Recently I heard an experienced, high-profile moderator of a syndicated, "mainstream" jazz show tell his worldwide audience that he chose not to play "early jazz" (i.e. Louis, Duke, Prez, Bird) not because he had anything "against it" but because he didn't "know much about it." What initially seemed like a commendable moment of candor soon became a gnawing question in my mind: why not learn? My shelves of books about jazz now fill an entire room, but there is always room for another study about the music's most elusive, enigmatic and arguably greatest musician. Teachout's book helps demystify the man without diminishing the music of jazz' most protean, prolific, complex musical genius (comparing Ellington's "Concerts of Sacred Music" to Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" is like moving from the art of Shakespeare, who embraces a worldly, earthly, sensuous aesthetic, to the visionary poetry Shelley, a vatic artist whose upward, or Apollonian, trajectory is at once more narrow and focused in reach and scope.
As an impressionable student of the music (beginning with Marshall Stearns groundbreaking "The Story of Jazz"), I recall that with respect to Ellington I often experienced disappointment when his public persona did not always seem to measure up to his reputation (as gathered from jazz histories, Downbeat and Metronome reviews, and of course those Columbia long-playing records). His celebrity, I sensed, was often ill-served in popular media like the Johnny Carson Show, which simply refused to acknowledge rank, loyalty and privilege. (Moreover, I suspect Doc and the band were relatively clueless about his actual importance.) His "family" (i.e. the Ellington band) would give me assorted, sometimes contradictory, stories. Russell Procope was the most loyal, expressing a regard for the Maestro that was never less than reverential. All of the other guys had problems, gripes, demons of one sort or another. Sam Woodyard became irascible at the very mention of Duke's addition of a 2nd drummer (Jimmy Johnson, Elvin Jones). Truth be told, the life of the road was not easy--especially for aging noblesse oblige in the most venerable of all road bands (Duke's was not one of the overnight ensembles that Stan and Woody would assemble by raiding college bands like those at North Texas State for talent that was rough but ready, promising players "made to go"). The Ellington band's manager Al Szelle was tired and weary, Paul Gonsalves was an imploding potential disaster, Johnny Hodges was a temperamental, demoted diva, Lawrence Brown--once as crucial to the Ellington ensemble sound as Hodges--was no longer getting his due. Toward the end, bassist Joe Benjamin summed it up for me: "Be glad you didn't pursue a music career. It's a lousy way to make a living."
But out of this frequently discordant family came music the likes of which the world of jazz, or of music, has never heard or seen. Few remember that Duke at first resisted the "swing thing." His music was about detail, nuance, timbre and color--apparent in every measure of, for instance, "Flamingo," which is far more than a period piece arranged as "background" for its baritone vocalist, Herb Jeffries. (The last living member of an Ellington band before his recent passing at the age of 100+, Jeffries also had a productive career in the movies as the Bronze Buckaroo of "race Westerns" and was once married to stripper Tempest Storm.) Some are unaware of the intricate arrangements of the Blanton-Webster band, and how quickly Duke was able to showcase his new prodigy, Jimmy Blanton--the first virtuoso bass player in jazz--with the same attention to musical detail as in the Jeffries hit song. No boring bass solos for Blanton. Duke exploited this new talent to the most musical of ends, making the instrument sing through a combination of Blanton's unprecedented chops and arranging ingenuity of the Ellington-Strayhorn dynamic duo.
For me the great paradox of Duke was a profound one, centered on the relationship of the human voice, initially the only instrument African-Americans were allowed to employ on plantations run by Protestant overlords, and the instruments that became increasingly important around the turn of the century, especially in New Orleans. Duke's music, more than any other, represented that relationship so well that every Ellington performance (not merely his "Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Poem Parallel to the History of the American Negro") is an "aural avatar" of the African-American experience. To be more specific, on the one hand, Ellington insisted on players who, in addition to expressing their tonal personalities through their horns, were capable of "vocalizing" on their instruments. Bubber Miley, Tricky Sam Nanton, then Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams and later Clark Terry and the albums Duke recorded with as many as three plunger-equipped trombones--the instruments "speak" with a personal authority found in no other musical ensemble. On the other hand, he saw his vocalists as, above all, "instruments" in his band. In early pieces like "Creole Love Call" the wordless human voice was merely another "instrumental voice" in the richly textured ensemble. When he wrote pop tunes, the melodies were as angular and elliptical as Monk's original compositions, intimidating to most vocalists: "Sophisticated Lady," "In a Sentimenal Mood," "I've Got It Bad" (all with octave leaps within the first two measures), "Prelude to a Kiss" (congested chromatics that eventually reach a carefully conceived goal). His "Heaven" was typical Duke, a Shakespearean "sensuous" and worldly heaven with "pretty things"; not a Dante-like Romantic or spritual vision. And he persuaded Sweden's greatest--Alice Babs--to "nail" each of the notes in his final, eschatalogical, Biblical works.
