Edward Green: Delighting in the Duke

Douglas Groothuis By

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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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