It is only now that we are seriously beginning to explore the complexities of African-American performance. For years it has been so easily to interpret the great Louis Armstrong as a cooning, shuffling sycophant, who was way past his musical prime by the time “Hello Dolly” became his most requested tune. We now know that Armstrong, like so many of his generation, fell victim to a racist society in which he felt compelled to embody America’s worst racial fantasies in order to continue to perform his craft. No doubt the experiences of Canada Lee and Paul Robeson, were constant reminders that America would never reward, and would blatantly punish, (Nina, Abbey—holla if ya hear me) those African Americans who resisted the small spaces they were required to inhabit. These examples are what make Duke Ellington’s legacy even more astounding. Yeah, brother could floss with the best of them (Puffy should take some lessons), but bruh was also all business. For more than 50 years, Ellington used his music to examine the complexities of black life (the shuffling, the hustling, the loving, the scheming and the being) and to challenge the contradictions of American Democracy, contradictions that have, until recently, denied “Duke” his rightful place among other AMERICAN geniuses. Columbia/Legacy’s new box set The Duke attempts to put Ellington’s musical legacy into some kind of fitting context. Spanning from 1927-1961, The Duke compiles over 60 Ellington recordings from his most formidable years.
The Duke is one of many products associated with the celebration of the centennial of Ellington’s birth. Given the pervading racism of American society and 20th century cultural criticisms, specifically, Ellington was often denied the broad accolades bestowed upon other American composers and musicians like George Gershwin or Benny Goodman, during his lifetime. As Harold Cruse suggests in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, his fire and brimstone study of black intellectuals, “Ellington could be denied this kind of recognition only because of the undemocratic way the cultural machine in America is run.” The irony of Cruse’s charges are that Ellington, in many ways, embodied the tenets of American democracy. As Stanley Crouch has asserted, Ellington was “inspired by the majesty he heard coming from musicians of all hues and from all level of training…whenever they said the music was dead, Duke was out there, writing music and performing the meaning of his democratic birthright…” Examples of this practice include the prominent role women vocalists like Ivie Anderson and the great in her own right Mahailia Jackson played in his recordings, his willingness to explore music with African and East Indian influences, and of course his well known and highly prolific musical collaboration with composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn, who was incidentally an “out” homosexual. For Ellington, the big band was a metaphor for Democracy and he composed and arranged songs that took advantage of the myriad of talents and styles contained within his bands
While Ellington is clearly one of the most recognizable black artists of the 20th century, he emerged within a society, industry, and critical establishment that was at best condescending and contentious. The racist social science theories of the likes of John Wesley Powell and Lewis Henry Morgan were widely circulated and legitimized within popular culture (ya gotta check out Lee Baker’s brilliant From Savage to Negro), thus powerfully impacting upon public perceptions of African-Americans and their roles within the larger society. Such perceptions were furthered by the presence of the minstrel stage, which fixed an image of African-Americans and their purported antics in the popular imagination. Unfortunately this occurred at the expense of the real humanity of African-Americans caricatured via those minstrel traditions and those who found humor, including blacks, in those caricatures. The subsequent careers of Ernest T. Hogan, composer of the classic “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” the aforementioned Louis Armstrong and Stepin’ Fechit, whose cinematic performances became the measurement of “cooning” for many African-American audiences, are better understood when examined within this context. The willingness to describe artists like Miles Davis, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone or say Lloyd Price as “angry,” was partly related to their refusing to embrace the type coon antics of previous generations of black performers. Somehow, Ellington, through his grace and public humility, was able to find middle ground where he resisted the type performance personas that many of his peers were saddled with, while still articulating a powerful social conscience.
The Duke consist of three discs, the first of which chronicles the years 1927-1940, the second and most potent of the disc captures Ellington recordings from the post-war years of 1947-1952, and the last disc features recordings from 1956-1961. Ellington’s restless and boundless creativity allowed him to constantly rework earlier themes and this SONY/Legacy collection exposes some of those efforts. The first disc features tracks like “Black and Tan Fantasy” and an early arrangement of “In a Sentimental Mood,” which was given it’s most popular treatment in the early ‘60s when Ellington collaborated with fellow jazz giant John Coltrane. The disc also includes “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” and an early version of “Caravan.” Both songs allude to the changing dynamics of African-American life, where the unprecedented migration of blacks from the deep south forced musicians like Ellington to be cognizant of the different regional tastes that could be contained in an singular audience. The most well know song on the disc and perhaps Ellington’s most recognizable song is the classic “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing)” with lead vocals by Ivie Anderson. That “swing” has evolved as an ever changing metaphor for energy and change within African-American culture. Who could forget Malcolm X’s admonishment to Civil Rights leaders that it was time to “stop singing and start swinging” or Barry Michael Cooper coining the term “New Jack Swing” to describe the hip-hop/R&B hybrid that Teddy Riley advanced in the late ‘80s.
The second disc presents the Ellington sound as it is being challenged by the emergence of Be-Bop and Rhythm and Blues. Tracks like the rollicking “Antidisestablishmentarianismist,” “Creole Love Call,” and “Brown Betty” find Ellington holding on to, if not furthering his vision of the big band. The best testament to Duke’s genius was that his popularity did not wane, despite the fact that the big band sound, was for all intents, dead. The jewel of the second disc is the more than seven minute version of “Take the A Train.” which features the brilliant vocals of Betty Roche. The song was a reminder that throughout the 20th century, Harlem, remained the Mecca of African-American life. And while other cities clearly influenced what we acknowledge as African-American culture (see Suzanne Smith’s Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit), Harlem became, and too some extent still is, the fictive capitol of “Black America.” Seemingly every black migrant who stepped off a train at Penn Station or a bus at Port Authority, were told that the quickest way to Harlem was via the “A” train.
The last disc finds Ellington engaging in projects that represented both his broad artistic interests and his willingness to challenge the status quo in the recording industry. “Star-Crossed Lovers’ is taken from his 1957 recording Such Sweet Thunder which explored many of the themes prominent in the Shakespearean works, Othello, Henry the Fifth, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream. “Come Sunday” is, of course, from his great work Black, Brown, and Beige, which Ellington debuted in 1943. The version contained on disc three of The Duke features the vocals of the legendary gospel singer Mahailia Jackson. Their collaboration on that track and throughout the 1957 recording of Black, Brown, and Beige is perhaps one of the greatest collaborations in all of American popular music. As Wynton Marsalis stated during one of the many events that celebrated Ellington’s legacy during the past year, “Duke Ellington is America’s most prolific composerof the 20th century, in both number of pieces (almost 2,000) and variety of forms. His artistic development and sustained achievement are among the most spectacular in the history of music.” The Duke is a great introduction to Ellington’s artistry and achievement.