Saturday, 28 July 2012

Black, Brown and Neige

Dashing through the snow...

Why did Duke Ellington record a version of Jingle Bells as part of his sessions for the Midnight in Paris album?

This particular session, Ellington’s penultimate for Columbia, took place in New York on 21 June, 1962:

Columbia recording session at the 30th Street Studio.

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra: Ray Nance, c; Cat Anderson, Bill Berry, Roy Burrowes, t; Lawrence Brown, Britt Woodman, tb; Chuck Connors, btb; Jimmy Hamilton, cl, ts; Johnny Hodges, as; Russell Procope, as, cl; Paul Gonsalves, ts; Harry Carney, bs; Duke Ellington, p; Aaron Bell, b; Sam Woodyard, d.

June seems a little previous to be thinking of Christmas music (although it’s true that stars such as Frank Sinatra recorded their Christmas albums in August). It’s pretty much an ‘orphaned’ track. Was it intended as a single? What would have been on the reverse?

In fact, the recording remained unreleased until after Ellington’s death when it appeared first on a series of five albums on CBS in – appropriately – France. The track occasionally turns up on compact disc anthologies of Jazz at Christmas, etc.

Well, one possible reason might be found in the dialogue from the film Paris Blues. In his book on jazz and film, Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema, Krin Gabbard transcribes part of a scene of the film. Ram Bowen (Paul Newman), the eponymous trombone-playing hero of the piece, has gone to see music impresario Rene Bernard (played by Andre Luguet) with a view to getting his most recent composition played in concert.

The dialogue is as follows:

Bernard: You have a good melodic feel.
Bowen: Mr Bernard, I want to develop that theme into a piece to be played in concert. Now, what’s the possibility?
Bernard: Mr Bowen, you are a creative musician. Every time you put a horn in your mouth, you are composing. Your improvisations are highly personal. They give you a stamp as a musician. But there is a great deal of difference between that and an important piece of serious music.
Bowen: In other words, you’re trying to tell me that I’m just sort of a lightweight.
Bernard: I don’t know what you are yet, Mr Bowen. And neither do you. I’m only saying that you haven’t yet given yourself a chance to find out.
Bowen: I’ve worked with musicians all my life. I know everything I can do.
Bernard: Perhaps you need to do something else now. Paris is a great city for an artist to work and study composition, harmony, theory, counterpoint. Perhaps you need to change you life for a couple of years in order to give yourself a chance to do what you wish.
Bowen: Well, in other words, it’s no good.
Bernard: On the contrary, I like it.
Bowen: But it’s not good enough to be played.
Bernard: Oh, I’m certain, [pause] a record company...
Bowen: But nothing more than that.
Bernard: It is what it is. A jazz piece of certain charm and [pause] melody.

The piece in question is Ellington’s theme for the film, Paris Blues. All his life, Ellington suffered a comparison between his work and that of the Western, European tradition. Such comparisons are not only odious but also completely irrelevant to what Ellington and Strayhorn were trying to do. Worse, whenever Ellington did attempt something beyond the confines of the three minute seventy-eight side, he was castigated by the likes of John Hammond for pretension if not betrayal of the blues form: for pieces such as Reminiscing in Tempo or Black, Brown and Beige  Ellington repeatedly suffered this charge, culminating, famously, in the Pulitzer Prize Board’s failure to give him the award in 1965.

The dialogue from this film for which Ellington composed the music resonates, then, in a very particular way. It is not as if, in composing the film score, Ellington was offering parody or pastiche.  It was – to paraphrase the dialogue – what it was: consummate work by Ellington and Strayhorn. It is Ellington’s music itself then which is being given seven shades of back handed compliment in this exchange.

Did Ellington dwell on this dialogue when he was assembling pieces for his French album twelve months later? Well, Ram Bowen’s final retort in this scene – not transcribed here by Gabbard – gives us pause. In response to the claim that his piece has a certain ‘charm’ and ‘melody’, ‘Ram’ replies:

‘Yeah, well, Jingle Bells is a great tune. You can hum that the first time you hear it.’

In other words, the composer finds the remarks of the impresario crass, patronizing and insulting, the fruits of his labours being of no more artistic merit than – literally -  a jingle.

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