Saturday, March 8, 2014

Reflections on Contemporary Ellingtonia

by John Howland

Duke Ellington’s 1999 centennial, as I observe in the current issue of Musical Quarterly (Fall/Winter 2013), fostered a wave of new research. Most recently, Terry Teachout published his Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, which he describes as “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis, a narrative biography ... based on the work of ... scholars ... [who] have unearthed a wealth of new information.” This book’s mixed reception in the press and blogosphere leads me to reflect on contemporary Ellingtonia.

Duke is the first trade biography of Ellington since 2001. Teachout contends that his is the first biography to consider Ellington’s broader role in American arts and culture, though this aim is likewise central to Harvey Cohen’s 2010 Duke Ellington’s America. While reviews routinely praise Duke in this area, critics take issue with the book’s frank accounts of Ellington’s character, his propensity to procrastinate and to take credit for the work of others, and what Teachout sees as Ellington’s failings with extended works. The book introduces significant authorial opinion (another point of criticism), while at the same time it hits all the key marks of this favorite jazz history story: by reframing, expanding, and occasionally debunking often-recounted biographical details. In certain respects, it offers an important corrective to various earlier biographies, but it also reflects a tradition.

Jazz studies attracts many sorts of passionate researchers, from the professional to the amateur. The flashpoints of this community’s interpersonal politics often center on figures like Ellington, particularly in response to biography. Among the most sacred ground of Ellingtonia is the positioning of Ellington as a pillar of the jazz canon and a “genius” composer “beyond category.” Such themes began in the late 1920s with the marketing PR of Ellington’s manager, Irving Mills, and quickly entered early jazz criticism. These tropes were further refined in post-1950 scholarship of the kind that helped jazz enter the academy as a respected musical art. In sum, Ellington’s centrality to jazz studies has much to do with his historiographic construct as the quintessential jazz composer.
Recent writings have enriched and expanded the range of Ellington studies. But while Cohen and Teachout provide important new thoughts on the commercial strategies behind the Mills/Ellington marketing plan, both authors largely perpetuate an essentialized view of interwar musical culture as either high (elite “classical” music) or low (jazz and popular music), without really considering the many class nuances that Ellington negotiated between these stereotypes.

The strongest criticism of Duke comes from the Ellington “true believers,” which include the Duke Ellington Society’s William McFadden, who characterizes Duke as “the most unsettlingly harsh Ellington biography,” warning that “serious aficionados will find its contents disturbing.” Blogger Steven Cerra, similarly contends that Teachout portrays “Duke as a master of deception, a procrastinator, ... a robber of the work of others, a self-taught musician who lacked conservatory training and ... a supreme egotist.”

By contrast, the Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson posted one of the more thoughtful blog responses to Duke. Like many print critics, despite his ambivalence about specific issues, Iverson praises the book’s historical framing through the lens of “all of 20th-Century art and pop culture.” Iverson considers two “bumbling,” self-serving book reviews (in the New York Times and The New Yorker), and provides an interview with Teachout and his own well-argued disagreements. While noting that the way Teachout “discusses Ellington is not like any jazz player I’ve ever known,” Iverson further muses that he “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 ... the gatekeepers wanted him to be the ‘hot Bach’” (a reference to a 1944 New Yorker article).

My Ellington research has focused on the pre-1950 extended compositions, seeking to understand this music and its cultural context, especially in relation to interwar entertainment and concert music. I was pleased to see some of my work reflected in Teachout’s “synthesis.” However, a repeated complaint against the book lies in its negative assessments of these same extended works. Both Howard Reich and Iverson take Teachout to task for his suggestion that Ellington was ignorant of  “elementary principles of symphonic musical organization,” and not suited to “large-scale, ... organically developed musical structure.” (Iverson says, instead, “I’ve never hung out with a great jazz musician who doubted Duke's grasp of form”). “What Ellington's large-scale works ... sound like,” continues Teachout, “is theatrical production numbers [and] ... those aren’t very effective musical models.”   

