“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.