David Hadju on Ken Burns
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Jan 22 13:07:51 MST 2001
February 8, 2001
Not Quite All That Jazz
Jazz a ten-part film by Ken Burns and airing on PBS beginning January 8
Jazz: A History of America's Music
by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns
490 pages, $65.00 (hardcover)
Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000
by Whitney Balliett
872 pages, $40.00 (hardcover)
published by St. Martin's
The second Great Man in Burns's account, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington,
is treated almost as hagiographically as Armstrong, though less accurately.
The creator of some five thousand distinctive works of music (from blues
riffs to orchestral suites, ballet and film scores, and Broadway musicals),
Ellington is characterized as "an African Stravinsky" who "erased the color
line between jazz and classical music." Music "flow[ed] effortlessly from
his pen," we hear, as the narrator describes Ellington composing alone in
his locomotive sleeper while the members of his orchestra slept. He wrote
"Mood Indigo" "in fifteen minutes while waiting for his mother to finish
cooking dinner," and his compositions were so fully wrought that "even the
solos in 'Reminiscing in Tempo' were written."
While Ellington did indeed compose incessantly, including when he was alone
in his sleeper car, a core element of his genius-and an aspect of a
creative process deeply indebted to the African tradition-is his
extraordinary method of creating music collaboratively with his musicians.
The main theme of "Mood Indigo" was actually an improvisation he had heard
his clarinetist Barney Bigard play. Yes, Ellington composed the solo that
trumpeter Cootie Williams performed on the recording of "Reminiscing in
Tempo," the masterpiece he wrote in memory of his mother. In fact precisely
the reverse was not only more typical, but integral to Ellington's
music-making technique: his musicians' improvised solos became part of
their leader's compositions. Ellington worked with the members of his
orchestra cooperatively and motivated them to contribute ideas.
An inspiring stimulus and a profoundly gifted editor, he kept his ears open
during the countless thousands of solos his musicians played on the road,
and he plucked the musical gems among them to refine and expand into fully
formed compositions: from Otto Hardwick he found the basis of
"Sophisticated Lady" and "Prelude to a Kiss"; from Cootie Williams, "Do
Nothing 'Till You Hear from Me" (originally "Concerto for Cootie"); from
Johnny Hodges, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "I'm Beginning to See
the Light"; from his son Mercer, "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)."
(This process is mentioned briefly in the Jazz book but never suggested in
the film, which points out only that Ellington wrote for his musicians, not
necessarily with them.) Billy Strayhorn, Ellington's "writing-arranging
companion" from 1939 until Strayhorn's death in 1967, contributed "Take the
'A' Train" and dozens of other masterworks in the Ellington Orchestra
These facts scarcely argue that Ellington was any less a composer than,
say, Stravinsky; the resulting music holds up comparably. They demonstrate,
however, that he was a radically different sort of composer-not another
lone genius tapping his own resources (though Ellington composed rather
well that way, too), but a brilliantly exploratory creator working largely
in an inclusionary, communal tradition.
Burns's distortion of the way Ellington composed his music is defensive and
patronizing. To ignore the collaborative aspect of Ellington's method is to
demean the culture he devoted his life to celebrating, and to remake him in
the mold of the Western classical icons is to propagate their sovereignty.
Why do we need to think of Ellington as another Mozart or Stravinsky? He
was the first Ellington, and that is quite enough.
(David Hadju is the biographer of Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's close
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