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Authors: The New Yorker Magazine

The 40s: The Story of a Decade (67 page)

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Richard O. Boyer


uke Ellington, whose contours have something of the swell and sweep of a large, erect bear and whose color is that of coffee with a strong dash of cream, has been described by European music critics as one of the world’s immortals. More explicitly, he is a composer of jazz music and the leader of a jazz band. For over twenty-three years, Duke, christened Edward Kennedy Ellington, has spent his days and nights on trains rattling across the continent with his band on an endless sequence of one-night stands at dances, and playing in movie theatres, where he does up to five shows a day; in the night clubs of Broadway and Harlem and in hotels around the country; in radio stations and Hollywood movie studios; in rehearsal halls and in recording studios, where his band has made some eleven hundred records, which have sold twenty million copies; and even, in recent years, in concert halls such as Carnegie and the Boston Symphony. His music has the virtue of pleasing both the jitterbugs, whose cadenced bouncing often makes an entire building shudder, and the intellectuals, who read into it profound comments on transcendental matters. In 1939, two consecutive engagements Ellington played were a dance in a tobacco warehouse in North Carolina, where his product was greeted with shouts of “Yeah man!,” and a concert in Paris, where it was greeted as revealing “the very secret of the cosmos” and as being related to “the rhythm of the atom.” On the second occasion, Jacques-Henri Lévesque, a Paris critic, professed to hear all this in the golden bray of trombones and trumpets and in the steady beat of drums, bass, and piano, and Blaise Cendrars, a
surrealist poet, said, “Such music is not only a new art form but a new reason for living.” A French reporter asked Tricky Sam Nanton, one of Ellington’s trombonists, if his boss was a genius. “He’s a genius, all right,” Sam said, and then he happened to remember that Ellington once ate thirty-two sandwiches during an intermission at a dance in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. “He’s a genius, all right,” he said, “but Jesus, how he eats!”

Ellington is a calm man of forty-five who laughs easily and hates to hurry. His movements are so deliberate that his steps are usually dogged by his road manager, Jack Boyd, a hard, brisk, red-faced little white man from Texas, whose right index finger was shortened by a planing machine twenty years ago. Boyd, who has been an Ellington employee for some years, yaps and yips at his heels in an effort, for example, to hurry him to a train which in fifteen minutes is leaving a station five miles away. Boyd also lives in fear that Ellington may fall asleep at the wrong time, and since it usually takes an hour of the most ingenious torture to put the slumbering band leader on his feet, the manager’s apprehension is not unreasonable. In general, Boyd’s life is not a happy one. It is his job to herd about the country a score of highly spirited, highly individual artists, whose colors range from light beige to a deep, blue black, whose tastes range from quiet study to explosive conviviality, and whose one common denominator is a complete disregard of train schedules. Often Duke finishes his breakfast in a taxi. Frequently, driven from the table in his hotel room by the jittery, henlike cluckings of Boyd, he wraps a half-finished chop in a florid handkerchief and tucks it in the pocket of his jacket, from which it protrudes, its nattiness not at all impaired by the fact that it conceals a greasy piece of meat. Not long ago this habit astonished an Icelandic music student who happened to be on a train that Duke had barely caught. The Icelander, after asking for Ellington’s autograph, had said, “Mr. Ellington, aren’t there marked similarities between you and Bach?” Duke moved his right hand to the handkerchief frothing out of his jacket. “Well, Bach and myself,” he said, unwrapping the handkerchief and revealing the chop, “Bach and myself both”—he took a bite from the chop—“write with individual performers in mind.”

It is in this jumpy atmosphere that Ellington composes, and some of his best pieces have been written against the glass partitions of offices in recording studios, on darkened overnight buses, with illumination supplied by a companion holding an interminable chain of matches, and in sweltering, clattering day coaches. Sometimes writing a song in no more
than fifteen minutes and sometimes finishing concert pieces only a few hours before their performance, he has composed around twelve hundred pieces, many of them of such worth that Stokowski, Grainger, Stravinsky, and Milhaud have called him one of the greatest modern composers. There are many musicians who have even gone as far as to argue that he is the only great living American composer. His career almost spans the life of jazz and has figured prominently in the surge which has brought jazz from the bawdy houses of New Orleans to the Metropolitan Opera House and even to Buckingham Palace. King George, who has one of the world’s largest collections of Ellington records, is often found bending over a revolving disc so that he can hear more clearly the characteristically dry, dull thud of the band’s bass fiddle pulsing under an Ellington theme or the intricate sinuosity of a tenor saxophone as it curls in and out of the ensemble. To Ellington devotees in Europe, which he toured in 1933 and in 1939, identifying him as a mere writer and player of jazz (his instrument is the piano) is like identifying Einstein as a nice old man. Some notion of their fervor is apparent in the words of a London critic reporting an Ellington concert at the Palladium. “His music has a truly Shakespearean universality,” he wrote, “and as he sounded the gamut, girls wept and young chaps sank to their knees.” The American counterparts of these European devotees prefer to emphasize the air of gaudy sin that surrounded the birth of jazz instead of likening it to the music of the spheres. They like to dwell on Madam White’s Mahogany Hall in New Orleans, a resort which offered its patrons jazz music, and on Buddy Bolden’s extravagant love life (Bolden was an early jazz cornettist), and they find pleasure in the belief that most jazz musicians smoke marijuana and die spectacularly in a madhouse. They try to ignore the ugly fact that several of Ellington’s musicians learned how to play in Boy Scout bands. In endowing the late Bubber Miley, originator of the growl style on the trumpet and one of the early members of Ellington’s band, with an almost legendary aura, although he has been dead less than ten years, they are grateful for the fact that he at least was a very heavy drinker. Anyone who is now forty-five has lived through the entire history of jazz, but this does not prevent the followers of the art from speaking, for example, of the trumpet player King Oliver, who died in 1938, as if he were a Pilgrim Father. In the jazz world, 1910 is the Stone Age and 1923 is medieval. The men in Ellington’s band, which was playing when Benny Goodman was in short trousers and when the word “swing” was unknown, have aroused such
admiration individually that there are many collectors who spend their time searching for old Ellington records not because they want to listen to the band as a whole but to savor the thirty seconds in which their particular hero takes a solo. As he plays, they mew and whimper in a painful ecstasy or, as they themselves put it, they are sent.

· · ·

Ellington has, like most entertainers, a stage self and a real self. On the stage, at least when he supplies the “flesh”—the trade term for personal appearances in movie houses—he presents himself as a smiling, carefree African, tingling to his fingertips with a gay, syncopated throb that he can scarcely control. As the spotlight picks him out of the gloom, the audience sees a wide, irrepressible grin, but when the light moves away, Ellington’s face instantly sags into immobility. He has given a lot of thought to achieving serenity and equipoise in a life that gives him neither repose nor privacy. He craves peace. He will not argue with anyone in his band, and his road manager, on whom most of the burdens fall, repeatedly sums up his problem in the phrase “Trouble with this band is it has no boss.” The arguments which Duke refuses to have, and which, to Boyd’s acute distress, he concedes beforehand, usually involve overtime pay or a request for an advance on next week’s salary. When Boyd tries to persuade Duke to take a militant attitude, Ellington usually says, in a tone of wheezy complaint, “I won’t let these goddam musicians upset me! Why should I knock myself out in an argument about fifteen dollars when in the same time I can probably write a fifteen-hundred-dollar song?” Besides, Ellington contends that an argument may mean the difference between a musician’s giving a remarkable performance and just a performance. Furthermore, doctors will tell you that there is a definite relation between anger and ulcers. “Anyway,” he will add, in a final desperate defense of his pacific nature, “why should I pit my puny strength against the great Power that runs the universe?” Ellington wears a gold cross beneath his flamboyant plaids and bold checks, reads the Bible every day, along with Winchell and the comics, and has been known to say, “I’d be afraid to sit in a house with people who don’t believe. Afraid the house would fall down.” He broods about man’s final dissolution, and in an effort to stave his own off he has a complete physical examination every three months.

