Duke’s Singular Genius : Ellington deserves all the praise, even canonization, but as what precisely? A classical composer or strictly as a jazz legend? In the end, does it even matter?


In the entryway of the main auditorium of Schoenberg Hall, the music building on the UCLA campus, is a small, stern bust of its namesake, a dominant if not yet universally loved 20th century composer. And now in front of the building stands a new statue of a 20th century composer who was well enough loved but not always taken seriously. Duke Ellington, on a pedestal held up by his nude muses, looms more gaudy, more public and quite a bit larger than the Schoenberg bust. The sculpture, a one-third scale maquette of Robert Graham’s Central Park Ellington memorial, was dedicated on Thursday, Ellington’s 100th birthday, a day noted around the world. At UCLA, the celebration also included two all-star concerts in Royce Hall and a two-day symposium at Schoenberg.

On those two stages I heard grand statements: “It would be hard to imagine a composer moving into the future without the influence of Ellington”; “Most would agree that Ellington is the most important composer of the 20th century”; “Ellington is the most versatile composer in the history of mankind”; “No one else in history has ever written that much music”; “He was the freest musician ever”; “He was the most representative American composer”; “In terms of classical music, Ellington will emerge as someone who laid down the basic models and principles that will be the groundwork for the next century”; “Ellingtonia is the last radical concept in the 20th century”; “Ellington created the American style”; “He broke all boundaries; Duke could do anything.”

Similar hyperbole was known to make Ellington uncomfortable. “It seems to me that such talk stinks up the room,” he once said when read an over-the-top estimation of his importance. But make no mistake: Ellington has finally been taken seriously. Take away the absolutes and every statement stands. Ellington was important, versatile, prolific, representative, radical, original, profoundly American. He was one of the greats, and despite the oversell, I came away from the concerts and panels more convinced than ever that he deserves canonization.


But canonized how and as what? That has always been the problem, if it is to be in the manner of a classical composer. His accomplishments in music may be on the order of a Debussy or Stravinsky, but the work, intended for his big band, is so much harder to keep alive in performance.

At least the question about jazz as “serious music” is long resolved. In 1943, Winthrop Sargeant remarked: “Give him a chance to study, and the Negro will soon turn from boogie-woogie to Beethoven.” Today the examples of countless musicians and composers of all races and cultures, including the likes of the Ellington-influenced Toru Takemitsu and John Adams, tell us that Beethoven may have more to worry about than Duke.

Even Sargeant, who went on to become the New Yorker music critic, ultimately acknowledged that. In 1965, he was a part of the secret three-member Pulitzer Prize jury that, finding no new composition worthy of the year’s prize in music, recommended Ellington for a special citation for lifetime achievement. When the Pulitzer board rejected a jazz composer for such an honor, Sargeant protested in public. Last month, Ellington finally got his Pulitzer, but some 25 years after his death it seems such an obvious distinction it was hardly news at all.

The panel topics at the UCLA symposium, which was organized by guitarist Kenny Burrell, the director of the UCLA jazz studies program, were lofty. The level of advocacy was high. There was no contention.

Subtlety, Originality in Ellington Works

Composer, conductor and jazz scholar Gunther Schuller brilliantly demonstrated Ellington’s harmonic originality. Trumpet player and Ellington alumni Bill Berry described the astonishing subtlety of timbre Ellington achieved by painting sonorities with specific band members. Film composer Lalo Schifrin recalled that when he went to Paris in the early 1950s to study with Messiaen, he was startled to discover that his teacher’s seemingly fresh and revolutionary piano sonorities had already been anticipated by Ellington. Scholars delved into Ellington’s incomparable ability to express the black experience in his music.

Yet lurking behind all this, and only addressed tangentially, was the expectation that Ellington’s music could at once be outside boundaries yet still be spoken of as belonging within the boundaries of a “classical” canon. Even if we can put aside the intriguing issue of authorship (Ellington was a collaborative creator), we cannot put aside the issue of Ellington as a collaborative performer.


Ellington literally molded sound with living tones, his compositions in their finished forms were like small movies with specific actors. Change the personnel and you have a remake--not, as in the great classical scores, an interpretation. We have all the evidence of this in Ellington’s thousands of recordings that are happily flooding back into print on CD. They can be listened to, studied, loved. They cannot be reproduced.

Ellington has often been called the American Bach. And the comparison is not inapt. Like Bach, Ellington wrote for specific players and for the moment, not history. As a church employee, Bach made a new cantata each week for the Sunday service; as a bandleader, Ellington wrote new numbers each week.

All that is left of Bach are scores, not sounds. We don’t know how he performed or what his improvisations, for which he was famous, sounded like. What is left of Ellington are the sounds of his recordings, not scores. Period instrument ensembles are free to imagine how they want Bach to sound. But big bands, which are their own form of early music ensemble, copy the records or do something new and different based upon but not Ellington. Hence, Ellington’s recordings become both a great legacy and a great obstacle.

Suggesting that we forget Bach altogether, composer and pianist Anthony Davis said that it should be enough to let Ellington be Ellington. And it was Mark Tucker, the scholar whose “Ellington Reader” is one of the most fascinating books on a composer I know, who best did just that. He read a paper about Ellington’s formative years in Washington, D.C. And by doing no more than describing what Duke’s early life was like, how music and society influenced him and how he began to transform what he heard, Tucker showed us how raw genius operates.

Tucker, I think, leads the way. We cannot expect Ellington’s music to operate like Bach’s or Stravinsky’s. He is an artist who created his own world, and it is for us now to understand and appreciate a remarkable man for what he was and not for what we want him to be. I sometimes had the sense at the symposium and concerts of a desire to make Ellington serve our purposes. Let us instead rise to his.