Edward Green: Delighting in the Duke

Douglas Groothuis By

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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.
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