Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

The Aesthetics of Duke Ellington's Suites: The Case of Togo Brava

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

The Aesthetics of Duke Ellington's Suites: The Case of Togo Brava

Article excerpt

One of the most controversial aspects of all the critiques of Ellington concerns the aesthetic value of his great works; from Creole Rhapsody onward, his suites have been the subject of a lively debate that ultimately addresses the very definition and nature of jazz. Seldom have Ellington's suites met with the approval of the critics, who have raised two mutually interdependent objection to them:

1. they betray the most authentic, profound nature of jazz;

2. they have no structural unity, no coherence of motive, and are weakened by the composer's inability to control large forms.

The first of these objections dates back to the early thirties, to the publication of Reminiscing in Tempo, which unleashed a violent debate (see Hammond 1935; Archetti 1936). To modern ears, that diatribe sounds outdated. We have since understood that the idea of jazz is subject to mutation, to continuous redefinition; it evolves with the transformations in the relationship that the musicians, the public, and the critics have always had with jazz music (DeVeaux 1991).

Unlike the first, however, the second objection--the one about structural unity--is still very widespread and is propounded by some very authoritative critics and scholars (a good example is the position adopted by Max Harrison [1964]). This objection is voiced against practically all of Ellington's suites (with the typical exception of Reminiscing in Tempo), essentially accusing the composer of being incapable of giving his longer works a real unity of theme, of not knowing how to manage the development of a motive, and of having composed--especially after the Second World War--suites that are no more than strings of separate pieces. These separate pieces, the argument continues, are held together not by any profound relationship between the pieces themselves but by criteria outside the music, at times explicitly descriptive, at other times abstract (such as literary dedications or dedications to a given country, continent, city, etc.).

Ultimately, Ellington is accused of being unable to master the techniques of composing for large forms, a weakness that only underscores the fact that he was not familiar with such composers as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, or Schumann. However, it is a mistake to base an understanding and appreciation of Ellington's suites on the aesthetic criteria used to judge European classical music, especially European music of the classical-romantic period. The question of the success or failure of Ellington's larger compositions needs to be addressed from a completely different viewpoint.

Writing about vernacular music, Thomas Brothers (1997, 170) succinctly defined the role played by aural transmission and transcription: "Vernacular music may be written down at any time, for one purpose or another, and one genre or another may even give rise to tradition that is conceived and disseminated in writing. But, substantially, vernacular music evolves independently of notation." This is exactly how jazz has developed. It is music based on an aural tradition, it has evolved against an urban industrial background, and it has spread in no small part by means of "secondary aurality" (Ong 1982) such as the radio, the record, and the video.

Aural traditions have their own unique ways of transmitting knowledge, both on the level of how they work on their phrases and on formulas and the level of the overall form. (1) Because sound is not permanent, but fleeting and volatile, and writing is not the most important way in which it is transmitted, music and poetry based on aural tradition rely on our memory for their survival. In terms of content, the most effective way of fixing the information for posterity is by repetition, which leads to elaborations on the formula of the material. Because it is notoriously difficult to manage large forms in terms of memory alone, aural cultures are incapable of organizing forms constructed of organic relationships: forms that make use of developments and elaborate cross-references with internal transformations that refer both forward and backward within the composition. …

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