May 13, 2010


Black, Brown, and Beige: Duke Ellington’s music and race in America. (Claudia Roth Pierpont, May 17, 2010, The New Yorker)

An unshakable dignity seems to have been instilled in Ellington from childhood, and Cohen examines the aspiringly genteel society in which the much beloved boy grew up. Ellington’s father, who worked for years as a butler in a prominent white home, saw that his family’s dinner table was always formally set, no matter the lack of funds at any given time. His pious mother virtually worshipped her son—who was her only child until he was sixteen, when his sister finally came along. And Ellington worshipped his mother in return; he fondly remembered her playing parlor tunes and hymns on the piano—he said the music made him cry—and he attributed his lifelong confidence to her frequent assurances that he was blessed, which he had always believed.

And why not? Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in 1899, in Washington, D.C., at a time when the nation’s capital was arguably the best place for an African-American child to live. The largest urban Negro community in the country maintained its own opera company, classical-music groups, and literary societies; its segregated schools taught African history, stressed proper manners and speech, and were intent on producing students who were, in Ellington’s phrase, “representative of a great and proud race.” For many years, from Emancipation through the imposition of onerous racial restrictions by the Wilson Administration, climaxing in a brutal, white-sparked riot following the First World War, the upper stratum of the city’s black population held to a proto-Harlem Renaissance ideal: demonstrate how civilized, intelligent, and accomplished we are, and racism will fade away. One need not demand respect if one commands it.

Ellington acquired the nickname “Duke” on the brink of adolescence, and, whatever its source (accounts differ), it indicates the superior impression that the boy already made—not an insignificant trait in an era when outstanding black musicians were known professionally as Bubber, Sonny, and Cootie. If he was intended for leadership, however, it clearly wasn’t going to proceed from his scholastic efforts. Although his schooling may have afforded him an inner strength, Ellington was a careless student, even in music (where his only grade on record is a D). But then he didn’t respond to formal training of any kind. Early piano lessons failed to hold his interest, and he learned to play mostly on his own, mastering James P. Johnson’s notoriously difficult “Carolina Shout”—well enough to impress Johnson—by slowing down the piano roll and matching his fingers to the depressed keys. When he wanted to go further, he charmed his way into pickup lessons from the professionals who hung out in the local poolroom. He was careful to point out, later on, that these early masters included both conservatory-trained musicians and unschooled “ear cats” who couldn’t read a note, and that he had freely learned from both.

Charm, drive, and an audacious talent: he was barely out of his teens before he had established the Duke’s Serenaders and several other nicely profitable dance bands, and was supporting himself—and a wife and baby—in style. Yet, by his own account, even when he felt sure enough to try his fortunes in New York, age twenty-four, he had never actually written music. He had composed a few songs in his early years, and began composing again as soon as he hit Tin Pan Alley, but he had never written anything down and wasn’t entirely certain that he could. Ellington was himself something of an “ear cat,” and even as he learned what he needed to know, and his music became increasingly complex, his instinctual bias was for the more instinctual art. Partly, this was the natural democrat’s appreciation of the tough and unschooled African-American “gutbucket” sound; partly it was the natural aristocrat’s desire to make everything look easy. (“How was I to know that composers had to go up in the mountains, or to the seashore, to commune with the muses for six months?”) Other popular composers have faced similar gaps between their early training and their goals; George Gershwin’s solution was to make himself a lifelong student, working with a series of teachers on harmony, counterpoint, orchestration. Ellington didn’t have the temperament for this approach, nor did it appear to offer what he needed. He had something all his own, something that made the arduous process of writing music yield immediate and exhilarating results: he had his band.

The scrappy band of the early Kentucky Club days became an orchestra of a dozen players at the Cotton Club. But Ellington wanted an even larger sound: more color, more detail, more possibilities. By the time of the first European tour, in 1933, there were fourteen players, plus a vocalist; the group that was ultimately known as Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra had grown, by the mid-forties, to nineteen players, travelling and recording together, working and virtually living together, fifty-two weeks a year. These musicians were Ellington’s inspiration, not merely as professionals but as individuals with irreplaceable musical personalities. He did not write a “Concerto for Trumpet,” in 1939; rather, it was a “Concerto for Cootie”—that is, a work designed for the specific articulations of the superb trumpet player Cootie Williams, who replaced Bubber Miley and had already been with Ellington for about ten years. (“You can’t write music right,” Ellington told this magazine, more than sixty years ago, “unless you know how the man that’ll play it plays poker.”)

