Magazine article The New Yorker

Two Bands

Magazine article The New Yorker

Two Bands

Article excerpt



Duke Ellington, the Beatles, and the mysteries of modern creativity.The act of making music is exhilarating for the performers in both bands.

The historian John Lukacs, in "A Thread of Years" (1998), his collection of vignettes from across the twentieth century, imagines a few jazz fans listening to a cocktail pianist in New York in 1929. Then he talks about how this music--melodic swing at the beautiful, blurred boundary of jazz and popular song--defined a state of mind before the Second World War. Everybody "who responded to that kind of American music," Lukacs states categorically, "hated the Nazis." It's a nice rejoinder to the Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno's insistence that the "monotony" and rhythmic seductions of jazz were a friend to fascism. And it trails a question. What was in this dance music, heard in short takes on scratchy 78s, that left its devotees devoted to some larger set of humane values?

The question is at the heart of Terry Teachout's searching new biography, "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington" (Gotham), which touches on the mystique of the great bandleader's music as much as on its notes and measures. Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K. piano, got trapped for years playing "jungle music" in gangster night clubs, and at his height produced mostly tinny, brief recordings. (His finest was made on a bitter winter night in 1940, in a Fargo, North Dakota, ballroom.) How did he become a dominant figure of modern music and, for many people, an exemplar of art? The typical answer used to be that he was really a master composer on the European model, all score paper and seclusion and suites. On inspection, this doesn't hold much water. Ellington's best music turns out to be the crystallized collective improvisation of an exceptionally ornery group of musical malcontents. To explain it all, we seem to need new categories of value, and another kind of meditation on what originality is.

This is Teachout's second big jazz biography. His first was "Pops," an excellent volume on Louis Armstrong, which he turned into an even better play, "Satchmo at the Waldorf." Teachout inhabits right-leaning places where riff-loving men seldom wander, but his writing seems all the better for his distance from liberal piety; some of the best jazz criticism has always come from less than liberal precincts, as with the apolitical Whitney Balliett and the Tory Philip Larkin. Apologetics are the enemy of art criticism, and the conservative critic has the advantage of distance from the ideological passions that can encumber jazz: not everything has to be seen as an allegory of persecution and salvation--there are just good and worse musicians and music. (In the same way, the unbelieving biographer of a great Roman Catholic thinker isn't oppressed by the need to show that he was always right.) Yet Teachout is a sensitive writer, and one reason his biographies are moving is that he has obviously been giving himself an education in the realities of American racial history as he writes them. We are reminded, alongside him, on almost every page, just how brutal, demeaning, and absolute bigotry against blacks was for so long in America.

Armstrong is easy. He was not just a genius but an irresistible lion. Even the old complaints about his having sold out no longer seem credible: he simply went from making most of the best jazz records ever made to making some of the best pop records. Though Armstrong could articulate his sources--Joe Oliver, the lost Buddy Bolden--the Armstrong sound emerges early and whole. As with Elvis, though on a far roomier artistic scale, it just happened.

Ellington, by contrast, was a slow starter and a slow learner, whose first hits now sound dated and chi-chi. The son of Washington, D.C., domestics who passed on a high sense of style and a fastidious desire for elegance, he was a city man. There was something self-constructed about him, as there had to be with so many African-American figures of the era--he was a Duke in the same way that Father Divine was divine. …

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