Duke Ellington, Percy Grainger, and the status of jazz in the academy

Final paper for The History of the African-American Freedom Struggle with Thomas Sugrue

On October 25, 1932, Percy Grainger invited Duke Ellington and his orchestra to perform “Creole Love Call” as part of a music lecture at New York University. It was the first time any university had invited a jazz musician to perform in an academic context. I will argue that the meeting of Grainger and Ellington is a prism refracting the broader story of the music academy’s slow and reluctant embrace of jazz. This story, in turn, is a cultural reflection of the broader African-American freedom struggle.

Percy Grainger and Duke Ellington, 1935

Ellington has come to embody the cultural prestige now enjoyed by jazz. He appears on Washington DC’s state quarter, and his statue overlooks a corner of Central Park in New York City. In 1932, however, Ellington was known to official music culture as the leader of a popular dance band and the writer of a few catchy tunes. While he was already a celebrity, few white people outside of jazz fandom considered him to be a serious artist. That year, Ellington received his first favorable review from a classical critic, followed by endorsements from Grainger and a few other figures from the music establishment. However, for the most part, authorities of the time held jazz in low regard, relegating it to much the same position occupied by hip-hop in the present: undeniably popular, vibrant perhaps, but deficient in musical quality, and even, according to some critics, a threat to the nation’s morals.

Ellington’s ascent in stature parallels the gains made by African-Americans in the twentieth century generally. Grainger’s role in the story is more complicated. He was prescient in his admiration for Ellington, and for jazz generally. Nevertheless, this admiration was coupled with condescension and lack of understanding. Grainger was a sui generis eccentric and his ideas do not neatly map onto the music academy generally, but he is a useful reference point for the partial embrace that universities have made of jazz, and African-American diasporic music generally.

Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, and grew up in a middle-class family in Washington, DC, which at the time had the nation’s largest urban black population (Tucker, 1990). Ellington’s maternal grandfather had been born a slave, but his father was a butler in Warren Harding’s White House. Most middle-class black families at the time had a piano, and the Ellingtons had two. Ellington attended the all-black Armstrong High School, whose principal, Carter G. Woodson, was a historian and the founder of The Journal of Negro Life and History. Woodson insisted that the Armstrong curriculum put a strong emphasis on black history at all grade levels, and the school culture was one of black pride. Ellington studied harmony in high school and took private piano lessons, but he was not a dedicated student. Nevertheless, he began performing in professional settings as a teenager, and by age 20, was leading his own band.

Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra

By 1932, Ellington was well-established as a major figure in jazz. He had released recordings of some of his most iconic compositions, including “East St Louis Toodle-oo” (1927), “Mood Indigo” (1930), and “Rockin’ in Rhythm” (1931). His performances at New York’s Cotton Club were broadcast nationally on NBC. He had also been featured in one of the earliest musical short films, Black and Tan (1929), produced by RKO Radio Pictures to showcase their new Photophone system (sound in movies was still a technological novelty.) It is worth examining this film in detail, because it so clearly illustrates the social position occupied by Ellington and his music during this period.

Black and TanThe film is named for “Black and Tan Fantasy” (1928), a theme by Bubber Miley, the first star trumpet player in Ellington’s band. The title refers to black and tan nightclubs, integrated (or semi-integrated) bars and speakeasies. Miley based the opening melody on a spiritual he remembered his mother singing, and this melody and its parent spiritual derive in turn from “The Holy City,” a sacred song by the white composer Stephen Adams (Metzer, 1997). The end of Miley’s melody quotes Chopin’s “Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 35: III, better known as the funeral march.

“Black and Tan Fantasy” features the arrestingly strange timbres of plunger-muted ”growl“ trumpet played by Miley, as well as growl trombone by Sam Nanton. Plunger mutes act as a resonant band-pass filter. By opening and closing the mute, players can sweep the filter up and down the frequency spectrum, create a “wah-wah” effect. The growl is produced by simultaneously blowing and singing, humming, or gargling. All of Ellington’s horn players used techniques that evoke the human voice, but Miley and Nanton sound more like animals or monsters. These “jungle” sounds were the most distinctive feature of Ellington’s first prominent works, and were the focus of early critical attention.

