Musical Royalty, Beyond Category

Book Review: THE ELLINGTON CENTURY by DAVID SCHIFF (University of California Press)

Image for post
Image for post

By Bradley Bambarger <2013>

Whether out of racism, parochialism or cluelessness, the denial of the Pulitzer Prize to Duke Ellington — until a special-achievement award in 1999, 25 years after his death — underscored an official undervaluing of the man who, if not the “greatest” American composer, is by enlightened reckoning the country’s most original one (as well as most prolific and widely heard). There have been passionate endorsements of Ellington’s worth, but none more vividly persuasive in framing the Duke as an enduring twentieth-century modernist, in a league with Debussy and Bartók, than David Schiff’s The Ellington Century.

Schiff, a composer, teacher and author of books on George Gershwin and Elliott Carter, insists that The Ellington Century is “a composer’s view, not a historian’s.” Instead of organizing his book chronologically, he explores in depth particular Ellington pieces in terms of color (“Blue Light,” 1938), rhythm (“Cotton Tail,” ’40), melody (“Prelude to a Kiss,” ’38) and harmony (“Satin Doll,” ’53), discussing many more of Ellington’s big-band tone poems along the way — “Reminiscing in Tempo,” “Mood Indigo,” “Warm Valley” and on. In the book’s second half, Schiff examines the composer’s gospel-charged large-scale works — the ever-evolving Black, Brown & Beige and Sacred Concerts — and their role in his lifelong desire to paint a “sepia panorama,” a musical evocation of the African-American experience.

Schiff describes Ellington as a “nationalist” artist in the manner of Bartók and Falla, singling out “Ko-Ko” from 1940: “Precociously postcolonial with a vengeance, `Ko-Ko’ reclaimed and rewrote the primitivism of early modern classical music and the tom-tom-grooved `jungle’ numbers that white audiences demanded from black entertainers, using the most esteemed devices of European art music as emblems of African-American integrity, pride and power.” And setting the scene for the 1957 premiere of one of his Ellington favorites, the Shakespearean suite Such Sweet Thunder, Schiff writes: “With its brash, brassy, backbeat-driven opening, the title track of the twelve-movement suite by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn drops us off at the vibrant center of twentieth-century music, the intersection of high art and popular entertainment: African, American and European traditions, improvised performance and rigorous composition.”

Ellington composed not only miniature tone poems and suites both sacred and secular; he wrote popular songs, stage musicals and film scores, too — a thousand-plus pieces. Unlike most classical composers, he was on the road constantly, drafting in a hotel during the day what he would try out onstage at night, working up to the last minute before putting on his conductor-pianist hat. Ellington’s keen advantage over classical composers, though, was the peerless orchestra at his disposal — the big band that featured some of jazz’s singular personalities. Inspired by such players as Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, Ellington incorporated their sounds and riffs into his works; after 1941, he often did so in partnership with composer-arranger-lyricist Strayhorn.

Along with his deep knowledge and love of both jazz and classical (making contextual references from Alban Berg to Charlie Parker), Schiff writes with a gift for the aptly evocative line, as when discussing Such Sweet Thunder: “So much for blushing white femininity, it takes two to habanera.” There are funky descriptions (“a hootch in the treble and a cootch in the bass”) and scholarly ones, such as using Schoenberg’s term for a melody composed of tone color to describe “Blue Light” as “a klangfarbenmelodie blues.”

On the eve of the millennium, The New York Times commissioned a retrospective from Schiff, but blanched at his alternative view of Ravel, Bartók and Ellington as the past century’s greatest composers, preferring that he center on Stravinsky and Schoenberg or Webern and Cage. The Ellington Century, affectionate and absorbing, finally gives the Duke the royal treatment by putting him firmly in their company.

(Originally published in the spring 2013 issue of Listen magazine.)

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store