“I think all the musicians in jazz should get together on one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke.” – Miles Davis
Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington is recommended as a valuable historical overview. Unlike most jazz biographies, Terry Teachout uses all of 20th Century art and pop culture to tell Ellington’s story. It’s rough on Duke in some ways, but that’s the way of all serious biographies: Those who want to keep their heroes on pedestals shouldn’t read their life stories.
Some of the musical analysis in Duke is surprising and controversial. Terry Teachout knows a lot about music—a hell of a lot—but he discusses Ellington differently from any jazz player I’ve ever known.
His perspective has led other critical voices to respond to Duke in remarkably toxic ways.
In The New York Times, James Gavin bumbled around trying to reduce Ellington to a “symbolic black figure” like Oprah Winfrey or Tyler Perry.
Among other gaffes, Gavin says Duke “hadn’t the nerve to discipline” members of his band. Duke kept that band of misfits together for a lifetime! All bands had a straw boss, anyway: it was usually his son Mercer who was the disciplinarian.
Gavin also writes, “Rarely had Ellington allowed even a flash of bitterness to peek through, but he couldn’t hide it in 1965, when the Pulitzer Prize board members rejected a proposal by the music committee to give him a lifetime achievement award. Ellington denounced their snobbery toward nonclassical forms, and hinted at possible racism.”
What!?! Duke’s sardonic public comment, “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young,” is one of his most famous. Terry reports the public exchange accurately, and also notes that Ellington vented privately to Nat Hentoff, who reported that personal exchange after Duke was dead.
In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik wrote a condescending and pretentious think piece that brackets the Beatles and Ellington.“We seem to need new categories of value, and another kind of meditation on what originality is.”
Gopnik fawns over the Beatles. That’s fine. Undoubtedly Gopnik has listened to the Beatles his whole life and has something to say about them.
However, when discussing Ellington, Gopnik comes across as a dilettante who just doesn’t understand the topic. After beginning on a frankly astonishing note—“Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K. piano, got trapped for years playing ‘jungle music’ in gangster night clubs, and at his height produced mostly tinny, brief recordings”—Gopnik then dismisses the early masterwork “Creole Love Call” as “tepid impressionistic effects” and dares to call Billy Strayhorn “infantilized.”
Gopnik’s naiveté is particularly exposed by his eureka moment: “the drummer drives the band.” He needed to make a Beatles-Duke playlist to learn this? Amusingly, Gopnik doesn’t name any drummer, including the guy who played for the Beatles. Of course, we all know who that was, but surely Ringo wouldn’t mind seeing his name in an article that spends so much time praising Lennon and McCartney.
Both Gavin and Gopnik are fascinated to an unhealthy degree by the confusing provenance of some of a few early Duke tunes, and both dismiss post-1950 Ellington out of hand. In these misunderstandings they are following Terry’s lead, who, to be fair, has a more nuanced take on both topics than Gavin and Gopnik seem to realize.
After seeing some of the reaction to Terry’s book, I feel compelled to contextualize our interview with a personal celebration of Ellington. Terry looks at Duke as a composer first, and maybe Terry’s right that Duke really aspired to be that kind of Great Composer. It certainly seems like some of the gatekeepers wanted him to be the “hot Bach.”
But I’m a player, and I have always worshipped Duke. Nothing anyone can say about him can take away that basic reverence.
There’s room for both of us. Part of Duke’s genius lies in his ability to mean so many different things to so many different people. There’s a reason he frequently used the majestic plural when addressing his adoring audiences: “You are very beautiful, very sweet, and we do love you madly.”
Kudos to Terry for calling his book A Life of Duke Ellington rather than The Life of Duke Ellington.
In Music Is My Mistress, Duke Ellington wrote about his first time hearing his mentor, Willie “The Lion” Smith:
Sonny Greer and I were real tight buddies and, naturally, night creatures. Our first night out in New York we got all dressed up and went down to the Capitol Palace…
My first impression of The Lion – even before I saw him – was the thing I felt as I walked down those steps. A strange thing. A square-type fellow might say, “This joint is jumping,” but to those who become acclimatized – the tempo was the lope – actually everything and everybody seemed to be doing whatever they were doing in the tempo The Lion’s group was laying down. The walls and furniture seemed to lean understandingly – one of the strangest and greatest sensations I ever had. The waiters served in that tempo; everybody who had to walk in, out, or around the place walked with a beat.
Every Ellington record I’ve ever heard has a unique ambience. Thick harmonic complexity sits deep inside blues and swing. It never feels “tight” or “over-organized.” There’s grease in every corner, but the deep sophistication is unmistakeable. Perhaps the walls and the furniture lean understandingly in response to this music.
My first Ellington was a tape of a live gig, probably from the late Fifties. I still remember the tunes: “The Mooche,” “C Jam Blues,” “Sophisticated Lady.” It took one listen, really. Every time I’ve heard Ellington since, I’ve instantly known that sound. All professional jazz musicians know that sound.
Duke has a sound. Only Duke gets this sound.
How did he get it? I don’t know, and I don’t think Terry does either. At the least, some of his conclusions obscure rather than reveal Duke’s genius.
Terry quotes Ellington on his early lessons with music teacher Henry Grant:
I discovered that F-sharp is not G-flat. That was the end of my lessons…because I had found out what I wanted to know.
Terry goes on to say, “If this is true, then he stopped short of grappling with anything beyond the basics of elementary harmony.” The paragraph finishes with one of Teachout’s most dire pronouncements. “… He never learned from Henry Grant or anyone else how classical composers use harmony to articulate and propel large-scale musical structures, and the day would come when his lack of that knowledge served him ill.”
Considering the thousands of extraordinary Ellington records that are crucial to posterity, it’s a bit troubling to point a finger at Ellington’s supposed weaknesses this way. Terry is headed towards one of his themes, that Duke wasn’t suited to “large-scale, self-contained, organically developed musical structure” (as he says in our interview), but the simple fact is, I’ve never hung out with a great jazz musician who doubted Duke’s grasp of form.
Even more troubling, Terry takes that enharmonic moment from an obscure interview. The whole story as recounted in Music is My Mistress is much more important:
I was beginning to catch on around Washington, and I finally built up so much of a reputation that I had to study music seriously to protect it. Doc Perry had really taught me to read, and he showed me a lot of things on the piano. Then when I wanted to study some harmony, I went to Henry Grant. We moved along real quickly, until I was learning the difference between a G-flat and an F-sharp. The whole thing suddenly became very clear to me, just like that. I went on studying, of course, but I could also hear people whistling, and I got all the Negro music that way. You can’t learn that in any school. And there were things I wanted to do that were not in books, and I had to ask a lot of questions. I was always lucky enough to run into people who had the answers.
