As years pass, the memory of a person tends to grow dimmer as the light he produced in life intensifies over time. And thankfully so. We don’t like warts on our artistic heroes. Unless, of course, they suit the work. Would the average Jo really dig Van Gogh as much if he didn’t know about that whole ear thing?
According to Toulouse-Lautrec, “One should never meet a man whose work one admires. The man is always so much less than the work.” Let’s use this as a good starting point for Terry Teachout’s new book, “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington.”
First, a word about warts.
Writers like Teachout provide necessary insight by clearing the air of myth. Showing a beloved figure’s dark side does have some use. By depicting the artist as a flawed and fragile thing, we not only learn something of the human condition, but we also have the artistic process put into proper perspective. Isn’t it grand, we can say, that an artist whose work we admire possesses the same flaws that we possess, and is still capable of creating something so sublime.
Note the above references to painters. Ellington, a visual artist himself, used manuscript paper like a canvas. His colors were the sounds of instruments. He didn’t write just for trumpet. He wrote for Cootie Williams’s trumpet. A man this particular about his palette is no less an artist than the one whose name often followed Duke’s at the top of the page.
That Billy Strayhorn was the primary composer of “Take the ‘A’ Train” isn’t exactly a secret, nor is it highly contested. The book glosses over a string of lawsuits brought to Ellington by instrumentalists from whose solos Ellington lifted melodies for “inspiration.” Hummable those melodies may be, that’s not why we remember the Duke.
It’s the colors.
Take the 1927 Victor recording of East Saint Louis Toodle-oo, from Ellington’s so-called “jungle music” era. What is otherwise a rather banal tune, co-written (largely written?) by Bubber Miley, is transformed into a haunting piece of tone poetry in the Duke’s hands. Hear the spectral calls of plantation slaves in the moaning background instrumentation. A lone banjo strumming in two-feel signifies the ticking clock of mortality as much as it does the chuffing of engine steam.
(Perhaps this is projection. One can read into tonality never coming close to interpreting the artist’s original intention. That’s the curse of the composer. Splash the canvas and hope someone out there gets it.)
Ellington should be remembered as a painter in this regard. Twelve notes in the western scale, that’s all there are. Any hope of distinguishing one composition from another often lies in its execution, whether it be it a performer or arranger doing the executing. For those of us who remember that the Duke’s singular contribution to music was that of a distinct painter of sound, we’ll take the artist as he is.
Terry Teachout’s book is recommended by The Note Show, and is available from Amazon.comby