Book rounds out dialogue on Ellington

February 24, 1994|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Contributing Writer

Louis Armstrong came to public view as an entertainer, Dizzy Gillespie for his beret and clownish charm, Miles Davis for his immaculately cut shirts and defiant cool.

But Duke Ellington was the first, and remains, almost 100 years after jazz's birth, perhaps the only jazz musician to become famous for being an artist. Due to his status, as well as the length of his mature career -- from his debut at Harlem's Cotton Club in 1927 to his death in 1974 -- Ellington inspired an enormous body of writing that is both scholarly and hostile, defensive and elegiac.

"The Duke Ellington Reader" collects the best of these pieces. The volume includes work by such esteemed jazz critics as Leonard Feather, Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch, reflections by musicians who knew the Duke, and several articles by Ellington himself. Editor Mark Tucker is a professor of music at Columbia and author of "Ellington: The Early Years."

While his piano style was mostly a technically limited Harlem stride, Ellington was a peerless composer and bandleader. Born in 1899 in Washington, Ellington at 18 turned down a scholarship to art school in order to pursue music. But his interest in the visual arts never completely faded.

Ellington was the music's great impressionist, his genius in part his broad palette of tones. "I think of music in terms of color," he once said about coming into Pittsburgh, "and I like to see the flames licking yellow in the dark then push down to a kind of red glow."

Besides the painterly quality of his music, Ellington was a master of mood and nuance. Ellington told Richard O. Boyer, in an article collected here, of "the memory of things gone." Boyer's article, originally published in the New Yorker in 1944, recalls the nostalgic quality of such pieces as "Mood Indigo," "Chelsea Bridge," and "In a Sentimental Mood" -- canvases illustrated with muted trombones, wailing saxophones, and growling trumpets.

All the pieces in this volume belong, but not all are equally captivating. The book's best articles were written for non-musician audiences in the New Yorker, the Village Voice and daily papers.

Nat Hentoff's "This Cat Need No Pulitzer Prize" puts Ellington in political context and quotes his response to the last-minute rejection of his Pulitzer: "Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young," Ellington, then 66, said jokingly. Ralph Ellison's homage to Ellington, after the composer's 70th birthday party at the White House, conjures the wonderful image of Richard Nixon's sharing the piano with Willie "The Lion" Smith, the legendary Harlem stride player.

The magazine profiles of Ellington's collaborators -- Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Billy Strayhorn -- stand as some of the book's most engaging. Also compelling are the arguments over Ellington's shift from three-minute pop songs to larger orchestral pieces in the mid-'40s.

Articles by Ellington himself are especially revealing. They recall not only his views on music but his personal style, a mixture of sly elusiveness with a sophisticated brand of scorn. Even to friends and family, Ellington could be aloof, indirectly assertive, a bit apart, and it comes through clearly in his prose.

Though now enshrined at the center of the jazz canon, Ellington's music was not at first universally loved. While his apologias for his music, and for jazz itself, look strangely defensive in hindsight, they allow Ellington some felicitous phrases, as when he describes rhythm as "the musician and his audience talking things over," or terms jazz "freedom of musical speech."

Also interesting is Duke's response to critics who compare him to classical composers -- Ellington always saw his work as black Americans' folk music, "the result of our transplantation to American soil . . . forged from the very white heat of our sorrows."

The book ranges across the decades enough to throw light not just onto musical issues but larger questions of race and aesthetics. The early pieces describe black musicians as intuitive, naively soulful noble savages, belying the myth of the "primitive" that silently dominated early jazz criticism and makes its influence felt even today.

Readers may find some articles academically dry, and the volume could benefit from photos and a discography. Some famous essays are noticeably absent, including two of Whitney Balliett's New Yorker profiles -- mentioned but not included -- and anything by the erudite and contentious James Lincoln Collier.

But the book helps restore balance in a field of criticism that has been dominated by anecedotes, interviews and oral histories. For the student of Ellington, this book is a gift from the gods. And despite the collection's predominantly sober tone, the anecdotes, interviews and oral histories are in here, too.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Duke Ellington Reader"

Editor: Mark Tucker

Publisher: Oxford University

Length, price: 536 pages, $30

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