Duke seems to be saying that the sound of his community was as important as any kind of book learning. From where I sit, all the great Afro-American jazz of the 20th-century seems connected in communal circles, where all the masters draw strength from each other. There was nothing missing from Duke’s studies. He took what needed from wherever he found it.
Terry loves a lot of Ellington: his superb playlist of 50 key pieces at the end of Duke shows both head and heart. There’s a wonderful moment in the chapter on the Blanton-Webster band where Terry writes:
At the age of forty, he turned the key in the lock of youthful promise and attained true mastery of the composer’s art. How he did it was his secret.
Most readers have not latched onto the book’s praise of Ellington, however. Longer passages—such as the shrewd-sounding analysis of Ellington’s compositional process on pages 111 and 112—grant him homespun genius but little else.
An untrained musician who harmonizes a melody does so by superimposing it atop a series of chords….A musician who has studied counterpoint, by contrast, is trained to think of a chord progression not as a sequence of…chords but as a stack of horizontal ‘voices’ that are woven together contrapuntally.
Ignorant of the rules of classical voice leading, [Duke] worked out attractive-sounding chord progressions at the piano….Explains why his part-writing is full of unmelodic angularities, like the downward plunge in the third bar of the clarinet part of “Mood Indigo.”
Because he had no training in counterpoint…he thought exclusively in terms of vertical harmony, not horizontal melody…
It’s a pretty harsh atmosphere. Terry would have gained points by including a Duke facsimile at this point, especially since some readers are wondering if Duke might not have known how to write music at all. He certainly did, and he was conversant with European conventions when it mattered.
Let’s glance at two pages of Ellington manuscript, “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” a masterpiece from 1937.
In his chapter on Billy Strayhorn, Terry says part of Strayhorn’s contribution to the Ellington’s band sound were “widely spaced open-position quartal harmonies.” Terry implies that Duke didn’t use fourth chords until after Strayhorn: “Ellington, like the self-taught pianist-composer that he was, preferred close-position triadic harmonies that fall naturally under a pianist’s hands…”
Hmm. You’d need about three pianists working at full power to play the below, which obviously includes “widely spaced open-position quartal harmonies,” and predates Strayhorn’s time with Ellington.
Terry does cite “Diminuendo” as being an unusual Duke score (“The listener is taken aback”), which it is. But even if he didn’t always write this big and thick, I still think it is bad news to make pat statements about what Ellington could or couldn’t do.
As far as the “downward plunge in the third bar of the clarinet part of ‘Mood Indigo'” goes (the only specific example on pages 111-112), I think it is simply interesting chorale part-writing. It looks more like a Richard Strauss chord progression than anything else.
(“bar 3” is bar 2. Clarinet is lowest line. Transcribed by Darcy James Argue.)
I have this example at hand because Darcy James Argue just debunked an old critical response to “Mood Indigo” by Gunther Schuller in Early Jazz. Terry says he was not informed by Schuller when citing “Mood Indigo” in Duke, though.
Admittedly, dropping a name like “Richard Strauss” is vaguely pretentious, or at least not very relevant. Ellington didn’t take a full course in European counterpoint because he didn’t need to. I’d humbly suggest his patterns are connected to the African Diaspora: the sections of his band call and respond, hocket, and decorate. As everyone knows, the distinctive personalities of his musicians color the contrasting lines of the music further. Even a single, slow, simple trumpet statement takes on a whole world of mysterious emotion when played by Bubber Miley or Ray Nance. There’s just no truly enlightening way to bring conventional European contrapuntal analysis to this music.
As for Duke starting with chord progressions: it’s possible. But on the other hand, who even knows the right changes to Ellington hits? I remember my first attempts to learn famous Ellington tunes: when I eventually heard the Ellington versions, they seemed wrong, since the changes were so different than what were in the fakebooks and on everybody else’s records. Even functions as obvious as tonic and dominant could be reversed. And Duke’s middle voices—his counterpoint!—frequently went by too thick and too fast to be reducible to changes. (Of course, that’s true of any reasonably sophisticated big band writing, but my gut tells me it’s harder to make a really good cheat sheet of Duke than just about anybody else.)
Any basic jazz text will tell you the famous Duke songs “Don’t Get Around Much Any More” and “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me” began as the instrumentals “Never No Lament” and “Concerto for Cootie.” After I sought the instrumentals out, I rejected them: they were just too complicated to use. I just wanted to play the tunes I could read out of the Real Book and blow my beginning licks on them.
Later on I’d appreciate the magnificent, through-composed complexity of “Never No Lament” and “Concerto for Cootie.” Eventually I’d be so impressed with Ellington’s compositions that I’d become a kind of “harmony Nazi” who’d boil over at the impudence of all those pianists playing the wrong chord—yet again—in bar three of “Mood Indigo.” (If we are in Bb, the third bar begins F minor; it is almost universally watered-down to C minor 7.)
These days I’m learning to run a little less feverish. So many great jazz pianists have played the wrong chords to Ellington. Life is too short, etc.
Anyway, back to Terry’s comment about Ellington starting with the changes. If you look at all the changes to common-practice Ellington in a nearby fake book, the changes that everyone uses aren’t that distinctive. Exceptions include ballads like “Sophisticated Lady,” “In A Sentimental Mood,” and “Prelude to a Kiss,” but plenty of swinging hits have commonplace changes.
But how that folkloric framework is used is part of what makes Ellington Ellington.
I’m attracted to democratic procedures, and I always thought Duke Ellington had the best jazz big band because it was the most democratic jazz big band.
In the wake of Terry’s book and its toxic spinoffs, I’ve been wondering exactly how much Duke wrote out for his players. I keep on hoping it wasn’t that much, that the Ellington Effect was really a kind of awesome band-size mind meld. But others tell me that I’m going to be disappointed, that almost all of it came from a chart.
(Later on in the “Diminuendo” score, an obbligato for Cootie Williams is there:
… in a moment I would have otherwise assumed was improvised.)
Terry says that at the beginning, a lot of the arrangements were generated orally. Eventually there was “just too much damn music” (Ellington’s own words) for constant memorization. A proper paper trail begins somewhere, but that trail has only been traversed by scholars. All of Ellington’s own scores—Terry says there 1700 Ellington compositions—are at the Smithsonian, in a vast overstuffed collection that sounds like the room of forbidden government secrets at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s no helpful book that compares the paper to the records with clear examples, and there’s no way to purchase a look at the best facsimiles.
