Sunday, 26 January 2014

World Wide Webster

Ben Webster's sojourn on the continent of Europe during the sixties and early seventies comprises one of the richest and most rewarding episodes in his career. Courtesy of a posting on Marc Myers' Jazzwax, I was alerted to a 1965 film from Webster's European period directed by Johan van der Keuken. Here is Big Ben: Ben Webster in Europe.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Washington Post

Responses from the community of Ellington scholars and aficionados to Terry Teachout's Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington have been ambivalent, to say the least. This is surprising considering that Teachout worked so closely with quite a few of the more celebrated members of that community in researching the book and he is scrupulous in acknowledging sources.

The facts Mr Teachout assembled with the support of members of the Ellington community are not in doubt, however. Rather, where the difficulty arises is not the 'facts' about Ellington (and, let's be honest,  actual 'facts'- in actual fact- are rather harder to come by than is popularly supposed and much of what passes for 'fact' is little more than opinion)but the emphasis some of these facts have been given and the way they have been pressed into the service of Mr Teachout's opinion.

The following review expresses very effectively the way many admirers of Ellington's work feel about this latest biography. The review is written by Bill McFadden, Editor of Ellingtonia, the Newsletter of The Duke Ellington Society, Inc, Washington DC.

Bill has graciously given me his permission to reproduce the review here.

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout New York: Gotham (Penguin) Books, 2013
Reviewed by William McFadden
We Ellington/Strayhorn “true believers” are a hardy lot, able to withstand fact, criticism or conjecture where the Maestro is concerned. We are willing keepers of the flame, perfectly capable of burnishing the legend. Over the years, we’ve read the best and the worst about Duke, but we remain disinclined to interpret such infor- mation without taking into account social context, circumstantial nuance, and human nature. We refuse to indulge in denial. What we don’t want to read is old information which has been crafted to function as exposé. This is especially true when the discussion turns to the music.
Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by arts critic and author, Terry Teachout attempts to venture beyond its subject’s carefully constructed, lifelong façade, but only succeeds at being the most unsettlingly harsh Ellington biography to join the ever-growing Ducal literary canon. Scholars and serious aficionados will find its contents disturbing. Those readers will doubtlessly remain puzzled as to why it was necessary to repackage published semi-petty swipes at Duke’s very character from some who were there, but mainly from those who were not. Some readers could easily conclude Duke Ellington, in today’s parlance, really wasn’t all that.
Not that the reader hasn’t been warned. Clues to the nature and scope of this biography are immediately found not only in its subtitle, A Life of . . . but also on the inner flap of its dust jacket: “. . . an impenetrably enigmatic personality whom no one, not even his closest friends, claimed to understand.” Mr. Teachout promises “. . . to uncover the facts about the public and private lives of Duke Ellington . . . Duke peels away countless layers of evasion and deception to tell the unvarnished truth about the creative genius . . .” The process of stripping varnish requires extreme abrasion combined with toxic solvents. It’s messy, dangerous and uncomfortable. Afterward, one might question whether it was worth all the trouble.
Perspective is established in Prologue: “Underneath his soigné exterior, Ellington was a self-centered hedonist who lived a nomadic existence in which everything was subordinated to his art—and, insofar as possible, his pleasure.” Uh-oh. A dissection of both man and music ensues, the chief criticism being that Duke was the embodiment of others’ influence and talent who was melodically incapable of becoming a popular songwriter in the ranks of Berlin, Porter, Arlen, Kern, and Rodgers. Similarly, the stubborn refusal to broaden his familiarity with formal composition styles and techniques kept him from successfully composing and performing the serious, extended works (a la Gershwin) to which he aspired, and in accordance with heightened public expectations of highbrow greatness stoked by Irving Mills.
In addition, the reader learns how Ellington’s textbook narcissism with its regal sense of entitlement was manifested in claiming work which was not his own, withholding publishers’ credit on many of his best-known compositions (“the dreaded medley”) from the musicians in his employ who originated the riffs or themes which formed their basis. And, he constantly borrowed from and recycled his own material. He was a chronic procrastinator in his work and a manipulator in his relationships, oblivious to any detrimental impact either had upon those who idolized him. He was a glutton for adulation, food and, especially, women—many, many women. Very well, we are not unfamiliar with this territory, but our memories cast it as rough going.
Mr. Teachout is an astute critic of discerning taste with a compelling, terse writing style. His approach to writing Duke consisted of combing virtually every article, treatise and tome pertaining to the topic, along with transcribed interviews (primarily orchestra members) from the Oral History American Archive at Yale University. Curiously, The New Yorker is cited most freqently, beginning with their columns on Harlem in the 1920s and continuing for the rest of the book. Time magazine is second, followed by The New York Times.
Don George’s Sweet Man (the sleaziest of all Ellington biographies) and James Lincoln Collier’s flawed Duke Ellington appear for some reason to be the primary literary references, supplemented with the writings of Gunther Schuller on jazz in general and Ellington/Strayhorn in particular. As a consequence, the book’s voice and tone emanate from a chorus of the aforementioned, joined by Whitney Balliett, Norman Granz, Stanley Dance, and Spike Hughes. The Upper East Side point of view can often be patrician. In a separate category, so to speak, Mercer’s Duke Ellington in Person and the memoirs of both Barney Bigard and Rex Stewart complement the voices of those band members airing past grievances and gripes.

