Arranging Ellington: Interview with Terry Teachout

A reminder to Arranging Ellington participants that you have until December 15 to submit your arrangements. Until then, I'll be monitoring the Work in Progress thread and will be happy to answer any questions you might have.

In the meanwhile, I'll be posting my final contributions to the Arranging Ellington blog: a series of interviews with individuals who have interesting things to say about Duke's life and work. First up: Terry Teachout.

Critic, biographer, librettist, and playwright Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, the critic-at-large of Commentary, and blogs at About Last Night. His Ellington biography, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham Books) was published in October of this year. As I noted in my Recommended Reading post, it's a teriffically well-written book that does a superb job of placing Ellington's life within the broader context of American social history. It's also been the subject of some controversy, which we'll address in this interview.

I spoke to Teachout by phone last month.


DJA: Do you remember the first time you encountered Duke's music?


TT: Yes, I do. My father was a collector of big band records. He had one Ellington album, a collection of the 1940-42 Victor sides called In A Mellotone. That had a lot of the well-known sides on it. The one that hit me most forcibly was "Sepia Panorama." At this point — this would have been around '67, '68 — I was playing classical violin, and I'd never really heard any creative jazz bass playing, and "Sepia Panorama" is a feature for Jimmie Blanton. And I was so knocked out that I borrowed a plywood bass from the junior high school band room, took it home one summer, and taught myself to play bass, listening to this album and other records. But the album had all sorts of other important tracks on it: the title track, "A Portrait of Bert Williams"… I'm trying to remember which specific ones were on there — it's been more than forty years! But it was a good selection of the best of the Blanton-Webster sides. Not that there are bad ones.


When you're that young, you know, you're experiencing everything in isolation. I simply didn't know who Duke Ellington was. Yet that first impression was a tremendous one, I think in some ways because it was naive, because I didn't have any context. I had heard very little big band music. My father was a Stan Kenton buff, so I heard a lot of Stan Kenton around the house, and I was also hearing Basie, Benny Goodman, the other swing band leaders of the period, Claude Thornhill, right at that moment. And along comes Ellington, who doesn't sound like any of them, not at all! At that point, of course, I couldn't articulate what it was that was so different about his sound. All I knew that it was different — the whole sound of the band, the way that it played, the way Ellington and Strayhorn wrote for it — that it was just not like Fletcher Henderson writing for Benny Goodman, or a head arrangement by the Basie band. It was in a completely different sonic universe. And I loved the sound of it. Still do, obviously. But back then it hit me immediately, absolutely immediately. As soon as I put on that album, I thought, "Whoever this guy is, whatever this music is, I love it." I'll never forget that.


DJA: I'm curious what initially attracted you to Ellington as a biographical subject, especially given the number of full-length biographies that are already out there. What was the new light that you hoped to bring to the discussion with this book?


TT: Well, to begin with, it has been nearly twenty years since the last Ellington biography, and you really need to revisit the lives of great men every twenty years or so, because new source material becomes available and new scholarship (and the resulting new perspectives) goes into the pipeline. There wasn't any question, when I started out, that there was going to be a lot of new material to work with.


But I also felt that the previous biographies of Ellington were not adequate in a number of crucial respects. They typically didn't place him well in terms of the larger world of art and culture. They were not very comprehending about the complexities of Ellington's position in the black class structure, or weren't frank about it. No previous biography had really been frank about his offstage life. And there was also a similar lack of either candor or penetration about the whole problem of Ellington's collaborative procedures. I've found, now that the book is out, that it's this last area that has really taken readers by surprise. It's what I get asked about most often. And I tried to be very careful in writing this book to explain that I'm not trying to diminish Ellington as an artist by pointing out that some of his pieces make use of unacknowledged collaborators.


The fact is that the Strayhorn "problem" is no longer a problem, because Walter van de Leur, in his great Strayhorn book Something to Live For…


DJA: Yeah, that book is amazing.


TT: It's essential! And he went through all the manuscripts, all of them, and has identified with exquisite precision who wrote what. And one of the things that really surprised me about that book was the way in which it pointed out that it was extremely unusual for Ellington and Strayhorn to work on the same piece.


DJA: "Sepia Panorama" being a rare exception.


TT: Very rare! The best example of a chart to which they both contributed is "Rocks in My Bed." That's the one I always cite, because I've examined the manuscript, and you can see not only the change in handwriting, but the change in compositional style. It's a good illustration of how different their ways of writing were. But it's fascinating that until van de Leur published this book, people who really should have known better assumed that pieces that Strayhorn wrote were in fact by Ellington.


