Friday, July 04, 2008

Duke Ellington

In May 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, which, despite America's self-advertised image as the land of openness, individual freedom and democratic institutions, was as rigidly racially segregated as any town or city in the country. Ellington was drawn to music at an early age, and by seven he was taking formal piano lessons. Never one for excess or confrontation, Ellington, even at an early age, exhibited what his family and friends called a "regal bearing" in his manners and relationship, yet never demonstrated pomposity or a sense of superiority to others. His parents insisted that he dress well and eschew the street life that served to reinforce the white world's perception of the "American Negro." Ellington loved sports and considered baseball a worthy competitor for his time and attention. But music would always be his "mistress," as he later described his life-long devotion to his chosen work. For the respect he showed himself, his music and to those around him, he accepted the nickname "Duke" while still a child. Such a nickname might suggest that Ellington was limited in his exposure to music, unaware of the vibrant experiments that were taking place in the pool halls and night clubs in his neighborhood. Quite the contrary. Ellington had no trouble hearing the life that came dancing from the hands of the ragtime pianists and other musicians who were experimenting with the idea of improvisation over the formal chord changes in popular songs. Drawn to structure and freedom within form, Ellington became fascinated by composition, individual voices and storytelling through the extended song form. Classical music had always been composed and played in suite form. Duke Ellington, as a young composer and pianist, saw no reason why jazz could not be written and played with the same level of dignity.

From the late 1920s until the mid 1960s, Ellington distinguished himself as America's greatest composer, regardless of category. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, Ellington's music was a constant presence in my house, my father having been a devotee of Ellington from the moment he first heard his music. I remember my father telling me about Ellington's precision and sense of time and space, and how he was the first composer in jazz -- and perhaps all of American music -- to write solos and arrangements not just for a specific instrument or group, but for a particular player. Johnny Hodges, of course, is frequently identified as the primary beneficiary of Ellington's compositional senses. But there were many, many more, including drummers like Sonny Greer and Louis Bellson (who, for better or worse, introduced double-bass drumming into American popular music), both of whom were great showmen as well as virtuoso instrumentalists. For jazz aficionados who came of age during the 1930s and 40s, Ellington's music retains a place in their heart unlike any other musician or group of the pre-bebop revolution. My father and many of his friends, black and white, were enamored of Ellington's longer suites and compositions, including "Black, Brown and Beige," a piece intended to tell the story of the African-American experience in the United States. Through Ellington's music, my father tried to tell me about the difference between "black" and "white" music, noting that you could hear black voices in Ellington's music that were never a presence in the music of Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller, both of whom hired black musicians before any other white bandleaders and were, by any measure of that period, progressive on matters of race. And while I believe that musicians, critics and anyone else interested in American music need to be careful when describing music and musicians as limited or advantaged by their ethnicity, race or religion, there is no doubt in my mind that American music, jazz, blues and rock in particular reflects the mosaic of the African-American experience, whether as a voice in the civil rights struggle or simply as a reflection of different cultural norms. Ellington was a diplomat to the core and never embraced the confrontational politics of composer/instrumentalists like Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Archie Schepp and Cecil Taylor. Nonetheless, he considered the "Negro experience," as he called it, as joined at the hip with America's founding and subsequent development.

By the time Duke Ellington passed away in 1974, he had secured his place as one of the most important figures in the history of American music. He never accepted the second-tier status that many "serious" music critics assigned to jazz, claiming that he composed "American music" that was not limited to any particular style; rather it was "beyond category." To Ellington, music was either good or bad, and efforts to lump complex forms into a single box were more reflective of record company executives eager to "market" music to particular audiences. Ellington understood where he came from, acknowledging everyone from classical composers to road house pianists who shook the gin mills during the 1920s. His modesty carried over to many of the rock 'n roll revolutionaries of the 1960s, such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who, all of whom credited rhythm and blues, small group vocal harmonies and the sexual edginess pioneered by black popular musicians such as Little Richard, James Brown, and the house bands at Motown and Stax studios in their own work.

On the Fourth of July, a tradition for many families and individuals is to watch fireworks, read the Declaration of Independence or take part in street parties that bring together the neighborhood (we do 1 and 3). One of my own is to listen to "Black, Brown and Beige" while preparing my ribs and pork shoulder for the neighbors and, later in the afternoon, listen to the 1958 Newport Concert, with "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" capping it off -- that brought Duke back on the public stage after some lean years in the early and mid-1950s. America, more so than anything else, is an idea that means many things to many people. To me, it means remembering the men and women who shook the rafters of American society through their words, music and courage outside the mainstream of our formal institutions. Seen through this light, no one is more "American" than Duke Ellington and no music represents our national aspirations more so than the musical legacy he bequeathed the country that grew to love him as much as he loved it.

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