Ellington’s character in Black and Tan is named after and loosely based on himself, a down-on-his luck musician married to a dancer played by Fredi Washington. The film begins with Ellington and trumpeter Artie Whetsol rehearsing “Black and Tan Fantasy.” (Miley had left Ellington’s band by the time of filming, and Whetsol was his replacement.) They are interrupted by the arrival of two men who have come to repossess Ellington’s piano for lack of payment. These two characters are supposed to be “comical”; one is very tall, the other very short, and they both have the exaggerated mannerisms of minstrel show performers. One has trouble even reading numbers, and both are easily bought off with gin by Washington’s character. Ellington plays straight throughout, observing all of this with suave detachment, though it is easy to imagine him biting his lip to suppress his offense.

The middle portion of the film is an extended performance sequence by the Ellington orchestra, accompanying a series of dancers, first men in tuxedos, then women in “African” costumes. In the final scene, Washington’s character dies, with Ellington and the band at her side, accompanied by a chorus singing the spiritual “Same Train.” Washington asks Ellington and the band to play “Black and Tan Fantasy” for her, and they do, accompanied by a chorus singing “The Holy City” with outraised arms projecting exaggerated shadows on the back wall. The film’s blend of minstrel-show comedy and Expressionist tragedy is an uneasy one. Black and Tan is a valuable artifact because it shows how the popular mainstream saw Ellington in his first decades of fame: as an entertainer, a skilled one to be sure, but a figure of nightclubs and minstrel comedy, not the concert hall or the classroom.

It is uncertain why Grainger asked Ellington to perform “Creole Love Call” (1928), a slow tempo blues that evokes the black music of New Orleans. Perhaps Grainger discovered it after reading critical praise for “Black and Tan Fantasy”—the two songs were paired on their original recorded release. “Creole Love Call” follows the standard jazz format: a composed melody stated by the entire ensemble, solos on the melody’s chord progression, then another statement of the composed melody to conclude. However, unlike a typical jazz tune, “Creole Love Call” featured little to no improvisation. Bubber Miley’s trumpet solo on the tune’s first recording was so iconic that, after he left the group in 1929, Ellington had his replacements reproduce the solo note for note (Lawrence 2004, 91). Evidently, Ellington also felt the same way about the clarinet solo, because that is also identical in subsequent recordings.

With jazz so firmly ensconced as an American art form, it can be shocking to read white criticism of it from the first half of the last century. The critic Winthrop Sargent voiced highbrow consensus when he wrote that jazz “is not music in the sense that an opera or a symphony is music. It is a variety of folk music” (1943, 405). He believed that jazz was a lower form that black audiences embraced simply because they did not know any better. “Give him the chance to study, and the Negro will soon turn from boogie woogie to Beethoven” (Sargent 1943, 409).

While music educators acknowledged the popularity of jazz, they saw its main virtue as being effective bait to lure young people into the study of “serious” music. The Etude, a music education periodical, devoted its entire August 1924 issue to “The Jazz Problem.”

Etude - The Jazz ProblemIn his introductory essay, editor James Francis Cooke wrote that jazz would need to dramatically transformed by composers before it would have any real value: “In its original form it has no place in musical education and deserves none” (quoted in Maita, 2014). While other contributors to the issue had more conflicted and nuanced views of jazz, the general tone was dismissive. Viewed against this context, Grainger’s enthusiasm for jazz is remarkable—he even wrote a pro-jazz rebuttal in the following issue of The Etude.

