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 tunessnap 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 trumpetmuted, 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 importantand 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 thenalmost 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! Yetand this is the pointeven 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 musiclike all great arttell 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 dowhen 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 Ellingtonlike in Shakespeare or Beethoventhe 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 soundthe 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 oppositesroughness and smoothnesssomething 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 togetherand 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 composerin 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 rhythmso beautiful in his handsis 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 Yorkthat as far as I can see from my research into jazz history, no one wrote about the greatness of jazz as artnot just as entertainmentearlier 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: jazzwhen it is true to itselfis 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 jazzin 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 bestand let's face it, some jazz can be dullwe 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 peopleif need be, with the world itselfin an honest, beautiful manner. How to say Yes and No in a way that has kindness in it each time, has good will.