It's easy, especially for Ellington connoisseurs, to treat the 1956 Newport event as inferior Duke--most of it was a reconstruction; it was more about the social fuss and mini-riot than the music; it became Duke's biggest seller yet Columbia would fire Duke 4 years later in favor of Monk and Mingus (and Miles). But upon listening to the CD restoration of the concert it rises in historical importance, finally earning its popular reputation as musical peak in the musical career of Duke. What started out to be a diastrous evening, with 4 band members missing, was masterminded by the Maestro into the band's moment of glory. Despite low expectations surrounding Duke's aging warriors, the band on that night proved they could swing harder than any band of any size, thanks to Duke's clever dovetailing of two old blues arrangements ("Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue"), along with Duke's vocal encouragement and strategically placed, percussively played, piano accompaniment, setting the stage for the most famous solo (and deservedly so) in not just Newport's 60 years but the entire history of jazz festivals, and moreover "Ellington at Newport 1956" was a harbinger of Woodstock. Only Paul Gonsalves had the humility and self-possession to be able to remain "within himself," eschewing showboating in favor of minor alterations in each of his 28-choruses to maintain interest, and above all remaining content to "ride the groove." Coltrane, Rollins, Hawk, Jaws--they couldn't have done it. They would have overwhelmed the moment, arresting the flow by directing attention to themselves. But not the modest Paul, whose ambitions never seemed to extend outside of the Ellington world. Ellington At Newport 1956
And Duke's first LP, with Louis Belson's "Skin Deep" and the most ambitious "A Train" on record--a bebop scat solo by Betty Roché followed by a raging up-tempo finish by Gonsalves--it's a recording that strangely was neglected (as were many others), and now we come to a moment in history where time has yielded to a plethora of simultaneous moments, all of them being streamed to us as digital files unrelated to anything but themselves.
Duke Ellington was an American original. I somehow missed much of the reputed elegance and eloquence--maybe I was too late. I saw the musician, the leader, the force who, even to the greatest musicians--like Joe Williams and Frank Sinatra--seemed inscrutable, the creator of music they could scarcely account for let alone sing. (Sadly, Sinatra gave up on "Lush Life" after recording the first half with Nelson Riddle.) And the ONLY master take of Duke's vignette representing "A Mid-Summer Night's Dream" is the original vinyl copy of "Such Sweet Thunder." It's only the original Columbia album from 1956 that captures the moment when Clark Terry makes his fleugelhorn speak the immortal words of Puck: "Such fools these mortals be." [Look for a used copy of the original LP on eBay: all reissued editions of one of Duke's inarguable masterpieces employ the wrong original tape.}
Duke had enough on his mind just to "make" the music (while attending to his public persona) without the burden of archiving, organizing, and curating the music--most of it in ragged shape as score. The last I looked, the most popular Ellington album on Amazon was the least of his meetings: "Ellington and Coltrane." It's a nice gesture, an iconic and symbolic meeting between two of the seminal giants, past and present (who would have believed Trane would precede Duke's passing by 6 years?). But it's an insult to Duke's music, more evidence that the many of the remaining jazz public can't seem to "get" the Ellington sound or comprehend why, for many of us, just hearing a few measures of the unique ensemble sound in an otherwise bad performance will suffice.
The last time I saw Duke was at a 4-hour prom 2 blocks from my house. Four long and interminable hours, with only a bus ride from Kenosha, WI to Kansas City for the next night's gig to look forward to. Duke received 4 requests for "Satin Doll"--not because the crowd loved it that much but because they were clueless about its previous performance. Duke acknowledged each request, and the band played the song, with Duke playing the old white beater I personally had refused to used on 5-6 occasions. The total cost for the band was $2000--and this was almost 10 years after the Beatles had invaded America, leading to entertainers receiving obscene amounts for their appearances, with all sorts of petty demands in their contracts. But Duke kept the rusty old A Train on the warped tracks, sounding almost like new. And he remained on stage for all 4 hours, writing music during intermission. At the end of the evening, a trombone player sleeping on the floor of the bandstand had to be carried out, and finally it was Duke and me--with Harry waiting in the limo. The temperature was below freezing, but it didn't matter to Duke. In another month he would give a solo piano concert at the Whitney Museum in NYC. At that moment, I not only loved him madly but began to understand why.
Needless to say, we'll never see another pair of American Maestros like Duke and Leonard Bernstein (I doubt that a Paul Whiteman was in the same league). Perhaps both had too many irons in the fire, and it cost them (I've noticed as much fuzziness in people's memory when I bring up the name of Bernstein as that of Ellington. Perhaps Ellington would strike greater recognition in a mass survey than "Lennie.") Even so, it's crucial that writers like Teachout continue to write about Duke (and will we ever see Vol. 2 of Gary Giddins' Bing Crosby biography that ended at the 1940 mark?) The written word is becoming ever cheaper. The amount of published text is doubling every 5 years. If in addition to the melting of the polar ice caps we experience a meltdown of our cultural memory, the battle is lost.
I wish Teachout had focused primarily on the art rather than the artist. Duke's music was at once universal and so personal that to know his music is to know the man. And to those jazz disc jockeys, who apparently are too old to learn and who claim to favor "mainstream jazz" but only if it's a Blue Note date recorded in the '50s by Van Gelder, why not play some Ellington, even if you haven't been able to reduce the music to your understanding?--and not simply his "popular hits" but the music itself--as it sounded only when the Maestro played it on his instrument, which was NOT a piano: it was the Duke Elliington Orchestra.