June 3, 2023


Duke Ellington's Sacred Swing: The spirituality of 'The Majesty of God' (Steve Futterman, April 29, 2023, Commonweal)

You come away from "The Majesty of God" certain that its composer was sincere in his beliefs, open to the inspiration of unguarded spiritual thought. Yet he was no less open to what the world offered up--good, bad, and everything in between. Those who admire Ellington's music sense that this was a man who loved people, and food, and sex, and romance, and travel, and community, and the multitude of other pleasures life offers. You can also hear him responding to the political, social, and existential tribulations that Black Americans have had to endure. Parsing the supposedly specific images that Ellington claimed as musical correlatives in his strictly instrumental works can be more obfuscating than illuminating. Is "Harlem Air Shaft" an overview of communal life in uptown New York? Is "Reminiscing in Tempo" a portrait of his deceased mother? With Ellington, it's always dangerous to confuse inspiration with literal interpretation. But his creativity was obviously fueled by whatever he encountered. Read whatever you want into his expressive music, it all comes out the same. Ellington's art elevates the spirit, mind, and body.

It's not enough, assuming that this is still true, that he remains a famous name, or that he's associated with a few classic songs: "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "In a Sentimental Mood," "Solitude," and "Mood Indigo" among them. Ellington's oeuvre is far vaster. As critic Gary Giddins says in Jazz (written with Scott DeVeaux),

In what category do you place a pianist, bandleader, composer, and arranger who created an ensemble unlike any other and wrote practically every kind of Western music other than grand opera--from ragtime to rock'n'roll, from blues to ballet, from stage and film scores to tone poems, oratorios, and sacred concerts, not to mention works for instrumental combinations from piano-bass duets to symphony orchestra. A proudly black artist, whose subject matter never departed for long from African American history and life, he also wrote about the full breadth of America and much of the world.

A career that stretches from the early 1920s to the early '70s may seem daunting, but streaming services make exploration far easier.

Posted by at June 3, 2023 12:06 AM