Ellington was the first jazz composer to be taken at all seriously by classical critics, though even his supporters found ways to demean him, intentionally or otherwise. In June of 1932, R. D. Darrell wrote the first in-depth critical review of Ellington’s music. Darrell praised Ellington for “economy of means, satisfying proportion of detail, and the sense of inevitability—of anticipation and revelatory fulfillment—that are the decisive qualifications of musical forms” (58, emphasis in original). However, when he placed the music in context, he was stunningly offensive by modern standards:

[W]hen I upturn treasure in what others consider to be the very muck of music, I cannot be surprised or disappointed if my neighbor sees only mud where I see gold, ludicrous eccentricity where I find an expressive expansion of the tonal palette, tawdry tunes instead of deep song, ’nigger music’ instead of ’black beauty’” (58).

While Darrell came to admire “Black and Tan Fantasy,” his initial reaction was derision:

I laughed like everyone else over its instrumental wa-waing and gargling and gobbling, the piteous whinnying of a very ancient horse, the lugubrious reminiscence of the Chopin funeral march. But as I continued to play the record for the amusement of my friends I laughed less heartily and with less zest. In my ears the whinnies and wa-was began to resolve into new tone colors, distorted and tortured, but agonizingly expressive. The piece took on a surprising individuality and entity as well as an intensity of feeling that was totally incongruous in popular dance music. Beneath all its oddity and perverseness there was a twisted beauty that grew on me more and more and could not be shaken off (58).

In fairness to Darrell, Ellington’s instrumental timbres are startling even now, as I will discuss below.

The British critic Constant Lambert was another early champion of Ellington from within the classical music world, but he too felt the need to qualify his praise with condescension. He prefaced his discussion of Ellington by observing that “Negro talent” was “on the whole more executive than creative” (Lambert 1934, 206). However, he found Ellington to be “a real composer, the first jazz composer of distinction, and the first negro composer of distinction” (Lambert 1934, 214). Unlike Grainger, Lambert recognized that Ellington frequently through-composed his music. Also, Lambert recognized that the canonical form of an Ellington piece is the recording, not the score. The Philadelphia Record interviewed Ellington soon afterward and asked him to respond to Lambert’s praise. They probably took wide liberties in representing his responses, describing “a look of simple wonder” on his face and rendering his quotes in dialect, e.g. “Is zat so?” (quoted in Tucker 1993, 112).

In the face of so much disrespect and dismissal, it is remarkable how firm Ellington was in his conviction that he was a legitimate artist. He saw no contradiction between playing for dancers and being a “serious” composer, between playing concert halls and high school gyms, between performing for heads of state and local Elks clubs (Dance 1970, 11). Ellington resisted applying the term “jazz” to his music, not because he felt any shame in it, but because he did not like being boxed into a category. In a 1930 interview in New York Evening Graphic Magazine, he said, “I am not playing jazz. 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” (quoted in Tucker 1993, 45).

Ellington saw the black culture he represented as the creative voice of America. He believed not only that black people had created America’s cultural wealth, but were also the voice of its moral conscience, since they embody the contradiction between the nation’s abstract principles and the reality. In a speech to Scott Methodist Church in 1941, he said:

We stirred in our shackles and our unrest awakened Justice in the hearts of a courageous few, and we recreated in America the desire for true democracy, freedom for all, the brotherhood of man, principles on which the country had been founded… We’re the injection, the shot in the arm, that has kept America and its forgotten principles alive in the fat and corrupt years intervening between our divine conception and our near tragic present (quoted in Tucker 1999, 148).

Ellington’s own compositions reflected his pride in black history. His piece Black, Brown and Beige, premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1943, was a “tone parallel to the history of the American Negro.” He also wrote music depicting and celebrating iconic black musicians and entertainers, as well as places like Harlem and New Orleans (Tucker, 1990).

