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The Electric Company: How technology revived Ellington’s Career

Backstory in Blue: Ellington at Newport '56Backstory in Blue: Ellington at Newport '56 by John Fass Morton

Reviewed by Stanley Crouch
Harper's Magazine

Through our remarkable technology we witness the fundamental dilemma of our age, which is the use of machines that bespeak the genius of the species for the trivialization of the profound. We have thus become accustomed to a blizzard of fluff delivered by ingenious high-tech means. An aspect of this fluff is music polluted by its attachment to the cheap, demeaning imagery of videos or losing gravity while largely used as a background score for the activities of a distracted public. People are uncomfortable in silence because it can breed needless contemplation and may engender a floating into the deeper world of the self. In our moment of deracinated intimacy, too many of us have settled for a blob of backbeats and recording-studio tricks that do not swallow but melt away the great force of music in a perpetual submission to contrived novelty.

For all of the shortcomings imposed upon a Washington, D.C., Negro born in 1899, much more was possible for the young Duke Ellington than there would have been had he arrived in our time. To tell it as it actually was, the varieties of bigotry were where they should have been because heroes need huge obstacles to teach them what they must know in order to achieve the victories demanded of them. Ellington succeeded both in adapting to the new technology and in learning how to make recording equipment into his tool rather than a dehumanizing gimmick or even a technological special effect to which he and his artistic purposes could become secondary. The technology submitted to him, not he to it.

Considered from all sides, Ellington was not only the most impressive genius produced by jazz but perhaps the greatest of all twentieth-century artists, because he redefined and refined his idiom in a world far more complex and extreme, ranging from the violent to the sublime, than the worlds inhabited by such aesthetic peers as James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, and Igor Stravinsky. (In his memoir Music Is My Mistress, Ellington described being summoned more than a few times by the New York City police, taken to the morgue, and asked if he knew a murdered man last seen dancing to the jungle band at the Cotton Club. That he always denied knowing the corpse, even if he did, tells us that he knew a loose lip could sink your own ship.) Ellington produced a body of work so large that it still intimidates our most serious music scholars, and it looms even more imposingly because he best understood that his was an age in which the performing arts would be remade by technology. In Picasso, Gertrude Stein says that people do not ever really change; what changes is the way in which they see themselves. This applies perfectly to Ellington. As the summoning power of electrical enhancements and preservations of given moments evolved, Ellington deftly used them, with an authority that increased as he came to understand exactly where he was and what specific things made his time different from those of artists who had come before him and before the technology that was too massively influential to ignore.

Always a contemplative and secretive man, this musician had to learn on the wing because there were no predecessors who could provide models or give him advice. His sacrifices within the enveloping glamour of show business were many, but he knew himself to be very fortunate. Jazz was an art that expressed a level of human clarity across the color line that was not shown in our literature until William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses appeared in 1942. The world transformed into music by Duke Ellington was more varied in faces, places, classes, and religions than that of our literary giant. This band-leading composer toured the nation and learned much more about it than any of our writers have thus far shown us.

By his death in 1974, Ellington had performed for everyone from murderous thugs to the cultivated whipped cream of European royalty and American high society. Such people were quite different from our tasteless contemporary jiffy mush -- the merely wealthy whom America's gold-rush culture of chance and open opportunity always produces. Ellington's career took the skyrocket route to national recognition through radio broadcasts from the segregated, gangster-owned Cotton Club in Harlem that first employed him in 1927. The result was that Ellington became a figure comparable to Fred Astaire in the 1930s -- a symbol of verve, elegance, and a thorough sophistication expressive of a virtuosity that was capable of transcending all of the shallowness and fluff by which it might be surrounded. The one big difference between the musician and the dancer was that the blues sensibility kept Ellington in the range of boudoir stink, heartbreak, muck, longing, and desperation shared by everyone -- the Negroes of all classes with whom he lived and fraternized, whom he presented in an epic musical frame and never fled identification with; the criminals he parodied in his arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael's "March of the Hoodlums"; the society types whose woes he learned of at close range on any of the inevitable occasions when they imposed their private hurts on a handsome and surprisingly sophisticated man who might be considered an expert on the low-down nature of human fate because he was, after all, a Negro, and Negroes were thought to know such things. He absorbed in detail the facts that link all human beings, no matter how unlike one another their manners, professions, and family lines might lead one to believe. Blues, trouble, aspirations, romantic longing, and appetite spared neither genius nor fool and no one in between.

