Monday, 16 April 2012

Cloud Nine

It is remiss of me not to record here the passing of Kay Davis, coloratura, on 27 January, 2012 at the age of 91.

I was reminded of her transcendent vocal work when I happened upon a rare film of her singing one of her most famous pieces, On A Turquoise Cloud. The performance comes from a Universal short, Symphony in Swing (1949). The brief passage is embedded in Leonard Feather’s The Duke Ellington Story which I happened upon in one of my frequent blue rambles through the net.

Subsequently I found a little more of the film which is posted here also in tribute to a remarkable lady.

Thank you for Kay Davis.

Sunday, 15 April 2012


Admirers of Duke Ellington’s music are blessed with the quality of the scrutiny scholars continue to bring to bear on his work.

Their studies offer fresh perspectives, provide opportunities for us to revisit pieces which sometimes fall into unjustified neglect, help us to understand a little more and appreciate a little better his achievements.

It has been a particular pleasure recently for me to play Ellington and Strayhorn’s Peer Gynt Suite and to spend time absorbing a new study on this masterwork.

Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and the Adventures of Peer Gynt in America is a study which has been written by Anna Harwell Celenza, Thomas E. Caestecker Professor of Music at Georgetown University.

When it was first issued, Ellington and Strayhorn’s arrangement of Grieg’s music for Ibsen’s play was banned from broadcast in the composer’s native Norway. Ellington remained circumspect about this slight to the end of his life. The suite received largely indifferent notices elsewhere and whilst his version of the Nutcracker has become something of a Christmas staple and is often performed in the repertoire of many outfits, Peer Gynt was never performed live by the Ellington band nor – so far as I am aware – by anyone else.

Having read Anna Celenza’s work, I can see now that the reason for this is largely lack of appreciation of Ellington and Strayhorn’s artistic intention and the scope of their achievements. Anna's study more than redresses the balance and is invaluable. I will not repeat the argument of her study here: let the reader discover that for himself in prose more elegant and incisive than I can muster. Suffice it to say, Anna’s work sheds new light on the literary influences of translations of Ibsen’s play, of previous performances, of Strayhorn’s influence and the political context in which the musicians were working. Music samples and a fascinating account of the recording sessions are also available. The study can be downloaded for free and comprises part of the Summer 2011 edition of the on-line journal Music and Politics, Volume V Number 2 of which can be found here.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Scoring a Century

“Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young” Duke Ellington (famously) said on being passed over for the Pulitzer Prize in 1965.

Fate is still playing catch up with the scope of Ellington’s achievements. David Schiff’s new book The Ellington Century offers something of a helping hand along the road to enlightenment, however.

A companion piece in many ways to Harvey G Cohen’s recent study Duke Ellington’s America, like this earlier volume, Schiff sheds new light on the political nature of Ellington’s work – where the musician did not always receive the credit he deserved during his own lifetime.

The Pulitzer board’s slight was one of the ways in which Ellington did not receive the credit he deserved for his music, either. And it is as a study of his music that Schiff’s book is particularly valuable.

Ellington heard in colour. In the earlier chapters of his book, David Schiff argues that the quality of these ‘tone parallels’ Ellington created deserve their place amongst the works of Ravel or Debussy. Schiff is not trying to legitimize Ellington’s efforts in some way by arguing that somehow Ellington’s music can be judged by the standards of Western European culture. That would be a betrayal of Ellington’s complete disdain for critical categorization. Rather, Schiff argues that in terms of craftsmanship, serious intent and artistic value, Ellington’s evanescent, transcendent forms are the equal of European achievements in this sphere. That Ellington’s music was not the product of the hot house or conservatoire, but written, often, in transit while he tried to keep a working dance band on the road; that his music reached out to popular forms, celebrated the ‘gut’ rather than the ‘nut’, makes his achievements all the more remarkable and explains why he is ‘beyond category’.

From John Hammond to James Lincoln Collier, Schiff dismisses the charges of pretension or charlatanism that critics of this stripe have levelled against Ellington. His account of the creation of pieces such as Reminiscing in Tempo and Sugar Hill Penthouse is, above all, very moving. Ellington wrote out of his own life, using the materials – as he said himself once – nearest to hand. The life was the work – and I don’t know any better definition of genius than that.

Finally, Schiff turns his attention to the Sacred Concerts, works that continue to create only indifference in certain critical quarters. Schiff argues that David Danced Before The Lord brings Ellington’s oeuvre full circle.  Schiff would extend the number of Sacred pieces to five, including the 1958 recording of Black, Brown and Beige and 1963’s My People and his reading makes clear the extent to which these works were charged politically for the composer: that freedom was both present and becoming.

The Ellington Century by David Schiff is available here. It is an essential purchase for any serious student of Ellingtonia.

(More on this new study here).