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