America’s Greatest Composer

In a few days it will be 40 years since Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington passed. (He died on May 24, 1974. He didn’t get to live to see Nixon resign.)

There is nothing magical about these anniversaries, of course. It only occurred to me because I have been thinking about the state of American music for a couple of days. I won’t reveal my thoughts here, for fear of being dismissed as an old crank. But I can suggest that it would be difficult for anyone to make the case that someone other than the Duke can claim the title of America’s greatest composer.

There’s no doubt that Carter, Wuorinen, Babbit, Varese and Ives made important music that we will study for years to come. But America has never produced art music, in the European tradition, as a natural matter. In terms of vital, organic and innovative music, America has only produced jazz and blue grass. Blue grass, however, has never been written in a wide enough variety of forms to be considered a serious art form. Jazz, however, has had quite a number of original composers, something of a perceived anomaly for a music mostly known for improvisation covering pop music. It is true that it is difficult to isolate a jazz “composer” (such as, for example, Monk, Gillespie, Mingus and Coltrane) from an “arranger” (such as Henderson, Basie and Evans). But there is no doubt where Duke Ellington stands on that divide. For more than forty years he produced one marvel after another, which he not only wrote, but arranged and conducted.

It’s difficult to pick a period that best displays his genius. But “periods” he certainly has, as assuredly as Picasso did. From the “Jungle Music” of his Cotton Club days, to the “classicist” of the 30s and 40s (with the Carnegie Hall music), during which time he had the outstanding performers Ben Webster on sax and Jimmy Blanton on bass, which RCA Victor used to sell its compilation of Ellington recordings. The ’50s were a difficult time for Big Bands but Ellington used it to write one of his most startling pieces, “Satin Doll,” which was never better interpreted than by his own quirky original piano treatment. The 60s saw him attempt “serious” compositions/arrangements with suites (including a version of the “Nutcracker”) that did not stack up to his earlier efforts. But at the same time he was exploring the avant-garde. Possibly the best of these efforts was Money Jungle with Coltrane and Mingus. The efforts of the 60s paid off with a renaissance in the 70s, when he himself was in his 70s. And it was listening to an album from that period that got me thinking in this vein. The album was Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.

That album ostensibly offers a “fusion” with what Ellington calls “oriental” music. You can safely ignore the Duke’s explanation; in fact it’s somewhat embarrassing to listen to. I have never understood the thinking of the A&R flacks at Columbia Records, who seemed to relish self-indulgent and often patronizing blather. But once you get past the first 10 seconds or so of this album, you will find the music undeniably superb. Admittedly, the effects are largely owing to block orchestral forces and the open voicings of the brass at climaxes. But pitting block forces was the mainstay of someone as orthodox in Germanic art music as Bruckner. And if you object to open voicings, then you probably have no interest in big band jazz anyway.

That said, if you have a half hour, it could be spent in many worse ways than listening to Afro-Eurasian Eclipse:

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  1. Oh I learned so much from this post! Thank you~

  2. I hear in Eclipse what must be fascinating complexities for many listeners, but somehow the opening number speeds me up way too high, like a lot of jazz . . . but what do I know? Your paean to Ellington caused me to get on YouTube and hear him in a piano concert — just himself, no clanging percussion, and really it may be only that side of this artist which I have the nerves for.
    I hope to go back and hear this complete concert (at piano); and at this event, Ellington’s remarks seem to make good sense. What is jazz . . . ? he’s asking in a very cogitating and sensible way that appeals to me. I’m glad to have read your piece about him.

  3. If you want to hear Ellington in a small group setting without a loud drum kit, you might consider trying Ellington with John Coltrane. There’s a complete album, but most of it is on Youtube: Try In a Sentimental Mood, for example, here or Money Jungle with Mingus and Max Roach, here. Beware, however, that both those albums feature 60’s modernist performers.

    Entre nous, Children of the World is in my reading queue. I am sruggling through Christopher Clark’s detail-stuffed The Sleepwalkers, which I may have to shelve before it consumes all of my time.

    • Hey, thanks, fellow, for these links. I’ve been away, but will listen to this music, perhaps tonight.
      As to my books, you may have noted that I’m one who operates mostly on emotion, and don’t demonstrate all that hard thinking and compelling detail that are your specialty.
      Still, I hope you can relate to Children. I never seem to get a good start on my stories, but if you get to chapter three, you may become engaged in a rather tense tale. My book The Treatment is a document that may be more to your liking. In that book, I had to study and figure hard, for once, and get things exactly right . . . for whatever it has meant or mattered, not much, perhaps.
      I buy books used and cheap, and there should be some of those around on these volumes.

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