The individual players he employed weren’t up-to-date urban players but, often, less sophisticated New Orleans musicians, whose great gift was a distinctly human tone, often achieved with the use of homemade mutes and plungers.They never suffered from the homogenized, driving tone of the white bands.They’re rich, melodic ideas, as complex as anything in Gershwin or Rodgers. Hodges used to make a sign of counting money when Ellington was playing the medley of his tunes.
Dignity demanded that he never take off his dinner jacket, and then it became a straitjacket.
As Balliett pointed out, Ellington knew from the beginning that he needed a , more even than a beat or a style.
The typical answer used to be that he was really a master composer on the European model, all score paper and seclusion and suites. Ellington’s best music turns out to be the crystallized collective improvisation of an exceptionally ornery group of musical malcontents.
To explain it all, we seem to need new categories of value, and another kind of meditation on what originality is. His first was “Pops,” an excellent volume on Louis Armstrong, which he turned into an even better play, “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” Teachout inhabits right-leaning places where riff-loving men seldom wander, but his writing seems all the better for his distance from liberal piety; some of the best jazz criticism has always come from less than liberal precincts, as with the apolitical Whitney Balliett and the Tory Philip Larkin.
Johnny Hodges spent many years on his own, with every chance to keep his tunes to himself. Suppose Billy Strayhorn had been liberated instead of “adopted” and infantilized. I must ask you to be kind enough to give me your notice.”) These are not ordinary or secondary gifts. Ellington had an idea of a certain kind of jazz: tonal, atmospheric, blues-based but elegant.
Would he have had the energy and mastery to form a band, sustain it, recruit the right musicians, survive their eccentricities and addictions, give them music they could play, record it, and keep enough of a popular audience alive to justify the expense of the rest? He took what he needed to realize the ideal he had invented.Unlike Armstrong, he had a platonic idea of the kind of music he wanted to make, and of the kind of musician he wanted to be, which preceded his actually making any.Early Ellington oscillates uneasily between a kind of “primitivist” growling and stuttering, and tepid impressionistic effects, as in “Creole Love Call.” But the idea that possessed him—rhythmic adventure, unafraid of seeming too “African”; lyric embroidery, unashamed of emotional delicacy—was powerful, and capable of being realized in a more complete way. Well before Ellington made his permanent music, he was the man even people who didn’t like jazz were allowed to like.historian John Lukacs, in “A Thread of Years” (1998), his collection of vignettes from across the twentieth century, imagines a few jazz fans listening to a cocktail pianist in New York in 1929.Then he talks about how this music—melodic swing at the beautiful, blurred boundary of jazz and popular song—defined a state of mind before the Second World War.It be true that Herman Mankiewicz wrote most of “Citizen Kane,” scene by scene and even shot by shot.What is certainly true is that nothing else that survives of Mankiewicz’s is remotely as good as “Citizen Kane.” That’s because he was writing “Citizen Kane” for Orson Welles.Everybody “who responded to that kind of American music,” Lukacs states categorically, “hated the Nazis.” It’s a nice rejoinder to the Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno’s insistence that the “monotony” and rhythmic seductions of jazz were a friend to fascism. What was in this dance music, heard in short takes on scratchy 78s, that left its devotees devoted to some larger set of humane values?The question is at the heart of Terry Teachout’s searching new biography, “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington” (Gotham), which touches on the mystique of the great bandleader’s music as much as on its notes and measures.Yet a residue of disappointment clings to these pages: Ellington was an elegant man but not a very nice one, Teachout concludes, exploiting the musicians he gathered and held so close.He used his musicians (not to mention his women) often quite coldly, and his romantic-seeming life was really one long cloud of shimmering misdirection.