Duke wrote in short score, grouping the brass and reeds together tightly except for baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, who often had his own line. Terry cites Duke’s son Mercer saying that an uninitiated person would have trouble deciphering them, but I have no trouble making sense of those bits of “Diminuendo and Crescendo” above.
Duke then passed on the music to his copyists. Juan Tizol and Tom Whaley were the best-known, although Walter van de Leur tells me he has identified around 100 copyists’ hands in the collection. Interestingly, Duke never published a band score, and the piano or vocal editions are bare-bones, or even just incorrect. (The bad Schuller transcription of “Mood Indigo” that Darcy debunked seems informed by the first piano folio version.)
After the music got on the stands, the composer and the players changed it. There are lots of stories about how new band members were confused by the book: it seemed wrong or incomplete.
I wasn’t there; I haven’t compared any scores; I don’t know. Some scholars do know, and at this point it would be good to have an accessible study. When others denigrate Ellington, this topic starts to take on a strange weight. Loren Schoenberg has been trying to get an Ellington manuscript program going for twenty years, to no avail.
Paper aside, Ellington’s band always has a sound. A magnificent sound.
That sound is a result of the fact that everyone playing really understood the music from the inside. If you were in the Ellington fold, you knew this was your music, too: that you were essential to delivery of the message. This synergy must be one of the reasons why most of Ellington’s greatest sidemen never made immortal albums as leaders themselves. On some level, they were already fully realized in that famous Ellington Effect.
Billy Strayhorn—the man who gave the most, and who’s now sometimes portrayed as having received the least—offers telling evidence on his own album The Peaceful Side of Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn gets a European string quartet to play backup harmony alongside his lyrical piano. It’s a enjoyable and mellow listen, but in the end the disc feels like a curio compared to Strayhorn’s deeply swinging compositions and arrangements recorded by the Ellington band.
In our interview, drummer Steve Little confirmed that he was wasn’t given a part for anything he played with Ellington. Little also rightfully complains that what he made up to Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” is credited to Strayhorn in the transcription by David Berger. Ellington told Little, “Play something exotic,” and Little improvised on the first take.
So who composed “Blood Count”? Strayhorn? Ellington? Steve Little? Surely Johnny Hodges is also a nominee, since he played his own ornamented version of the melody… The most interesting answer might be: all of them.
Then there’s the issue of where some of the early melodies came from. Terry focuses at length on the provenance of hit tunes like “Mood Indigo” and “Sophisticated Lady,” arguing that various early horn players were responsible for some of the melodic shapes. This is incontestably true—and at least one, Barney Bigard, threatened to sue years after the fact.
It’s also the kind of thing that happens to every group after becoming wildly successful: players there at the beginning eventually demand greater recognition for their efforts getting the train on the tracks. In my own comparatively uneventful life, I have tales of exactly this kind of post-facto argument with a few dance and music groups. Probably most people involved in the arts can offer up similar stories.
Not one of Ellington’s early band members ever wrote a single hit tune or came up with a single memorable band arrangement on their own.
Terry’s comment is more nuanced than some of his readers realize. “No more than Beethoven or Stravinsky was Ellington a natural tunesmith: His genius, like theirs, lay elsewhere.” I agree: those three aren’t like Schubert or Monk, where each moment seems full of catchy song. Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Ellington all assembled memorable final statements out of whatever they needed. In Beethoven and Stravinsky’s case, part of it was local folk song; in Ellington’s case, part of it was his horn players’ hot licks.
Something other than the tunes themselves makes the Ellington canon one of the greatest contributions to American art. Indeed, even if they were more reliable, playing through the published piano/vocal Ellington anthologies would be less interesting than playing through the anthologies of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, or Cole Porter.
It’s only logical, then, that Ellington would be harder to appropriate. I have no fear of playing pop tune composers like Porter and Kern on a standards gig, but with Ellington all the elements, especially the swing feel, have to be just right. Billy Hart puts it simply: “You can’t fuck with Duke.”
The issue of “who wrote what” may be most problematic in terms of copyright. But if you were in the band, you were on salary, and you weren’t fired unless personal problems became extreme. Strayhorn didn’t pay rent or most of his bills. To some, this arrangement may look like a velvet cage, where the comfort of the Ellington Effect dissuaded his stable from venturing forth on their own, especially since they wouldn’t get royalties for previous contributions.
But would 20th-century music be that much richer if Duke’s stars had tried harder to leave? Hodges left and came back a few times; his own albums are great, but it’s mostly specialists who listen to them these days. Apparently Ellington and Hodges grew to hate each other—the way family members nursing long-standing grievances can grow to hate each other. Still, they managed to set aside their differences most of the time, and to produce the correct fruit. Sure, there are stories about Hodges miming “pay me more” onstage. There are also interviews where Hodges praises his employer to the skies.
Teachout writes about Norman Granz and quotes Granz on Ellington:
Granz had tried without success to make Duke Ellington, Inc. a wholly owned subsidiary of JATP. His proposal sounded plausible enough on paper: “Why don’t you give up the band and I’ll pay you a weekly salary…and any time we get ready to tour, well, then, you can hire the cats and you can pay them more and be sure to get them, then the rest of the time they’ll find other gigs to do. And you can devote your time to writing.” But he failed to grasp what was apparent to to anyone conversant with Ellington and his ways. “It was obvious when I was smarter about the band,” he later said, “that he needed [it] just for his compositions, to hear what they sounded like…I think the public recognizing the great Duke Ellington leading a great band- and Duke was obviously the most imposing of bandleaders- I think that was necessary to satisfy his ego.”
Granz was a brilliant man, but —as on so many Granz-produced JATP gigs and Granz-produced Pablo recordings—he shows no understanding of how to generate the ineffable. Ellington unquestionably had a huge ego, but the “on and off” arrangement he was proposing would have broken up Ellington’s family.
You can’t break up the family, even if they drive you crazy sometimes. Only the family can get “the walls and furniture… to lean understandingly.” Modern detective work into Duke’s sources and economic arrangements has value for specialists, but it’s important not to lose track of the holistic nature of the final product. (Again, Terry understands this better than some of his readers.)
Speaking of modern detective work: these days school bands play Ellington from transcription. Usually from Berger or Schuller, rather than the original parts.
