Commentary Magazine

(Over)praising Duke Ellington

Writing shortly after Duke Ellington’s death in 1974, the jazz scholar Gunther Schuller placed the composer of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” in “the pantheon of musical greats—the Beethovens, the Monteverdis, the Schoenbergs, the prime movers, the inspired innovators.” Though few other critics have gone so far, it is certainly true that Ellington is widely considered to be the most important composer, and one of the most important bandleaders, in the history of jazz. Many of his songs, including “Mood Indigo” (1930), “Sophisticated Lady” (1932), “Solitude” (1934), “In a Sentimental Mood” (1935), and “Prelude to a Kiss” (1938), remain popular to this day, and the more ambitious instrumental pieces he wrote for his orchestra starting in the late 20′s won him lasting worldwide acclaim.

Paradoxically, the strength of Ellington’s reputation rests in part on the fact that even his most enthusiastic admirers, including Gunther Schuller, have not praised his music indiscriminately. In particular, there has long been a consensus that Ellington’s postwar output was far less successful than the music of his early and middle years. As Schuller explains in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz:

[I]t is generally agreed that [Ellington] attained the zenith of his creativity in the late 1930′s and early 1940′s, and that he worked best in the miniature forms dictated by the three-minute ten-inch [78 rpm] disc. Ellington’s creativity declined substantially after the mid-1940′s, many of the late-period extended compositions suffering from a diminished originality and hasty work, often occasioned by incessant touring.

But this measured appraisal has come under withering assault in recent years, especially in the race-conscious interpretation of jazz history formulated by the novelist and literary scholar Albert Murray, elaborated by the essayist Stanley Crouch, and popularized by the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.1 According to Murray, for example, Ellington is not merely the most important jazz composer but “the most representative American composer.” Indeed, Murray implies that Ellington was the greatest of all American composers, in or out of jazz:

Not unlike Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Twain, Hemingway, and Faulkner in literature, [Ellington] quite obviously has converted more of the actual texture and vitality of American life into first-rate, universally appealing music than anybody else. . . . By comparison the sonorities, not to mention the devices of Charles Ives, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, John Cage, and Elliott Carter, for example, seem if not downright European, at least as European as American.

Although Murray has had little to say about Ellington’s experiments in extended musical form, Crouch, for his part, asserts that Ellington was at his peak not in the “four-year streak of three-minute masterpieces he and his orchestra produced between 1939 and 1942,” but rather in the 1950′s and 60′s, when he was chiefly occupied with the multi-movement suites regarded by Schuller and most other critics as inferior in quality to his earlier work. But Murray and Crouch are united in the belief that Ellington was altogether a talent so great as to belong to a realm beyond criticism. In the recent “Black in America” issue of the New Yorker, Crouch called Ellington “the most protean of American geniuses”:

In his music he assayed a multitude of forms and voices as successfully as Herman Melville, satirized the skin off pomposity as gleefully as Mark Twain, matched Buster Keaton for surreal slapstick, equaled the declarative lyricism Ernest Hemingway brought to lonely moments of tragic resolution, rivaled William Faulkner in the dense intricacy of his tonal colors, conjured up a combination of Bill (Bojangles) Robinson and Fred Astaire in the way his percussive accents danced through suave billows of harmony, was a twin to John Ford in the deployment of his phenomenal repertory team of players, mixed satire and gloom with as much innovation as his good friend Orson Welles.

As can easily be deduced from such deep-purple passages, Murray and Crouch are not musicians. But their amateur appraisals have nonetheless been influential, to some extent because Ellington scholarship remains rudimentary. There is at present no scholarly biography of Ellington—the only fully serious book-length study by a musicologist, Mark Tucker’s Ellington: The Early Years (1991), stops at the end of 1927—and surprisingly little criticism of his work has been produced by trained musicians.2

In the absence of a more thoughtful critique of Ellington’s oeuvre, the Murray-Crouch line is fast acquiring the status of an orthodoxy. Yet it is false, or distorted, in nearly every particular. In order properly to understand and appreciate his achievements, it is necessary to distinguish the real Duke Ellington from the mythical figure who exists only in the heated prose of his uncritical advocates.