The band worked at the Cotton Club for about five years, performing arrangements of popular songs and original music that the leader composed for dancers, comedians, magicians, and whoever else did their Uptown acts for alabaster night-people seeking a laugh, a moment of awe, and the extra bounty of an unexpected thrill. Ellington's career was also furthered by the technology of cinema and the innovation of added sound. He starred in and wrote the scores for small films and provided featured segments for a few full-length films: 1934's Belle of the Nineties, starring Mae West; and Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, released twenty-five years later. For that 1959 film, the Ellington organization produced a score containing some of its very finest music.

When we look at those early films or the forerunners of music videos that were once called "soundies," the wonder is that Ellington never submitted to the coonish stereotypes of the time, even in 1930's Check and Double Check, a blackface Amos 'n' Andy comedy. The bandleader first appears briefly, immaculately dressed and taking care of business, then is shown at a private house party, where he and his men give a superb rendition of jazz free from any grating descents into minstrelsy. While they display the canned excitement most performers feign in order to convince their audiences that something out of the ordinary is taking place, trumpeter Freddy Jenkins has a wah-wah muted trumpet solo that radiates heated control paced by effortless purity. Through his every movement the joy, the command, the wit, and the grace of the music itself take on a visceral presence. That composite of aesthetic magic in which the improvised self-definition of the individual musician and the composed context create a whole greater than either or both is the victory of jazz, and we see Ellington at an early point already pursuing what he would throughout his life, brooking few distractions of any kind.

Duke Ellington was a tall, good-looking man possessed of a style that we usually call charming, but few good-looking and charming men have come close to achieving what he brought off in each succeeding decade of his long career. Not particularly well educated -- a high school dropout, in fact -- he knew how to listen and how to assess. In the process, Ellington learned to speak as clearly to those born in gutbuckets and barrels of butcher knives as to those who had, from birth, sucked the soft, soothing metal of silver spoons.

In an era when audiences, black or white, had a preferential feeling for the base and the superficial, Ellington brought off a decidedly avant-garde series of compositions that startled classical composers as much as they excited the dancers who came to the tobacco barns, the college proms held in gymnasiums, and the dance halls high and low that he and his musicians played across the country. His listeners grew to love being charmed by the dreamy lyricism of his music, being pleasurably startled by the willful dissonance in his harmonies and driven to the loose beauty of the dance floor, where they could shake a tail feather in the eye of a syncopated brass-and-reed hurricane while being transported to places so special that they had neither names nor addresses. This was the result of the phenomenon of rhythm and tune eventually known as Ellingtonia.

Ellingtonia was an organic musical mass that continued to grow throughout the 1930s, overwhelming obstacles large and small in aesthetic, racial, and social contexts. But Ellington's career dipped after World War II as the era of big dance bands ended and large ensembles went into decline, disbanding for the most part. To the joy of club-owning employers, the small groups popularized by men like Charlie Parker came into vogue and were much less expensive. Smaller was thought of as better for jazz, for rhythm and blues, and for the bastard child of American dance music, rock and roll, which did not become an audio teenage toy until the middle Fifties.

All the while, Ellingtonia was made ever new by the imagination of the bandleader and his musicians and their uses of the technical influences arriving from others. By personalizing things that were in the air, Ellington revitalized famous audience favorites of his own. He did this with new elements of harmony, tempo, counter melodies, and improvisation from players whose relationships to a given composition could be shifted from the background to a solo feature or vice versa. This improvisation allowed Ellington to continually revisit his own works in the way that a jazzman can always return to give the past a vibrant but only relative importance while proving that the present is always potentially vital. In jazz, improvised playing is measured by aesthetic command under the pressure of what Martin Luther King called "the fierce urgency of now."

