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Edward Green: Delighting in the Duke

Edward Green: Delighting in the Duke

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Ellington's... masterpieces are vibrant evidence that opposite aspects of ourselves are meant to work together. And when they do, the result is beauty.
—Edward Green
Duke Ellington's music can be enjoyed on many levels by many people. The simple lover of good music can revel in his more memorable tunes—snap their fingers or dance to "Take the A-Train," "Perdido" or "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing." Or they may pause reflectively while listening to "Mood Indigo." They might watch video performances and delight in Duke's sly smile, ever-hip demeanor, and way with spoken words. The jazz aficionado, such as myself, can burrow deep into the mine of over a half century of music with Duke as composer, collaborator, arranger, pianist, band leader, or cultural icon.

Since I am a connoisseur of all things Ellington, I interviewed Dr. Edward Green, Professor at Manhattan School of Music, because he brings another level of analysis and appreciation of Ellington. I first learned of Dr. Green's work through reading his captivating Editor's Introduction in The Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington. He graciously consented to answer my questions through email exchanges. Both his enthusiasm and knowledge of Ellington shine through his erudite and stimulating responses.

All About Jazz: How did you get interested in Edward Kennedy Ellington?

Edward Green: It was 1968, and hearing "The Mooche." I was electrified by it. By the eerie beauty of that great music: the slithery chromatic decent of the high-register clarinets answered by Bubber Miley's snarling blues trumpet—muted, yet rough. The music was gutsy; at the same time, it was so sophisticated. I knew I had to hear more. So I began to dig into Ellington.

AAJ: I know from reading your editor's introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington that Eli Siegel's philosophy of Aesthetic Realism has deeply informed your understanding of Duke's music, and why you see that music as so significant. Can you say something about it for the readers of this interview?

EG: Certainly. I said there that the key to understanding Ellington is seeing how his music puts opposites together. That's why it matters so much; why its message is so important—and joyous. Aesthetic Realism explains this. It was founded by the great poet and philosopher Eli Siegel, and its central principle is his statement: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." Now, with this great idea in mind, think again about "The Mooche." Most often people feel we have to choose: to have our gutsy, gritty, passionate moments at one time, and then—almost as if we were a different person— our subtle, careful, logical moments at another. We divide ourselves, and we give ourselves a lot of pain doing that. Ellington's music doesn't make that mistake. It shows a better way. His musical masterpieces are vibrant evidence that opposite aspects of ourselves are meant to work together. And when they do, the result is beauty. And good sense for our lives. I certainly didn't know this consciously when I first heard "The Mooche," but I see now it was the reason that amazing music had the big impact on me it did.

AAJ: Can you give another example of how Ellington's music brings opposites together?

EG: Sure, take "Concerto for Cootie." You never know in that wonderful piece—(my favorite Ellington, by the way, along with "Harlem Air Shaft")— what's coming next! Will Cootie give us a sweet tone on his trumpet? Or one that growls? Sounds that thrust aggressively at us, or are winningly shy? Dark, uncertain sounds? Or soaring, confident, bright tones? We just don't know; we're on the edge of our seats. So much happens in those three minutes of music! Yet—and this is the point—even as the concerto gives us a portrait, through sound, of a world which can never be summed up, which changes moment-by-moment and is amazingly various, it also gives us a continuous, coherent melody. From beginning to end, there's a melody that connects it all. Try it! You can sing "Concerto for Cootie" straight through.

Now this has to do with opposites, and it has to do with happiness, and it has to do with honesty. Everyone wants a life with variety in it. No one wants to be tied down to routine; we want surprises! But nobody wants to be disorganized, either. And this concerto is very tightly organized. It's one of the exceedingly few pieces by Ellington, in fact, with no improvisation in it at all. Every note is fixed, is "on the page."

A world that can surprise us, and at the very same time gives us the security of continuous melody: that's a world we can honestly like. It's a world in which opposites work together beautifully. So the question Aesthetic Realism asks, is: what is the relation between the world of Ellington's music, and the world of snowflakes and mosquitoes? Mountains and subways? Mud and puffy clouds? Insults and caresses? Are they different worlds? Or does Ellington's music—like all great art—tell us the truth about this world? And show us that the truth is beautiful?

I learned from Aesthetic Realism, it's the second. We see the world as it really is only when we see it the way great artists do—when we see it in a unified way; when we see that the contradictions in the world can take on honest and beautiful composition.