I was bold to submit that African-American jazz music is almost always connected to community; now I’m going to be even bolder and submit that it is also almost always “present day.” It certainly seemed to be that way during Ellington’s career. That’s what Henry Threadgill meant when he told me, “Jazz was a period,” and “Most African music has nothing to do with form…It just happens, and that’s it.” In other words, a talented artist takes what you live and breathe and gives it some personal spin.
That’s why I’d argue that, rather than having a bunch of kids read a Berger chart in a high school, it would be much more Ellingtonian to take those same kids, stick them in a room with no access to sheet music or blank staff paper, and not let them out until they had come up with a mysterious arrangement of some piece they all knew already. (This comment is undoubtedly controversial. Anyone who doesn’t approve can easily file it it in the right folder: “Oh, right, this guy plays piano in The Bad Plus.”)
Much of Threadgill’s music is incredibly complicated, so his comment “Most African music has nothing to do with form… It just happens, and that’s it,” should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, symphonic composition definitely doesn’t relate to classic black jazz very easily. Symphonic composition means sitting in the Alps for months, looking across the lake in solitary meditation, sifting through all that had come before, putting a few measures down for eternity.
Duke said he and Sonny Greer were “Naturally, night creatures,” and a whole chapter of Mistress is dedicated to “Night Life.”
“Night Life” is friendship, it’s the records on the radio, it’s who you want to sleep with. It’s your constant flow of “present day” if you are working within an idiom that requires it.
In Jan Swafford’s biography of Brahms there’s an amusing story of Johannes sinking his chances with a cute singer. He “helped” her with her counterpoint exercises—but, in fact, he was deliberately setting her up to do them badly. The cute singer turned in her work only to have her teacher explode in anger. Brahms thought he’d taught her a good lesson about the importance of never cheating when learning counterpoint. Go ‘head, Brahms! No wonder you never had a real lover.
It’s impossible to imagine Duke behaving this way to a potential girlfriend. He asked his drummers to play with “more sex.” After helping the cute singer with the counterpoint, Duke might have said, “I knew you were here because the studio was suddenly aglow with a turquoise radiance.” (Terry’s book does have some wonderful Ellington one-liners.)
Some of Terry’s criticism of Ellington’s long-form compositions is moderately compelling. Recently I spent time with Ellington Uptown, a masterpiece album that includes a famous long-form Duke piece, A Tone Parallel of Harlem. Harlem is completely written out and moves through many moods and tempos in 14 minutes. It’s all Ellington except the very short Max Steiner-ish coda, which is by Billy Strayhorn. (That attribution comes from private correspondence with Walter van de Leur.) Like all superior music, the better you know it the more impressive Harlem becomes. After reading Terry you might think that Duke could barely figure out basic voice-leading, but, my god, Harlem is full of advanced counterpoint.
Terry says the tunes in Harlem aren’t great. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do admit there’s a rather foursquare element to a slow minor-key sequence near the end, reminiscent of many static moments in Franz Liszt. The last “churchy” tune really works to bring it home, though.
Terry’s comparison of Harlem to Gershwin’s An American in Paris is brilliant. However, he stops short of drawing the correct conclusion, which is that Harlem is much more authentic music than American in Paris.
While I decry Gavin’s perspective on Duke as a symbolic figure, in the case of A Tone Parallel to Harlem there is moving extra-musical significance in this transfiguration of a legendary neighborhood. Duke’s homage will always be catnip to historians, and that’s just fabulous.
“Extra-musical significance” seems like a rather obvious observation, but Terry doesn’t make it. Terry is judging Ellington’s music in a more absolute fashion, and if you think the sociological aspect is understood, then perhaps his perspective is refreshing.
Another obvious observation Terry doesn’t make concerns another famous long form and politically-charged work, Black, Brown, and Beige. There may be problems with the form here and there—Terry is sure to find them if there are—but it also produced “Come Sunday,” a masterpiece tune that’s had such resonance it’s included in many modern hymnals. Terry doesn’t really deal with “Come Sunday,” but how many 45-minute works by any American composer from the 20th century have produced an excerpt of such continued relevance? (Thanks to Darcy for making this point in conversation.)
Social context and hit tunes aside, Terry is asking the wrong question. The right question is: Are they authentic to Ellington? Instead of: How do they compare to the concert works in the European mold?
At the very least, every commentator who knocks Harlem or Black, Brown, and Beige should also note that contemporary orchestral versions of jazz by Gershwin, Darius Milhaud, Igor Stravinsky, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Leo Ornstein, Samuel Barber, George Antheil, Paul Hindemith, Leonard Bernstein, and countless others are even more problematic.
Terry thinks that Aaron Copland is America’s greatest classical composer. (And his most popular longer work, Appalachian Spring, wouldn’t exist if Copland hadn’t borrowed Shaker tunes.) Copland isn’t everybody’s choice as top dog, but he’s a useful enough place to start thinking about what really matters in American music.
Copland’s “jazziest” piece, the Piano Concerto from 1926, is nothing but cornball trash in the backbeat sections. This is unsurprising from a composer who in 1927 wrote in “Jazz Structure and Influence” that “[jazz] began, I suppose, on some negro’s dull tomtom in Africa.” He goes on to cite musical examples from Gershwin and novelty pianist Zez Confrey—but offers no examples from black musicians. He also seems to think the Charleston rhythm is in mixed meter. (Seriously: he writes it 3/8 + 5/8.)
Is it unfair to throw young Copland under the bus for not understanding jazz in the late Twenties? Perhaps, especially since he claimed to be a devout admirer of Ellington later on. And probably very few white people had really interfaced with serious black jazz in 1926, anyway. (There’s no way Copland could have heard an Ellington record yet.)
But there is at least one other point to consider. Copland relied on a handful of collaborators or interpreters. In that way he was following the pattern underlying most European composition: the composer stands alone, and the rest of his team stands far back in the shadows.
On the other hand, it has always been impossible to talk about Ellington without his team. Even a casual fan knows the names Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Hodges—and they always have. More committed fans know about all the major members of his family—and they always have.
Indeed, Ellington shined an eternal light on many musicians who might otherwise have been footnotes at best. One example is Ernie Shepard, the only bassist aside from Jimmie Blanton who Duke discusses at length in Music Is My Mistress. Like Blanton, Shepard died young, which is a real shame because on records like The Great Paris Concert he sounds incredible. It’s only thanks to Duke hiring him and writing about him that posterity knows his name.
Another example is Rufus Jones, the man who powers The Far East Suite in such a distinctive fashion. Jones was “present day,” a musician conversant with non-swing feels to a degree unprecedented by any previous Ellington drummer, and it is easy to hear The Far East Suite as a kind of concerto for Jones. Ellington again singles him out in his autobiography.
