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Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson and the Birth of Concert Jazz by John Howland

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Anyone who has studied or read about the compositional output of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington always wondered how Ellington became so prolific in writing long form jazz compositions. Yet, more importantly, some (myself included) wondered why.

John Howland’s book, Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz provides an answer. Howland’s scholarly text concludes that there is a tradition here that was developed, and in that respect, there are ideals and concepts that were nurtured in the segregated world of Black America that allowed Ellington and one of his musical heroes and mentors, James P. Johnson to provide a template of cultural enrichment in music with a symphonic sound. While Howland admits that Ellington and Johnson were different and “pursued richly diverse professional careers,” they arrived in the same place: where jazz began to exhibit very apparent components of a highly developed musical form, something that is an afterthought in jazz now, but is need of more study.

The first chapter, “From Clorindy to Carnegie Hall” metaphorically lays out Holland’s premise. This is jazz’s journey from entertaining vaudeville shows to respect on the big stage before the world. The best evidence is Ellington delivering his celebrated masterwork, “Black, Brown and Beige” in 1943 in Carnegie Hall. Holland hails it as a “landmark” and in the context of Holland’s book – evidence of Ellington’s interest in “extended… suites.”

James P. Johnson, Ellngton’s hero is here too and this is important. Long since lost in jazz scholarship, Johnson’s early stride influenced piano compositions like “Yamecraw” represent what Ellington would accomplish later: make an authentic cultural and historical statement about the black experience in America. Holland ultimately notes that Johnson’s song “demonstrates important perspectives on the strategies for racial uplift in Harlem entertainment.” Harlem is a constant in Ellington Uptown too, its influence, its uniqueness. The other constant is Holland’s sharp scholarship and the intellectual beauty of jazz music.

Originally Published