Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies

By Robert G. O'Meally; Brent Hayes Edwards et al. | Go to book overview

BRENT HAYES EDWARDS


The Literary Ellington

One of the main assumptions in thinking about African American creative expression is that music—more than literature, dance, theater, or the visual arts—has been the paradigmatic mode of black artistic production and the standard and pinnacle not just of black culture but of American culture as a whole. The most eloquent version of this common claim may be the opening of James Baldwin's 1951 essay "Many Thousands Gone": "It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear."1 Eleven years later Amiri Baraka put it even more forcefully, excoriating the "embarrassing and inverted paternalism" of African American writers such as Phyllis Wheatley and Charles Chesnutt, and claiming flatly that "there has never been an equivalent to Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong in Negro writing."2 Such presuppositions and hierarchical valuations have been part of the source of a compulsion among generations of African American writers to conceptualize "vernacular" poetics and to strive toward a tradition of blues or jazz literature, toward a notion of black writing that implicitly or explicitly aspires to the condition of music.

I want to start by juxtaposing these stark claims with an early essay by one of the musicians they so often cite as emblematic. Duke Ellington's first article, "The Duke Steps Out," was published in the spring of 1931 in a British music journal called Rhythm. "The music of my race is something more than the 'American idiom,'" Ellington contends. "It is the result of our transplantation to American soil, and was our reaction in the plantation days to the tyranny we endured. What we

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