There’s no comparable act of familial humility from any conventional European-style composer. How could there be? They write down the notes; when the ink is dry it is up to others to do the best they can, honoring the creator. That system works when the composer is an immortal genius, but there’s a lot of potential energy that’s also instantly lost. What would have happened if Copland had ever submitted a few tunes and harmonies to jazz musicians and humbly asked, “How would you play this?” It certainly would have been more interesting than the Piano Concerto.
That submissive act would mean sharing intellectual property with others, which composers are seldom comfortable doing. (Including, at times, Ellington.) But “American” can (even should) mean “democratic.” There’s a substantial number of 20th-century American classical composers; that number pales in comparison, however, to the many composers and musicians who contributed indisputably to 20th-century American jazz.
Formal composition isn’t all that matters for great jazz. At the end of the day, Ellington knew this better than anybody.
Ellington must have recorded a thousand blues pieces. “C Jam Blues,” one of the most familiar, was on my first Ellington tape. Apparently it was originally credited to Mercer Ellington, although who really knows? And who cares? From a European perspective, this piece isn’t even really composition. It’s just a simple four-bar riff composed of only two notes. But Ellington’s touch on the keyboard when playing the theme is extraordinary. No other pianist can get that sound; forget about it. Then, the soloists always play a “break” on the tonic key for four bars before the band comes in. Everywhere else in the history of the blues, the band would come in on the four chord (F) in order to complete the 12-bar pattern. Only Ellington would bring the band in on the tonic, forcing a 16 for the start of every solo. Even after all these years, it sounds like the rug’s being pulled out. It’s a quintessential Ellington detail that makes the greater pattern distinctive.
Naturally, other people have played “C Jam Blues”; the effect is usually relatively trivial. But any Ellington band performance of “C Jam Blues” anywhere is immortal. How did he do that? The magician never tells…
A few years ago I had a compilation CD of the earliest Ellington on repeat, trying to get a bit of that style in my ear. The track that I kept returning to was “Yellow Dog Blues.” Wondering if I could appropriate it for my own repertoire, I found the W.C. Handy piano-vocal score. No, there was nothing for me here. Duke took a few fragments of published melody (honestly it sounds like he raided the extremely basic sheet music like Stravinsky raided Russian folk song collections) and puts the most astonishing collection of instrumental and structural effects on it.
Terry doesn’t mention “Yellow Dog Blues,” but he does spend a gratifying amount of time on another early, sophisticated arrangement of Handy, “St. Louis Blues.”
Terry also listens closely to Ellington’s original “Across the Track Blues,” one of the classic Forties charts. It can be heard in marvelous versions both in studio and live at the famous dance in in Fargo, where there are extra choruses and Ellington crowing, “Go again! I like that!” to the band.
Terry says that “like James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and the other East Coast stride pianists of his generation, [Ellington] had only a limited feel for the traditional blues idiom.”
A certain kind of jazz critic repeatedly bangs this drum, claiming that stride pianists—and select others including Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, and Dizzy Gillespie—are somehow not comfortable with the blues.
In my kinder moments, I can understand why they consider, say, Jimmy Yancey “really the blues” and James P. Johnson “not really the blues.” But most of the time I think it shows a real outsider’s perspective on the music.
Terry sounds so compelling when he says that “Across the Track Blues” is “a portrait of the blues, one in which the unmediated emotions of the authentic bluesman are transformed into the musical counterpart of a color-field abstraction, then put in a handsome frame and hung in the Ellington Museum for the purpose of quiet contemplation,” but I can’t agree. Any blues by Aaron Copland, Morton Gould, or Samuel Barber might be an abstract portrait of the blues, but “Across the Track Blues” is the real deal.
Ellington expanded what was possible within the folkloric form. That’s part of what made him such a genius: he could find new shades of blue.
The drummer on both versions is Sonny Greer, who can get dissed and dismissed by the same crew that worries about the blues stuff. Terry knows better than to take on that hatchet job himself; he sends in others like Johnny Mandel (a genius songwriter) and Gene Lees (a questionable jazz critic) to do that job for him, and then undercuts the hatchet job by saying that Lees and Mandel heard Greer too late for clear assessment.
It’s all pretty ridiculous. Greer sounds incredible on records with Ellington, no hemming or hawing required. On the live “Across the Track Blues,” you can hear him correcting the piano player’s beat at the top of the tune, and the rest of the performance has unbelievable swing emanating from Greer and Jimmie Blanton.
Terry’s unyielding perspective is valuable—perhaps it’s even essential for a whole picture—but it’s hard to imagine many musicians, especially black musicians, saying that Ellington wasn’t really the blues, or wasting time looking up Gene Lees on Sonny Greer.
I quoted Duke earlier: “I went on studying, of course, but I could also hear people whistling, and I got all the Negro music that way. You can’t learn that in any school.”
Major American black musicians fought (and still fight) hard to keep a certain aesthetic paramount in their music. Ellington identified more as a Blues Musician than a Great Composer—and he was proud of being a Blues Musician! Indeed, everything Ellington touched turned into the blues. What an achievement!
In private correspondence, Terry suggested, “There is a big, big difference between Ellington the awkward bluesman in 1926 and Ellington the truly great bluesman in 1956, and I’m extremely careful to draw that distinction in the book. My point is that he had to learn it: he didn’t know it naturally. And he learned it from the great bluesmen with whom he surrounded himself, right from the start, Hodges above all.”
I’m considering that argument, but my perspective will remain cautious. If we listened to a bunch of jazz, boogie, and blues pianists from, say, 1930, would Ellington really be one of the less hip?
In Jump For Joy: Jazz at Lincoln Center Celebrates the Ellington Centennial, 1899-1999, former Ellington bassist John Lamb says,
You know what Duke told me? He said, “Man, everything I do is the blues…” As a musician, I understood the sound. I seemed to fit into whatever he wanted done, and I belonged there. Technically speaking, I didn’t know the things Duke did; I’d have to study it. But in my head, having lived the types of experiences that Black people live, and musicians lived, I understood the music.
In my opinion, white commentators should be extra-careful to tread lightly when discussing blues sensibility or canonical drummers.