Ellington was able to find a new feeling or a new sensibility for the very same reason Picasso said of painting that if one ever actually ceased to feel fresh things about a familiar subject there would not be so many paintings of it. The 1950 Masterpieces by Ellington and the 1951 Ellington Uptown, his first two long-playing recordings on forty-minute canvases, show his creation of new three-minute numbers, his expansion of other well-known ones, and his commitment to such longer compositions as "The Tattooed Bride," from the 1950 recording, and ," from the following year. In each of the long pieces the delicate sumptuousness of romance and the turbulence of life are not opposed but are organic parts of the composer's vision of simultaneity. With three-minute pieces and what became the kinds of suites that he wrote until his death, Ellington could either hold or fold but was considered a dead duck in the business by the middle Fifties. At that point, a dance band could survive only by playing many one-night appearances and very few extended engagements of a week or more. This meant constant traveling for the Ellington crew in accommodations that had fallen to the uncomfortable band bus, far below the private Pullman railroad cars on which they had traveled through the South during the Thirties and early Forties to avoid the irritations and insults of segregation. Gone were the days. The band's elite status had left along with all the other bands that were then no more than nostalgic memories.

All of the good intentions, the stripped-down traveling accommodations, the exhausting schedules, and the illusion that everything was as fine as good May wine had melted into a huge stone that Ellington had to push up the unavoidable show-business hill that rose before him every single day. He was not a man given to vacations, nor were his responses to the demands that seemed about to overcome him particularly effective when he arrived at Newport on July 7, 1956.

According to Wynton Marsalis, Duke Ellington was the leader of what just may have been the greatest orchestra in all of Western musical history, with the possible exception of the Chicago Symphony. Although one expects great skill from symphony players, one almost never hears a symphony orchestra in which each section of strings, brass, and woodwinds contains not only virtuoso players but more than one outstanding soloist, a player whose command includes a personal tone, technique, and rhythmic flow as well as a distinctive melodic and harmonic conception. This was true of the Ellington Orchestra from the middle 1930s onward, and the organization was at a particular plateau of mature and regenerated authority the night that it took to the bandstand of the Newport Jazz Festival, after having been made to wait as though the musicians were, as the bandleader angrily said, "the animal act."

In a racist period when second class was thought good enough for Negroes, the idea that black jazz musicians should be presented well, paid on equal terms with the white musicians, and provided with parallel accommodations made jazz the aesthetic agent of a democratic optimism that had proven its truth through the musicians and the music itself. Although they did not have to, black and white musicians had made good jazz together and could handle each other the way that human beings do when the nature of their individual sensibilities creates the codes of conduct and the rules of engagement. For musicians, the law of the land, the imperative to which they have to submit, is that talent dictates unpredictably. A journeyman or a genius can come from anywhere.

We should not forget that this was the dark modern age of American life when liberals, wealthy or not, were urban variations on abolitionists. In many instances and contexts, these twentieth-century abolitionists were essential to what became alternatives to racism in American society during the hundred years after the Civil War. Those were the years when the redneck South did some stubbornly fancy footwork and won in social policy what it had lost on the battlefield. Southern bigots had established a way to keep black people as much under their heels as possible, a fact that seemed mythic or at most metaphoric until the harsh and voluminous details were brought forth by Douglas A. Blackmon in his 2008 Slavery by Another Name. That book should provide a severely detailed caning for all Southern apologists who argue that the good old South has been terribly misunderstood.

The Southern combination of the genteel and the crude had formed a pretentious and despicable style of handling race relations. That style might demand aristocratic entitlement or replace the mask of refinement with paranoid and murderous violence if some Negro accidentally or intentionally posed a threat to what was called "the Southern way of life." Given the many nooks and crannies in which racism was to be found, it could be argued that the Southern vision of racial hierarchy had so influenced the North that it was close to being the true nature of the nation. This could be shockingly illustrated in the most savage terms by race riots, public murders, and newspaper editorials that were themselves nationwide race riots in journalism following the heavyweight boxing championship victory of Jack Johnson in 1910. As Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man posited, the epic frame of black American life was always a story of partial containment.

