The Genius Of Jazz

By encouraging some of the greatest soloists in jazz history, Duke Ellington redefined the meaning of the word 'composer'.

April 25, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,sun pop music critic

Who was the greatest American composer of the 20th century? Some would say it was Aaron Copland, who evoked the American landscape as vividly in music as John Ford did in film. Others would argue that it was Charles Ives, who composed music unlike anything heard before or since. Still others would strike up the band for George Gershwin, who brought the blues to symphony hall.

Yet as admirable as those men were, another composer towers over them: Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, who was born in Washington 100 years ago this Thursday.

Like Copland, Ellington evoked the sounds and rhythms of this country, from the bayou ardor of "Creole Love Call" to the travelogue richness of "Harlem Airshaft." He also had a flair for instrumental portraiture, doing for Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson and Sidney Bechet in his "New Orleans Suite" what Copland did for our 16th president in "A Lincoln Portrait."

Like Ives, Ellington was a musical innovator who refused to recognize the conventions of compositional form or instrumental technique. He'd use any sound that suited his aim, from a wordless vocal of the most angelic purity, to the most guttural growl a trumpet could produce.

And, like Gershwin, Ellington had no trouble navigating the distance between the dance hall and the symphony. Not only did he write for the hit parade, creating such best sellers as "Mood Indigo," "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," but he also composed for the stage, the symphony -- his tone poem, "Harlem," was commissioned by no less than Arturo Toscanini -- and even the opera (though his opera bouffe, "Queenie Pie," was posthumously completed by his son, Mercer).

But unlike those others, Ellington was not a composer in the European classical tradition. His milieu was jazz. Where classicists strictly set out what they expected musicians to play, Ellington was highly collaborative, relying heavily on the input, individuality and improvisational skills of his musicians.

In more than half a century working as a pianist and bandleader, Ellington employed and encouraged some of the greatest soloists in the history of jazz, men such as Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Blanton, and Charles "Cootie" Williams.

Ellington's own voice as a composer was dazzling. As the critic Stanley Crouch has observed, Ellington's sensibility always determined the band's sound, "which is why the music maintained its identity through so many changes in the players, no matter how strong their individual personalities."

Still, when an audience cheered an Ellington performance, it wasn't just the bandleader they admired. It was also "the Duke's Men" who basked in the applause.

Perhaps that's why Ellington so rarely enjoyed the accolades his symphonic brethren took for granted. Never mind that musicians as great as Igor Stravinsky and conductor Leopold Stokowski proclaimed Ellington one of the century's greatest musical geniuses. The fact that he wrote music for dance bands and swing musicians -- pieces that sometimes called for his players to make melodies up as they went along -- made it impossible for many to accept the notion that Duke Ellington was a serious, much less great, composer.

Just how deep that prejudice sat became clear in 1965. Citing the "vitality and originality" of his work over the previous four decades, the three-man music jury for that year's Pulitzer Prize urged that a special citation be awarded to Ellington. Their recommendation was overruled, however, and no award was given. It wasn't until this year, a quarter century after his death, that Ellington finally won a Pulitzer Prize for music composition.

"Most Americans still take it for granted that European music -- classical music, if you will -- is the only really respectable kind," Ellington observed to critic Nat Hentoff, not long after his Pulitzer snub. Ellington may have been discouraged, but he knew how things sat. Jazz, he said, was seen as being "like the kind of man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with."

Fortunately, as we near the next millennium, that is beginning to change. "There's a lot of talk about Ellington's place in 20th-century music these days," says David Hadju, president of the Duke Ellington Society of New York and author of a biography of longtime Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn.

"The irony to me is that more than anything, he seems to point to the 21st century," Hadju continues. "The way he worked challenges us to think in different terms about what it means to be a musical genius. Our conception is frozen in this 17th- or 18th-century European notion of the lone composer communing with his muse."

Ellington, Hadju says, represents "a whole different conception of what it means to be a composer."

A musical education

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