Few publications among the literature on Duke Ellington to have appeared in recent years—the output of which has burgeoned noticeably since this singular musician’s centenary was celebrated in 1999—can claim to have shed as much light on their subject as the impressive collection of essays assembled by John Howland for his new symposium, Duke Ellington Studies. Many years in the making, the book was originally designed to complement Edward Green’s The Cambridge Companion to Ellington (Cambridge, 2014), the latter pitched towards a more general readership as befits the remit of its particular series. In fact, both books are similarly rigorous in their scholarship (and Green had a significant hand in the initial planning of the Studies volume), and they can with great benefit be read side by side. Duke Ellington Studies is especially notable, however, for its engagement with an unusually wide range of contemporary issues in jazz studies, many of them interdisciplinary. The four principal topics covered by the book are: (1) what the editor terms Ellington’s ‘relation to art and entertainment discourse’; (2) his international reputation and its consequences for his music; (3) the mechanics of the music itself, both in terms of his distinctive piano-playing and his far more celebrated compositional achievements; and (4) a particular and welcome focus on the latter stages of his career, which have generally received scant coverage in both popular and critical literature. More than one chapter is devoted to each of these distinctive areas of enquiry, though chapters on related topics are not necessarily contiguous: the book as a whole is instead organized in a broadly chronological structure, which means that the immediately relevant contexts of Ellington’s life and works are always clear to the reader. The result of this simple strategy is that the book (rather unusually for an academic symposium of this kind) can meaningfully be read from cover to cover. It admirably succeeds in providing a rounded critical and biographical account of its subject that is likely to appeal as much to those with a general interest in jazz and its historiography as to more specialized readers engaging with the project’s sometimes highly detailed analytical insights. Phil Ford’s opening chapter examines Ellington’s persona as an entertainer, specifically as expressed through the medium of film between the two world wars. The composer’s principal achievement here is seen not as a jettisoning of the racial stereotypes that blighted so much popular entertainment of the time, but his development instead of a more wholesome typecasting in the shape of a mythic African American pageantry primarily enacted through ‘the suffering, laboring, or performing black body’ (p. 4). This is followed by John Howland’s own contribution, which explores at some length how Ellington (with a good deal of assistance from his agents, managers, and critics) soon cultivated a more sophisticated image as a composer who deserved to be accorded the kind of respect traditionally bestowed on his counterparts in the classical arena, while at the same time occupying an emergent and uniquely middlebrow aesthetic territory. Ellington’s reception outside the United States is covered in chapters by Catherine Tackley and Carl Woideck. Tackley provides a straightforward historical overview of Ellington’s various tours to the United Kingdom: the most important of these were in 1933, 1958, and the performances of the Sacred Concerts in 1966–7 and 1973. A visit in 1948, when Ellington came without his band in order to circumvent the restrictions on appearances by American musicians which were then in force, is less well known, but the author argues that it represented a significant transition from his former variety-theatre appearances to a clear preference for more respectable concert-hall venues (albeit at this stage situated in the provinces rather than the metropolis). The altogether different cultural significance of the first of Ellington’s two visits to Africa, in 1966, is explored by Woideck, who assesses exactly what the continent might have meant to Ellington as both an African-American musician—who memorably described some of his music as an ‘authentic synthetic hybrid’ (p. 263)— and his own description of himself as a ‘student of Negro history’ (p. 224). Starting his account with the famous African-themed entertainments featuring Ellington’s band at Harlem’s Cotton Club in the late 1920s, at which time the bandleader can have had only the skimpiest understanding of real African music-making, Woideck then takes the reader through Ellington’s growing understanding of African history in the 1940s and his seminal encounter with an African-born drummer in 1957 before providing (for the first time) detailed accounts not only of Ellington’s momentous trip to Senegal in 1966 but also his subsequent visit to Ethiopia in the autumn of 1973. (The caption to a striking photo of Ellington