The astonishing Duke Ellington.

The astonishing Duke Ellington.

The astonishing Duke Ellington.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
Feb. 14 2007 11:51 AM

Duke Ellington

The supremacy of swing.

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The kind of swing that Webster practiced had always been a staple component of jazz in any category, because jazz began as dance music, and without a detectable beat the dancers would have been stymied. It need hardly be added that without a detectable beat, there can be no variations on it: For syncopation to exist, there must first be a regular pulse. No matter how complex, subtle, and allusive it became, jazz had always contained that energizing simplicity. Unfortunately, bebop had the technical means to eliminate it. The highly sophisticated instrumentalists of the rhythm section were encouraged to display their melodic invention: In the hurtling fast numbers, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie played showers of notes that deliberately suffocated any rhythmic pulse, while the rhythm instruments that might have contained the cascades within a palpable tempo were instead intent on claiming equal status by implying the beat instead of stating it. The word departure was often heard in approval: Everyone in the band departed as far as possible from a predictable measure. The result of the abandonment of a basic linear propulsion was a breakneck impetus with no real excitement. Only in the slow numbers could the listener tell if the instrumentalists were in command of anything except their technique. The upbeat stuff was a business simultaneously frantic and arid, a desert preening itself as a sandstorm; so, it was no wonder that Ellington, a cool customer full of the authentic juice, thought it a fraud.

The bop that didn't swing drove jazz toward the unflowering graveyard where pretension gets the blessing of academic approbation. It was a destination toward which the exhausted higher arts had spent a hundred years looking for refuge, but what was disconcerting was the way the popular arts headed for the same terminus almost as soon as they were invented. Even without the politically inspired character of bop—let's play something they can't steal—jazz would probably have taken the same course as the movie musical, in which a magically equipped performer like Gene Kelly sadly proved that if he were left to himself, he would ditch the ­self-­contained show numbers and turn the whole movie into a bad ballet. The fatal urge to be taken seriously would still have been there even if the musicians had all been white. But the best of them were black, and status was a matter of life and death.


Not even Ellington was immune to its lure. He was a superior being, but it took the Europeans to treat him like one. In Europe he sat down with royalty, as if his nickname were a real title. In America no president before Nixon ever invited him to the White House. He had to keep his orchestra on the road, and some of the roads led near enough to the South for Jim Crow to be waiting. Ellington did his best to stay out of all that, but it remained disgracefully true that there was plenty of humiliation available even in the North. It had to be faced: The tour was the key to his economics. He met the payroll as a bandleader, not as a composer. It was understandable that composition should become, in his own mind, his ticket to immortality. As a lover of his creative life, I tried hard to agree, but on the evidence of my ears I found the large-scale works smaller in every way than the ­three-­minute miracles. For one thing, the large-scale works didn't swing, except in selected passages that seemed to have been thrown in as sops to impatient dancers who shouldn't really have been in the hall. The possibility of more room for the band to breathe was tempting him away from the delicious intricacies he had been forced into when time was tight. Three minutes on shellac had been his ideal form from the start: He was a sonneteer, not an epic poet. The standard was set in the Cotton Club days, when cars still had running boards.

As the LP Ellington anthologies came out, I built up a library that went all the way back to his recorded beginnings. There was a particularly tremendous Ellington band in the mid-'30s, with Rex Stewart playing open horn to complement Cootie Williams and his sour manipulation of the plunger mute: two different kinds of shining trumpet, one a golden bell, the other a wail in the night. The way those two voices would call to each other was quintessential Ellington, for whom the sounds of the city—"Harlem Airshaft," "Take the A Train"—were a collective inspiration for a melodic urban speech that no poet could ever match, not even Hart Crane in "The Bridge" or Galway Kinnell in his wonderful ­mini­epic "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World." But Ellington's toughest connecting thread was the compactness of the head arrangements: As precise as if it had been scored, yet as loose and easy as a jam session, the section work never even riffed without varying and developing the figure. The word development fit for once, and in the only way it should: to mean a deepening, an enrichment.

Ellington gave his superbly ­self-­trained horses enough time—just enough time and no more—to perform every trick they knew, but they had to do it inside the corral. The result would have sounded like confinement if the rhythmic pulse, the swing, had not made it sound like freedom. The 1940–41 band was Ellington's apotheosis and as a consequence contained the materials of its own destruction, because all those star soloists wanted bands of their own. Hodges ­wasn't the only one who found out how hard it was to be the man in charge, and ever and anon the chastened escapees would make their way back to Ellington, but never again were enough of them available at once to recapitulate the hallucinating complexity of those beautiful recordings. I memorized every bar of every track, and without trying. Vintage Ellington was a language: ­many-­voiced, a conversation in itself, but a language nonetheless, or rather all the more. The most wonderful thing about the Ellington language was that it could be listened to only in the way it was created, through love.

Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.