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Slyest of the Foxes

Duke Ellington

by James Lincoln Collier
Oxford University Press, 340 pp., $19.95

Of the great figures in twentieth-century culture, Edward Kennedy Ellington is one of the most mysterious. On the evidence of James Lincoln Collier’s excellent book, he must also be one of the least likable—cold to his son, ruthless in his dealings with women, and unscrupulous in his use of the work of other musicians. But there can be no denying the extraordinary fascination he plainly exercised over the people he mistreated and was loyal to at the same time, including those who allowed him to establish power over them, i.e., most of his colleagues and lovers.

There was nothing blatant about what must strike impartial observers as his appalling behavior. He was the opposite of the short-fused brawlers who briefly joined so many bands of his time, including his own, though his habit of stealing his musicians’ tunes and, occasionally, their women, must have put a strain on even the more placid among them. However, the only people who actually took a knife or a gun to him, so far as the record shows, were legal or defacto wives, who had more than adequate provocation.

In fact, nothing was obvious about Duke Ellington the man, except the mask he invariably wore in public and behind which his personality became invisible: that of a handsome, debonair, and seductive man about town, whose verbal communications with his public, and very likely with the startlingly large numbers of his female conquests, consisted of vapid phrases of flattery and endearment (“I love you madly”). The autobiography he wrote shortly before his death, Music is My Mistress,1 is a singularly uninformative document as well as a mistitled one. For while he probably despised and tried to subjugate his lovers, indeed all women except his mother and sister, both of whom he idealized and regarded as asexual—at least this is the view of his humiliated son2—his relationship to music was entirely different. Even so, music was not his mistress in the original sense of someone exercising dominion. Ellington liked to keep control.

Here, in fact, lies the heart of the mystery that James Lincoln Collier has tried to elucidate in his book. For Ellington, who has been called, with Charles Ives, the most important figure in American music,3 utterly fails to conform to the criteria of the conventional idea of “the artist,” just as his improvised productions fail to conform to the conventional view of “the work of art.” As it happens, unlike most of his jazz contemporaries, Ellington saw himself as an “artist” in this sense and took to composing “works” for the concert hall, where they were periodically performed. In the black middle-class milieu of the Ellingtons, which Collier rightly insists was important, the conception of the “great artist” was familiar, whereas it was meaningless to someone like Louis Armstrong, who came from a less self-conscious and entirely unbourgeois world.

When Ellington, on his triumphant visit to England in 1933, discovered that for British intellectuals he was not just a bandleader but an artist like Ravel or Delius, he took to the role of “composer” as he conceived it. However, hardly anyone claims that his reputation rests on the thirty-odd ill-organized mini-suites of program music, and still less on the “sacred concerts” to which he devoted much of his final years. As an orthodox composer, Ellington simply does not rate highly.

And yet there is no doubt that the corpus of his work in jazz, which, in Collier’s words, “includes hundreds of complete compositions, many of them almost flawless,” is one of the major accomplishments in music—any American music—of his era (1899–1974). And that but for Ellington this music would not exist, even though almost every page of Collier’s admiring but demystifying book bears witness to his musical deficiencies. Ellington was a good but not brilliant pianist. He lacked both a technical knowledge of music and the self-discipline to acquire it. He had trouble reading sheet music, let alone more elaborate scores. After 1939 he relied heavily for arrangements and musical advice on Billy Strayhorn, who acted as his alter ego in running the band and who became something like an adopted son. The musically trained and immensely sophisticated Strayhorn was better able to judge from a score how the music would sound.

Apart from some informal tips in the 1920s from formally trained black musical professionals like Will Vodery, Ziegfeld’s musical director, he learned little except by a process of trying it out in practice. He was too lazy, and perhaps not sufficiently intellectual, to read much, nor did he listen intently to other people’s music. He did not even, if Collier is to be believed, make any special efforts to find the right kind of musicians for his band, but accepted the first vaguely suitable ones to fill vacancies; though this does not account for the majestic brass and reed lineups of the Ellington band between the later Twenties and early Forties. He was certainly not a great songwriter, if we follow Collier’s demonstration that “of all the songs on which Ellington’s reputation as a songwriter—and his ASCAP royalties as well—is based, only ‘Solitude’ appears to have been entirely his work. For the rest he was at best a collaborator, at worst merely the arranger of a band version of the tune.” And at least one of his sidemen told him, at a characteristic moment of mutual irritation: “I don’t consider you a composer. You are a compiler.”

Last, and perhaps most damaging of all, is Collier’s justified observation that he neither had the talent, the “raw natural gift” of other great jazz musicians, nor was “drawn, indeed driven, to [jazz] by an intense feeling for the music itself.” Unlike many other great jazz musicians, he showed little promise until he was nearly thirty, and he did not start doing his best work until he was forty.