Born in Washington, D.C., in 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington (he acquired the nickname “Duke” as a teenager) began to study piano at the age of seven. But he was not a prodigy, and his lessons lasted no more than a few months; thereafter, he never again studied music formally, and seems not to have taken any special interest in classical music until long after he had become famous.

The full extent of Ellington’s talent became dramatically evident within a few years of his emergence as a bandleader. By 1930, he had composed and recorded numerous scores which, though technically not as sophisticated as those played by the big bands of Fletcher Henderson, Jean Goldkette, and Paul Whiteman, were easily comparable in originality to the music of the much-admired New Orleans pianist-composer Jelly Roll Morton. Such early efforts as “Black and Tan Fantasy” (1927) and “The Mooche” (1928) were exceptional in their combination of exotic orchestral colors and innovative harmonies, and quickly attracted the attention of other musicians.3

Ellington composed directly “on” his band, an unrivaled collection of musical eccentrics whom he chose for their idiosyncratic styles. He taught himself how to orchestrate by using the band as a laboratory, gradually mastering the art of blending individual timbres into a collective sound of unique richness and complexity. By the mid-30′s, the Ellington band was consistently producing some of the finest music in jazz, and from 1940 to 1942 Ellington turned out a steady stream of compositions, among them “Ko-Ko,” “Concerto for Cootie,” “Harlem Air Shaft,” and “Warm Valley” (all from 1940), which were justly I hailed as masterpieces.4

But by this time, Ellington’s fertile musical imagination had in certain ways outstripped his homemade technique. If his earliest orchestrations were worked out in collaboration with members of the band, as his scores grew more elaborate he began to make use of assistants who “extracted” instrumental parts from his rough sketches. This practice continued in varying degrees throughout Ellington’s life (he used orchestrators, for example, in all the works he composed for symphony orchestra), as did his reliance on collaborators, both acknowledged and anonymous. Many of Ellington’s early hits were based on themes supplied by his soloists: the clarinetist Barney Bigard had to sue him to receive credit (and royalties) for “Mood Indigo,” and the trombonist Lawrence Brown, who claimed to have written part of “Sophisticated Lady,” famously said to his employer, “I don’t consider you a composer. You are a compiler.”



From 1939 on, Ellington worked closely with Billy Strayhorn, the exact nature of whose contribution to the Ellington oeuvre may be the single most important unresolved issue in jazz scholarship. Initially billed as “staff arranger,” Stray-horn—who, unlike Ellington, had extensive formal training in music—received full composing credit for several of the Ellington band’s best-known recordings, among them “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Chelsea Bridge” (both 1941), and collaborated on many other works, a fact Ellington himself admitted far more readily than did many of his admirers. (In his New Yorker essay, Stanley Crouch gives Ellington sole credit for several compositions for which the two men actually shared equal billing.)

But Strayhorn, because he was homosexual, deliberately kept a low profile; little was written about him until after his death, and it was not until this year that the first biography, David Hadju’s Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, was published.5 In the course of his research, Hadju examined Strayhorn’s private papers, on the basis of which he states unequivocally—though often without documentation—that in addition to their acknowledged collaborations, Strayhorn wrote parts of several of Ellington’s most important works, including The Tattooed Bride (1948) and A Tone Parallel to Harlem (1950), both of which have been cited by Crouch in support of his claim that Ellington’s later compositions are superior to his earlier ones.6

On the question of Ellington’s professional relationship with Strayhorn, Hadju’s book is of value mainly as a road map for future scholars. And even on the assumption that his claims prove true, it is important not to overstate their significance: there can be no doubt that Ellington was primarily responsible for the bulk of the music performed and recorded under his name. Still, the awkward fact remains that much of Ellington’s work poses major problems of attribution.



Part of what led Ellington to employ better-trained musical collaborators was his own lack of technical assurance—the same thing that led him, in general, to shun longer forms.

