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

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.

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.