Such Sweet Thunder

Reed music professor David Schiff searches for the real Duke Ellington.

By Bill Donahue
“Jazz, for all the enthusiasm of its intellectual fans, is not music in the sense that an opera or a symphony is music. . . . As a musical language, jazz is graphic and colorful, but, in poetic resources, it is about as rich as pidgin English.” —from “Is Jazz Music?” an essay by Winthrop Sargeant, published in the American Mercury magazine, 1943
The Ellington Century

When Professor David Schiff [music 1980–] set out, a few years ago, to write his new book, The Ellington Century, which probes the musical mastery of jazz legend Duke Ellington (1899–1974), he knew that he was tilting against long-ingrained suspicions. Jazz was born just over a century ago in a distinctly African American context—in rollicking ragtime bars, and in brothels, and on the streets of New Orleans’s Storyville—and at times its harshest critics have invoked the rhetoric of racial prejudice. Sargeant characterizes jazz as “primitive wails and thumps” exuding the “sincerity and naïve charm of primitive paintings.”

Among today’s critics and scholars, though, the debate over jazz’s aesthetic depth turns on specific and nuanced, yet politically fraught, questions like, for instance, “Did Duke Ellington compose great music?”

It is inarguable that Ellington, an African American pianist and orchestra leader, headed up one of the most beloved ensembles of the big band era. He wrote over 1,500 tunes, and in the ’30s and ’40s, his band’s hits were legion: “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” “Take the ‘A’ Train.” “Mood Indigo.” The guy was a good time—an amiable bear of a man who was famously able to down two steaks, a lobster, a plate of ham and eggs, and six pancakes in a single sitting. A high school dropout, he was devoid of pretension, and sometimes he’d snicker at the cerebral hipsters who’d show up at his gigs with furrowed brows and analytical airs.

Still, he worked in an age steeped in bigotry. The black musicians in his band were routinely barred from hotels when the band traveled, and during World War II, he watched black soldiers go off to fight Nazism, only to be segregrated into all-Negro brigades. He felt charged with speaking for his race. He once said, “I don’t write jazz. I write Negro folk music.” On another occasion, he said, “I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people. I believe that music, popular music of the day, is the real reflector of the nation’s feelings. Some of the music which has been written will always be beautiful and immortal. Beethoven, Wagner, and Bach are geniuses; no one can rob their work of merit that is due it, but these men have not portrayed the people who are about us today, and the interpretation of these people is our future music.”

Ellington bristled at being seen as a simple-minded entertainer, and he suggested that history would vindicate him. “The music of my race,” he said, “is something which is going to live, something which posterity will honor in a higher sense than merely that of the music of the ballroom today.” Since his death, many critics have come to regard him as visionary. Writing in the New Yorker in 1996, Stanley Crouch called him “the most protean of American geniuses.” Crouch adds that Ellington “assayed a multitude of forms and voices as successfully as Herman Melville.”

But to some Ellington experts, this sort of praise is nothing but purple prose. In his 1987 biography, Duke Ellington, James Lincoln Collier refuses to call his subject a composer. “By ‘composer,’” he says, “we usually mean somebody who makes up more or less complete works of music that are written down. . . . Ellington rarely wrote out a composition in complete form, and in many, perhaps most, instances, the work existed on paper only in scraps and pieces.”

In a 1996 Commentary essay, writer Terry Teachout echoes Collier, arguing that Ellington bore “only a superficial grasp of the techniques necessary to create organically larger musical structures.” He adds, “At no time did he seek formal training,” and also complains that “surprisingly little criticism of [Ellington’s] work has been produced by trained musicians.”

Enter David Schiff. A Reed prof since 1980, Schiff, whose Ellington book is being published by the University of California Press, studied at the Juilliard School of Music. He has composed five pieces for the Seattle Symphony, conducted his own music for Chamber Music Northwest, and arranged songs for jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper. And he has long been irked by Collier’s remark about the scraps of paper. “He was just passing along ninth-generation rumor,” Schiff says. “When he wrote that, nobody had seen Ellington’s papers.” Indeed, the bandleader kept his arrangements secret, for fear other ensembles would copy his magic, and for many years after his death his handwritten manuscripts simply rotted away, along with bounteous photos and scrapbooks, in a drafty Manhattan warehouse.

