If you have been following the myriad formal and informal critiques of Terry Teachout’s Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, you will be interested in Ethan Iverson’s long interview with Teachout (pictured left). The book has attracted great praise and not a little denigration. I recommended it here as important for Teachout’s exhaustive research and for his usual grace and clarity in the writing of Ellington’s story. Others have expressed reservations. They include Iverson, who generally lauded the biography but faulted some of Teachout’s musical analysis of Ellington works.
Iverson (pictured right), the pianist of The Bad Plus, is not only a gifted musician but also the proprietor of Do The Math, one of the most erudite weblogs. He followed his criticism of the book by conducting an extensive interview with Teachout. First, however, he posted his critique. He called it “Reverential Gesture.” I suggest that you read it before you read the transcript of the interview. “Reverential Gesture” is here. The interview, posted two days later, is here. It is a meeting of intellectual equals with, as it turns out, passionate mutual interests in and knowledge about both music and a certain branch of modern American literature.
To whet your interest, here from the Iverson interview is Teachout on a vital point about the importance of evaluating Ellington’s music—indeed, any work of art—on its own terms.
An important secondary theme in my Ellington book is when classical musicians first discovered jazz and started writing about it. It matters. I don’t deprecate the significance of the fact that Constant Lambert, Percy Grainger and Aaron Copland understood what Ellington was early in his career. But some people think that in order to take Duke Ellington seriously as a composer, we have to believe that he was successful as a composer of large-scale works. The idea, I guess, is to push him up into the classical-music arena: he played in Carnegie Hall, therefore he’s serious. And that’s completely wrong. Duke Ellington is serious because he is Duke Ellington. He’s serious because of the work itself. It’s interesting that he wanted to write the suites. It’s interesting that he wanted to play in Carnegie Hall. That tells you important things as him as a person. But jazz does not usually profit from being compared directly to classical music, at least not on that level of generality. Most of the time, such comparisons do not illuminate jazz in any way. I wouldn’t have made them in Duke if Ellington himself hadn’t forced the issue by writing pieces like Harlem, Reminiscing in Tempo and Black, Brown and Beige. Jazz is a completely successful form of expression in and of itself, the same way the mystery novel is. It’s not better because you can come up with a highbrow comparison for it. It doesn’t ennoble it. George Balanchine thought that Fred Astaire was the great American dancer, but that didn’t make Astaire a better dancer. He didn’t need Balanchine’s approval to be great. He was already great.