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Book Review

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington
James Lincoln Collier
New York: Oxford University Press (1987) 340 pp
ISBN 0027229858
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Interesting in the investigation of Ellington's personality and quite good describing the jazz work; disappointingly shallow on the extended works.

At even this late date, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington remains a controversial figure. His position in the history of jazz as the great band leader seems secure, but the accolade he seemed to want most – a composer taken as seriously as Stravinsky – has so far eluded him. Collier's study – one of the two most extensive to deal with Ellington's music – shows why.

Let's deal first with the book's strengths. Collier – who has also written a well-received study of Louis Armstrong – has heard close to everything (if not everything) Ellington has written. Even a non-technical reader can follow Collier's lively descriptions of some of these pieces and get a good idea why Collier and other jazz fans value them so. Although there are some technical matters, they don't get in the way of the overall flow. Ideally, you would want to listen to the works and follow Collier at the same time. Collier is also good at delineating the historical class divisions among American blacks and the vagaries of the music business for talented musicians from the Twenties on. If Ellington remains a mysterious figure by the end of the book, we can't blame Collier. Ellington got close to few people and gave away almost nothing of his inner life. Collier points out that Ellington's autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, (assisted – probably largely written – by Stanley Dance) purposely conceals rather than reveals the man. The most penetrating writing depends on the recollections of others. Collier's advantage arises from his willingness to take the bitter with the sweet.

Collier makes no secret of his preference for the hot jazz of the Twenties and Thirties and his dislike of the later works in the Ellington catalogue. He's quite up front about his likes and dislikes, which makes them easier for a reader to deal with. However, his justifications border on the bizarre – particularly his slams of the concert works – and they seem to flow directly from his – and others' – idea of what a composer does or needs to do.

Early in the book, Collier states what begins as an intriguing hypothesis:

Most artistic achievement of a high order depends … on the possession of a gift … a skill … greater than that granted to most people: an ability to rapidly describe in novel terms events and feelings; a flow of association so that one idea brings in train a raft of others; a talent for seeing relationships between very disparate entities… .

Duke Ellington had no such gift. He lacked the melodic inventiveness of a Bix Beiderbecke, a Johnny Hodges; many of his most famous melodies were supplied to him by members of his band. His sense of larger form, of musical architecture, was notoriously weak; the most persistent criticism of his longer works, where some lack of form would be most noticeable, was that they were "rambling" and "incoherent." And although his sense of time was sure and although he was considered by people who played with him an excellent band pianist, he did not have the exquisite rhythmic sense of a Louis Armstrong, a Benny Goodman, a Lester Young, that makes even the simplest and most direct of melodies swing.

Yet, at his death in 1974 Duke Ellington left what is possibly the most significant body of work in jazz, and thus, if we take jazz to be an important part of the music of our time, one of the most significant bodies of music of the twentieth century. How can this be? How can a man with no easily discernible gift produce a body of work so important?

How indeed? So far, Collier reminds me of Bernstein's Beethoven essay "Bull Session in the Rockies," where he ticks off Beethoven's apparent lack of musical gifts one by one, and then presents where he believes the greatness of the music lies (according to Bernstein, its "inevitability"). By the end of the book, however, we see that Collier differs from Bernstein mainly in that he never manages to come up with anything to explain not merely the sheer quality of much of Ellington's music, but its consistency of tone and voice. His "explanations" raise even more questions.

It's quite true that Ellington composed few of his biggest hits – "Take the A Train," "Caravan," "Creole Love Call," "Lush Life," "Sophisticated Lady," to name several. It also would not surprise me at all to learn that many of the melodic ideas came from band members. Now, I admire Johnny Hodges enormously as a jazz soloist – one of the most lyrical players ever to blow alto sax and certainly one of the greatest improvisers in the Ellington band, indeed in the history of jazz. Nevertheless, I don't know of any Hodges composition other than his solos. He certainly had the opportunity to create one, since he left the Ellington band for a while to form his own. Yet, I know of no Hodges "original." The same holds true for just about every other band member Collier puts forward. Juan Tizol, the valve trombonist and a very well-trained musician, comes closest, with a few compositions to his credit, but his most famous piece, "Caravan," even Collier admits having contributions from at least two others, including Ellington. We haven't accounted for the creation of over 1200 works.

Furthermore, Ellington, like every other bandleader of the time, depended on arrangers – sometimes standard (or substandard) charts supplied by song publishers, others from band personnel like Billy Strayhorn, Mercer Ellington, Juan Tizol, and Ellington himself. Yet the first three adapted themselves to what they felt to be the Ellington style, which implies that Ellington was a compositional force in his own right. Also, most of Ellington's work abounds with opportunities for soloists. Indeed, Collier implies that such opportunity was one important reason why great players stayed with Ellington for as long as they did and why they wanted to return after they had left. So we must take the contributions of these men into account when we talk of an Ellington piece. Given the collaborative nature of almost all of jazz, how can we speak of Ellington as a composer at all?