On the bandstand, Duke was very good about making sure that Strayhorn got credit. But when they settled on an arrangement, after 1956, by which all of the suites, all of their collaborative ventures, were credited as being "by Ellington and Strayhorn" — you know, like "Lennon-McCartney" — the inevitable result, since Strayhorn did not appear with the band, was that people who didn't know any better would too often assume that Ellington wrote it.


DJA: Well, in the liner notes to, say, Such Sweet Thunder, it doesn't actually spell out which of those are Strayhorn contributions, it just says "Ellington-Strayhorn" for the whole thing.


TT: Right, or The Far East Suite. It just amazes me that they wouldn't point out that "Isfahan" is by Billy Strayhorn. Not that it's not obvious to us now! But when you go back and look at the original reviews of these recordings, Strayhorn gets left out all the time, both in the fifties and in the sixties. It wasn't until well after his death that he started to get the credit he deserved for his contributions to the Ellington-Strayhorn operation.


DJA: I think the great strength of your book is how you've situated Duke within the larger fabric of American history and culture. You get a vivid account of the struggles that Duke faced throughout his career, and we emerge with a real sense of how sophisticated he was about the ways in which he, and his music, were presented to the public. From almost the very beginning of his career, he was somehow able to carve out a place for himself as a respected, serious African-American composer, at a time when that was a role that didn't really exist.


TT: Oh, it didn't exist at all! Initially it was [Ellington's manager Irving] Mills' idea to market the band in that way, and his reasons for doing so were commercial. He was cutting in on Ellington's copyrights, and so if Ellington was presented as a composer, and if he performed primarily his own music, then Mills profited more as a result. But Mills was also very shrewd in understanding that there was a place for the person whom Duke Ellington became. And to Ellington's credit — because he was a child of the black bourgeoisie in Washington DC, he believed devoutly in the importance of social respectability — he got, right away, what Mills was up to, ran with it, and kept doing it for the rest of his life. It suited his personality, it suited his own self-understanding. He wanted to be known as somebody who was significant in in a way that transcended what your average Harlem bandleader did, and that he was a composer whose music had larger significance beyond the world of jazz. He was very aware of that as a goal. And of course he achieved it decades before any other black composer, in jazz or classical music, achieved it.


DJA: As you write in your book, Duke was deadly serious about his personal religious practice, and it seemed as if the opportunity to present that first Concert of Sacred Music at Grace was deeply meaningful to him. And while this concert was primarily existing music, it allowed the opportunity for him to follow it up with a concert of original compositions, and I think some of the most inventive and structurally sophisticated works of his late career are in the Second Sacred Concert.


TT: I absolutely agree with that. If Ellington had had the sense to work with a librettist, the Second Sacred Concert might well be something approaching a masterpiece. But his lyrics are a real problem in that work, and I think they interfere with our ability to take the music as seriously as we ought to.


DJA: I think that's true, although I also appreciate the surrealism of the juxtaposition. It's so idiosyncratic and personal!


TT: It's a point of view, yes, but to me, it's just a terrible flaw. The lyrics are naive in way that's out of keeping with the sophistication of the music.


I want to circle back just a little bit… Ellington started working on these projects at exactly the moment that Strayhorn was exiting the picture. Because of his alcoholism, because of his rapidly declining health. And Duke was in middle age, it was a difficult moment for him. And for him to be suddenly presented with this new kind of challenge, something that he had not done before, other than in Black, Brown and Beige — nothing could possibly have been more timely for him. And I think that's why so much energy got put into them, why particularly in the Second Sacred Concert, he makes real steps forward that we don't find elsewhere in his work. So often in the career of a long-lived artist, timing is everything, and that commission came at precisely the right moment for him.


DJA: I think a lot of people were surprised at the unflinching nature of your book. You come down particularly hard on Duke's proscrastinatory ways, his appropriation of melodic material from the members of his band, and the structural failings of the long-form works. Now, it's not like you're the first person to cast a critical eye on these aspects of Ellington's musical practice… but it also seems to me that Duke's got plenty of company in all of these areas! Rossini was famously late, throwing down score pages sheet by sheet to copyists on the day of the performance. Stravinsky claimed to have not used folk melodies in The Rite of Spring other than the initial bassoon theme, but subsequent scholarship shows that the piece is full of them. And then, with regard to Black, Brown and Beige, you write that "Ellington had yet to acquaint himself with the elementary principles of symphonic musical organization known to all classically trained composers, and it showed." But much 20th century classical music was about challenging those notions of linear development, and even many of the works that claim to be structurally rigorous are organized in a way that is not audible to the listener. And speaking as a composer who puts a lot of care into the organization of my own music, I feel like there are many different approaches to creating satisfying long-form work, and not all of them are related to traditional symphonic practice.


