Other Places: Teachout And Iverson On Ellington

Teachout smilingIf 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 theIverson, Ethan 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.

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  1. says

    I’ve taught a “Music of Duke Ellington” course at Manhattan School of Music for eleven years. This year, I’ve made Teachout’s new book required reading for the class.

  2. Don Conner says

    Thanks for posting one of the most interesting blogs i’ve ever read. I must admit that i’ve never heard “The Bad Plus” and, obviously, never Mr. Iverson’s playing. I can just say that if his playing is anywhere near his writing that he must be the second coming of Tatum: his essay was magnificent and although I haven’t read Mr. Teachouts book yet, he also makes some cogent points. I loved his book on H.L. Mencken.

  3. says

    Hi Doug, Thanks for linking! Just to be clear, I posted the interview and essay at the same time (the dating at the end of the pages is misleading). And I interviewed Terry without planning to write a counter-argument; I began work on “Reverential Gesture” only after reading reviews of DUKE in the New York Times and the New Yorker. (More on that at the top of the essay.)

    Don: I’m no Tatum! But thanks for the kind words.

  4. says

    The Duke? A musical mystery man for me. Let’s only take one aspect of his secrets: You wanna “learn” how to write for saxes? Take Duke’s re-written “Morning Mood” of Edvard Grieg’s “Per Gynt Suite”..

    Listen to it over and over again. Transcribe it. Analyze it. Take the most capable sax section of any German radio big band and play it: You will be (perhaps not?) surprised that it will never sound like Duke’s men. Anyway, if you wanna learn something about Duke Ellington’s, or about any kind of music: Don’t read too much…just sit down and listen.

    Ah, yeah, it’s Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet :)

  5. says

    As Walter van de Leur revealed in his indispensable book SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR: THE MUSIC OF BILLY STRAYHORN, “Morning Mood” was arranged by Strayhorn–as were, in fact, four of the five movements in PEER GYNT SUITES NOS. 1 AND 2.

    For any pieces recorded by Ellington from 1939 to 1967, van de Leur’s book needs to be consulted to determine the proper composer/arranger. There have been lots of surprises in recent years.

    Otherwise, Brew’s point is well-taken.

    • says

      Thanks, Bill, for clarifying this. Beside the intellectual off-topic chatter about books, there is a lot of information in Mr. Iverson’s interview with Mr. Teachout: Although many of the LP-releases say “Ellington-Strayhorn”, the two masters rarely composed/ arranged in team. What I would like to know – among many other things: Why was there never a later big band chart of Stray’s greatest hit “Lush Life”, or was there?

      I know that the initial performance took place at Carnegie Hall, on November 13, 1948 with Kay Davis, delivering the bittersweet lyrics.

      Other question: How does this LP sound?

      • David says

        I wonder if the full band plays on that 1948 version? The 1957 “Songbook” recording is, like the 1965 video referenced by Bill, a duo performance. Of course it’s much easier for a pianist to follow the singer’s rubato than for a full band. If there were a later big band version, it would likely have appeared on one of the Dutch Jazz Orchestra’s three albums of rediscovered Strayhorn arrangements.

          • says

            Yep, David, it’s as you presumed a lovely duet performance with Billy’s romantic piano and Kay’s sultry soprano. The orchestra adds a final chord ad lib.

            I’ve listened not yet to the whole concert, but what I heard so far is outstanding Ellingtonia.

            OK, when it comes to “Floor Show”, err, Ray Nance … a little less fiddle wouldn’t have made no harm. “Manhattan Murals” (a slow paraphrase of “A-Train”) was extroduced by the Duke with the hilarious: “That’s where the ‘A-Train’ starts up at Sugar Hill and the ending is where it goes right under the East River.” :)

  6. Jim Brown says

    Thanks for the link to Ethan Iverson’s excellent blog. I stayed up way too late devouring his piece about the Teachout bio, read the interview with my first coffee. I’ve added it to my list of things to read regularly. And Duke is on my list.

  7. says

    I do find Mr Teachout’s remark—”…such comparisons(between jazz and classical) 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”—a little disingenuous to say the least! So Duke Ellington forced Terry Teachout to write about Duke Ellington by being Duke Ellington? How does that work?

    In any case, was ‘classical music’ (whatever that phrase is meant to mean) the way Ellington himself referred to these pieces? I read Mr Teachout’s book, wanted to like it, but came away very dissatisfied with his assessment of what he considers to be Ellington’s artistic achievements. His repositioning himself on the subject of Ellington’s music in interviews subsequent to the publication of the book, moreover, I find ‘places his personality in an unflattering light’ to quote the critic’s words on his subject’s stealing all those memorable little tunes…

    • John Bartholomew says

      Major thanks, Brew. Could that actually be Strayhorn on piano? It certainly sounds like it. And to these ears, it would also be a Strayhorn arrangement.

      • says

        You’re heartily welcome, John —

        There are no details given at the Wikipedia entry about Only The Lonely, just this.


        On May 25, 1958, Sinatra unsuccessfully attempted to record Billy Strayhorn’s ballad “Lush Life”. A bootleg recording of Sinatra’s attempt at “Lush life” exists; this was the only time Sinatra sang the song in his career.

        P.S. — But there are so many Sinatra experts around; maybe Mr. Will Friedwald could help you out?

        Enjoy this, which is in my opinion the definitive (male vocal) version of “Lush Life”: