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Dvorák to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African-American Roots by Maurice Peress

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There is a subtle theme running throughout classical conductor Maurice Peress’ new book: Did legendary Czech composer Antonin Dvorák’s brief visit to America at the turn of the century influence the direction of jazz composition into the Ellington era? When you read Peress’ well-documented prose you will know this proposition cannot be dismissed lightly. Peress traces the African-American aesthetic line that Dvorák discovered and utilized in his own work very diligently.

This tale includes American composers such as Gershwin and Bernstein, but the true stars are lesser-known musicians such as Will Marion Cook, a student of Dvorák and violinist who mentored a young Duke Ellington. Peress’ makes all of his pieces fit best when he recounts Dvorák’s relationship with black musicians such as Harry Burleigh. Burleigh was assigned to Dvorák when the master taught at the National Conservatory of Music of America. It was under Burleigh’s influence that Dvorák came to proclaim the cultural dominance of African-American music forms when he told the New York Herald in May 1993: In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.