Sometimes, in Ellington—like in Shakespeare or Beethoven—the resolution isn't easy. It's difficult beauty. Sometimes it's tearful beauty. But the point is: it's beauty. His music is a reservoir of evidence that reality can be liked on an honest basis. And Aesthetic Realism says this is our deepest desire: to like the world by seeing it truly.

It's pretty obvious, isn't it, that we can't be honest about the world unless we want to see both its toughness and its sweetness. When we do that— when we see these opposites together, as Ellington has us see them and experience them through sound—the result is not some dull, neutral, gray thing. It's alive, vibrant, thrilling. It's not just "The Mooche," or "Concerto for Cootie;" across his career, Ellington does it again and again. Think of "Daybreak Express." Or, very differently, "Ko- Ko." Masterpieces, both.

And what the world is, Aesthetic Realism says, is how we want to be. Aren't these opposites—roughness and smoothness—something we need to put together to think well of ourselves? I've thought a great deal about this. I think I'm pretty representative. I want to be honest. I also want to be kind. I have worried about being too smooth, insincerely kind; also about being too blunt, harsh. To like ourselves, we have to have a purpose in life that enables us to bring opposites together—and that purpose is good will: to be critical and encouraging of other people in a way that brings the best out of them.

I hear good will in Ellington's greatest music: the coming together of sounds that have critical edge and sounds that are profoundly warm. I've already mentioned some great Ellington. Here are others: "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," "Cottontail," "Black and Tan Fantasy," Jack the Bear." There are also great moments in Such Sweet Thunder, the Far East Suite and Black, Brown and Beige. Also in what, to my ears, is his greatest song: "Sophisticated Lady." I don't think anyone has created more great music in the jazz idiom than Ellington did. In fact, as I said in the Cambridge Companion, I see Ellington as having created more great music than any other American composer—in any idiom whatsoever. Simply put: he's our greatest musician.

AAJ: Why do you think Duke resisted calling his music jazz?

EG: I'm glad you used the word resist, because it wasn't as if Ellington hated the word jazz. But he did resist identifying himself with it whenever he felt it could give a false impression of his goal as a composer.

It's important to get back to the 1920s, '30s, and later, and see what Ellington was up against. Many people used the term jazz in a narrow way. For example: to imply that authentic jazz had to be improvised. Well, if so, then "Concerto for Cootie" isn't jazz! But, of course, it is. Another limiting notion: that jazz has to swing. Naturally, most jazz does; thank God it does! Yet there are many passages in Ellington where the music "floats"— where the beat seems almost suspended. That kind of rhythm—so beautiful in his hands—is present even in his early work. For example: the atmospheric opening to "Mood Indigo."

Ellington hated being pigeon-holed. So, facing the kind of critical deafness that comes when a person doesn't listen with open ears, but has decided ahead of time only to like things which follow a style he or she already is familiar with, Ellington insisted that his music was, as he said, "Beyond Category." The nice thing is: he used that wonderfully inventive phrase about any music he sincerely thought was good. He famously said: "There are two kinds of music: good, and the other kind." He didn't mean "jazz, and the other kind." So, these are some thoughts I have on the matter. I'm sure there's more to know.

AAJ: Is there something that makes jazz uniquely itself?

EG: Yes. The best description I have met of the essence of jazz I heard from Eli Siegel. And perhaps this is a good place to mention something I've talked about in various lectures, including one I gave at the Museum of the City of New York—that as far as I can see from my research into jazz history, no one wrote about the greatness of jazz as art—not just as entertainment—earlier than Eli Siegel. He was writing about the philosophic significance of jazz as early as 1925 as a columnist for the Baltimore American.

What I learned from him was this: jazz—when it is true to itself—is a kind of music dead-set against complacency. It criticizes academic neatness; it's against what's oily and predictable. It says: there's much more life in things than you realize! The main thing in jazz, Eli Siegel explained, is that it puts together the opposites of For and Against, or, as he also said, the "Yes" and "No" within ourselves, the "Yes" and "No" we see in the world itself. That's the central thing in jazz—in its technique and its impact: there's a "No" in the sounds which makes for a bigger "Yes." There's criticism that makes for love.

