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.

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