Saturday, October 9, 2021

"Why Duke Ellington Avoided Music Schools" (1945)

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Fascinating.... Full of excellent writing."

- The New York Times Book Review

"An astounding book. An extraordinary leap in jazz studies and in the history

of race and culture in this century."                                    

-The New York Times

"One of the best teaching tools jazz has ever had.... Excellent."

- The Washington Post Book World

"A splendid view of both the man and his art."                          

 - The Economist

"The best interviews, reviews, and essays about an extraordinary volume for fans and scholars alike."                                                       - - Playboy

"Truly amazing....An absolute must."                                     

- David N. Baker, author of New Perspectives on Jazz

Duke Ellington is universally recognized as one of the towering figures of 20th-century music, both a brilliant composer and one of the preeminent musicians in jazz history. From early pieces such as Mood Indigo, to his more complex works such as Black, Brown and Beige, to his later suites and sacred concerts, he left an indelible mark on the musical world.

In  The Duke Ellington Reader, Mark Tucker offers the first historical anthology of writings about this major African-American musician. The volume includes over a hundred selections—interviews, critical essays, reviews, memoirs, and over a dozen writings by Ellington himself—with generous introductions and annotations for each selection provided by the editor. The result is a unique sourcebook that illuminates Ellington's work and reveals the profound impact his music has made on listeners over the years. Mark Tucker is Associate Professor of Music at Columbia University and author of Ellington: The Early Years.

This mid-forties portrait of the famous musician at home in Harlem has the standard ingredients of a personality piece: descriptions of Ellington's clothes, his taste in furnishings, even his breakfast preferences. Yet it also contains revealing statements by Ellington about the training of young musicians, the process of composing, and the relationship of jazz to "serious" music.

The piece, by an unidentified writer, appeared in the New York newspaper PM, published from 1940 to 1948. [Source: "Why Duke Ellington Avoided Music Schools," PM, 9 December 1945.]

“It was around 4 p.m. when we reached Duke Ellington's apartment on St, Nicholas Ave. the other day. The building he lives in has an old, ornate, rather dilapidated facade. The halls are narrow and dark, with tile floors.

Mr. Ellington was just getting up, the maid said. Would we wait? We said we would, and walked through an entrance hall painted a stark, gleaming white.

A small spinet piano stood against one wall of the hall. Fluffy yellow scatter rugs were on the floor. One set of French doors led into a bedroom with modern furniture in it. Another opened into the living room, also modern. One wall was lined with shelves of books.

When the Duke appeared he was wearing a red and orange flowered dressing gown with a yellow bath towel over his head. He ducked into the living room to ask if we wanted breakfast and we noticed the gold cross, which he always wears, on a chain around his neck.

"Four o'clock is a good time for breakfast," he said, "I always eat this time, I'm up all night writing."

He went away to take a shower, then returned a few minutes later immaculate in gray trousers, full and pleated around his fairly ample girth, and pegged in at the ankles. A white sport shirt was monogrammed in blue. The initials were E.K.E., for Edward Kennedy Ellington. The Duke won his nickname through the dandified dress he wore when he was a schoolboy in Washington.

We asked him about the following statement Mark Schubart had made in

the New York Times after the Duke's last concert at Carnegie Hall:

"There are those who seek in Mr. Ellington's music a growing affinity between jazz and serious music. Actually, the unmistakable style and distinction of his work is based on and derived from the jazz idiom only, and employs an instrumental technique utterly different from that of symphonic music."

The Duke listened to the quotation with a smile.

"I guess serious is a confusing word," he said. "We take our American music seriously. If serious means European music, I'm not interested in that. Some people mix up the words serious and classical. They're a lot different. Classical music is supposed to be 200 years old. There is no such thing as modern classical music. There is great, serious music. That is all.

"Critics are a funny bunch of people. They use words to their own advantage. They live in one world and we live in another. We don't understand what they are talking about. I don't think the public does, either. All music critics think jazz musicians are trying to get into the symphonic field. Ninety-nine per cent of the jazz people aren't interested in symphony techniques at all.

"Jazz is like the automobile and airplane. It is modern and it is American. I don't like the word jazz but it is the one that is usually used. Jazz is freedom. Jazz is the freedom to play anything, whether it has been done before or not. It gives you freedom. I remember in the old days when I was struggling to write something entirely new. I would try something that hadn't been done before. I felt like an intruder in a new land. No  — more like an illiterate.

