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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

August 1987

Large-Scale Jazz


The action today is in composing, not improvising

by Francis Davis


JAZZ scripture insists that composition is a frill, at best a springboard to improvisation and at worst an obstruction to it. But jazz scripture also insists on progress, and in the past few years improvisers have been retracing their steps and composers have been the ones breaking new ground--writing formally ambitious works that, while not eschewing improvisation altogether, relegate it to second place and demand more rigorous self-editing by improvising soloists. Many of these composers are rejecting jazz's traditional isolationism to collaborate with poets, choreographers, and classical musicians. X, the Anthony Davis opera about the life of Malcolm X, presented by the New York City Opera last fall, is unique only in that it got funded--there could be other Xs waiting to happen, by Ornette Coleman, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Henry Threadgill, all of whom have described plans for grand initiatives. Other contemporary composers who are thinking big--if only in terms of thinking orchestrally, even when they are able to hire just six or seven players--include Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, John Carter, Joseph Jarman, Leroy Jenkins, Steve Lacy, Roscoe Mitchell, Butch Morris, James Newton, Errol Parker, George Russell, Leo Smith, Cecil Taylor, Edward Wilkerson, the members of the World Saxophone Quartet (Hamiet Bluiett, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and David Murray), and the String Trio of New York (Billy Bang, James Emery, and John Lindberg). But if one accepts the premise that composition is the key element in jazz in the 1980s, the decade's central figure is not any of these but Duke Ellington, who died in 1974.

Ellington's influence has never been greater. Typed as a "jazz" composer only by circumstance of race, he spent his career chafing at the restrictions of jazz, much as his spiritual descendants are chafing now. His scope was enormous. In addition to ballads even shapelier and riffs even more propulsive than those expected of a swing-era big-band leader, his portfolio included tone poems, ballet suites, concerto-like miniatures for star sidemen, sacred music, topical revues, film scores, and extended jazz works unparalleled until very recently and classifiable only as modern American music. He even wrote a comic opera: Queenie Pie, the trifling but winsome score he was working on for public television at his death, was finally staged last fall in Philadelphia and Washington. The son of working people, who dared to imagine himself in top hat and tails, an experimentalist who courted and won popular acceptance, Ellington was one of America's greatest composers, regardless of idiom. He was also the most quintessentially American, in the way that he effortlessly negotiated the distance between popular culture and the fine arts, the dance floor and the concert hall.


IN 1984 the Jazz critic Gary Giddins estimated that fifty hours of Ellington recordings had been released in the ten years following his death. More have been released since then, including long-forgotten studio sessions and concert tapes previously circulated only among private collectors. Invaluable as much of this material has proved to be, it is ironic that it has generally been easier to come by than Ellington's most acclaimed work--the epochal sides he recorded for RCA Victor in the early 1940s, for years available only on French import or by mail order from the Smithsonian Institution.

The release of Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Band (RCA Bluebird 5659-1-RB29, also available on cassette and compact disc) late last year indicates that RCA is finally beginning to realize what treasures lie in its vaults. The four-record set collects the Ellington Orchestra's entire commercially recorded output from March of 1940 to July of 1942--arguably Ellington's most fertile period, though most of his large-scale works, beginning with Black, Brown, and Beige, were still to come. By 1940 most of Ellington's sidemen had been with him a decade or more, and he had been so important in shaping their sensibilities that he could almost predict the content of their improvisations. This familiarity enabled him to take daredevil risks as a composer and arranger. The two newcomers alluded to in the collection's title perhaps stimulated him even more. The bassist Jimmy Blanton, the first jazz virtuoso on his instrument, gave the orchestra's syncopations more bite, and opened Ellington up as a pianist. The arrival of Ben Webster, the orchestra's first tenor-saxophone star, gave Ellington another crack soloist to call on, as well as another color for his palette. (He acquired still another, more exotic one in late 1940, when Ray Nance, who doubled on violin, joined the trumpet section.)

The detail of Ellington's writing and the individuality of his soloists are always astonishing, no matter how many times one has heard the tracks on The Blanton-Webster Band. "Concerto for Cootie," with its beautifully integrated theme and improvisational variations by the trumpeter Cootie Williams, is a masterpiece. In "Jack the Bear" the dialogues between Blanton and the ensemble are thrilling. "Ko-Ko" offers intimations of modality and minimalism. The delight of "Cotton Tail" lies in its breakneck Webster choruses and intricate sax-section harmonizations. And the layered countermelody of "I've Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" shows off the inspired conjugation of Johnny Hodges's alto and Ivie Anderson's voice (as perfect a union as that between Lester Young and Billie Holiday). "Main Stem" and "Harlem Air Shaft" are among the tracks that show Ellington's ability to experiment even within the confines of the blues and the thirty-two-bar song format. The numerous versions of pop hits of the period show Ellington's powers of transformation, and Herb Jeffries's ungainly warbling proves that even Ellington was human (with the exception of Ivie Anderson, he never employed a first-rate singer on a regular basis). This was also the period in which Billy Strayhorn, Ellington's protege, blossomed into an influential composer and orchestrator under his mentor's watchful eye. Strayhorn's "Raincheck" and "Johnny Come Lately" anticipate bebop phraseology, and his "Take the 'A' Train," which ultimately became the Ellington Orchestra's signature tune, cleverly underlines the band's playful swank. But the most evocative Strayhorn piece here is "Chelsea Bridge," with its lordly Webster solo; as a successful jazz appropriation of Ravel and Debussy, this remains unsurpassed even by Ellington, a master impressionist in his own right.