Beyond his love for black culture, Ellington was not overtly political. For example, he declined to join the March on Washington in 1963. However, he did play a role in what Kelley (1996) calls “infrapolitics”—subtle protest undertaken in cultural and informal spheres. Ellington cultivated a dignified and decorous public persona, one that demanded respect not just from whites, but from other blacks who disdained jazz as unseemly. His dandyism made a comparable statement to the prewar black fashion for ostentatious zoot suits:

Seeing oneself and others “dressed up” was enormously important in terms of constructing a collective identity based on something other than wage work, presenting a public challenge to the dominant stereotypes of the black body, and reinforcing a sense of dignity that was perpetually being assaulted (Kelley 1996, 168).

While Ellington’s own style was more aspirationally bourgeois than the defiantly lower-class zoots, he shared their cultural milieu. For example, Malcolm X (1965), who was a zoot in his younger days, vividly describes dancing to Ellington at the Roseland Ballroom (76-78).

Percy Grainger

George Percy Aldridge Grainger was born in 1882 in Australia. In the first half of the twentieth century, he was a celebrated concert pianist, composer, arranger, and personality. Like Ellington, he primarily wrote short works, and, like Ellington, he was strongly influenced by a variety of folk and ethnic musics. Grainger was an ardent advocate for the aesthetic value of traditional and folk musics from around the world, and collected hundreds of live recordings of folksong with his Edison Bell cylinder phonograph, long before doing so was a widespread practice (Robinson, 2011).

Grainger in a self-designed outfit made of bath towelsGrainger’s best-known work is “Country Gardens,” an adaptation of a traditional British folk song. This melody is ineradicably catchy, and was quoted often by jazz soloists. Charlie Parker notably used it as a tag ending for his quintet arrangement of “April in Paris.” It is possible that jazz musicians were aware of Grainger’s respect for their music, but it is more likely that the tune was simply popular and easily recognizable (Jarritt Sheel, personal communication 2017). It also appeared on The Muppet Show:

Grainger became part-time head of the music department at New York University for the academic year 1932-33. He taught composition and a lecture course, “A General Study of the Manifold Nature of Music,“ designed to show commonalities between music of widely varying times and places. Grainger would later publish his course lectures as a book, Music: A Commonsense View of All Types, which would influence the nascent field of ethnomusicology (Blacking, 1990). He was also well ahead of his time in his respectful appreciation of jazz.

Seductive, exotic, desocializing elements imputed to Jazz by musical ignoramuses have no musical basis. Musically speaking, the chief characteristics of Jazz are solidity, robustness, refinement, sentiment, friendly warmth. As music it seems to me far less sensuous, passionate or abandoned than the music of many peoples (quoted in Rexroth 2005, 77).

Some of Grainger’s enlightened attitude may have been simple contrarianism; he took evident pleasure in being unconventional and defiant of authority. Still, he deserves credit for questioning the reflexive equation of jazz with sexuality, in stark contrast to then-dominant white attitudes.

Grainger’s teaching was animated by a teleological theory of musical history. He believed that music worldwide progressed in a particular direction: toward increasing freedom from preordained pitches, rhythms and forms. He predicted that this trend would eventually culminate in a future “Free Music” capable of “expressing all the irregularity, subtlety and complexity of life and nature,” as he wrote in his lecture notes (quoted in Robinson 2011, 289). He saw jazz as an important step toward Free Music, and he invited Ellington’s band to perform as an exemplar of free improvisation and “the gliding and off-pitch sounds in jazz.”

In his lecture notes for Ellington’s appearance, Grainger wrote, “Art Music defined as music fixed by notation—to what extent is Ellington’s music art music (fixed by notation), to what extent does it admit free improvisation (varying with each performance) by individual players” (quoted in Rexroth 2005, 88)? This opposition of notated “art” music from Ellington’s “free improvisation” misunderstood Ellington’s music, in particular the through-composed tune he asked Ellington’s band to play. There is no record of Grainger asking Ellington his opinions about his own music or whether it supported Grainger’s theory about Free Music. In this regard, Grainger was part of a long continuum of white musicians and listeners projecting ideas and beliefs into black music for their own ends.