Here lies the chief interest of Collier’s book. In broad outline his judgments are not new. It has long been accepted that Ellington was essentially an improvising musician whose “instrument was a whole band,” and that he could not even think about his music except through the particular voices of its members. That he was musically short-winded and therefore incapable of developing a musical idea at length was always obvious, but conversely it was already known in 1933 that no other composer, classical or otherwise, could beat him over the distance of a 78-rpm record—i.e., three minutes. He has been called by a critic of both jazz and classical music “art’s major miniaturist.”4 Collier’s comments on particular works and phases of the Ellington oeuvre are, as usual, knowledgeable, perceptive, and illuminating, but his general judgment could hardly differ from what may be regarded as the general consensus.

Only through jazz could a man of Ellington’s evident limitations have produced a significant contribution to twentieth-century music. Only a black American, and probably a black middle-class American of Ellington’s generation, would have sought to do so as a bandleader. Only a person of Ellington’s unusual character would have actually achieved this result. The merit of Collier’s book lies in showing what the music owes to the man, but its novelty is to see the man as formed by his social and musical milieu.

The peculiarities of Ellington’s personality have often been described with varying degrees of indulgence. He saw himself, with total and unforced conviction, as “uniquely gifted by God, uniquely guided through life by some mysterious light, uniquely directed by the Divine to make certain decisions at certain points in his life,” and consequently entitled to total power. The critic Alexander Coleman tried to sum up Ellington’s inner thoughts as follows: “I must be able to give and to take away. I command the world because I am ever lucky, careful beyond compare, the slyest fox among all the foxes of this world.”5

This is substantially also Collier’s reading of the man, though the present book insists less than it might on the imperatives of street-smart survival and success that the Duke—the name was given to him early in life—acquired as a smooth young black hustler: the deviousness, the refusal to give anything about himself away, the power strategies of manipulation, the godfather-like insistence on “commanding respect.” In this regard Mercer Ellington’s memoir of life with his father may usefully supplement Collier’s book.

In short Ellington, as he himself recognized,6 was a spoiled child who succeeded in maintaining something of the infant’s sense of omnipotence throughout life. In Washington, DC, his father worked his way up from coachman to butler in the service of Dr. M.F. Cuthburt, “reputedly a society doctor who tended Morgenthaus and Du Ponts,” according to Collier. From this family background and from the relatively large number of politically sheltered or college-educated blacks he knew in his parents’ Washington milieu, he acquired self-respect, self-assurance, and strong pride in his race—and a sense of superiority within it. “I don’t know how many castes of Negroes there were in the city at that time,” he once said, “but I do know that if you decided to mix carelessly with another you would be told that one just did not do that sort of thing.” He preferred not to have a racially mixed band even when this was possible. The charisma that surrounded him derived largely from the consequent, and very striking, air of being a grand seigneur who expected to be deferred to, and this impression was reinforced by charm, good looks, and an indefinable magnetic quality.

However, the spoiled child began as an idle and ignorant failure at school, looking for a good time, who never acquired the knack of learning, hard work, or self-discipline, yet never abandoned his sense of status or his ambition. Music, which he seems to have seen originally merely as an adjunct to having a good time, became an obvious as well as an easy way of earning a living, given the enormous demand of the jazz age, and the position of blacks in the dance bands, which was still strong, in spite of the influx of whites. If educated and college-trained blacks made their way as musicians—often becoming bandleaders or arrangers, as did Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman—it was even more natural for a middle-class ne’er-do-well without qualifications to do so, especially one who had recently been pressured into marriage. In the early 1920s good money was to be made in music, probably more readily than by commercial art, for which the young Ellington seems to have shown some gift.

It was Ellington’s good luck that he entered jazz at the moment when the music was discovering itself, and he was able to discover himself as he grew into it. There is no sign that he particularly wanted to compose, until he formed a partnership with Irving Mills, who, as a music publisher, knew the financial payoff of songs in the world of show business. There is no sign that Ellington wanted to be more than a very successful bandleader.

  1. 1

    Doubleday, 1973.

  2. 2

    Mercer Ellington with Stanley Dance, Duke Ellington in Person (Houghton Mifflin, 1978). In Mercer’s account Duke Ellington was kind to him so long as he was willing to do his bidding and help him with the band. When the son tried to strike out on his own as a musician, the Duke, he writes, did everything he could to discourage him.

  3. 3

    Martin Williams, The Jazz Tradition, new and revised edition (Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 102.

  4. 4

    Max Harrison, A Jazz Retrospect (Taplinger, 1976), p. 128.

  5. 5

    Alexander Coleman, “The Duke and His Only Son” (New Boston Review, December 1978).

  6. 6

    Music is My Mistress, p. x.

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