It is too bad that the producers of The Blanton-Webster Band failed to include Ellington's 1941 duets with Blanton, or the small-group dates from the same period led by Hodges, the clarinetist Barney Bigard, and the trumpeter Rex Stewart, all featuring Ellington on piano. If it is true, as Strayhorn is said to have put it, that Ellington's real instrument was the orchestra, it is equally true that the piano became an orchestra at his urging. (Money Jungle; on Blue Note BT-85129, a bristling encounter with the modernists Charles Mingus and Max Roach, recorded in 1962 and reissued last year with other material, provides a good long look at Ellington the dissonant stride pianist.) Although the vintage performances on The Blanton-Webster Band have been digitally remastered, the sound is not as vivid as on the French reissues, nor is the pitch as accurate. If RCA finally intends to do justice to its Ellington catalogue, its job is far from over--the Ellington Orchestra recorded masterpieces for the label before 1940 and after 1942. The Blanton-Webster Band is a godsend for those on a tight budget; others are advised to search the specialty shops for French RCA's increasingly difficult-to-find Works of Duke, twenty-four volumes available separately or in five boxed sets. Still, music that is timeless and universal in its appeal belongs in chain stores as well as specialty shops, which is why the reappearance of this material on a well-distributed domestic label is so welcome.

In the years since Ellington's death, iconoclastic performers associated with the jazz avant-garde have recorded albums of his compositions. They have brought their own agendas to his music, which has proved more malleable than anyone might have imagined (although there is some justice in the complaints of those who insist that to play Ellington means playing him his way). The most striking of these revisionist homages are the flutist James Newton's African Flower (Blue Note BT-85109), the pianist Ran Blake's Duke Dreams (Soul Note SN-1027, distributed by Polygram Special Imports), and the World Saxophone Quartet's World Saxophone Quartet Plays Duke Ellington (Nonesuch 79137-1). This album is both the most recent and the most satisfying in terms of fealty to Ellington's tempos and the ineluctable rightness of its deviations from text.


THAT so many performers who are generally adamant about playing only their own material have chosen to interpret Ellington is eloquent testimony to his inexhaustible influence, as are the Ellingtonian flourishes (sometimes filtered through his disciple Charles Mingus) that pervade the ensembles of John Carter, Abdullah Ibrahim, David Murray, and Henry Threadgill. But when I call Ellington the key figure of the decade, it's not just because musicians continue to play his tunes or to aspire to his orchestral majesty. Musicians from all stylistic camps have long done that much, and Mercer Ellington has done an admirable job of keeping his father's music in circulation, on albums like the new Digital Duke (GR1038). Nor is it just because the plungered, speech-like brass styles like the ones that Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, and Joe Nanton patented during their years with Ellington are again all the rage, thanks to the trombonist Craig Harris and the trumpeters Lester Bowie and Olu Dara. Nor is it because Anthony Davis and many other black composers are consciously, and in some instances programmatically, giving musical expression to the goals and frustrations of black society, just as Ellington did with such mural-like works as Harlem, The Deep South Suite, and Black, Brown, and Beige.

What is most significant is that today's visionary jazz composers are taking up Ellington's unfinished task of integrating composition and improvisation. Jazz is thought of as extemporaneous and fleeting--that is another part of its romance--but these composers, in setting pen to paper, are aiming for a perpetuity like that which Ellington achieved. They are realizing larger works, as he did, and not worrying whether the results strike everyone as jazz.

Of course, not everyone who listens to jazz is as sanguine about this development as I am. Some fear that jazz is recklessly heading for the same dead end that classical music arrived at earlier in this century, with atonality and serialism. And it is true that the composers I am speaking of as Ellington's heirs lack his common touch, his willingness to play the role of entertainer, and will probably never find themselves in a position to develop this commendable trait. Jazz has experienced growing pains since Ellington's time, and the innocent idea of entertainment has been forced to submit to the cynical science of demographics (it's a question not of what is entertaining but of how many and whom it entertains). In its maturity--some would say its dotage--jazz has become an art music, and because a reconciliation with pop seems out of the question, a rapprochement with classical music is probably the key to its survival. Ellington gives these contemporary composers much to strive for, but his mass appeal is sadly out of their reach. A larger audience should be part of what a composer dares to hope for when he starts thinking big.


Copyright © 1987 by Francis Davis. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1987; "Large-Scale Jazz"; Volume 260, No. 2; pages 76-77.

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