Admittedly, I’m not treading very lightly myself here, either. But I’ve always been interested in reading between the lines of certain Ellington choices, and sometimes speculation about race becomes unavoidable. Terry likes the later concept albums of classical music and other Caucasian stuff, as do I. A lot of these arrangements are by Strayhorn, yet it was the way Duke and his band played them that makes the best of them so provocative. Stan Kenton must have been flummoxed at how his “white, power, the future” theme tune “Artistry in Rhythm” was redone in such relaxed yet still avant-garde fashion in 1962. “Cannons buried in flowers,” as Schumann said of Chopin.
Or what about that shockingly violent 1961 trio “Summertime,” where Duke seems to respond to the Civil Rights Era and the endless positioning of Gershwin as the ultimate master of “jazzy stuff?”
Terry doesn’t look for those kinds of connections, and maybe he thinks I’m overreaching here. Too bad we can’t ask Ellington—but then again, it’s unlikely that he would have given us a straight answer, anyway. I appreciate Terry’s epigraph by Paul Lawrence Dunbar: “We wear the mask that grins and lies.”
To wrap up, I will address a minor omission in Duke: the later one-off collaborations with other masters.
One can’t blame Terry for not reviewing all one’s own personal favorite Ellingtonia. As we discuss in the interview, if he’d tried to cram everything in he would have sacrificed the readability of the narrative. Still, every musician I know loves Duke Ellington and John Coltrane; the fact that Terry doesn’t even mention it is surprising. I have a good riff here, and am going to use Terry’s silence as an excuse to play it.
Those looking for the “modernist” in Ellington always cite the ultra-abstract “The Clothed Woman,” but an even more important “modernist” blues is “Take the Coltrane.” It’s unlikely that Ellington sat down and studied a bunch of Coltrane to prepare for the record date. He just heard enough to know “descending thirds” (like “Giant Steps”) and “minor modal” (like anything after “My Favorite Things”) before coming up with a riff that sounded like both Duke and Trane at the same time.
Part of the charm of the record overall is the obvious lack of rehearsal. Jazz masters know that if you spend a lifetime honoring “Everyone walking in, out, or around the place walked with a beat” then all you need to do is show up and radiate. And usually the first thing that happens is the best. There’s an amusing story in the liner notes about Duke pressuring Trane not to do another take of “In a Sentimental Mood.” Duke was right! That’s one of the greatest things ever recorded. Absolutely don’t do another take.
It’s telling that both leaders had their own rhythm sections in tow. It was the right decision—we get to hear all sorts of fun adjustments throughout—but you can also sense a dynamic of two forces squaring off to establish dominance.
In addition to Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, Coltrane brought some unexpected ammunition to what was probably a charged situation. Recently (over 40 years later) it was noticed by Carlo Morena and reported by Lewis Porter that the first line of the one Coltrane original, “Big Nick,” was an unabashed rip-off of a Francis Poulenc piano Impromptu.
So, as kind of a joke about Ellington’s famous (or infamous) “impressionistic influences,” Coltrane has presented his idol with a bit of French fluff to ignore. The source is hidden further behind the name of an old-school tenor saxophonist, Big Nick Nicholas.
Of course, this is my own fanboyish guesswork. But those who have been around the block know that masters of black jazz frequently operate on levels perceptible (or at least easily perceptible) only to other masters of black jazz. You can say this much for sure: Ellington takes an incredible piano solo that has nothing to do with French music.
Duke also begins changing Coltrane’s tune to make it a little better—or at least a little better for the situation. Coltrane had just a circular 8-bar form to blow on, something like rhythm changes. In comping and in his solo, Duke starts adding a bridge that goes to the four chord, which makes it even more swinging for this combination: Ellington is just not a vamp-type player. It’s probably just a good idea in general. If Coltrane had put a bridge on it from the beginning perhaps the tune would be played more often today.
As with Coltrane, Terry leaves the masterpieces “Mood Indigo” with Coleman Hawkins and “U.M.M.G.” with Dizzy Gillespie on the cutting room floor. For me, those are two of the greatest Diz and Hawk performances. Duke was alchemy and transmutation: others who were consecrated respected and responded to Duke’s gifts.
At least Terry does mention Money Jungle with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, although he doesn’t seem to realize how beloved it is by current jazz musicians.
The whole record ended up being superb, but apparently the session almost ground to a halt because of internal strife between Max and Mingus. Duke, no stranger to handling touchy personalities, forged alliances and made it happen. Despite the supposed truce, an undercurrent of wacko outrage emanates from Mingus throughout, and Max is pretty unsettled as well. No one knows when Duke made up the masterpiece “Fleurette Africaine (African Flower),” but, however it went down, it is almost certainly the first time in history that a jazz trio plays in three different temporal and sonic spaces throughout a performance.
It’s easy to imagine Duke quickly conceiving of this arrangement—if not the piece itself—in response to the session’s tension. “The walls and furniture seemed to lean understandingly.”
The melodic and detailed piano part of “Fleurette Africaine” lives in the same delicate ambience created by a couple of magical duos with bowed bass on Piano Reflections, “Melancholy in D” and “Melancholia.”
“Melodic, detailed, and complex” should mean “pilferable,” but when other pianists play these pieces in transcription, something is usually missing.
For these beautiful pieces to radiate, it’s essential to have that Ellington touch—his life pattern that connected to his ancestors, and to all those people he said he was lucky enough to learn from. To play these pieces successfully yourself, you need to generate your own creative pattern and interact with them in an unselfconscious manner. If you learn to do that, you’ll have really absorbed an Ellingtonian lesson.
I sent this piece to Terry before publishing. He really has a big heart. After clearing up several mistakes (including a really embarrassing mis-attribution) he wrote:
“Of course I disagree with a fair amount of what you say here—our musical perspectives are obviously different in certain significant ways—but I very much appreciate the seriousness and civility with which you’ve engaged with what I actually wrote in Duke, as opposed to what other people claim that I wrote. That’s the way to conduct a debate.”
Coda One: Pops, Miles, and Terry
[Update] Terry Teachout’s play Satchmo at the Waldorf (which I saw only after writing this essay) confirmed my suspicion that Terry and I see the jazz masters in a wildly different light. My dissenting post is here.
Coda Two: Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn by Walter van de Leur
This 2002 book is widely considered to be one of the most essential books on Ellington ever written. It’s said to finally give Strayhorn his due as a composer separate from the leader, and to unearth occasions when Strayhorn was given inappropriate credit or no credit at all.
Strayhorn was the quintessential outsider, a self-taught genius who overcame all manner of obstacles. Ellington always spoke of him with reverence. It’s been dismaying over the years to see important authorities denigrate Strayhorn’s contribution. Both Something to Live For and David Hadju’s biography Lush Life are important correctives to the long view of both composers.
