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In a Sentimental Mood

On Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

By From the July/August 2014 issue

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Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism
By Thomas Brothers 

(Norton, 608 pages, $39.95)

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington
By Terry Teachout

(Gotham, 496 pages, $30)

When I discovered jazz in the small Michigan town of my youth, it became for me a defining personality trait, something intellectual and obscure that only I enjoyed. A neglected Thelonious Monk CD I found in my parents’ collection became a conduit for gleeful dissonance, brash personality, cool virtuosity. Philip Larkin, another provincial jazz amateur, called the music he loved “a fugitive minority interest…that unique private excitement that youth seems to demand.” My teachers knew nothing about jazz, my friends even less. The public library had jazz albums, but no one else borrowed them. Yet there I was, wearing my pretension like the Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts that crowded our school hallways. Jazz even sounded like a dirty word, an insincere confession slipped through smirking lips. Sure, our high school had a “jazz” band, but tepid charts blown by tuneless trombones to the beat of dribbled basketballs wasn’t the straight dope I knew and loved.

When I arrived at Berklee College of Music years later, I expected an initiation into some arcane fraternity. A successful audition and scholarship blossomed in my mind ideas of becoming the next Tony Williams or Elvin Jones. The reality was that half the school didn’t care about jazz. Peers dozed in jazz history class and skipped out on big band arranging. Berklee, after all, had outgrown its jazz school origins by then to embrace pop, rock, heavy metal, hip hop, and any other contemporary genre you could name. There were students, like me, who made the pilgrimage in search of improvisational enlightenment. At any given time of day, half a dozen Japanese Charlie Parkers paced outside practice rooms, slicked back hair and neat, thin mustaches billowing smoke. Students transcribed and memorized endless Bird solos in identical glass cubicles. Teachers with impressive résumés skipped lessons and seemed to live fractured, frazzled lives. Teaching was just another gig. So much for the romance of my “private excitement.”

It’s tempting for jazz lovers to look back to a time when our paradise was complete, to the days before jazz killed itself with pretensions of high art. Modern jazz, after all, is a superannuated affair; record sales plummet while audiences keep getting older. Phrases like “the golden age of swing” and albums titled Birth of the Cool or The Shape of Jazz to Come evoke an era when everyone was tuned in, everyone got it. Of course, most of this is received wisdom, a lot of it courtesy of put-upon marketing men at the dwindling reissue divisions of record companies and, of course, jazz critics. As Larkin pointed out, “jazz writers are either Wells or Gibbon, onwards and upwards or decline and fall.” The history of jazz is one of overblown pronouncements, overeager judgments, and passing artistic fads. Many famous musicians have even bristled at the term “jazz,” rejecting it as a label for what white listeners considered exotic and primitive. Jazz was once the pop music of the day, but that day didn’t last long. To many Americans jazz has always been a curiosity, a niche interest. Jazz is essentially an art of contradiction. A happysad music of the streets, it is at best a catch-all phrase for a loose configuration of artists spanning the last hundred years, a collective fascination with syncopated rhythm, off-kilter harmony, group collaboration, individualistic soloing, lopsided composition, and improvised madness.

No two figures in jazz better represent these contradictions than Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. Born in 1901 and 1899 respectively, these two men are jazz’s Chaucer and Milton, superstars whose careers spanned low and high culture. Even today, their achievements loom like pyramids over the desert kingdom of jazz. Satchmo is the virtuoso soloist, rooted in New Orleans tradition and the blues, whose melodic style brought him from brothels to Carnegie Hall. In old age, he became a beloved public figure, an unthreatening jazz teddy bear. Duke is the intellectual composer and bandleader, tirelessly tinkering with tunes into the wee hours. He challenged his listeners and embraced modern innovations, craving the respect given to composers like Ravel and Delius. But stop for a minute in front of these murals, and the contradictions of jazz sneak up. Armstrong is sometimes disparaged for his goofy singing, but it made him a star. Duke felt he deserved concert halls but cashed in at the Cotton Club. Satchmo shaped the melodic language of jazz solos but disparaged the innovations of bebop. Ellington was deeply religious but far from a model of clean living. Louis came from humble origins and was criticized by later generations as a sellout, an Uncle Tom. Edward grew up solidly middle class and developed a dignified, socially progressive image. Armstrong was publicly uncommitted but privately political. Ellington flattered politically minded socialites but was a largely apolitical aesthete at home. Satchmo detested pretension while Ellington thrived on it. Both men made outstanding, though very different, music we now call jazz.

