The Magazine


The Centennial of a Great American Composer, Jazz Musician, and Businessman

May 3, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 31 • By ERIC FELTEN
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Ellington's band came to prominence largely on the strength of his compositions and the originality of the group's soloists, but also important was his show-biz flair. His band at the Cotton Club was one of the great spectacles of jazz. He surrounded drummer Sonny Greer with a rococo assemblage of percussion instruments -- timpani, woodblocks, xylophone, chimes and an enormous Chinese gong. And Ellington played the piano with showy extravagance, a trick he had learned early, hustling gigs back in Washington: "I started throwing my hands up in the air, . . . and they all said, 'Oh, yes, Duke's a great pianist. Send him back again!'"

R. D. Darrell was the first critic to take Ellington seriously as a composer, declaring in 1932 that "he has mastered the small form as thoroughly as Gershwin," and praising the vocal quality of his melodies: "Ellington's finest tunes spring into rhapsodic being as simply, as naturally as those of Mozart or Schubert."

When Ellington toured Europe in 1933, Darrell was joined by a chorus of highbrow praise. And it's from this praise that the great controversy of Ellington's career stems. Feted for his artistry, Ellington developed a growing ambition to be a serious composer. He began writing long works, mostly suites and what he labeled "tone parallels."

Ellington admirers split into two camps, those who championed these grander efforts and those who preferred his musical miniatures.

The schism became permanent after the band's first Carnegie Hall concert in 1943, where Ellington's massive "Black, Brown, and Beige" premiered. Most critics for the New York papers panned the piece as over-long and under-organized. John Briggs in the New York Post was typical: "Mr. Ellington was saying musically the same thing he had said earlier in the evening, only this time he took forty-five minutes to do it."

In the aftermath, a raft of erstwhile Ellington boosters -- John Hammond, Andre Hodeir, and Alec Wilder -- started to gripe that Duke was abandoning jazz, to the detriment of his art. Others -- Leonard Feather, Mike Levin -- insisted that only the long form provides a grand enough scope for Ellington's talent. The debate has gone on for decades and is no less bitter today. When Terry Teachout echoed Wilder recently in Commentary, the advocates of Ellington's large forms felt obliged to denounce Teachout's apostasy.

But there is reason to think that this entire debate misses what is unique about Ellington. After the war, when big bands were folding like deck chairs, Ellington kept his ensemble up and running. He had more resources than many other leaders: The royalties from Ellington's popular songs helped to smooth over the rough patches. He also had more reason to keep up the struggle, for his efforts to realize his ambitions as a composer required the existence of his own jazz orchestra.

If Ellington had accepted that his gems of the late 1930s and early 1940s were the pinnacle of what he could accomplish, it's doubtful he would have subjected himself to a grueling routine of trains, buses, and planes well into his seventies. Benny Goodman all but quit playing jazz (turning to Mozart and modern European composers) because he thought he had exhausted the idiom. "What is jazz?" Goodman asked in a 1980s interview. "What are you going to do, go out and play 'Lady Be Good' again, forever and ever? How many times?" By striving to achieve serious works of art, Ellington saved himself from the boredom with jazz that overcame Goodman.

No doubt some of Ellington's longer works are more successful than others: "A Tone Parallel to Harlem" is spectacular; the "Perfume Suite" is a mess. But to say that Ellington and his collaborator Billy Strayhorn penned their share of pieces that didn't quite work is only to say that they rejected complacency. Ellington's score for the 1959 movie Anatomy of a Murder hardly lives up to critic Tom Piazza's fulsome claim that it is "the closest thing we have to a vernacular American symphony." Indeed, when Ellington was asked whether he would ever write a symphony, he answered, "No. I have to make a living and so I have to have an audience." Much of the music in Anatomy of a Murder -- "Flirtibird" in particular -- counts among Ellington's most beautiful and affecting.