Part of our problem – and of Collier's problem – is a certain notion of how a composer operates. We tend to think of the lonely genius in the garret who soaks one hand in ice water as he feverishly scribbles his latest symphony with the other. The "onlie begetter" creates fewer difficulties for those who evaluate. We know whom to praise or blame and for what, or at least we think we do. Consider the case of cadenzas in concerti where the composer hasn't left us one. We don't consider Mozart's piano concerti any less his if the soloist does, say, a Schnabel cadenza. We do, however, note the difference for that bit. Perhaps closer to what we need is the example of the movie director. John Ford worked with many different writers, actors, scenery designers, and cinematographers, and yet we fancy we can tell the John Ford style. John Ford isn't solely responsible for his films, but he decidedly shaped them, according to everybody who worked with him. It makes sense to deal with him as an artistic personality and to discern the common threads running throughout his work. It makes the same sense to treat Ellington in this way. Unfortunately, Collier hasn't proven himself equal to the task. He seems so concerned with ferreting out what he considers Ellington's weaknesses, he doesn't come to grips with Ellington's strengths. He pays most of his compliments to Ellington with his left hand, usually admitting that while he doesn't see their point himself, he relies on the testimony of those he respects. To quote Pogo, "Yarg." I can't imagine wanting to write a book about an artist whose virtues you yourself couldn't identify.

Yet, in his descriptions of Ellington's working methods, Collier – unwittingly? – provides a very good case for an Ellington oeuvre. Heading the brief is the simple fact that Ellington did compose and arrange quite a bit himself. He also decided what should and should not go into a piece. He ordered the sections. Collier mentions over and over how Ellington would change the basic ideas brought to him by his personnel. Furthermore, a solo exists in a musical context. Ellington knew his players and almost always provided a setting which set off their virtues. I guess we can consider Ellington a directing intelligence, even in the collaborative works, or the artist who assembles the parts into an effective collage.

What are Ellington's musical strengths? Although not known as a jazz pianist and seldom taking extended solos, the bits he does produce intrigue a listener. To some extent, his contributions remind me of the "modernistic" introductions Errol Garner used to come up with to introduce an essentially simple tune, like "Sweet Sue" – harmonically awesome, rhythmically arresting. Although the technique comes nowhere close to virtuosic, he sounds like a composer testing ideas on the piano. I recommend an unusual recording (not covered by Collier) – Money Jungle (EMD/Blue Note BNTE0046398) made with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. I've heard the album criticized for the lack of compatibility among the players, but to me it overflows with very intriguing ideas from all three. It's one of my favorites. The variety of unusual instrumental color within the somewhat restrictive context of the big band makes a strong impression. Finally, Ellington's rhythmic counterpoint almost never falls short of astonishing. I almost never know which subdivisions of the measure will be emphasized. Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing" shows the virtuosity of his rhythmic sense – a syncopation drawn out to Beethovenian length. Significantly, Collier mentions that there's very little to the melody – true enough – without apparently noticing its point is rhythm.

Collier's analysis of the extended works also strikes me as weak. I'd agree with his general conclusion that Ellington was at his best in small forms and that many of his big suites are windy bores. But a study implies detail, and Collier simply doesn't provide enough of it. He glides over at least four major works: the arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, Suite Thursday, Anatomy of a Murder, and Such Sweet Thunder. Most of these things are merely mentioned and dropped. Collier's faults Such Sweet Thunder mainly on the grounds that he doesn't see the Shakespeare connections. He does not deal with the music. Essentially, Collier contents himself with repeating the chestnut that Ellington's extended pieces don't hold together, without argument. For his main support, he relies on the fact that classical critics haven't proclaimed these pieces wonderful. Well, at least one classical critic, Winthrop Sargeant, praised some of these pieces to the skies. Furthermore, most classical critics haven't a clue to the jazz pieces either. If they don't understand Ellington's basic idiom, how can they comprehend its extension? Finally, it's easy to note that Ellington doesn't do classical development, but classical development isn't the only way to hold a piece together. Ellington, as Collier never tires of bringing up, was largely self-taught and learned music mainly by writing, rather than by studying it. It surprise me very much if any of his pieces contained a Beethoven development. However, one must answer the harder question of whether the piece coheres. Collier abdicates his responsibility. I can say that at least in one case, the Nutcracker recomposition (for Ellington's work amounts to that; he stands in the same relation to Tchaikovsky as Stravinsky does to "Pergolesi") coheres, at least as much as the original does, and the orchestration, as I've discussed elsewhere, is that of a master.

All in all, we're still waiting for a serious, capable Ellington study.

Copyright © 1998 by Steve Schwartz.