What makes John Fass Morton's Backstory in Blue so impressive is the way he handles the tensions and releases of that blue containment tale while bringing human complexity to the fore. We feel the flesh-and-blood qualities of the characters who made the story intimate, secret, public, intricate, casual, and even slightly mysterious. Morton makes up for his occasional slips into the ordinary prose of mere reportage with a sense of how to balance the book's pacing through detail that does not mute feeling but becomes a narrative partner.

While sometimes seeming irrelevant until its importance is later revealed, each detail gives nuance and great variety to a story that is fairly simple. A musical genius whose career was a metaphor for how far his art could go beyond its humble and limited origins was in popular decline when contracted to play a newly established jazz festival at Newport, Rhode Island, where high-society types had recently brought together enough of the forces needed to hold the blues of bigotry and social prejudice at bay. Columbia Records, having won the competition against RCA to first produce a long-playing record, or album, managed to get a crew there to document the performance. The new technology would allow Ellington to think in terms of much more time than was allowed in the three-minute records that had built the great mass of his reputation over the past thirty years. The most formidable composer of his idiom, the bandleader had written a three-part suite to celebrate the occasion and to uplift the audience. It was a plateau in a career that had begun to buck racial and aesthetic limitations with the support of the bandleader's Jewish manager, Irving Mills, who had fought all of Ellington's battles with him from the late Twenties to the late Thirties.

When the band went on at Newport, for all that it had been and had meant to American music for so long, the initial response of the audience was indifferent if not bored. Then, as in a film, after failing to thrill the audience with piece after piece, the bandleader decides not to go down without a hard swinging fight and calls an extended blues work that he wrote nineteen years before, one that nearly created a riot in 1938 when performed at the very first jazz festival on Randall's Island in New York. This time, however, a featured solo was the ace in the hole. It was presented by Paul Gonsalves, the tenor saxophonist who was from Rhode Island's Cape Verdean community but had been with Ellington for six years and had, just a few years earlier, very nearly ignited a Birdland audience to chaotic behavior with his red-hot playing of the same piece. That night in Newport, not very far from his home, Gonsalves again did his duty, lighting the smoking lamp with the golden brass blow torch of his saxophone. The music, the audience, and the night synthesized into a miracle of expression, acceptance, and transcendence. The players owned the evening.

Backstory in Blue makes us aware of more than the comeback tale loved by the media and the public, by circling close to, away from, and back to that performance. Morton significantly gives a brief history of Ellington's career and the development of the recording business. We meet every member of the band and understand why he was hired. Morton shows that although Ellington was in the worst economic period of his career and was being advised by jazz magazines to retire, his band had actually been regenerated by new members and by the return of Johnny Hodges, a supreme and irreplaceable soloist who had defected a few years earlier. At his lowest point, Ellington was leading what may have been his best band. This was made evident over the nearly fifteen years of touring and an incomparable number of masterful recordings that contained an uncontested range of material and original works, large and small. This mass of Ellingtonia was publicly documented or privately stockpiled by Ellington himself until the band, which had been slowly losing its great personnel, lost Hodges to death in 1970 and went into its final downward spiral over the next four years.

Morton is not just filling up space with drool by scrutinizing each musician in the band. His technique gives the reader a sense of the complex internal tensions and releases of Ellington's leadership and, even more important, his dynamic psychological relationship to the quality of the band in performance. The leader ultimately knew that he had to spark his men into charging a hill of potential indifference. If he wanted heat or sweetness or anything in between it was his responsibility to bring it first from the piano and keep it going once all that could be made romantic or molten began to bubble up to the top. In the wonderfully insightful documentary A Duke Named Ellington, veteran tenor saxophonist Ben Webster says, "I still don't understand how he does it" -- the saxophonist snaps his fingers -- "he turns that band on like you turn that faucet on, and the band plays. But Duke . . . he's an easy-going man. He never said anything. Never seen Duke lose his temper, but" -- squinting his eyes exactly as expected of one whose nickname was The Brute -- "he's got a way to let you know let's take care of business. You dig?"