I’m still digesting van de Leur’s book. But since many readers (including Terry) treat it as a flawless source, I feel compelled to note a few aspects of it that bothered me. I sent these comments along to van de Leur, who graciously responded. His notes follow mine.
On the first paragraph of the first page, van de Leur writes, “The original manuscripts give detailed information about instrumentation and voicing, yet rarely include rhythm section parts, or dynamic and other interpretive markings—elements that the Ellingtonians worked out in rehearsals. Since the main focus here is on Strayhorn’s use of harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, and structural composition, the absence of these performance elements does not affect the argument.”
Really? The rhythm section is the heart of the matter on any jazz record I ever heard. Also how the cats played the notes might be important to the final effect, no?
Van de Leur: Of course, no band is better than its rhythm section! But the argument of the book is not to evaluate the orchestra’s recordings, but to show Strayhorn’s contributions. At the time, many believed that Strayhorn at best gave Ellington some good ideas, which Duke then fleshed out and turned into masterpieces. I stuck with the written materials, and tried to show where his voice comes in. That makes the other voices not less important for the final version, but that’s not what this suggests, does it? I am not saying that the band doesn’t matter. Elsewhere in the book I talk about how away from the orchestra he would write less idiosyncratically, because he couldn’t work with the Ellingtonians (p. 128-29)
Later on, van de Leur goes into The Far East Suite, but (like Terry) he doesn’t mention Rufus Jones. You need Rufus Jones if you’re going to have a serious musicological discussion of Far East Suite.
VDL: As above, I’m not discussing FES as a whole, but Stray’s contributions. The book is not a listener’s guide. That is a limited perspective, but the perspective I chose for good reasons, I would argue. If I were to evaluate the recording of the Suite (which calls for a chapter), I would talk at length about the contributions of the rhythm section, and the others (the majestic pauses in Hodges’ Isfahan!). Fabulous. BTW, Duke and Strays wrote knowing those guys would provide invaluable musical input. I’m sure I say that elsewhere in the book.
And again, there’s a Eurocentric attitude towards the blues. Van de Leur seems to give 1958’s “Blues in Orbit” (and indeed all of Strayhorn’s blues pieces) short shrift. ”Lacking structuring elements, the blues compositions deviated importantly from Strayhorn’s more idiomatic, through-composed scores… The relative lack of thematic movement in ‘Blues in Orbit’ creates a sense of immobility (complemented by Ellington’s static piano fills)… without a clear introduction or coda, there are more questions than answers.”
VDL: I did not at intend that as a value judgement, and now realise it may sound like that. Bad writing on my part: “More questions than answers”—to me that sums up the impressionistic touch. Deep waters. I love this piece, that’s why it is, albeit briefly, discussed. But since one of the distinguishing elements between Duke and Strays is form, it was less important in my argument (“how to know where Strays comes in”). BTW, I don’t agree that a focus on form is Eurocentric: Ellington was very much concerned with form. (Elsewhere in the book I argue that there are many ways to develop something musically, and that the European example is but one).
It just goes to show how much van de Leur and I aren’t on the same page that I might play “Blues In Orbit” as first proof Strayhorn’s genius. The fact that Strayhorn learned to write a convincing blues in his own wildly impressionistic style shows how great he really was. If there’s one thing you should go listen to after reading me here, it’s “Blues in Orbit.”
VDL: Me too. And I often do! Fantastic cross-sections scoring, great on-the-man-writing.
Darcy also brought up Strayhorn’s “Blues to Be There” from the Newport suite as a bitonal yet gutbucket masterpiece. Don’t sleep on what Strays could bring to the blues after he figured it out!
Van de Leur informed me, “I have a chapter forthcoming about the role of notation in Ellington’s composing (“‘People Wrap Their Lunches in Them’: Duke Ellington and His Written Music Manuscripts.” in: John Howland, ed. Duke Ellington Studies Anthology. New York: Cambridge University Press.”
I look forward to that. But even more importantly, I’d like to have facsimiles of what Duke and Strayhorn actually wrote. Even in van de Leur’s book, he rewrites Strayhorn enharmonically. If in the 21st century we are finally trying to grapple with Ellington and Strayhorn as two of the greatest 20th-century composers of music on paper, at the very least we finally need to see what they actually committed to the page without any editorial interference.
VDL: I admit that a less rigid “harmonically correct” notation would have made sense at times, and is entirely defendable. I probably fell victim to the wish to be consistent (having seen too many rambling transcriptions . . .)
Special thanks to Mr. van de Leur (whom I’ve never met) for responding to many questions via email, offering helpful suggestions for the main essay, and putting up with general impudence.
Coda three: Further reading
The books listed in Terry’s bibliography are the ones cited in the source notes. The names Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, and Wynton Marsalis do not appear. (Crouch and Marsalis do appear in the text).
For readers looking for another view, I recommend Jump For Joy: Jazz at Lincoln Center Celebrates the Ellington Centennial, 1899-1999. This rather lovely and Afrocentric paperback coffee table book includes essays by Crouch, Murray, and Eugene Holley. Two clear highlights are a long interview with Wynton Marsalis by Robert O’Meally and interviews with living Ellington band members by Ellington’s nephew Michael James. There are also three good Duke facsimiles in the book.
An earlier essay by Terry, “(Over)praising Duke Ellington,” collected in A Terry Teachout Reader, goes toe-to-toe with Murray and Crouch and their celebratory attitude.
An excerpt from Murray’s The Hero and the Blues and a lot of good Crouch can be found in Mark Tucker’s invaluable The Duke Ellington Reader, which naturally is in Terry’s bibliography.
Stanley Dance helped Duke with his autobiography Music Is My Mistress. A long time ago I read Dance’s The World of Duke Ellington and adored it just as much. Possibly neither volume stands up to serious Teachout-style fact-checking, but they still are absolutely my recommendation for where to start. You should enjoy that marvelous atmosphere of “legend” before you move on to worrying about contemporary controversies.
I recommend John Howland’s academic study Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz for readers eager to interface seriously with Black, Brown and Beige and A Tone Parallel of Harlem. Many musical examples.
Darcy James Argue recently contributed ten blog entries to the Carnegie Hall Musical Exchange program’s “Arranging Ellington” project. Of special relevance: DJA interviews Terry Teachout and DJA interviews Bill Dobbins, another one who has actually looked at scores in the Smithsonian. It’s a relief to read two jazz cats talking about Ellington…
Coda four: Iverson Airshaft (aka Footnotes)
Terry has marvelous advice about writing. On one occasion he completely fixed a problematic record review of Fats Waller for me. An exceptionally valuable Teachout rule of thumb: “Don’t include everything you know.”
