Summary for the Busy Executive: A great place to start.
At last, we've started to see some sense and valuable criticism come to writing about Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington. For a long, we got either breathless fan gush or rather dumb a priori pans (for example, "how can anyone take jazz seriously?" or "jazz isn't Beethoven"). With few exceptions, jazz critics often didn't have the technical understanding to support their Ellington fervor, and classical critics had no idea of the expressive language or the architectural principles of jazz. Furthermore, Ellington studies lacked basic scholarship. Not everything Ellington put his name to was entirely his. Among other things, he was a collaborator of genius who could take melodic ideas of others and turn them into finished compositions. In the case of his most important co-worker, Billy Strayhorn, he often had nothing to do with either a movement or an entire composition. Fortunately, much of this scrub has now been cleared, and we have come much closer to evaluating the real Ellington.
Fresh off his well-received bio of Louis Armstrong, Pops, Terry Teachout comes along at an opportune time to give us a popular history of a figure of equal importance to American music. Ellington has had at least two other good treatments, most recently David Schiff's magnificent The Ellington Century. David Schiff takes a look under the hood (it helps to know a little music theory and to read music) and relates Ellington to Modernism in general. Teachout writes for a general audience. You don't even have to know anything especially deep about Ellington beforehand, other than who he is.
Teachout first gives us a relatively straight biography, separating legend from fact. Ellington spun one yarn after another, designed to obscure inconvenient facts, to promote his career, or sometimes just out of mischief. Second, Teachout lays out guidelines of criticism, recognizing that jazz comes from fundamentally different traditions than classical European music. He recognizes that Ellington wrote masterpieces "beyond category," with more musical interest than a lot of the European concert works of his time. Teachout has an advantage over many writers in that he knows both jazz history and classical history, so that at the least neither intimidates him. He can afford to look at a piece of music for itself. He also takes a sophisticated look at the nature of collaboration. Third, he notes the often-repeated observation that Ellington's instrument was the orchestra and therefore spends a lot of effort characterizing the players, their contribution to the entity known as the Ellington Band, and how the departure of veteran sidemen and the arrival of new guys (and, excepting singers, they were all guys) changed not only the sound of the band but Ellington's compositions. He deals effectively with the issue of collaboration and appropriation, although he doesn't excuse Ellington's sharp dealing with and at times outright exploitation of his colleagues. Fourth, he gives solid, mostly non-technical explanations of various Ellington "nifties," cleverly confining himself to things one can hear. I didn't know, for example, that "Old Man Blues" uses the chords of Kern's "Old Man River" as its foundation. Once you listen to the track with this in mind, you almost can't hear it any other way.
Because it's a story about black musicians in America, Teachout has to deal with race relations. Because of his political conservatism, Teachout's avoidance of conservative bromides about race surprised me, even though it probably shouldn't have. It's an honest if not quite unflinching look at the casual horrors and humiliations suffered by blacks at the time, even gifted ones.
I heard the Ellington band in live concert before all the old-timers had gone. Other than hits like "Take the A Train," I didn't appreciate what confronted me then, since I was a classical-music geek and knew little jazz – confined to things like Les Brown, the Dukes of Dixieland, and (better) Benny Goodman. I didn't even know why they called him "Duke" – until he came out on stage, the most elegant dude I'd ever seen, suave in a gorgeously-cut white-shading-to-beige suit and easily commanding the hall. I'm sure vanity and a show-biz front had something to do with it, but also something more. Ellington seemed to stand outside politics most of the time, and he sometimes presented stereotypes (eg, "Cotton" from the early Forties, about how much blacks enjoyed picking the stuff – jaw-dropping today). However, most often he expressed his desire, both in words and in music, to "represent the race," to show white America that African-Americans in general deserved the respect whites routinely give each other. It may not have been the equivalent of the March on Washington, but I strongly suspect that Ellington's decades-long public demeanor poked at least a few white participants to join in. Lest anyone think that the Civil Rights movement ended American racism, Teachout relates the fiasco over "Ellington's Pulitzer." In 1965, the Pulitzer board decided not to award a prize in music, despite the unanimous recommendation of Ellington from the music committee for a special citation of long-term achievement. At that point, two of the committee members (Robert Eyer of Newsday and Winthrop Sargeant of The New Yorker) resigned in protest. Ellington publically expressed his disappointment with grace. Privately, the snub tore him up and temporarily put him in a snit. I doubt whether the Board was directly racist toward blacks, but they did look down on jazz, predominantly black music. As much as I admire the music of, say, Roger Sessions, I doubt he has exerted as much of an influence on American culture at large as either Ellington or Louis Armstrong. Ellington finally got his Pulitzer in 1999, more than two decades after his death.
A gifted prose writer, Teachout provides generous footnotes (although he arranges his text so that you needn't interrupt your reading) and a solid index. He also attaches a "listening" list of fifty pieces of Ellingtonia, all available on streaming services like Spotify, for the reader who can't quite recall "Riding on a Blue Note," for example, or for the newcomers to Ellington who want to dip their toes in.
Copyright © 2014 by Steve Schwartz.