Saturday, December 21, 2013

Gopnik on Ellington; RIght and Wrong

Tricky Sam
Adam Gopnik's take on Duke Ellington is that his contribution should be measured not by that hoary yardstick:" a great American composer;" instead, by the work he did with source material that was often generated by others and by the fact that he "was a great impresario and bandleader who created the most stylish sound, and brand, in American music and kept a company of musicians going for half a century." OK. Work enough for any man.

However, Gopnik does need to be straightened out on some things. 

"Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K.piano, got trapped for years playing "jungle music" in gangster nightclubs and at his height produced mostly tinny brief recordings." Well, 3 minutes was the recording time restriction, his recordings are no tinnier than any of the day and he played fine piano. As for his "jungle music," soon after the previous quote you say, as a positive trait, that he was "unafraid of seeming too 'African.'"

You also say that Ellington's "first hits now sound dated and chi-chi." Mmm. Perhaps if you were a bit more specific. I don't want to hear Satin Doll anymore myself, but I don't think that's what you're talking about.

More egregiously, you make a point that from the beginning, to find his sound, he often hired not "up to-date urban players, but often less sophisticated New Orleans musicians..." A paragraph later, you say that his 1940 band was pretty much the height of his achievement and cite soloists in that band including Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Sam Nanton. Those "New Orleans" musicians came from Kansas City, Cambridge, Boston and New York City, respectively. What a buncha rubes. Guess when those johnnies-come-lately came on board? Webster: 1935, Hodges: 1928, Carney: 1927, Nanton: 1926.* 

Otherwise, good job.

*[Later editorial addition: I think it's reasonable to think of Ellington's bands as big tent operations harboring different schools of stylists; surely one element contributing to the singularity of his music].

4 comments:

pwlsax said...

Gopnik is just echoing some common, but not-often aired prejudices about pre-WW2 jazz and pop music.

Steve Provizer said...

Can you be specific about which ones?

pwlsax said...

Sure:
- the recordings interfere with the enjoyment of the music (too short and "tinny")
- the concessions to dancers, pop music, or just melody make the style fey, effete, even uncle-tomish (here: "chichi")

All just a failure to appreciate the music of an era for what it is.

Steve Provizer said...

He seemed to single out Ellington's recordings as being tinny which, of course, makes no sense. So, you're right that without saying so, Gopnik was digging at the whole universe of 78's. And yea, chichi is just code, in the way you say.