But these musicians were sometimes his collaborators in a more unusual way, described by reporters who sat in, marvelling, on working sessions. Ellington would start off with a melody, or even just a few bars that were quickly tweaked and critiqued into a theme. Then, one by one, the improvisations began—Barney Bigard on clarinet, Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, Tricky Sam Nanton on trombone were all especially fluent—with each player improving on the last player’s phrases, elaborating and extending, while the trombonist /copyist Juan Tizol caught the accumulating effects on paper (albeit not quite as fast as they kept coming). Ellington approved or rejected the additions, made changes and issued challenges, then usually took the results home and worked the whole thing over. The next day, there would be a few hours of refinement and repetition, until the piece was fixed and memorized. (Ellington always preferred memorization: how could you let loose if your nose was stuck in a score?) By this method, the time for creating or arranging a new number—most numbers were about three minutes long, the standard length of a 78-r.p.m. recording—appears to have been just two days. “My band is my instrument,” Ellington said, and the way he played it explains his music’s extraordinary mixture of freedom and control.

This collaborative process could create difficulties when Ellington employed a melody that he had overheard one of the musicians playing, or that a musician had sold him for a regulation fee. The main tune of “Concerto for Cootie,” for example, was something that Ellington bought from Williams for twenty-five dollars, a sum believed to be reasonable by both parties until, a few years later, words were added and it became a hit as “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me”—with no royalties for Williams. Johnny Hodges, the band’s most gorgeously lyrical player and a fount of melody—he contributed the tunes for “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart”—became so annoyed that, during performances, he mimed rubbing dollar bills between his fingers when Ellington launched into a number that Hodges felt was rightly his. One of Ellington’s most beloved songs, “Sophisticated Lady,” has several contributing claims and was described by the trombonist Lawrence Brown as “one of those where everybody jumps in.”

But, as Billy Strayhorn pointed out, the various contested melodies were musical scraps that would not have amounted to anything had Ellington not labored to smooth out rough parts, create harmonies, add bridges, and set them in a coherent musical frame. None of Ellington’s musicians—not even Strayhorn—ever composed a hit on his own. Most important, all these works turned out to sound purely and recognizably like Ellington. For those who doubted that he was a “real” composer, here was the conundrum: How could the band have created Ellington, when Ellington created the band?

Despite the air of insouciance, Ellington took his composing seriously. It was gratifying to have people sit and listen to his music in a proper theatre, as they did for the first time in 1930, when the band accompanied Maurice Chevalier during a Broadway run and filled out the bill for an entire act. Coast-to-coast radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club had won the band an enormous following, and it gave concert-style performances throughout its first national tour, in 1931, usually performing in movie theatres between shows. Recordings had similarly prepared the way in England and France, where, in 1933, the band appeared on variety bills in the biggest venues, and was met with a respect that, for all its popularity, it had never known at home. Members of the group were suddenly being discussed not merely as entertainers but as artists, and it seemed that every note they played was considered to be—in the words of one British critic—“directly an expression of Duke’s genius.”

Artist. Genius. Claims of this sort had been made before the European tour, but during the mid-thirties they began to take hold. Cohen documents Irving Mills’s long-term publicity campaign to build his client just such a gold-plated image, unprecedented for an African-American. It does not impugn Mills’s belief in Ellington’s artistry to note that his goal was to share this belief with the increasingly large, white, record-buying public. Most of the campaign revolved around Ellington’s gifts as a composer (“Again!” ran the ad for a new song, “Solitude,” in 1935. “The stamp of Ellington’s genius!”), and Ellington fed the fire with the release of several longer compositions. “Creole Rhapsody” (1931), “Reminiscing in Tempo” (1935), and the conjoined “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” (1937) all took up two or more sides of 78-r.p.m. recordings—until then a length generally granted only to works of classical music, and a sign that Ellington was extending the notion of musical seriousness beyond its conventional bounds. He told reporters that he was working on a symphonic suite and an opera, both based on the history of the American Negro people. It was just a matter of time before he got to Carnegie Hall.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 13, 2010 3:24 PM
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