Morton brings unforced irony to the highest point of his tale by observing early on that the technicians there to capture the last performance of the night were using magnetic tape developed in Germany during the Third Reich. This is an important detail shrewdly placed because the writer does not say what it means, allowing the reader to figure out how technological advance can quickly become universal, no matter its origins. The Reich could not have imagined that eleven years after it had lost the war at least partially to a country quite schizoid about race, the conquering nation from across the Atlantic Ocean would reveal its epic resources once again but this time through German innovations. Every aspect of ethnic confusion and superstition would, for an imperishable moment, be resolved by a music that the Nazis hated especially because of its assumed ability to bring out the savage even in Aryans. That music would be performed at white heat by a band of Negroes led by one of the geniuses of American feeling who was not unaccustomed to soothing or thrilling or coaxing his audiences until they were ready to be driven wild.

Morton structures his tale around the realization that our society has been wired much longer than many assume and that there has never been a stronger influence than that wiring on racial containment as well as on the motion beyond containment that we call "social progress." Wiring established itself in the earlier communication grids of electronic access that began to emerge with film, crystal sets, telephones, and radio. Perhaps most importantly, electronics united many human kinds, backgrounds, and elements -- the musicians, the businesspeople, the corporations, the promoters, the technicians, the audience, the politicians, and the media itself. Recordings were fundamental to a modern musician's career. More than commercial artifacts only, they could define a personal aesthetic by making public an artistic story as accidental but perceivable as an urban skyline. Each release was an aesthetic truth that took in the talent, the convention, and the innovation, if one was being made. As Stevie Wonder described them, recordings were talking books. They spoke to audiences in ways that helped define the modernity of our lives and how we see ourselves.

John Fass Morton reveals many things that others have missed, and his book could inspire those in our firmly segregated literary world where almost all of our fiction fails to bring artistry and the sort of sweep expected in the best nineteenth-century European novels and short stories. Page by page this book makes its way to great importance by showing that one should not be spooked by the range and complications of humanity that appear across the classes, the races, the religions, the professions, and the causes that usually drive great public events in our nation. In all, Backstory in Blue gives us a startlingly pure rendition of the private, public, domestic, and international significance of the American community in what may be an era that will more perfectly realize the deeper meanings of why the new president of the United States proudly calls himself a mutt.

Stanley Crouch is the author, most recently, of Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Backstory in Blue: Ellington at... New Hardcover $34.95
  2. Picasso Used Trade Paper $3.95
  3. Go Down, Moses (Vintage International) Used Trade Paper $5.95
  4. Slavery by Another Name: The... New Trade Paper $17.95
  5. Invisible Man
    Used Trade Paper $5.95

5 Responses to "The Electric Company: How technology revived Ellington’s Career"

    Cocker Fab September 11th, 2009 at 6:40 am

    Unfortunately not the best book review you have put out. Too much about reviewer to begin with. Background on Ellington was interesting although again reflected Crouch more than anything else.
    I have read previous reviews by Stanley Crouch - he has a fluent pen and good style, but his content is a tad over-Crouch-centered.

    Cocker Fab September 11th, 2009 at 6:41 am

    Unfortunately not the best book review you have put out. Too much about reviewer to begin with. Background on Ellington was interesting although again reflected Crouch more than anything else.
    I have read previous reviews by Stanley Crouch - he has a fluent pen and good style, but he could use editing.

    s h a r o n September 11th, 2009 at 8:48 am

    My, my. Crouch has written a review here that, from the first paragraph to the last word, I'll consider a keeper. The piece delivers full-face punches one after another: "perpetual submission to contrived novelty"; "needless contemplation"; "machines that bespeak the genius of the species for the trivialization of the profound"; and, "heroes need huge obstacles to teach them what they must know in order to achieve the victories demanded of them". And speaking of Ellington's learned social and linguistic abilities, compared to those who had "...sucked the soft, soothing metal of silver spoons." Rock and roll as "an audio teenage toy"?

    Read the whole thing, friends.

    Darlene MsNetz September 12th, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    Seriously pompous style.

    Frits Schjøtt – Denmark September 13th, 2009 at 1:24 am

    An excellent review of a book, that immediately enters first place on my want-list.
    Thanks to mr. Crouch for a well-written account of one of our foremost creative artists.
    Frits from Denmark

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