Following that rule, I cut a lot of stuff from the above essay. For those who can’t get enough, here are the best parts deemed extraneous to the main argument.
(On reception of Duke)
The danger of Terry’s book lies in those who already don’t love Ellington being given license to throw out uninformed opinions that can sound frankly racist. The New York Times and The New Yorker are my obvious examples, but I worry about less exalted heights just as much. One example, taken from one second’s search of recent blog entries: crime writer John Winters reviewed Duke and managed to write the following paragraph:
How did this man, a grandson of slaves, high school dropout, son of Washington’s U Street, and “somewhat better-than-average stride pianist largely devoid of formal musical training” scale such heights? Given that he was also short on melody-writing abilities and repeatedly failed at writing longer compositions, Ellington’s iconic status is more perplexing.
I mean, we are talking about Duke fucking Ellington, OK? Has Winters ever heard a Duke Ellington record? Get a grip on reality.
(On Sonny Greer)
Maybe he just drank too much near the end of his tenure to play with good time anymore, although Greer’s still in fine fettle on the lovely Liberian Suite from 1947. A barbed comment in Music Is My Mistress shows Duke at his nastiest, especially given the fact that Greer was still alive: “Greer was not the world’s best reader of music.” Terry should have known better than to use this quote without editorial comment, since there was never a drum part in the Ellington band!
(On Duke’s supposed lack of discipline)
Gavin should look at the video of Ellington ostentatiously holding up a chart to Hodges on a televised version of “Isfahan.” It’s like watching alcoholic parents argue over whose turn it is to go get the kids. Ellington must have been particularly mad at Hodges that day, as he’s reminding him that there’s no Hodges without Ellington in the most gratuitous manner possible. (On a Strayhorn piece, no less.) Naturally, Hodges doesn’t look at Ellington or the chart once.
(On “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me”)
Jazz musicians who traffic exclusively in common practice materials usually reject Duke’s thick counterpoint. If you tried to play Duke’s contrapuntal piano part on “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me” behind an average singer, they’d probably fire you on the spot. That song has a good example of Duke’s occasionally baffling (because it’s so unusual) harmony. Ask five pianists what the harmony is on bar six of the bridge, and you’ll probably get five different answers.
(On the ineffable)
I’ve always thought Duke’s music was essentially mysterious. Something about Duke’s sound always made me step back and think, “I’m never going to understand this.” One of my favorite Ellington covers is Steve Lacy, Don Cherry, Carl Brown and Billy Higgins playing “The Mystery Song.” I can’t understand what that quartet is doing at all, that’s part of why I like it so much.
(On race stuff)
Since reading Duke, doing the interview, and seeing some of the press reaction, I’ve been thinking about an old A. B. Spellman quote from Black Music by Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka: “Who are these ofays who’ve appointed themselves guardians of last year’s blues?”
(I took this out because Spellman’s topic was really Sixties avant-garde jazz, not the blues as such. Indeed, the whole quote is, “What is anti-jazz, and who are these ofays who’ve appointed themselves guardians of last year’s blues?” Still a valuable quote to ponder, though.)
(My own experience working from a David Berger transcription)
.When a jazz composer like Duke Ellington is considered in classical terms, what do we gain? In my opinion, nothing.
I was reminded of this while I was out in Missouri this past weekend. I was guesting with the Truman State college jazz band and played from some transcriptions made for the student competition, Essentially Ellington. In some ways they are astonishingly accurate. I’m so happy finally to know just what Duke played at the top of “Across the Track Blues.”
That’s great. On the other hand, the rhythm section part for “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” based on the great 1963 Paris version, is pretty bad:
Those lonely bars are cut and pasted for piano, bass, and drums for almost the whole chart. Of course, everyone knows that is not right. Fortunately, there’s a nice long note from David Berger and sometimes Wynton Marsalis in the front of the transcriptions explaining that the recording is the text, and to listen, listen, listen.
Still, the notes on the chart are there. Classical music. And then, when you listen, listen, listen, are you supposed to emulate further? More like Classical music than ever?
Obviously, students learn by imitating. But there’s something academic and impersonal—Classical—about these charts that put me off a little bit.
It’s a double-edged sword. I had never learned the intro to “Rockin in Rhythm,'” “Kinda Dukish,” before, and when the (very cool) director Tim AuBuchon said we should play it, I immediately started making excuses. “I don’t have time to learn it!” “It’s too hard.” “No way, unless you have a chart.”
Tim immediately sent me David Berger’s transcription.
Well, that was even worse, in a way. Was I supposed to spend the hours needed to reproduce all those notes with Duke’s special feel?
But then I came to my senses. Jason Moran was my savior, really. I’ve heard the Bandwagon play “Kinda Dukish” many times over the years. They don’t care about what Duke played exactly. Jason, Tarus Mateen, and Nasheet Waits play themselves through Duke. They let in the avant-garde, hip-hop, everything else they know when dealing out “Kinda Dukish.” Which is what jazz interpretation should really be about.
I kinda learned “Kinda Dukish,” (thanks, Mr. Berger) and played myself through it last night at the gig. It was great!
Not Classical Music at all.
Again, not to say these transcriptions aren’t valuable. But I’m a little afraid I’m going to turn a corner someday and hear a student pianist playing this exact Berger transcription, before a college band roars into “Rockin’ in Rhythm” with that exact bass and drum part. If that day comes, a little part of me will die inside. This music is too important and beautiful not to be treated with due diligence, and in this case, due diligence means not playing the score.
… Working on “Kinda Dukish,” I was struck by how much it reminded me of Thelonious Monk. And maybe the title could be seen as a kind of sly dig, like if you play “Kinda Monkish” it is really “Kinda Dukish.” I went back to the original trio version on Piano Reflections and was astounded to discover a concluding quote from Monk’s “52nd St. Theme.” (That quote disappears in later versions with the whole band.)
Wondering if had found out something thus-far unremarked-upon about Ellington, I emailed Terry to find out, knowing he was in full command of the Ellington literature. He wrote back that it was an interesting observation, and included it (with attribution to me) in Duke.
1) Interview with Terry Teachout: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Rex Stout, Donald E. Westlake, Anthony Powell, Teachout operas with Paul Moravec, Teachout the playwright (Satchmo at the Waldorf)
2) Reverential Gesture: A personal celebration of Duke Ellington that disagrees with some of the musical analysis in Teachout’s biography