Most of the book’s chapters invite argument. For instance, on the issue of composition credit and royalty payment we note that all of the tunes in dispute (Mood Indigo and Sophisticated Lady among others) were composed, recorded and published prior to 1940—the end of Duke’s “business arrangement” with the sympathetically portrayed Mills. Until then, the reality was that nothing from the Duke Ellington catalog was exempt from “Ellington-Mills” as the primary, if not only credit, a perpetually common practice in the music business. A contradictory final word, though, belongs to Mr. Strayhorn’s: “. . . these people don’t go somewhere else and write beautiful music. You don’t hear anything else from them. You do from Ellington.”

After 1940, however, Duke appropriated material from Billy Strayhorn, his own private formal musicianship and culture wing. For the highly sensitive Strays, it was callous, unfair treatment from his benefactor and collaborator. But Duke kept Billy, as others “in the palm of his hand,” crushing his protégé’s artistic development. By the time Billy begins receiving proper recognition, it’s too late—he’s consumed by alcoholism and depression. His untimely death “would thwart them once and for all,” meaning the boss, his women, and the organisation’s output. In other words, the well of creativity would rapidly dry. We do question how an “openly gay” individual could be forced to live and work “in the shadows behind the curtains,” while Mr. Teachout is coming to terms with “who wrote what?” The latter question was settled through the efforts of Walter Van de Leur in the 90s. The author then tells us that the question of Billy’s sexuality was answered in 1981. And? The reader must consult the author’s notes to discover this scoop was broken by none other than Don George.
Much is made of Ellington’s perceived lack of success with grand scale composition for stage, screen, concerts and records. Symbolic of this view is Duke’s alleged frustration over not bringing Black, Brown and Beige to full fruition, a constant reference point for noting the derivative elements of every tune analyzed in almost every chapter. Here too, the assertion is that Duke reached his (serious) musical nadir; he was creatively spent, totally dependent upon Billy for material. Other than the late career New Orleans Suite, the Sacred Concerts, and The River it primarily came from Strayhorn.
The composer similarly ignored the book/lyrics/score Broadway musical formula in My People, Beggar’s Holiday and A Drum is a Womanhence another set of laid eggs. An entire chapter on Jump for Joy contains a back story on the communist influence in show business from the 1930s through the 1950s as evidenced by musicals celebrating labor and/or equal rights. It subtly implies that Ellington, despite his loathing of com- munism, was a patsy for the fellow travelers who financed and meddled with the Jump for Joy production.
A steady barrage of objections to Duke’s high living, voracious appetite, and pursuit of women is repeated throughout the narrative to the point where they smack of resentment. The final passages are replete with tawdry melodrama: “. . . one more musical trick tucked up his now-frayed sleeve.” and “At seventy-one, there was still life in the old boy yet.” Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn are reduced to pitiable caricatures.
We find later in the book that the only “breaking” information uncovered concerns Mr. Ellington, 70, and a Mr. Brown, 62, mixing it up backstage in 1969. Mr. Brown lost two front teeth in the fracas and immediately retired from music. The source is Duke’s Bones: Ellington’s Great Trombonists by Kurt Dietrich, Germany, 1995.