Grainger had problematic and contradictory racial politics. On the one hand, he was progressive in his recognition that “primitive” peoples and African-Americans made music as beautiful and sophisticated as that of Western composers, if not more so. On the other hand, he was an outspoken white supremacist.

Must we Nordics go on forever shamming that we do not know that we are overmen in beauty, souldepth, spirit-powers? Must we stand by silently forever while the lower races (French, German, Jews) tell us they own powers & gifts that we know they don’t (quoted in Gilles, Pear & Carroll 2010, 133)?

Grainger’s love for non-Western ethnic music arose in part from a conviction that it was untainted by Jewish influences (Pear, 2006). While Grainger filled his correspondence with racist judgments of non-Nordic Europeans, he seems to have had few opinions about non-white people. Perhaps he thought their inferiority was so self-evident as to not even need to be spelled out, but it seems more likely that he simply was not as passionate about white supremacy generally as he was about Nordic supremacy over other white people.

Grainger’s appreciation of folk music appears to have been strongly and genuinely felt, based not only on the romantic idea of the noble savage, but on the content of the music itself. For example, he was critical of the assumption that Western classical music is the most sophisticated in the world, pointing out that our notation system is too limited and coarse-grained to accurately describe a variety of folk musics. He also recognized that, compared to many traditional peoples, our society offers limited opportunities for musical participation and creativity. “The fact that art-music has been written down instead of improvised has divided musical creators and executants into two quite separate classes; the former autocratic and the latter comparatively slavish” (Grainger 1991, 13). By contrast, he saw “primitive” peoples as having broad creative freedom even within the bounds of tradition. “The primitive musician unhesitatingly alters the traditional material he has inherited from thousands of unknown talents and geniuses before him to suit his own voice or instruments, or to make it conform to his purely personal taste for rhythm and general style” (Grainger 1991, 6).

In particular, Grainger admired the participatory ethic of Africans and African-Americans, and the “home music” that gives pleasure to ordinary people: “The gift and tendency to sing and play in groups, partly by ear and by instinct, and to sing and play for the sake of taking part rather than for the sake of the listener, is the truly tribal touch and is present in so much Negro-American music” (Grainger 1999, 140). However, Grainger argued that “a great deal of Negro music is typically Nordic, just as a large part of Negro thot [sic] and emotionality is typically Anglo-Saxon” (Grainger 1999, 133). He attributed this influence to African-Americans’ long history of living among white people. While it is conventional to describe jazz as a combination of European harmonies and African rhythms, Grainger believed that syncopation in jazz originated in Anglo-Saxon rather than African influences. He saw the unique aspect of jazz as lying not in its rhythms, but in “sliding tones and off-pitch notes, which are valuable hints of freer (most soulful) art-music to come” (Grainger 1999, 229).

It is questionable how much of Grainger’s affection for jazz and folk music translated into respect for the people who created them. He compared the music of “savage races” to the calls of birds and animals, because they had the freedom to be artistic—they had unstructured time, and more importantly, unstructured thoughts, habits and ideals (Grainger 1981 (1916)). When he referred to “the unconscious, effortless musical utterances of primitive man” (Grainger 1991 (1915), 2), he implied that this sophisticated music was the product of unsophisticated minds.

Jazz in the Music Academy

The racial attitudes of the music academy have evolved significantly since The Etude published its Jazz Problem issue. How far have they evolved? Before we can answer that, let us examine a brief history of jazz education in the United States. When Ellington was growing up and for several decades afterward, institutionalized jazz education did not exist. When jazz musicians studied music formally, they did so in classical or marching band contexts (Kennedy, 2017). Jazz per se was rarely taught in formal settings, so musicians developed the art form through informal mentorship, jam sessions, peer learning, and, in Ellington’s case, self-teaching.