For example, in the rhythm of jazz, most often we hear a steady, deep, continual groove at exactly the same time we hear sharply unexpected syncopations. That's one way sounds in jazz say Yes! and No! to each other. Jazz harmony, likewise, is an exciting drama of how notes blend with each other, but also tangle, fight, criticize each other. When jazz is at its best—and let's face it, some jazz can be dull—we hear that feeling, of combat with love, pretty much in every measure.

And then there's the blues! The soul of jazz. The blues say: bend a pitch; make it "hurt so good!" Make it say No! to the chords accompanying it at exactly the same moment it says, Yes!

And let's bring these technical facts home: Happiness in life, self-respect, comes from knowing how to agree and disagree with other people—if need be, with the world itself—in an honest, beautiful manner. How to say Yes and No in a way that has kindness in it each time, has good will.

AAJ: What is Duke's principal contribution to American music? And how would you say Duke's music has continued to influence it?

EG: In my opinion, Ellington made more beauty out of the relation of freedom and order than anyone else in American music. He helped to form the new— and very American—conception of what it means to be a composer. Don Redman, Jelly Roll Morton, too, had taken important steps before him to create a new kind of music which would be tightly arranged, fixed on the page, yet have room for spontaneous improvisation. Ellington, however, went much further. And the Ellington band!—I can't think of any ensemble in music history where improvised solos are so often fully integrated with the written out aspect of the scores. Everyone who writes music aiming to join these elements beautifully—the fixed and the open—is Ellington's beneficiary.

AAJ: Can you comment on how Duke addressed racism through his career?

EG: Well, he suffered from the racism of his times. He tried not to be bitter about it. He carried himself with dignity. I learned from Aesthetic Realism that racism is a form of the ugliest and most awful thing in people: the hope for contempt, the hope to feel superior to whatever—or whoever—is different from us. Eli Siegel explained it. He said: "There is a disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world."

The main way Ellington combated racism was by creating great art. The idea that African-Americans were, at best, mere entertainers, Duke destroyed forever by leaving us all those enduring musical masterpieces. Armstrong did it, too. So did Basie's band, Lester Young, Charlie Parker. I don't want to isolate Ellington. He had many great colleagues in the world of jazz who must be mentioned. Coltrane, too, of course. But, in my opinion, Duke did it most richly. He created the most beauty, including in the many pieces in which he portrayed the richness, depth, diversity---and yes, the pain—of the lives of African Americans. I'm moved by Symphony in Black, very much by its opening movement "The Laborers," with its tough portrayal of the back-breaking work people were forced to do. Also by its "Hymn of Sorrow," with its depth of religious feeling.

And I can't talk about the subject of racism without pointing to the devastatingly honest, beautifully ironic way Ellington spontaneously met the insult of the Pulitzer Committee when, despite the recommendation of its musical wing, the committee denied him the 1965 award. When he learned of this—Ellington was 66 at the time— without missing a beat, he said: "Fate is being kind to me; fate didn't want me to be famous too young." Now, that's the way to meet an insult: with such grace, dignity, honesty, style!

AAJ: You spoke a moment ago about Ellington's religious feeling. How do you think religion affected his music?

EG: Deeply. He read the Bible, it is said, every year, cover-to-cover. Various pieces have titles showing how much Scripture affected him. "The Flaming Sword" is a good example: when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, as you know, a flaming sword barred them from returning. It's worth asking why that story mattered so much to him.

I think Ellington wanted to have large emotion about life, about reality—large, honest, positive emotion. In his greatest moments as an artist, he got there —and got there through being sincere. That is, he wanted to go deep, and not smooth over how rough things can be. He was very much aware of the troubles people have. That's what I was pointing to with "Hymn of Sorrow." He wanted to make sense of pain and pleasure; weakness and strength; how we are satisfied and dissatisfied—with ourselves, and with the world around us. Trying to do that, I learned, is a fundamental thing in art. Also in religion. We see it in Bach, Handel, Beethoven. Certainly, in the Verdi Requiem. I think, in fact, a big reason, all through his career, Ellington worked with the Blues—in such a profound and inventive way —was his impulsion to make artistic sense of the pain and pleasure of things; joy and troubles. As I said earlier, I learned from Aesthetic Realism that everyone needs to have the No we feel and the Yes, join, and culminate in an even more powerful Yes!

AAJ: You spoke earlier of jazz embodying the idea of criticism as love. Is what you just said related to this?

