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Soundtrack to the Century

Kevin Stevens
The Ellington Century, by David Schiff, University of California Press, 320 pp, $35.95, ISBN: 978-0520245877

Duke Ellington was born in 1899, at the dawn of what would become known as the American Century, and is a central figure in the development of jazz, America’s sole original art form and the soundtrack to the century. From the mid-1920s, when his band recorded dozens of three-minute blues songs and hot dance tunes, to his death in 1974, Ellington was America’s most important and innovative musical figure, recording for every major record label, achieving distinction as a composer, arranger, songwriter, bandleader and pianist, and writing and producing timeless music of every kind, from pop song and instrumental miniature to opera and film score.

Yet throughout his career, Ellington battled not just the pervasive racism of his time and place, but the perception that his music, like the genre he helped most to define, was less than serious. As late as 1965, a few years before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honour, Ellington’s nomination for a Pulitzer Prize was turned down by the Pulitzer board. It was a staggering insult, both to him and to jazz. “Most Americans,” Ellington said afterwards with no little bitterness, “still take it for granted that European-based music – classical music, if you will – is the only really respectable kind.”

It would be another thirty-two years before the Pulitzer judges would decide, in their wisdom, to cite a jazz musician for their music award, but as David Schiff’s study of Ellington makes clear, mainstream music criticism has finally caught up with the brilliance of jazz and the genius of the men and women who have created and sustained its traditions. The Ellington Century is the latest in an unprecedented wave of important jazz studies published in the last decade, including critical biographies of, among others, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and detailed theoretical analyses of classic documents such as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and Armstrong’s early recordings.

Schiff’s ambitious study reaches for a dimension that many books on jazz choose not to explore: Ellington’s place in the history of twentieth century art music. The book’s roots are revisionist. On the eve of the millennium, The New York Times had asked Schiff to write a retrospective article on the music of the passing century. When he opened that article by asserting that Ravel, Bartók and Ellington were generally acknowledged as the century’s greatest composers, his Times editor asked him “to drop that opening and re-center the piece on Stravinsky and Schoenberg or Webern and Cage”. That rebuff led to The Ellington Century.

Ellington is a natural case study for the argument that jazz is as subtle, complex, and emotionally expressive as classical music. His musical vision was broad and deep, and he spent a lifetime perfecting its means of expression: his orchestra. “Ellington plays the piano,” his long-time collaborator Billy Strayhorn said, “but his real instrument is his band.” Ellington did not compose for an orchestra but with it. No composer, jazz or classical, was more adept at writing for specific individuals, using their strengths (the tone of Johnny Hodges’s alto sax, the bite and brilliance of Cootie Williams’s trumpet) as the foundation for compositions. “You can’t write music right,” Ellington once said, “unless you know how the man that’ll play it plays poker.”

Like the great European modernists, Ellington believed that form was inextricable from content. However, by sticking to the concepts and ensembles of jazz, he distinguished himself critically from Gershwin, Copland, and other American composers who used European models. Yet the difference is not simply formal. The essence of jazz is improvisation; no other music relies so much on the art of composing in the moment, and Ellington’s music builds not only on the sonorities of his band’s instruments, but the character of the men who played them, expressed in their unique patterns of improvisation. This means that, as in all jazz performance, each rendition of any piece was unique. But Ellington went further, often capturing the most memorable of these improvised passages and formally incorporating them into the written composition.

He was also a supreme innovator. A fine technical analyst, Schiff gives us convincing examples from the Ellington oeuvre of the composer’s genius. Here’s how he describes the “timbral magic” of “Mood Indigo”, an Ellington masterpiece first recorded in 1930:

Ellington scored the opening melody in a chorale-like texture for three players: [Arthur] Whetsol (trumpet), Barney Bigard (clarinet) and [Joe] Nanton (muted trombone). He painted his mood with the three instrumental colours found in New Orleans jazz but arranged them counterintuitively with the trumpet on top, the trombone a third below it, in its highest register, and the clarinet an octave and a fourth lower than the trombone, an acoustic gap labelled an “error” in the conservatories that Ellington, fortunately, never attended.

The earthy, mystifying sound of this opening prompted the conductor Andre Previn’s famous comment: “Duke merely lifts a finger, three horns make a sound, and I don’t know what it is!” From the sublime early miniatures like “Mood Indigo” to the weighty historical and religious suites that Ellington wrote as he grew older, Schiff does an excellent job of explaining how the Ellington effect is achieved, technically and poetically.

The urbanity and symphonic sweep that Ellington brought to jazz is outside the central tradition. Louis Armstrong, whose singing and trumpet-playing established that jazz prizes individual expression above all, is considered the musician most responsible for codifying the artistic standards of jazz and the first to show that improvised music could be as substantive and durable as written music. Yet Ellington gave Armstrong’s achievements a larger context: he defined jazz’s collective possibilities without diminishing the personal voices of his band members – in fact, he enhanced the improvisatory element by creating rich, multi-layered contexts for his great soloists. Yet, wary of labels, he often expressed his dislike for the word “jazz”, which he sensed could marginalise the accomplishments of African-American musicians. He described other great jazz figures – and by implication himself – as “beyond category”. It was a description that sought the scope needed to measure his accomplishment – but it was also a way of distancing himself from establishment prejudice against jazz.

Schiff certainly has the scope required to assess Ellington’s achievement fairly. The Ellington Century has considerable sweep of its own, with extended passages on the works of the masters of modernism, from Mahler to Schoenberg, as well as jazz of all periods. The book’s arrangement into themed chapters based on facets of musical expression – colour, rhythm, melody, and harmony – allows Schiff the freedom to range widely across his eclectic interests and to delve into comparative analyses of composers we normally wouldn’t dream of juxtaposing – the Beach Boys and Bix Beiderbecke, for example, or Debussy and Rodgers and Hart.

This strength of The Ellington Century, however, can be a weakness. Its breadth of reference sometimes diverts focus from its central argument: that Ellington, seen as a peripheral figure in most histories of twentieth century music, is in fact at its centre. Discussing his approach to writing the book, Schiff says in his preface: “I allowed myself to be disorderly and intuitive, as if I were improvising on the keyboard or singing in the shower.” And this disorderliness, while it allows for entertaining accounts of the asymmetric brilliance of Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard” or the erotic action in Berg’s Lyric Suite, fails to construct a solidly reasoned case for Ellington’s achievement, though the sense of it is always there. And Schiff’s focus on the European canon – though he broadens it admirably to include all kinds of American popular music – maintains a Western bias. What about Carnatic music? Arabic maqam? The range of reference that allows for jazz and pop to be considered alongside Bach and Mozart could equally be extended to world music.

Yet in spite of its shortcomings, The Ellington Century is ultimately redeemed by Schiff’s enthusiasm for his subject and his conviction, amply supported, that Ellington is a world-class composer. For a technical book, the style is snappy, the turns of phrase engaging and memorable. It is imbued with the spirit of appreciation. And when Schiff says he can’t imagine a day in his life “without the joyous revelations of the Ellington (and Co.) playlist”, you believe him. You reach for the recordings and listen and remind yourself that he is right. There is no one like the Duke.
 
Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz.