Jazz pianist Ethan Iverson, whose work with the Bad Plus and on his own will be well known to longtime visitors to this space, recently interviewed me for his widely read and deservedly influential blog, Do the Math. We talked at length and in considerable detail about Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, as well as a variety of other subjects ranging from my recent efforts as a playwright and opera librettist to our shared admiration for Anthony Powell, Rex Stout, and Donald Westlake:
I think it’s very foolish to compare Westlake to Proust, as I’ve actually seen done in print. In the first place, it’s stupid–and in the second place, you don’t need to. Donald Westlake’s place in the history of literature is quite adequately secured by virtue of his having been Donald Westlake. He doesn’t have to be anything else.
This is true of jazz as well. 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….
In addition to posting a carefully edited transcript of the interview, Ethan has also written an accompanying essay about Ellington called “Reverential Gesture” in which he discusses in a thoroughly civil manner his differences with some of the musical analysis in Duke, engaging with what I actually wrote in the book rather than caricaturing it. Unlike some of my less temperate critics, he read Duke closely–and took it seriously. I expected no less.
You can read both the interview and the essay by going here.