Duke is a commercial effort written for today’s era of the 24-hour news cycle, reality TV, devices and apps. It is chronicle in the manner of a program called Behind the Music which documents the rise and fall of recent pop stars. Duke’s points are made by cherry-picking untoward facts and quotations relevant to the target, and conforming to a set of biases, which are then packaged as a “fair and balanced” view.
Ultimately we are reminded of a television ‘special event’ from 1986, The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault, hosted by Geraldo Rivera. After weeks of fanfare and ballyhoo, Rivera and crew demolished a basement wall in Chicago on live TV in order to uncover the gangster’s secret crypt and the untold treasures contained within. A transfixed viewer nation watched as the debris was cleared to reveal—an empty room, save for some empty bottles, one of which Mr. Rivera proudly thrust toward the camera claiming that it once contained bootleg gin.
Terry Teachout, in mounting this formidable project, clearly believed he could finally jackhammer through the monolith of inscrutability that is Duke Ellington’s legend, only to realize it cannot be done. There is a sense of consternation and an undertone of frustration which the reader may find difficult to avoid. In the conclusion the author admits that Duke “is universally acknowledged as the greatest composer in the history of jazz . . . in the history of American music.” Additional encomiums speak to his band leading and piano mastery, and that he remains “an enduring exemplar of black accomplishments and pride.”
We sadly think of those whose only written exposure to Ellingtonia will be this volume, read on pads, tablets and smartphones. Many of us who have been around for a while are highly familiar with what was once contained in those unearthed dusty bottles; the acceptance and the moving on have long since taken place.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Grinnell and bear it...

Now here's a funny thing.

Yesterday on I saw listed Fifteen Swing, an extremely rare Duke Ellington LP.

It was recorded at, and later pressed by, Grinnell College,Iowa. From its website, here's what the college looks like today.

The Ellington band performed there on 10 January, 1957, riding the crest of the wave that began building in Newport, RI the previous summer. Bliss must it have been to be alive in that dawn.

The album was posted at a starting bid of $40.00. Imagine my dismay today when I signed in to 'my Ebay' to find the album had been sold at a 'buy it now' price of $400.00 no less. Prospective bidders had been gazumped! I don't suppose I blame the purchaser. Had I those sorts of funds, I'd certainly have bought it. The fact that the LP was signed by Jimmy Woode, the band's bassist on the occasion can only have added to the lustre. Oh, well. I may get to hear the recording one day. And at least, until then, I have the pictures. I had never seen a picture of the album before. Here is the gallery...

There is a little more information about Duke's visit to Ginnell at the college's web page here. The citation on the photograph (printed below) reads:

'1957 was a very good year for Grinnell Concerts.
In January, the legendary Duke Ellington came to campus and played a show in Darby Gymnasium. ... Below are pictures of the performers in interview at Grinnell, possibly by members of Grinnell's pre-KDIC radio station, KGRW.
Apparently, Ellington's concert garnered mixed reviews. A letter to the editor in a 1957 copy of the S&B stated the following: "As I see the problem, the people who did not care for the concert fall into two categories: those who do not care for jazz, and those who are the continual complainers on the campus."'

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Cottoning On

A very good friend of Villes Ville whose work for the Internet Archive features in our posting every Monday recently started his own blog, Cottontail On Jazz. There 's a permanent link to his writing on Ellington at the top of the page but you can access the full blog here.