"I'm not the offspring of a conservatory. I've avoided music schools and conservatories. I didn't want to be influenced away from what I felt inside. Back in 1915,1920 when I was getting started in Washington, there were two schools of jazz. There were the disciplined jazz musicians who played exactly what was written. They had all the good work. I got kicked out of a couple of those bands.

"Then there was another group of musicians that didn't know music. Some of them could only play in one key. But they played precious things. I was in between. My greatest influence came from the ragtime piano players. I was trying to play ragtime. That's what I was trying to do, but it came out a little different.

"I wouldn't have been a good musician if I'd gone to a conservatory and studied in the usual way. I haven't the discipline."

In that case, we said, why had he recently established three scholarships for graduates of New York high schools at the Juilliard School of Music?

"Things are different now," he said. "A musician coming along today has

to learn a lot. Even if he has loads of natural ability, he has to develop great

skill to be eligible for a good job. If he goes about it the way I did, it will take him much too long. Juilliard is a fine school. The people there are aware of American music. They won't hold anyone back. I developed the helter-skelter way. I don't think everyone should be allowed to do that. Most people learn faster and more at school."

The men in his band have been his strongest inspiration, the Duke said. Three of them have been with him since he started to attract public attention in 1927. [Harry Carney, Sonny Greer, and Fred Guy. Otto Hardwick was another longtime Ellingtonian still playing with the orchestra in 1945, but he had left the band between 1928 and 1932].

Almost all have been with him for more than 10 years. The unity of the Ellington band is apparent in all of the Duke's conversation. He uses the pronoun we much more than I. "We are more interested in folk music." "We play a lot of descriptive music." "We get a kick out of the jitterbugs and try to describe the different styles of dancing in our music."

"We've tried to absorb the styles of all the individuals in the band," the Duke went on. "I don't write for anyone else but the band. When I'm writing a trumpet part, for instance, I don't write within the radius of the horn, but for the man behind the horn.

"Our music grew out of the personalities in the band. We see an old man walking along the street. We play a song that goes with the man.

"Playing is demonstration," said the Duke. "But writing is the real thing. Writing is a matter of adjusting yourself, settling down to do it. You have to have a contented feeling. You get your mind set on writing, then you do it. There is no formula for it. I go for long stretches without writing. I'm a great procrastinator. I have great ideas, but nothing ever happens. Then I get an idea or I promise to do a piece and I do it. I try to write fast. Usually I work walking up and down, humming to myself and drinking Coca-Cola.

"I don't believe in working at the piano. A piano is more or less of a hindrance in composing. It limits you to what your fingers fall on. Unless you're an awfully good pianist, your suggestion is stunted. You're too apt to follow familiar harmony. I can imagine a lot of sounds I wouldn't play offhand on the piano."

Religion has helped him in his work, the Duke told us. He doesn't go to church, though; he "just believes."

"Religion helps my spirit of independence," he explained. "Helps me do things people call daring. For instance, say musicians just don't put a ninth in a particular place, and we do it. Religion helps me. I guess it gives me the proper inflation when I need it."

Negro life, rhythm and melodies have been an important source of his music, the Duke says, but he prefers to think of it as American music.

"Twenty years ago when jazz was finding an audience, it may have had more of a Negro character," he said. "The Negro element is still important. But jazz has become a part of America. There are as many white musicians playing it as Negro. Charley [Charlie] Barnet does so well on my stuff it sometimes scares me.[Bandleader Barnet (1913-1991) featured a number of Ellington (and Ellington-influenced) pieces in his repertory, among them The Sergeant Was Shy, Harlem Speaks, and Drop Me Off in Harlem.]

We are all working along more or less the same lines. We learn from each other. Jazz is American now. American is the big word."

Willie Manning, a wiry, middle-aged man in a big, double-breasted gray suit, who had been running in and out, giving the Duke telephone messages and arranging appointments, came in to insist that the Duke eat breakfast.

We went into the kitchen where the Duke ate an enormous plate of Shredded Wheat, sliced bananas and cream.

"I love a good breakfast in the morning," he observed. He also answered all telephone calls with "good morning." Just then, Willie reminded him that it was almost 6 p.m. and he had to broadcast.[The broadcast was probably from the Club Zanzibar, 49th and Broadway, where Ellington’s orchestra had been appearing often that fall.]

The Duke put on a roomy gray tweed sports jacket, a light beige camel hair overcoat and a porkpie hat. It wasn't until he had his coat on and was standing up beside us that we realized how big he is. He is tall (6 feet) and portly (200 pounds) and has the lazy ease of a large man who is not very active. His only exercise is walking down the four flights of stairs from his apartment to the street. "But I don't walk up," he added. "That would be too much exercise."”

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