In 1935, Ellington told a reporter he would never write an opera or a symphony. “I have to make a living and so I have to have an audience,” he explained. But at the same time, he was working on his second extended composition, a twelve-minute single-movement work called Reminiscing in Tempo, and eight years later, in 1943, he would unveil a 50-minute-long “tone parallel to the history of the American Negro” called Black, Brown, and Beige. It received its first performance at Carnegie Hall, the quintessential American symbol of musical legitimacy.

It is hardly surprising that Ellington should have sought to move beyond the narrow compass of the miniatures in which he specialized. Starting in the 30′s, he was praised by classical musicians who found in his work a sense of compositional unity unprecedented in jazz. In 1934, the English composer-critic Constant Lambert called him “a real composer, the first jazz composer of distinction,” while in 1938, Aaron Copland, writing in the magazine Modern Music about big bands and their leaders, observed:

[T]he master of them all is still Duke Ellington. The others, by comparison, are hardly more than composer-arrangers. Ellington is a composer, by which I mean, he comes nearer to knowing how to make a piece hang together than the others.

Yet it was not until 1931 that Ellington first recorded an original composition, Creole Rhapsody, greater in length than a three-minute 78 side, and the experiment was not repeated until 1935 and Reminiscing in Tempo. Thereafter, Ellington attempted only rarely to compose in longer forms, most notably in Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue (1937), Black, Brown, and Beige, The Tattooed Bride, and A Tone Parallel to Harlem. The vast majority of his “extended” works are actually suites whose purported structural unity is more a matter of clever titling (The Perfume Suite, A Drum Is a Woman) than anything else, and which are extremely uneven in musical quality.7

The reason Ellington avoided longer forms is clear from his occasional attempts at working in them: he had only a superficial grasp of the techniques necessary to create organically larger musical structures. While all his extended pieces contain passages of great beauty and originality, none—with the possible exceptions of Reminiscing in Tempo and The Tattooed Bride—can be said to “work” structurally.

The difficulty facing Ellington was not lack of talent, but lack of training. As Gunther Schuller explains:

There are some talents involved in the art of composition which can be inborn, intuitive, or acquired subconsciously by absorption of a given musical environment. . . . But other compositional skills have to be learned, usually by some form of systematic study. From this requirement even the genius is not exempt, although obviously he does not need to acquire these in academic or formal settings. . . . Ellington’s lack of technique and formal skills hindered him. He was content [in his longer works] to repeat thematic material, mostly with only the scantest of variations (or indeed none), too frequently relying on endless pedal points, on rambling piano interudes filled in by himself. . . . At best, themes and ideas simply succeeded each other; rarely did one have that sense of inevitability which marks great art.

Creole Rhapsody, Ellington’s first sustained attempt at breaking the bounds of repeating-chorus song form, was in all likelihood inspired by the example of George Gershwin, and a comparison between the two men is illuminating. Like Ellington, Gershwin was a master miniaturist; and as with Ellington, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924), his first attempt at large-scale composition, was structurally incoherent. But unlike Ellington, Gershwin realized early on that he would never master the larger forms on his own. Not only did he study composition, he also familiarized himself with a wide range of classical music, up to and including the works of such modernists as Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.

This course of study made it possible for Gershwin to produce a series of “classical” compositions of increasing structural complexity, culminating in the 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess. None of these works is completely successful from a formal standpoint (though An American in Paris comes close), but it is nonetheless plain that Gershwin understood what he was trying to do, was intimately familiar with his models, and, had he lived, would almost certainly have solved the problems with which he was still grappling at the time of his death in 1937.

Ellington, by contrast, gave no indication of even recognizing that his limitations were limitations. At no time did he seek formal training, and to the end of his life his musical culture remained severely restricted. (“Instead of studying larger forms,” the composer Alec Wilder once remarked, “Duke simply hired Billy Strayhorn.”) His rare “symphonic” pieces appear to have been inspired by the mere desire to produce such works, not by any genuine comprehension of their structural imperatives. And in time he found an easier way to win the exalted reputation of a “classical” composer: the much-publicized suites of his later years allowed Ellington and his admirers to claim that he had done what in fact he had not done, and could not do.