Part of Duke’s character goes well enough with the onstage Ellington who periodically throws back his head and emits a long-drawn-out
“Ah-h-h!” as if the spirit of hot had forced wordless exultation from his lips. He likes to eat to excess and to drink in moderation. He is also fond of what he calls “the chicks,” and when they follow him to the station, as they often do, he stands on the back platform of his train and, as it pulls out, throws them big, gusty, smacking kisses. (He is married, but he has been separated from his wife for fifteen years.) He has a passion for color and clothes. He has forty-five suits and more than a thousand ties, the latter collected in forty-seven states of the Union and seven European countries, and his shoes, hats, shirts, and even his toilet water are all custom-made. His usual manner is one of ambassadorial urbanity, but it is occasionally punctuated by deep despair. In explaining his moods, he says, “A Negro can be too low to speak one minute and laughing fit to kill the next, and mean both.” Few people know that he is a student of Negro history. He is a member of one of the first families of Virginia, for his ancestors arrived at Jamestown in 1619, a year before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. He has written music commemorating Negro heroes such as Crispus Attucks, the first American killed in the American Revolution; Barzillai Lew, one of the men depicted in the painting called
The Spirit of ’76;
and Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Frederick Douglass, and other Negro fighters for freedom. He has also written an unproduced opera,
, which tells the story of the American Negro, and a long symphonic work entitled
Black, Brown, and Beige
, which he says is “a tone parallel to the history of the Negro.” His concern for his race is not entirely impersonal, since he and his band are constantly faced, even in the North, by the institution of Jim Crow. “You have to try not to think about it,” Duke says, “or you’ll knock yourself out.”

Because Duke likes peace and repose, he tries to avoid the endless controversies that go on in the world of jazz. The followers of jazz cannot even agree on the fundamental point of what it is. To keep out of this dispute in particular, Duke frequently says, when people try to pin him down, “I don’t write jazz. I write Negro folk music.” There are those who insist that the only “righteous jazz,” as they call it, is performed by bands of no more than six or seven men whose music is as spontaneous, unpremeditated, and unrehearsed as that of Shelley’s skylark. Yet the very aficionados who insist that all real jazz is improvised and that all the solos must be impromptu often claim that Duke’s artistry is the genuine, blown-in-the-bottle stuff, brushing aside his own statement that almost all the music his seventeen-piece band plays has been scored. Partly because
of this bickering, Ellington always feels that he has found sanctuary when he boards a train. He says that then peace descends upon him and that the train’s metallic rhythm soothes him. He likes to hear the whistle up ahead, particularly at night, when it screeches through the blackness as the train gathers speed. “Specially in the South,” he says. “There the firemen play blues on the engine whistle—big, smeary things like a goddam woman singing in the night.” He likes, too, to sit next to the window, his chin in his hand, and, in a trancelike state, to stare for hours at the telephone poles flashing by and at the pattern of the curving wires as they alternately drop and ascend. Even at night, particularly if his train is passing through certain sections of Ohio or Indiana, he will remain at the window (shifting to the smoker if the berths are made up), for he likes the flames of the steel furnaces. “I think of music sometimes in terms of color,” he says, “and I like to see the flames licking yellow in the dark and then pulsing down to a kind of red glow.” Duke has a theory that such sights stimulate composition. “The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician,” he says. “Things like the old folks singing in the moonlight in the back yard on a hot night, or something someone said long ago. I remember I once wrote a sixty-four-bar piece about a memory of when I was a little boy in bed and heard a man whistling on the street outside, his footsteps echoing away. Things like these may be more important to a musician than technique.”

Perhaps Duke will still be awake at three in the morning, when his train stops for fifteen minutes at a junction. If there is an all-night lunchroom, he will get off the train, straddle a stool, his Burberry topcoat sagging like a surplice, a pearl-gray fedora on the back of his head, and direct the waitress in the creation of an Ellington dessert. The composition of an Ellington dessert depends upon the materials available. If, as is often the case, there is a stale mess of sliced oranges and grapefruit floating in juice at the bottom of a pan, he will accept it as a base. To this he will have the girl add some applesauce, a whole package of Fig Newtons, a dab of ice cream, and a cup of custard. When Duke is back on the train, Boyd, who has stayed up for the purpose, will beg him to go to bed, if they are on a sleeper, or to take a nap, if the band is travelling by day coach, as is often necessary in wartime. Ellington not infrequently takes out a pad of music-manuscript paper, fishes in his pockets for the stub of a lead pencil, and begins composing, and Boyd departs, complaining to the world that “Ellington is a hard man to get to bed and a harder man to get out of it.” Frowning, his hat on the back of his head,
swaying from side to side with the motion of the car, occasionally sucking his pencil and trying to write firmly despite the bouncing of the train, humming experimentally, America’s latter-day Bach will work the night through.

BOOK: The 40s: The Story of a Decade
3.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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