Louis Armstrong’s life is well-documented in various biographies, including his own memoirs. The latest in this line, Thomas Brothers’s Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism, is not a traditional biography, but a cultural analysis of Armstrong’s life and work between the years 1922 and 1932. Brothers’s thesis is that, during this decade, Armstrong “invented not one but two modern art forms.” The first refers to the “new melodic idiom” of Armstrong’s “carefully designed trumpet solos.” The second form is the unique mainstream song style that made him the “best-selling performer in the country, regardless of genre, style, color, or pedigree.” So far, so good. This is sound, if uncontroversial stuff.

Necessary or not, Brothers proves his thesis and then some. Indeed, the 132 pages of discography, bibliography, endnotes, source notes, and index lend this somewhat bloated tome an encyclopedic authority. Whether the book makes for good reading is another matter entirely. W.W. Norton, the publisher, describes Brothers’s “tremendous skill in making the connections between history and music accessible to everyone as Armstrong shucks and jives across the page.” But Satchmo himself must have danced right out of the book, since so many of the main text’s 462 pages have almost nothing to do with the man. Instead, Brothers burns pages on such ponderous concepts as “blues sociology,” “African-American vernacular,” and his own “fixed and variable” model of music (no, it’s not a type of jazz mortgage). 

More annoying is Brothers’s frequent, self-conscious use of the word “Eurocentric,” (meaning: to the exclusion of all cultures not European), when surely he means “European.” Speaking of Armstrong’s wife, Brothers writes, “Through practicing and studying in the Eurocentric tradition, she developed skill in sightreading,” as if the music or its practice were oppressive conditions. Brothers notes in his introduction that we must not gloss over the racial discord of jazz history. But let’s not create any either, since “white imitators” and black “vernacular” musicians so clearly learned from each other, more than occasional acrimonies notwithstanding.

Throughout, Brothers fields the middle ground between the specialized terminology of formal music theory and the descriptive imagery of music journalism. The result will please no one. Granted, writing about music, for academic or popular audiences, is a difficult enterprise. (Cue everyone’s favorite Frank Zappa quote: “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”) But Brothers does himself few favors with formulations like these:

What made [Armstrong’s] breakthrough possible was the nearly universal sense of periodicity that shaped popular songs and dance of the period, the absolutely predictable flow of time through symmetries of beats, half-measures (two beats), measures (four beats), two-measure groups (eight beats), four-measure half-phrases (16 beats), and eight-measure phrases (32 beats). Harmonic rhythm (the rate of change of chords) contributed in a fundamental way. The ear naturally follows this ground level activity and uses it to understand events on the variable level. In West African music, periodicity is achieved through ostinato patterns that can reach considerable complexity all by themselves.

 Or try this inexplicable passage:

Blues phrasing often included a sense of darting in and out of synchrony with a steady, “fixed” foundation to make the music automatically danceable. Fleeting rhythmic patterns, forming and dissolving quickly, peppered the melodic flow, and the practice of dragging behind a steady beat was common. An ancient melody-type was very strong: a leap up to a high, strained pitch followed by gradual and indirect descent, a jagged contour of falls and rises outlining a “sawtooth” design. A feeling of improvisational suppleness conditioned the entire flow of pitch, rhythm, and tone quality, communicating qualities of resilience.

