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Interview: Author David Schiff on Why Ellington’s Music Matters

How Duke found common threads between jazz, classical, and pop

David Schiff knows his way around an orchestral score. The Juilliard-educated composer has written a fair number himself, examined compositions for numerous publications, and listens closely to music with students at Reed College. So it was with an informed eye that he approached the Duke Ellington archive at the Smithsonian, a trove of papers Ellington’s son gave to the institution in 1988. His time there, as well as a lifetime of musical appreciation, led him to write his third book: The Ellington Century , a meticulous examination of the composer’s music and its place in the 20th century canon.

What drew you to Ellington?

Even though he’s central to jazz in some ways, Ellington’s a kind of alien in jazz history. Jazz history puts so much emphasis on performance and not a lot on composition, because there aren’t many composers. Ellington’s sort of there as a composer, but even the idea that his music might be composed was a source of controversy. Even the idea that jazz could be composed has been controversial.

Then there was the creation of the Ellington archive at the Smithsonian, where I’ve spent a lot of time. Looking at Ellington’s original sketches and parts was an amazing revelation, because it put to rest any doubt about how much of a composer he was. It also made clear in an astonishing way that about 90 percent of what you hear is written down. The improvisation element is small. The only parts he didn’t write down were his own and the drum part. It also made clear how much he and Billy Strayhorn worked together.

Your book isn’t a straight biography, but uses Ellington as a prism for understanding 20th century music. How did you come upon that idea?

Back in the 1990s I wrote a piece for the Atlantic Monthly in which I compared Ellington to Stravinsky in aspects that both were criticized for. One is the way in which Stravinsky’s music is made up of separate ideas that he put back to back without any transitions. It started out as a dramatic effect for ballet and then became part of his style. Ellington’s music is also constructed out of phrases, which work by contrast. They’re put next to each other and you have to figure out what the juxtaposition means. And very much like Stravinsky, Ellington liked to rearrange the order of those phrases. There’s a description of Stravinsky where he composed little episodes and then shuffled them like cards.

After looking at the archives, I just took the next step, which is to say that Ellington’s music should be thought of in a different setting than jazz history. It should be looked at in the setting of 2oth century music. And let’s not think of it as Ellington looking in but let’s put him right in the middle. That’s what led to the book.

What are some misconceptions about jazz that you hoped to overturn?

One is that jazz is some kind of world unto itself and it has no connection to other kinds of music and vice versa. And that’s untrue in a lot of ways. If you just look at Ellington’s calendar socially he was aware of what was happening in all different kinds of music. Also, I think that jazz is responding to a lot of different issues that we think of that classical music talks about: love, history and religion. I wanted to show that Ellington is really addressing these same issues that music has always dealt with. We can listen to his music as very profound explorations of these issues, just as in classical music.

How did you decide what composers or music to focus on?

One thing I’ve discovered in teaching that influenced the book is that chronology is a misleading and unhelpful way of approaching music. In this book I decided to talk about tone color, rhythm, melody and harmony, and I based each chapter on an Ellington piece that I thought exemplified those qualities. Then I selected others that might be listened to in parallel. For instance when I talk about tone color I start with a piece from 1938 called “Blue Light,” which exemplifies the Ellington effect of mood indigo feeling. Each section of the piece uses a different instrumental color. Like a painting it’s an arrangement of color. Ellington was trained as a graphic artist, so he thought that way. Through the juxtaposition of these special colors there’s a particular story that comes through in that piece. That way of listening, thinking of color as one of the most important things, that’s the way other 20th century composers were thinking, starting with Debussy and Schoenberg.

Were there any pieces that you listened to over and over?

One of the works that really fascinates me is “Black, Brown, and Beige.” It premiered in 1943 at Carnegie Hall, and the critics gave it a rough time. After that there were three recordings by Ellington; in the following year he recorded just excerpts from it. And then in 1958 he recorded a version of it with Mahalia Jackson, which again is much shorter than the original. So the story that most critics saw was that Ellington just salvaged parts people liked. What I found is that Ellington kept playing different parts of it for the rest of his life. It became his central project and leads right to the Sacred Concerts. It was the central story he wanted to tell, the history of the African American experience. It shows up in “My People” in 1963 and in the first Sacred Concert in 1965. He’s rearranging and reconfiguring it, and trying to figure out where this music belongs. Carnegie Hall didn’t seem to be the right setting for it. It turns out that the right setting for it was a cathedral; it was the only place grand enough for this music.

