist composers of that era. Walter van de Leur elaborates Chelsea Bridge in his article The ‘American Impressionists’ and the ‘Birth of the Cool”1 as a significant piece for the phenomenon of American Impressionism and the following ‘Birth of the Cool’.
Strayhorn belonged to a generation of composers and arrangers who had been classically trained, in contrast to the musicians of the previous swing era. Those upcoming writers took in account the current trends in contemporary classical music, e.g. Debussy and Ravel in France and ‘English impressionist’ Frederic Delius. The new approach to writing for larger ensembles was characterized by using classical orchestration techniques, leaving behind traditional forms and idioms of big band composing and focusing on functionally independent tonal colors.
Ellington, already having stepped out of the swing and big band tradition, found in Strayhorn an arranger who, in addition to his African-American descent and familiarity with the jazz scene, successfully introduced the concept of impressionism. “By blending turn-of-the-century European elements into an otherwise African-American idiom, Strayhorn went beyond a mere imitation of his sources, and became the first true ‘American impressionist’”2.
The basic idea of Chelsea Bridge is a modal approach (the form is a classic AABA): It starts with a Bbm6 chord, with the major seventh on top in the melody, then shifting a whole-step down to Abm6 with a major seventh on top in bar 2, repeating this movement within bar 3. The major seventh does not resolve into the tonic. This “parallel movement of tonally independent chords” (ibid.) is a reference to Debussy, and also to be found in Maurice Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. The theme continues by establishing the key of Db in a VI7-IIm7-V7-I progression. The 8-bar “A” section can be divided in two parts: first, the atmospheric Minor6,maj7 harmonies with a melody moving off-beat within the small range of a minor third, so it seems to be floating on top of this mystic soundscape; then, the very old-fashioned cadence with just the third and fifth of Db as melody notes. The bridge modulates to E, passes the keys of A and G and ends on an unstable Db7 chord, while the melody is very ‘cantando’ and expressive. The last bar of the bridge leads back to the head through descending dominants: Db9-C9-B9-Bb9, unusual, but a stylistic device very typical for Strayhorn.
Chelsea Bridge was received ambiguously. For some traditionalists, Strayhorn disrespected the esthetics of the genre for the sake of originality. But the majority considered the piece groundbreaking, which it proved to be, inspiring writers like Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan or Charles Mingus and paving the path for Cool Jazz.
1Walter van de Leur, 2001. The ‘American Impressionists’ and the ‘Birth of the Cool’. Tijdschrift voor Muziektheorie (2001), jaargang 6 nummer 1, pp. 18-26
2ibid., p. 22