One blogger calls Teachout, intringuingly, a “professional middlebrow.” While intended as an insult, “middlebrow” is not necessarily a pejorative, since this idea captures key historical notions of social aspiration and cultural power, and invokes associative markers of self-conscious sophistication, glamour, and class (social class and the high-low mixed adjective, “classy”). The tone of these “opinionated” areas of Teachout’s prose is certainly midcentury middlebrow. Teachout’s approach here reminds me of the 1960s writing style of Gunther Schuller, who similarly employed classical formal rhetoric (“organic” development, etc.), style analysis as a weapon for value judgment, and displays of topical thoroughness (suggesting “I’ve examined everything!”) to reinforce his writerly authority. A companion element is the too-quick dismissal of non-jazz vernacular arranging traditions (e. g., production numbers) without consideration of relevant interwar jazz and pop. These afford connections to a wealth of concert-style music across stage, screen, recordings, and radio (see my dissertation). Many top name Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood, and big band musicians contributed to this trend, as can be seen in Meredith (“Music Man”) Willson’s 1941 Decca album, Modern American Music, a project tied to his Maxwell House radio program with compositions from Vernon Duke, Ellington, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, Ferde Grofé, and others. Beyond brief considerations of George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman, neither Teachout nor Cohen considers such trends or the pops orchestra tradition, both of which are important middlebrow contexts for understanding the extended works and Ellington the composer in pre-1950 marketing.

Duke Ellington, American Lullaby, performed on Meredith Willson, An Album of Modern American Music 
(New York: Decca Records, 1941)



While the middlebrow has become a significant topic in cultural studies, it remains under-researched in music scholarship. Like “popular” and “classical” music, middlebrow music should not be too readily essentialized. There is ample midcentury discourse on middlebrow culture by such public intellectuals as Dwight Macdonald, Russell Lynes, and others. Lynes humorously divides middlebrows into four types having different ambitions and habits. Midcentury popular-press comparisons of Ellington to classical composers were often meant to invoke a degree of cultural aura transference, by elevating the image of Ellington rather than the composers he was compared to. Such juxtapositions were worrisome to midcentury critics of the middlebrow, who took aim at media like Life magazine, which “scramble[d] together” and juxtaposed high and low—such as images of Renoir paintings set beside the photo of a “roller-skating horse,” of which Macdonald complained, the “final impression is that both Renoir and the horse were talented.” I say this not to denigrate Ellington’s image, but to provide added perspective on midcentury modes of high-low image construction in the popular sphere. This milieu relates to the elevated middlebrow conceptions of the “Great Composer”—or, in this case, the “hot Bach.” There are many interwar popular-culture tropes that juxtapose the “classical” and “jazz,” such as the Ellington band’s Hollywood cameo role in the “Rape of a Rhapsody” production number from Murder at the Vanities (1934): a parody of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody. Such examples invite less essentialized readings of brow discourse through their tongue-in-cheek presentations of both the “Great Composer” (Liszt) and Ellington’s composerly image.

A truncated clip of the "Rape of a Rhapsody" sequence from Murder at the Vanities (Paramount, 1934)


Ellington developed a cross-class popular image built on an amalgam of high-low cultural symbols that presented a refined, commercially savvy musician, entertainer, and businessman who wrote hip but “serious” (sophisticated) popular music, on the one hand, and a lauded, “serious” concert music composer, on the other hand. At the center of midcentury jazz-is-art discourse, in an era where educators, aesthetes, and professional musicians typically restricted “composition” to mean traditional high-culture music (as opposed to the work of “tunesmiths,” “songwriters,” “arrangers,” etc.), Ellington’s extended works presented artful expressions of black urbanity and modernity through their rich juxtapositions of black and white vernacular and cultivated music traditions. The popular ascription of “composer” to Ellington was a major victory for proponents of jazz as art, and (as noted) is central to the rhetoric of the “true Ellington believers.” What this discourse and the narrative synthesis in Teachout’s Duke reveal are the continuing tensions within Ellingtonia between generations of invested individuals, older and more recent views on jazz as art, and mixed-class understandings of jazz composition.

Iverson astutely suggests that “part of Duke’s genius was to mean many different things to so many different people.” I agree. Teachout’s biography has value as an historical corrective/update and a synthesis of certain areas of recent Ellington studies. In the end, I think of Kenneth Prouty’s comments on the jazz canon: “The canon survives because it is the basic historical language of the musical academy. ... It has its uses ... [even despite our] qualification[s], [and] a metaphorical ‘but there’s more to it.’” Teachout’s book offers a sort of biographical “changing same” (to paraphrase Amiri Baraka)—he redraws core familiar stories that many have found great meaning in. The critical response has predictably found important faults and added its “but there’s more to it!” commentary, even while knowing that biographies rarely tell the whole story, particularly with an individual whose private life was as elusive and multisided as Ellington’s. Ellington continues to attract such invested engagement because he attained such a remarkable synthesis of cross-cultural impact, media savvy, and racial and social relevance. Here, I believe, is where such an opinionated writerly voice can be helpful—it fosters further discussion.


John Howland, an American ex-pat musicologist, is Professor of Music History at the Department of Music, Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. He is the author of Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz (University of Michigan Press, 2009), and the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the Routledge journal, Jazz Perspectives. He is currently working on a study of orchestral pop.

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