What did Ellington and Strayhorn each bring to the composition?

It’s very subtle. Strayhorn was so good at imitating Ellington’s style that most people would never hear the difference. If you compare Strayhorn’s own compositions there’s a clear difference from Ellington’s. Strayhorn tends to work more like a classical composer in that he takes an idea and keeps developing it. So there’s a linear progression through the piece. Generally, Ellington works in what I call the cubist style, the juxtaposition style. Strayhorn’s music seems more sustained and Ellington’s is bumpier.

Is that bumpiness a trademark Ellington sound?

Very much. Many of the pieces are made up of distinctive elements. In “Daybreak Express,” from 1934, it’s an amazing choo-choo-train piece, and it’s really two compositions. The first half is like modern music, a noise piece with modern harmonies. And then it goes into three disguised choruses of “Tiger Rag.” It turns into a completely different piece halfway through but they all go together. It’s like reading a poem; you read the whole thing and then you try and then you try to figure out what the relationship is of the different phrases.

That seems to be a theme in modern art, like James Joyce.

Yes, absolutely: think about his emphasis on color and Matisse and Kandinsky. And the same goes with the idea of different kind of structure, interruptions and juxtapositions. That’s Joyce, Faulkner, Picasso, all of that.

Is that why Ellington is less recognized, that the music is perhaps abstruse?

It’s not abstruse, it’s that he’s so much a category unto himself. Part of the challenge is that he never published his arrangements. He also wrote for specific people, and they’re not making a lot of Johnny Hodges these days. Jazz, unlike classical music, values the individual sound. That’s why very often the performances of Ellington I find the least satisfying are those played at Pops concerts with generic arrangements of the music. So the challenge is, well, what do we do with it? I’m very easy about this. There are bands that try and recreate the music as it was played, or you can also say if Ellington had these players this music would have come out differently.

Would it be more honest to Ellington if musicians were allowed to show more individuality, or even improvise?

If they know how. That’s what jazz musicians do. That’s absolutely the right approach for jazz musicians because they know what to do.

You talk about how Stravinsky borrowed from jazz and jazz musicians nod to him. Do other classical composers have this kind of relationship?

Stravinsky is an interesting case because he took jazz very seriously. He went out and listened to it. I just found out he had a meeting with Charlie Parker once at the headquarters of Dial Records in Hollywood. God knows what they talked about. Bartok came to this country in 1940, but even before that he was commissioned to write a piece for Benny Goodman called “Contrasts.” Bartok must have studied Goodman’s playing because he found a way of writing Hungarian music that sounded like American jazz. A lot of composers were going back and forth. The notion that these were separate worlds is just not true. I studied with Elliott Carter, who’s as far from jazz as you can imagine, but he told me that in 1942 he wrote a symphony and Ellington was at the premiere. Ellington came up to him and congratulated him on the way he used jazz in the piece. Doesn’t that violate all your stereotypes? What was Ellington doing hanging at new music concerts? These worlds overlap much more than you think.

What other classical composers would you recommend for jazz listeners?

I think the essential 20th century composer for jazz listeners is Ravel. So much jazz harmony comes out of Ravel’s music. Ravel was also very interested in jazz. He wrote a blues in 1925 in his violin sonata. And his two piano concertos that he wrote after hearing “Rhapsody in Blue” have a lot of jazz in them. Jazz musicians have been taking chords from Ravel forever. I think his sensibility is very close to jazz.

You’re a composer yourself. Has jazz crept into your work?

Oh, tremendously. Over the years I’ve worked with great jazz musicians and have had wonderful experiences. I’ve written music for Marty Ehrlich and Dave Taylor. Regina Carter played my violin concerto with the Detroit Symphony, which was the thrill of a lifetime. One thing working with them has done for me is there’s much more of an improvisational element in my music and I love working with improvisatory musicians. When writing for classical musicians I have my way of pulling them kicking and screaming over the line so it sounds like they’re improvising. When I’m working with improvised musicians I give them as much leeway as possible. When Regina did four performances of my violin concerto it was different every night. Drove the conductor crazy.

What are you hoping to work on for your next research project?

Certain things that I’ve been thinking about, maybe other people could do. There are two great American composers who need to be thought of more in the way I’m thinking of Ellington. One is Charles Mingus, who’s the obvious disciple of Ellington. And another one that’s going to give me trouble in the jazz world is Frank Zappa. I’d love spending a couple of years with his music.

Originally Published