EG: Definitely, and it was Eli Siegel who said "criticism is love." We can't like the world unless we have a beautiful hope about it: a hope to say Yes! to it. But honestly. We can't like the world—or ourselves, for that matter—unless we're willing to ask tough questions. That's what happens in the best jazz. When someone says with good will, "You could do better," criticism is joined to a belief in what's best in the other person. We're saying, "There's more good in you than you've yet shown." Jazz, really, is all about this. Authentic jazz always goes after breaking down artificial, complacent limits that keep us from asking more of ourselves. That idea is in Eli Siegel's 1966 poem "Hymn to Jazz and the Like"—what he says about "walls" in these lines about two early Ellington masterpieces:

East St. Louis Toodle-O, go into dark, make advanced noise there, moan with grandeur, and come out right.

The Mooche, you come like a procession of right people at twilight saying, This is right, not that; and you walk against walls and the walls run.

To read the entire poem—and it is great!—go here.

AAJ: Can you comment on Duke's piano style in relation to other bandleaders, such as Count Basie and Stan Kenton—for that matter, to the style of Thelonious Monk?

EG: First, I'd like to point people towards two fine essays about Duke as a pianist written by Bill Dobbins. One is in the volume I edited, the Cambridge Companion; the other, in Duke Ellington Studies, edited by John Howland—also published by Cambridge. If you want to see what makes Ellington such a good pianist, I can't think of anything better to read. Meanwhile, I'll say this: Kenton, to my ear, isn't in the same league as a keyboard artist. I don't mean to downplay Kenton's virtues; but I don't hear in him the joy of Basie, the profound mystery and strangeness of Monk—humor, too! And Ellington? What an emotional range! There's the inspired ferocity of his piano playing in "Ko-Ko," and the equally inspired gentleness with which he accompanies Coltrane in "In a Sentimental Mood." The question about Duke as pianist is: what couldn't he do?

AAJ: What did you want to accomplish in the Ellington Companion?

EG: First and foremost, to be fair to Ellington. I thought the book ought to be a collective effort, since he had such diversity in him; such a rich relation to the jazz tradition. My model—though I did depart from it in various ways—was Peter Gammond's Duke Ellington: His Life and Music. But that was published in 1958; it had been roughly sixty years since an authoritative critical anthology about Ellington was available. I thought that was far too long! The editors at Cambridge University Press agreed.

I searched for the best people to join me, and I am proud of who came on board: Dan Morgenstern, Brian Priestley, Olly Wilson, Dave Berger, Anthony Brown, Marcello Piras, Jeffrey Magee, John Howland, Will Friedwald, Walter van der Leur, Ben Bierman, Trevor Weston, Anna Celenza, Evan Spring, Benjamin Givan, Andrew Berish, Bill Dobbins (whom I already mentioned) and also Duke's nephew and grand-nephew: Stephen James, and J. Walker James.

AAJ: Some recent writers have claimed that Duke often wrongly took credit for song writing when others did most or all the writing, as with Billy Strayhorn. How do you respond?

EG: Let me start by trying to give perspective to the issue—because it is certainly true that Billy, at times, had hard feelings towards Duke. I'm not trying to exonerate Ellington. But I do think it can help us understand what happened between them if we broaden the picture.

Collaborative creativity is a frequent thing. Films come to be that way; Broadway does. Many great painters collaborated with their students or colleagues —the final painting being the work of more than one pair of hands. The worlds of jazz and rock are largely like that: often with glorious results.

Now, in different eras there were varying understandings as to what constituted a respectful relation between the "name" artist, and the people who worked with him: economically, and also in terms of public acknowledgment. We have to place Ellington in his time to be just.

So the question becomes: Was he less fair to Strayhorn than others might have been in a parallel circumstance? I have to say, far from it. In fact, he was often eager to have the public aware of Billy's large and independent artistry. We hear it in what he says in many radio checks about Strayhorn—and in the happy, grateful tone-of-voice with which he says it. We see it in the large number of titles for which they shared artistic credit. We see it in the album And His Mother Called Him Bill, which Ellington released after Billy's untimely death: an album entirely of pieces by Strayhorn. And this is the biggest sign: he made "Take the A-Train," a piece by Strayhorn, the signature piece for his own band! Now, find me any other composer who would have done that.