Brothers becomes readable only when quoting the musicians he studies. Armstrong meets the well-dressed Bill Johnson, who appears “so sharp he was bleeding.” King Oliver describes his Creole Jazz Band as “hotter than a pussy with the pox.” Armstrong meets Al Capone, whom he paints as a “nice little cute fat boy, young, like some professor who had just come out of college to teach or something.” Brothers’s scholarly approach isn’t without merit. Some will be surprised to learn that Armstrong read European classical notation and that, unlike later beboppers, many of his most famous solos were “planned, rehearsed, and improved over time.” The case Brothers makes against Armstrong’s reputation as an Uncle Tom is also interesting. If anything, Brothers, a Duke University professor of music, knows too much about his subject. His dissections of society and musical recordings are informed, if not graceful. But reading Brothers on Satchmo is too often like having a joke explained to you, wit stillborn and humor MIA. Barraged with nearly 500 pages of Eurocentrisms, periodicities of periods, and sawtooth designs, one recovers from an hour with this book, unable to recall anything just read. Woe unto those naïve jazz studies undergrads this pseudo-textbook will be thrust upon.

Terry Teachout’s Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington is a straightforward, entertaining biography. In well under 400 pages (minus notes), Teachout, previously the author of a well-received life of Armstrong, makes a case for Duke’s importance but lets the music we love speak for itself. Describing Ellington as “a self-centered hedonist who lived a nomadic existence” and a “tireless philanderer,” Teachout champions his musical gifts without cutting Duke any slack for his deep character flaws.

Central to the book is Ellington’s longing for the “establishment approval” of a proper composer and his struggle to write the successful long-form pieces that could earn him that title. Along the way, Duke’s band loses and gains a diverse cast of musicians, Teachout supplementing the broader narrative with character-establishing
anecdotes. (Perplexed by his musicians nodding off on the bandstand in the middle of what Teachout calls the “postwar heroin epidemic,” Duke shrugs it off, saying, “I don’t understand it at all. I’m a cunt man myself.”)

Teachout clearly understands what made Ellington’s big band unique among its peers: “He preferred to hire musicians with homemade techniques that were different to the point of apparent incompatibility, then juxtapose their idiosyncratic sounds as a pointillist painter might place dots of red and green side by side on his canvas, finding inspiration in their technical limitations.” In this sense, the book deconstructs Ellington’s image as a conventional composer, making it clear that while being a weak melodist he was a superior arranger with a keen ear for instrumentation. Indeed, Teachout reveals that many of Ellington’s most famous pieces were taken from his sidemen, with Duke enjoying the royalties after paying them a small flat fee. Truly sad is Ellington’s treatment of his precocious collaborator Billy Strayhorn, who saw him as an idol but became disillusioned after Duke took nearly all the credit for his work. Mistreatment of his band aside, Teachout makes it clear that “It took the mind of a composer to turn these fragments into full-blown creations.”

The book culminates in Ellington’s famous triumph at the Newport Jazz Festival. Teachout depicts the concert as an unlikely success without overdramatizing the circumstances. “The most chronic of procrastinators,” Duke seemed likely to defeat himself. “Fourteen minutes and fifty-nine choruses after Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue got under way,” however, Ellington and his “expensive gentlemen” revived their flagging reputation in a single night.

Teachout writes with style and understated wit. Easily digested and emotionally compelling, his book is a delight to recommend to the casual fan and those already steeped in Ellingtonia.

For better or worse, Duke got his wish. Jazz is now an institution, a high art. It is school curriculum, a museum piece banding all its different artists together along one happy continuum. Ellington’s own music is played at Lincoln Center. One wonders, though, whether we lost something with the passing of Armstrong’s age. Jazz came from hummable melodies, danceable beats, and an unabashed willingness to entertain. It also came from the subjugation of a race and the collision of two cultures. But does contradiction require complexity? Ellington composed jazz suites based on high-minded topics like Shakespeare and the history of the African people in America, but he was still an entertainer. For all their apparent differences, these men were much the same, each kindling a love of jazz in audiences the world over. For a young bebop snob, jazz was a secret language of cool. So as a mature music evangelist, why does it sometimes feel like I’m speaking Latin? 

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About the Author

C.W. Mahoney is a writer and musician living in Marquette, Michigan.