I have a soft spot for Cotton Tail. It was the first Ellington record I ever heard. Along with Take the 'A' Train (which for some reason didn't make quite as much of an impression on my fifteen year old self) it featured on an old double album called Original RCA Swing Sounds which I purchased during my initial flush as a fervent fan of Glenn Miller (!)

I didn't like the track at all. It seems to me not even to have a proper melody. It sounded rough and unfinished - just reeds and brass blowing across the chords of a half-finished tune, the saxophone solo a rough-hewn half hearted blowing with no art or construction. So much for Duke Ellington and Ben Webster - the folly of youth! I tell a somewhat different story nowadays.

Ironically, so the story goes, Webster himself was less than impressed with his own solo. He was gulled by Ellington into believing the first take was just a rehearsal and expected another go. The track, with Webster's 'work in progress' is, of course, a classic. Do visit Cottontail on Jazz and, in the meantime, courtesy of the cathode You Tube, here is the original side:

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Crescendo in View

Views and reviews concerning Terry Teachout's  
biography Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington continue to accumulate. 

I haven't asked permission to quote Loren Schoenberg directly from Facebook but he posted there a copy of the first page of Ellington's composition - in his own hand - Diminuendo in Blue as an eloquent riposte to Terry Teachout's contention that Ellington "stopped short of grappling with anything beyond the basics of elementary harmony."

In view of this hostile press, I wonder if Mr Teachout isn't trying to row back a little on some of the claims in his book. In a recent interview with Ethan Iverson on Do The Math, TT claims:

"...some people think that in order to take Duke Ellington seriously as a composer, we have to believe that he was successful as a composer of large-scale works.  The idea, I guess, is to push him up into the classical-music arena: he played in Carnegie Hall, therefore he's serious.  And that's completely wrong. Duke Ellington is serious because he is Duke Ellington.  He’s serious because of the work itself.  It’s interesting that he wanted to write the suites.  It’s interesting that he wanted to play in Carnegie Hall. That tells you important things as him as a person. But jazz does not usually profit from being compared directly to classical music, at least not on that level of generality. Most of the time, such comparisons do not illuminate jazz in any way. I wouldn't have made them in Duke if Ellington himself hadn't forced the issue by writing pieces like HarlemReminiscing in Tempo and Black, Brown and Beige. Jazz is a completely successful form of expression in and of itself, the same way the mystery novel is."

The emphasis is mine - and it's a bit rich... it is Terry Teachout himself in his book who makes the comparison: his book begins with Ellington's 'failure' to make a satisfactory large-scale composition Black, Brown and Beige on the eve of its première and he doesn't let go. Rather cheeky, then, to make that contention now  and - worse - to blame Ellington himself for having the temerity to work with longer forms. The whole point of Ellington's artistic life was to resist useless labels and categories (like 'jazz' and 'classical' - an even more meaningless label)and whose work took him where it would. To hold this against Ellington as a reason for comparing him to 'classical' music and then as another stick to beat him with because he 'failed' in European terms is just adding insult to injury. Mr Teachout has been very scrupulous in the name of accuracy to  work with the community of Ellington collectors and scholars. Yes, his book may be factually the most accurate ever written - but it is not 'facts' with which that community now takes issue but the rather patrician and judgemental tone much of the book takes which, in the main,consists of praising Ellington with faint damns...

Ethan Iverson also includes in his latest blog post a superb essay on Ellington's music called Reverential Gesture. This is what I was expecting from the Teachout book - informed critical analysis which enhances the listener's appreciation of the music and takes him to new places. Here is a small taster:

"Every Ellington record I’ve ever heard has a unique ambience. Thick harmonic complexity sits deep inside blues and swing. It never feels “tight” or “over-organized.” There’s grease in every corner, but it is unquestionably deeply sophisticated. Perhaps the walls and the furniture lean understandingly in response to this music."

Wonderful stuff! Read the whole piece by clicking on the title (above).

And you can read the whole transcript of Ethan Iverson's interview with Terry Teachout here.