being greeted on arrival at Addis Ababa by Haile Selassie’s pet lion (Fig. 8.3) incorrectly gives the date of this encounter as 1974, which was when he was interviewed about it.) In two chapters devoted to Ellington’s artistry on a technical level, Bill Dobbins and Walter van de Leur shed much light on his skills as a pianist and his compositional processes respectively. Dobbins’s intimate knowledge of Ellington’s idiosyncratic keyboard techniques is reflected in an analytical account that embraces both general stylistic observations and note-specific technicalities, and the text is liberally illustrated with elegantly presented music examples (all transcribed from recordings by the author). There is, however, some direct overlap between the choice of examples here and those in Dobbins’s earlier essay ‘Duke Ellington and the world of jazz piano’ in The Cambridge Companion to Ellington: several are the same, though occasionally with some intriguing differences of detail in the transcriptions (compare, for instance, Ex. 4.9 in Ellington Studies with the corresponding Ex. 13.5 in the Companion). Many of the specific observations in the earlier essay are repeated in the later one, too, and a little more vigilant editorial intervention might have been helpful here; less duplication in the choice of notated examples would certainly have helped prevent an occasional sense of déjà vu. Van de Leur’s piece on Ellington’s reliance on manuscript materials finally puts to rest the tired old myth that the greatest geniuses in jazz never needed to write any of their music down: as the compelling archival evidence from the Smithsonian Institution’s Duke Ellington Collection cited here shows, Ellington constantly used written materials as ‘an integral part of [his] composing’, relying on musical notation to an extent whereby ‘his music is simply unthinkable without it’ (p. 176). Although the verbal account of representative primary sources is fascinating in itself, it is tantalizing that the chapter does not include a single reproduction in facsimile of any of the manuscripts under consideration: even a little illustrative material of this kind would have brought the essay more vividly to life. Ellington’s later career is covered in the diverse contributions by David Schiff, Gabriel Solis, and John Wriggle. These authors mainly focus on the 1950s, the Cold War decade in which Schiff sees the composer’s Shakespeare-inspired Such Sweet Thunder as representative of (as the editor impressively describes it) a ‘post-colonial counter-appropriation of the very foundation of Anglo-American culture’ (p. xix). Solis investigates Ellington’s creative approach to the medium of the long-playing record from the 1950s onwards. Finally, Wriggle offers a timely reassessment of A Drum is a Woman, the adaptation as a television revue of a 1956 album by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn that earlier commentators regarded as something of an embarrassment. Both Schiff and Wriggle deftly unpack the racial, political, and cultural significance of their case-study works, arguing that much of importance in them was overlooked by their early critics: thus what James Lincoln Collier once dismissed as the ‘self-indulgent fragments’ of Such Sweet Thunder can now perhaps be understood as the product of ‘calculated strategies of appropriation and displacement’ (p. 178). Wriggle expertly situates A Drum is a Woman in its historical context in order to demonstrate precisely why it was so controversial and widely misunderstood in its time—and then (of course) rather quickly ignored. There is a link here with Solis’s essay, since both authors draw attention to how the phenomenal success of the album Ellington at Newport (1956) in a sense backfired by leading to ultimately frustrated popular expectations that this recording indicated the likely direction in which Ellington’s future musical development lay. Solis redresses a more sweeping imbalance in which critics had long regarded Ellington’s pre-war achievements as superior to his post-war music, and shows how Ellington’s recordings in the LP era knowingly embraced the new audio technology as part of his ongoing process of creative assimilation and cultural consolidation. Ellington, writes Wriggle, used A Drum is a Woman as an opportunity ‘to explore, establish, and celebrate his own place in jazz history on (more or less) his own terms’ (p. 266). These words also serve as a highly apposite generalization with which to sum up the importance of Duke Ellington Studies as a substantial and thought-provoking anthology of scholarly essays which together illuminate the complex character, manifold musical achievements, and cultural significance of one of the twentieth century’s most original and often misunderstood musical figures. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Music and Letters – Oxford University Press
Published: May 15, 2018
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