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 following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.

Jitterbugs are always above you.
Duke Ellington, Hear Me Talkin' to Ya, edited by Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro

Duke Ellington. Click image to expand.
Duke Ellington
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Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., in 1899. His musical training was a compound of piano lessons and an early exposure to the heady cocktail of church music and burlesque theater. His career as an orchestral leader began when he organized small bands for parties. His first professional band, the Washingtonians, had only half a dozen players when it reached New York in 1923. At the Cotton Club in Harlem, the size of his band increased to 10 players or more, on its way to the later standard aggregate of 16—the full Ellington orchestra (usually billed as the Famous Orchestra) was usually no bigger than that. But it could create its own world, and the truest statement ever made about Ellington's supremacy was that his orchestra was his instrument.

Ellington was appalled by the very thought that jazz might "develop" to the point where people could no longer dance to it. When he said "jitterbugs are always above you," he wasn't really complaining. They might have kept him awake, but he wanted them to be there. He was recalling the sights and sounds of New York life that he got into "Harlem Airshaft," one of his three-minute symphonies from the early 1940s. If he had put the sounds in literally, one of his most richly textured numbers would have been just a piece of ­literal-­minded program music like Strauss' Sinfonia Domestica. But Ellington put them in creatively, as a concrete transference from his power of noticing to his power of imagining. Ellington was always a noticer, and in the early 1940s, he had already noticed what was happening to the ­art form that he had helped to invent. He put his doubts and fears into a single funny line. "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." Characteristically, he set the line to music, and it swung superbly. But under the exultation, there is foreboding. Ellington could see the writing on the wall, in musical notation. His seemingly flippant remark goes to the heart of a long crisis in the arts in the 20th century, and whether or not the crisis was a birth pang is still in dispute.

For Ellington, it was a death knell. The ­art form he had done so much to enrich depended, in his view, on its entertainment value. But for the next generation of musicians, the ­art form depended on sounding like art, with entertainment a secondary consideration at best, and at worst a cowardly concession to be avoided. In a few short years, the most talented of the new jazz musicians succeeded in proving that they were deadly serious. Where there had been ease and joy, now there was difficulty and desperation. Scholars of jazz who take a developmental view would like to call the hiatus a transition, but the word the bebop literati used at the time was all too accurate: It was a revolution. A simple case is the contrast between Ben Webster and John Coltrane in their respective heydays. As a sideman for Ellington, Webster played short solos on some of the ­three-­minute-­miracle records made by the 1940–41 band. It was the most star-studded, yet best-­integrated, ensemble Ellington had in his whole career. Every soloist was encouraged to give it everything he had in a brief space, with no room for cliché or even repetition: Riffs were discouraged in favor of a legato flow which, though improvised at the time, could have been written down afterward and shown not a single stutter. Musicians of the caliber of Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, and Rex Stewart customarily packed more into their allotted few seconds than they later deployed in a whole evening when they were leading their own orchestras.

But nobody packed more in than Webster. When I first heard him in action with Ellington, I thought he left even Coleman Hawkins sounding tentative. Webster's solo on "Cottontail" was my favorite. After a few hearings, I could hum and grunt every note of it, and 55 years later that line of notes is still in my brain like the sonic equivalent of a neon sign on a nightclub with a long name. As an adjective, Websterian took on a new, modern meaning, with modernism taken in the sense of the age of drama happening again, in a new form and in our time, but with all the primordial vitality of the poetic emerging from the savage.  Now put "Cottontail" aside, take a couple of decades to regain your breath, and listen to John Coltrane subjecting some helpless standard to ritual murder. I won't waste time trying to be funny about John Coltrane, because Philip Larkin has already done it, lavishing all his comic invention on the task of conveying his authentic rage. (For those who have never read Larkin's All What Jazz, incidentally, the references to Coltrane are the ideal way in to the burning center of Larkin's critical vision.) There is nothing to be gained by trying to evoke the full, face-­freezing, ­gut-churning hideosity of all the things Coltrane does that Webster doesn't. But there might be some value in pointing out what Coltrane doesn't do that Webster does. Coltrane's instrument is likewise a tenor sax, but there the resemblance ends. In fact, it is only recognizable as a tenor because it can't be a bass or a soprano: It has a tenor's range but nothing of the voice that Hawkins discovered for it and Webster focused and deepened. There is not a phrase that asks to be remembered except as a lesion to the inner ear, and the only purpose of the repetitions is to prove that what might have been charitably dismissed as an accident was actually meant. Shapelessness and incoherence are treated as ideals. Above all, and beyond all, there is no end to it. There is no reason except imminent death for the cacophonous parade to stop. The impressiveness of the feat depends entirely on the air it conveys that the perpetrator has devoted his life to making this discovery: Supreme mastery of technique has led him to this charmless demonstration of what he can do that nobody else can. The likelihood that nobody else would want to is not considered.

Here made manifest is the difference between the authoritarian and the authoritative. Coltrane made listening compulsory; Webster made listening irresistible. But such enchantment was bound to be suspect for a new generation that was determined not to be patronized. The alleged progession from mainstream to modern jazz, with bebop as the intermediary, had a political component as well an aesthetic one and it was the political component that made it impossible to argue against at the time, and makes it difficult even now. The aesthetic component was standard for all the arts in the 20th century: One after another they tried to move beyond mere enjoyment as a criterion, a move that put a premium on technique, turned technique into subject matter, and eventually made professional expertise a requirement not just for participation but even for appreciation. The political component, however, was unique to jazz. It had to do with black dignity, a cause well worth making sacrifices for. Unfortunately, the joy of the music was one of the sacrifices. Dignity saw enjoyment as its enemy.

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