Magazine article The Spectator

Jazz Genius of Note

Magazine article The Spectator

Jazz Genius of Note

Article excerpt

Duke Ellington, we know, is among the major cultural landmarks of the 20th century. He was famous, from his thirties on, not just in America, but internationally, and a famous name not just with jazz fans but with anyone interested in modern music. Stravinsky, arriving in New York, announced to the assembled press that his first priority in Manhattan was a visit to the Cotton Club to hear Duke Ellington and his band. As early as 1932, he was feted in London by the Prince of Wales, and by Paris society. His 70th birthday was celebrated at the White House. He was a man of great wit and presence, handsome, stylish, urbane. Everybody agreed he was a genius. But what precisely was he a genius at?

The question seems simpler than it is. The obvious answer might appear that he composed music, just like, say, Stravinsky. That was the solution adopted by the musician and critic Constant Lambert in a famous article from 1934:

The real interest of Ellington's records lies not so much in their [tone] colour, brilliant though it might be, as in the amazingly skilful proportions in which the colour is used. I do not mean skilful as compared with other jazz composers. I know of nothing in Ravel so dextrous in treatment as the varied solos in the middle of the ebullient `Hot and Bothered' and nothing in Stravinsky more dynamic than the final section.

So there it was. Ellington, though a jazz musician - a brand-new type that had only recently come over the cultural horizon in 1934 - was the equal of Ravel and Stravinsky, perhaps the most acclaimed of contemporary classical composers. Indeed, he was more than their equal, more dextrous, more dynamic. But just there Lambert's claim gets a little confused. Earlier in his essay, he had explained Ellington's pre-eminence in jazz in a way that one might expect of a man who was himself a classical composer.

Ellington, Lambert thought, excelled at least partly because he wrote out more or less everything his band played, just like Stravinsky. But then, a paragraph further on, he picks out as `more dextrous than Ravel' the solos in the middle of `Hot and Bothered' which were clearly never written out by anyone. Like any number of the most beautiful passages in Ellington, they are the inventions, possibly improvised on the spot, of the musicians who played them - or, in jazz terms, 'solos'.

As it happens, far from being all written out, performers who joined the Ellington band were frequently alarmed at how little was scored. When Ellington added another saxophone, Ben Webster, in 1940, there weren't any parts for him, and nobody wrote any either. Ellington casually suggested he find himself a note. Many years later, the English tenor player Tubby Hayes was suddenly drafted into the band for a concert in London, to replace a player who was ill, and found the position much the same.

Hayes remembered creeping on stage, at which point Ellington announced Perdido, a famous piece. Jimmy Hamilton, the clarinettist, who was sitting on the next chair, leaned over and said, `Don't bother looking, there's no part for that.' And so it went on. Ellington himself was perplexed by what happened to his scores: 'I don't know. People wrap their lunches in them.'

He certainly did write music, for hours every day - towards the end of his life he always slept with a keyboard beside his bed in case he was struck with an idea during the night. But the scores, when they existed, were apparently often rather sketchy. A good deal was simply explained to the musicians by words, grunts, singing and finger-snapping. …

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