TT: I agree. And did Ellington have to write symphonies in order to be a great composer? No. In fact, I wouldn't particularly have wanted him to! But when I listen to Black, Brown and Beige, I hear a piece of music that doesn't work as a large-scale structure, not on any level. Beige is close to chaotic. Black I think works pretty well, although it's very loosely knit. Brown is sort of an assemblage of episodes, one of which is completely successful — "The Blues" — and others less so. And observing this, I asked myself, "Why is this so?" 


So then I work backwards. I look at Ellington's experience with larger forms going all the way back to "Creole Rhapsody," which is the first time he grappled with anything remotely like large-scale form. The first thing you notice is that he didn't do it very often. You can count the number of experiments prior to Black, Brown and Beige on the fingers of one hand, and only one of them — "Reminiscing in Tempo" — represents a real attempt to write an organically developed large-scale musical structure. And even that is somewhat problematic, because we now know that the last part of it was written separately from the first three.


I'll say this again: did Ellington need to be writing symphonies? No. But if he wanted to write a 45-minute long piece of music, which he did, it would have helped him to know how other people have done that. Because he didn't have any real models to go to in the world of jazz. What Ellington's large-scale works, other than "Reminiscing in Tempo," sound like is theatrical production numbers. And we know that he did know how pieces like that are put together. He wrote them for the Cotton Club, he heard them in movies. He even played for one Broadway show, Ziegfeld's Show Girl. But the truth is that those aren't very effective musical models. They're not very sophisticated, certainly not in a way compatible with Ellington's genius. After all, we're talking about one of the greatest composers of the 20th century!


It's only with Black, Brown and Beige that he grapples in a sustained way with large-scale structural problems, and he was stopped dead by the largely negative critical reception of that piece. Stopped in his tracks. He tried writing some longer pieces after that, but nothing remotely in the same universe of ambition. So this is a man who I think, in this one area, did not fully realize his potential, for complex personal reasons.


DJA: I really do think, in the Second Sacred Concert, that you get glimmers of Duke expanding his toolbox.


TT: You sure do. That is exactly what you should be putting your finger on. I can't think of anything else in Ellington's output — and remember that the Second Sacred Concert comes very late in the game for him — that indicates that he's starting to widen his awareness of what he might be able to do as a composer. At that point in his life, for various reasons, he was hearing a bit more classical music. A few years later, when he worked on The River, his ballet score for Alvin Ailey, apparently he listened to a fair amount of classical music that was written about the theme of water. We know he listened to Benjamin Britten's Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, for example. What if he'd heard pieces like that in the forties?


It's not that Ellington's output is unsatisfactory. It's miraculous! But we always ask ourselves, when a great composer's output is closed by his death: what else might he have done, if he'd lived longer, if his life had taken a different shape? We ask that about Mozart. It stands to reason that we should ask it about Ellington as well. And I think it's in the Second Sacred Concert that the questions really start to come up. What else might he have done, if his story had been different?


When you were were giving me examples of classical composers, I was going to say the difference is that classical biographers have written honestly and penetratingly about these things. They don't assume that it's going to make Rossini look like something less than Rossini to know these things.


Some Ellington buffs hate my book. I have ample reason to know that. And I think the reason why some of them hate it is because — whether they fully understand this or not — they don't believe that he's a great enough man to stand up to an honest discussion of what he was like, both as a man and as an artist. I, on the other hand, think that he was, and I think that the greatest tribute you can pay to a great artist is to write honestly about him. There's nothing true I can write about Duke Ellington that's going to diminish his greatness. If I write honestly about him, we'll understand his greatness better. That's what I've tried to do.   


DJA: What, in your view, is the most enduring aspect of Ellington's legacy for present-day musicians?


TT: That's a hell of a good question. One of the things I said in my book about which a lot of people have asked me is that he was "a major composer but not an influential one." Now, some people see what I mean and others don't. But it's actually quite simple: he's not influential because his compositional procedures are so idiosyncratic and so bound up in the individual personalities of the band members that… you can't imitate him. I mean, you can't help but learn something by listening to "Ko-Ko" or "A Portrait of Bert Williams" — these are little masterpieces. But I don't think that Ellington's significance is ever going to lie in his being a model. It's going to lie in the work itself, and its intrinsic quality. And it doesn't matter whether he influenced anybody. He's going to be remembered because of those pieces. That's what matters. It matters so completely that nothing else is relevant.

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