It is not necessary to misrepresent Duke Ellington’s gifts in order to assure him of a secure place in the history of American music. Whatever his shortcomings, he did create music of extraordinary individuality, and there seems little doubt that his best work—most of which is from the 193O’s and 1940′s—will last.

Why, then, do Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch make claims for Ellington that cannot be justified by an objective appraisal of his work? Partly, I think, out of simple musical ignorance. But it should also be noted that the Ellington of their writings may be to some extent the product of a racial myth, and as such not accessible to rational discussion. How else are we to explain, for example, Murray’s insistence that Ellington was more authentically “American” than Ives or Copland, or his implication that this alleged authenticity somehow made Ellington a better composer? Or Crouch’s insistence that Ellington was equally at home in short and long musical forms, and that he is worthy of comparison with such iconic figures of American literature as Herman Melville and Mark Twain? The oddly defensive belligerence of such extravagant comparisons tells us nothing useful about Ellington, but much about the degree to which even the most confident black intellectuals may be afflicted by self-doubt.

Such comparisons, however, also do a grave disservice to Ellington himself. If he was a great musician—as I believe he was—then his greatness will hardly be diminished by the searching scrutiny of qualified critics and scholars. By contrast, his reputation is clearly diminished by insupportable claims that he produced (in Crouch’s words) “masterpieces, long or short, in every decade,” or that his music is in any meaningful sense superior to that of such “European” composers as Ives or Copland.

Ellington himself would have been appalled by such claims. “To attempt to elevate the status of the jazz musician by forcing the level of his best work into comparisons with classical music,” he wrote in 1944, “is to deny him his rightful share of originality.” This statement is as true today as it was a half-century ago. There is nothing to be learned by directly comparing a three-minute blues like Ellington’s “Ko-Ko” with a 45-minute symphony by Copland. The composer of the former was incapable of composing the latter (and vice versa), yet both were masters of American music, each in his own way. The inability of the Ellington mythmakers to accept this fact separates them from those who revere the achievements—while acknowledging the limitations—of the real Duke Ellington.


1 For a detailed discussion of the views of Murray, Crouch, and Marsalis, see my essay, “The Color of Jazz,” COMMENTARY, September 1995.

2 Tucker has also edited The Duke Ellington Reader (Oxford University Press, 536 pp., $30 00), an exemplary collection of essays, articles, interviews, and documents on which I have drawn heavily in writing this piece.

3 Most of Ellington's commercial recordings have been transferred to CD, often m multiple versions. The best single-source collection of early performances by the Ellington band is The Original Edward “Duke” Ellington Hits (King Jazz KJ 144/145 FS), a pair of CD's containing 44 original compositions by Ellington recorded between 1927 and 1938, including “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “The Mooche.”

4 The master takes of Ellington's 1940-42 recordings for Victor are available on The Blanton-Webster Band (RCA 5659-2-RB, 3 CD's).

5 Farrar Straus & Giroux, 306 pp., S27.50.

6 The Tattooed Bride is part of Masterpieces by Ellington (Sony COL 459407 2); A Tone Parallel to Harlem can be heard on Ellington Uptown (Columbia CK 40836). According to Hadju, Strayhorn composed the coda of Harlem and “helped fashion” the arrangements for the entire Masterpieces album.

7 Creole Rhapsody and Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue are both on The Original Edward “Duke” Ellington Hits, the former in two different versions. Reminiscing in Tempo is available as part of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, 1935-1936 (Classics 659) Excerpts from Black, Brown, and Beige recorded by the Ellington band in 1944 can be heard on Black, Brown, and Beige. The 1944-1946 Band Recordings (Bluebird 6641-2-RB, 3 CD's). The best of the later suites are Such Sweet Thunder, a 1957 Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration nominally based on the plays of Shakespeare (Sony COL 469140 2), and The Far East Suite (1966), whose most successful movement, “Isfahan,” was composed by Strayhorn alone (Bluebird 07863-66551-2).

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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