IN 1933, HAVING BUILT a national reputation as the composer-bandleader toiling nightly for white audiences at the Cotton Club, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington and his “jungle” orchestra embarked on their first European tour. The following year, British music critic Constant Lambert proclaimed that Ellington was “skillful as compared with other jazz composers,” but that his music could stand alongside that of the European masters: “I know of nothing in Ravel so dexterous […] nothing in Stravinsky more dynamic.” The names of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Paul Hindemith, and César Franck were dropped in as well. Such proclamations by Lambert and his European peers were pounced on by American journalists, who responded with headlines like “Harpsichords and Jazz Trumpets” and “‘Hot Damn!’ Says Ellington When Ranked with Bach.” Ellington’s media image was reborn.
Comparisons between the black jazz giant and white European classical composers have been a touchy issue ever since. They even form the basis for a central tension within jazz criticism. Do efforts to differentiate the compositional vision Ellington pioneered within jazz from classical concert music represent a surrender to the racist white hegemony that has kept black music in the artistic and financial ghetto of “popular” music? Or do claims of commensurability between jazz and classical spheres pander to white conceptions of cultural legitimacy at the expense of the jazz tradition and Ellington’s own individual artistry? Some latter-day writings on Ellington, such as John Howland’s Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz and many of the essays collected in Mark Tucker’s seminal The Duke Ellington Reader, emphasize the composer’s lifelong commitment to the creation of a “negro music” in quasi- (or explicitly) symphonic forms, and his efforts to present these extended works in Carnegie Hall and other iconic venues for European concert music. But this understanding of Ellington’s ambitions may only bring the central question into sharper relief: Does placing Ellington’s music alongside that of canonical European composers denigrate jazz, or celebrate its universality?
David Schiff’s The Ellington Century marks a significant if idiosyncratic milestone in this epic debate, not least in attempting to avoid uncritical appeals to the traditional classical/jazz schism. Schiff, also an active composer, is a music professor at Reed College whose previous books on Elliott Carter and George Gershwin indicate the breadth of his interests in both classical and jazz concert music. With the sly disclaimer that he is “not a historian either by training or by temperament,” Schiff adopts a conversational voice and deceptively improvisatory approach that masks an impressive organization and depth of vision. Intent on avoiding old, unfruitful academic debates, Schiff returns, as often as possible, to the Ellingtonian source: the musical scores, recordings, and other archival documents that are too often treated as secondary to preconceived theoretical programs in contemporary jazz studies. The boundaries between each chapter’s stated theme — “Color,” “Rhythm,” “Harmony,” “Love,” and the like — are quite fluid, and each offers broad or specific comparisons between compositions ...read more