Two Bands

By Gopnik, Adam | The New Yorker, December 23, 2013 | Go to article overview

Two Bands


Gopnik, Adam, The New Yorker


TWO BANDS

BY ADAM GOPNIK

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Two Bands
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.