But then, in 1988, the musician’s aging son, Mercer Ellington, turned more than 300 cubic feet of archival materials over to the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. Schiff tuned in. To research The Ellington Century, he made three five-day trips to Washington in 2009 and 2010. In a small, windowless room just across the hall from an often-visited recreation of Julia Child’s television kitchen, he leafed through endless stacks of Ellington scores, trying to heed jazzman Charlie Parker’s famous dictate, “Hear with your eyes and see with your ears.”

The papers formed a layered palimpsest. Sometimes Ellington’s scores are written in pencil. Sometimes they’re meticulously rendered in black India ink—Ellington employed a professional copyist. Sometimes they bear the marginal comments and doodles of various players in Ellington’s band, and sometimes another pencil script joins Ellington’s amid the black bars—his staff arranger, Billy Strayhorn, often pitched in. At times, Ellington didn’t feel confident writing transitions and endings.

Terry Teachout, the Commentary writer, may read the Smithsonian archives as signal proof that Ellington was not a bona fide composer. Teachout is at work on his own Ellington bio (working title: Mood Indigo) and he’s already emphasized that Strayhorn composed some of Ellington’s biggest hits, among them “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Schiff has more respect for Ellington, though. Indeed, in his book’s most heartfelt passage, he describes his visit to the Smithsonian’s archives as a pilgrimage. Researching a 1970 Ellington piece, New Orleans Suite, he says:

I carefully worked my way, one folder at a time, through the materials. When I opened Folder 5 of Box 242, though, I came upon the holy grail, Ellington’s sketches for “The Second Line,” written, as was his habit, very distinctly in pencil with full indications of all the harmonic voicings. Often these pencil sketches show signs that they were written on the road; they may occur on the back of another piece of music and are often full of arrows that re-order the phrases between different pages. With familiarity, though, it becomes clear that Ellington and Strayhorn both worked in a systematic way that allowed [the copyist] to extract parts from a score set out on four or five staves. The sketches look casual but in fact they are complete (with the provision that neither Ellington nor Strayhorn wrote out a drum part, and rarely indicated much about the piano part, which, of course, they would be playing). In the middle of sketches for different phrases, I found Ellington’s first entry for the great tune that serves as its refrain, a defiant melody that seems to capture the essential spirit of jazz. My hands began to tremble. It was like finding the very first jottings for Beethoven’s Fifth, seeing the moment when the notes first hit the page. For a second I felt as if Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was looking over my shoulder, pointing to his sassy tune with pride.

Sixty-five-year-old David Schiff was perhaps born to vindicate Duke Ellington. The grandson of poor Jewish immigrants, he grew up just outside New York City, in a family that was brainy and liberal and also devout. “We weren’t just cultural Jews,” says Schiff. “For my father, eating pastrami wasn’t enough.”

The Schiffs spent their Friday evenings singing at a conservative synagogue; at home they listened to Yiddish music on a Jewish radio station, WEVD. “But we weren’t one of those Jewish families where everyone plays the violin,” says Schiff. “My father was a college administrator.” Still, Schiff père had an extensive record collection, and by the time young David was four, he had commandeered the hi-fi in the living room, so that he could listen to the soundtrack from South Pacific 8 or 10 times a day.

Before he was 10, Schiff was composing his own symphonies, in the spirit of La Mer by Claude Debussy. At music camp in the Adirondacks, when Schiff was 14, a famed conductor listened to a juvenile Schiff piece and decreed, “Schiff, you’re a composer!”

With his mother, Schiff went to many Broadway musicals; sometimes he visited Radio City Music Hall for “prestige” films such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But in all his cultural wanderings, he never set foot in Carnegie Hall or the New York Philharmonic. The plush velvet seats at these venues were, he says, beyond his family’s modest means, and so he never evolved rarefied notions about what constitutes high art. “When Leonard Bernstein went on television and said, ‘Musical comedy is American opera,’” he remembers, “I heard that. I grew up middlebrow.”