With hindsight, could he have done even more?—been candid about the fact that certain pieces presented as joint compositions were, in fact, entirely by Strayhorn? Sure! It wasn't right, and Billy was hurt. And I have to say there were other people in the band who provided musical ideas— which Duke then developed, often brilliantly so— but who did not get what we'd now consider adequate credit or a just amount of money for their contributions.

But we have to remember the circumstances, and, above all, the times. After all, early on in his own career Duke had to "share credit" with his manager, Irving Mills—and Mills did nothing in terms of the actual composition. It was simply the nature of the music business in those days. In many ways, it still is.

AAJ: As a composer yourself, what do you find particularly inventive or imaginative in Duke's compositions?

EG: There's so much to say! I could talk about his subtle rhythms, his ever-fresh harmonies, his graceful yet unexpected melodies, his edgy and blended orchestrations: orchestrations in which the instruments you'd expect would be in the background are instead right up front, and those you thought would be in the lead are nestled nicely within the overall texture. I could go into great detail. But this interview is already long, so I hope you won't mind if I just suggest that people take a look at some of my writings about Duke—starting with the Ellington Companion. They might also enjoy "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Grundgestalt—Ellington from a Motivic Perspective." The title, of course, is meant humorously! That essay appeared originally in Jazz Perspectives; I posted it on my website.

Another essay, from the Journal of Jazz Studies, is: "Harlem Air Shaft"— a True Programmatic Composition?" I think there's solid evidence the answer is Yes! —despite the current tendency among academic jazz historians to cast doubt. That's likewise on my website.

I ought to say, too, that Ellington has inspired me in my own work. The clearest example is how the middle movement of my Trumpet Concerto—(a "classical" concerto)—roughly follows the instrumental design of "Concerto for Cootie." In both cases, the opening section uses a variety of mutes for the soloist; the middle, open horn; and in the closing section the muted trumpet returns. Here's a link to it.

AAJ: I'd like to conclude by asking: What are some of the new trends, and also the ongoing concerns in the academic world concerning Duke Ellington's music?

EG: There is, first of all, the new approach Aesthetic Realism brings to the understanding of Ellington—and I'm proud to be joined in it by, among other people, my colleague at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, jazz pianist and arranger Alan Shapiro. Other valuable studies, with diverse methodologies, are to be found in the two Cambridge volumes I mentioned earlier. Many scholars are now looking deeply into the sociological, musical, and economic environments in which Ellington worked. I'm particularly grateful to them, since my own emphasis has been largely philosophic, biographic, and technical.

Let me mention two recent books in this regard: Harvey G. Cohen's magisterial Duke Ellington's America; and—because it very carefully relates the early music of Ellington to that of James P. Johnson, George Gershwin and Paul WhitemanEllington Uptown: The Birth of Concert Jazz by John Howland. And there is also a new trend, which is very good, and long overdue, of taking a deeper look at the later music. There are, to my mind, very fine things—for example—in The River, Three Black Kings, and the Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.

It has been a joy to talk with you about Ellington. His music is for me—as I know it is for many other people—a tremendous source of grand emotion. There's so much there to discover. He did write hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pieces. And when you know, as Aesthetic Realism makes clear, that every beautiful moment in this vast body of music has a message for our very lives—the thrill in listening to Ellington just keeps growing larger!


I can add little to Dr. Green's philosophy of art and his analysis of Duke Ellington's music except to make a few comments of my own about the idea of realism in relation to art and aesthetics, and then to refer the reader to a few other resources. When philosophers are realists and think about art, they believe in the idea of objective beauty. Some aesthetic theory—and much of popular taste— disavows the reality of any beauty existing apart from the eye of the beholder. This subjectivism, or non-realism, beclouds many of the discussions about jazz and other arts forms. Yes, beauty is in the eye and ear of the beholder, but it is not only there: it is in what the eye or ear perceives as well. As C. S. Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man, citing Coleridge, one can be mistaken in calling a waterfall "pretty" when it is, in fact, "sublime." And in the moral realm, one can mistakenly call something good which is bad. Realist philosophers—and I am one—seek to identify and evaluate objective aesthetic states of affairs, according to sound criteria. We believe art can ennoble and inspire us to better appreciate the beauty we are given in reality itself. I have defended a realist account of beauty in my book Truth Decay (2000), so I resonate with the contribution of Eli Siegel's Aesthetic Realism in this regard. Indeed, I look forward to investigating this intriguing philosophy in more depth.

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