Jazz first entered high schools and colleges not through the official curriculum, but in the form of extracurricular “stage bands” (Karns, 2015). These bands occupied a similar function to campus rock bands now: they played dances and other social functions, and students did not earn academic credit for participating in them. In 1947, North Texas State became the first university in the United States to offer a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies, though they described it as a “dance band major,” since the word “jazz” held unsavory connotations (Hall, 2015). Even historically black colleges and universities were hesitant to offer credit for participation in jazz groups in the 1950s, perhaps feeling that jazz was too low-class to suit their aspirational cultures.

Formal jazz education underwent explosive growth in the 1960s. Over the course of the decade, there was a doubling in the number of high school stage bands, a tripling in the number of colleges offering jazz courses for credit, and a more than fivefold increase in the number of competitive festivals (Kennedy, 2017). The 1960s also saw a change in the music academy’s attitude toward jazz, shifting from condescension or outright hostility to growing acceptance of the music as a legitimate art form (Mark, 1987). Not coincidentally, this occurred at the same time that jazz waned in significance to popular culture, eclipsed by rock and R&B.

In the present day, jazz is ubiquitous in college music departments and in many high schools. However, it occupies the periphery of most programs. Orchestras, marching bands and choirs continue to predominate. At NYU, all music majors, regardless of specialty or focus, must complete a set of core requirements in music theory, history, and aural skills. The music theory and aural skills sequences are entirely focused on classical music. (The term “common practice tonality” refers to the harmonies preferred by Western European aristocrats in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.) Music history is the familiar litany of white classical composers with a token jazz musician or two tacked onto the end. Otherwise, jazz as a subject is entirely elective. At conservatories, the jazz major attracts students who are interested in popular music of all kinds, since that is as close as the official curriculum permits them to come to rock or hip-hop (Chinen, 2007). While jazz itself has become respectable, it is as close to the uncouth vernacular as conservatories will come.

College-level courses in jazz basics usually present a formalized version of bebop. Students are given lead sheets of midcentury popular standards (including Ellington tunes). They learn to interpret the chord symbols, to associate the chords with scales, and to improvise using those scales. The resulting sound is a smooth and intellectual one, resembling Bill Evans or mid-period John Coltrane. “A novice can start cheaply rhapsodizing scales through pastel harmony instantly, summoning a basic imitation of modern jazz in the Evans mold” (Iverson, 2017).

Ellington tunes tend to be harmonically much simpler than most college-level jazz repertoire. Instead, they derive their interest from their arrangement, and from the distinctive personal timbres of the performers. College students may play Ellington tunes, but they do not do so in an Ellingtonian style. While they are encouraged to develop a harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic voice, in their tone and sound they are expected to use the flattened affect of 1950s bebop players (Jarritt Sheel, personal communication 2017). This approach tends to produce a professional-sounding homogeneity, rather than the “sentimental avant-gardism” (Moten, 2003) of Ellingtonian vocalistic cries, growls and wails.

Academic jazz also differs crucially from Ellington’s music in its social context and function. For the better part of his career, Ellington’s music was made for dancers. At college jazz concerts, however, the audiences are invariably seated. When college students dance, it is to hip-hop, techno, or rock. If Ellington himself were a young man in 2017 making intellectual dance music, he would probably produce beats on a laptop, rather than studying the popular styles of his grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ generation.

Jazz has attained a degree of respect from cultural authorities that would have been scarcely imaginable in 1932. Nevertheless, its position in music education is still not as central as it could and perhaps should be. Why do America’s formal music education institutions place so much more emphasis on the music of eighteenth-century Vienna than the music of twentieth-century America? Perhaps asking why the music academy undervalues jazz is the wrong question. After all, we could be equally surprised that popular culture ever valued jazz so highly, and why it has valued other black musics like, R&B, rock, soul, funk, techno and hip-hop since. While America’s musical culture is a complex blend of styles and genres, the vernacular traditions of the African diaspora make up its core. Mcclary (2000) argues that the “various trickles” of the past hundred years of American music collect into “a mighty river” following a channel cut by the blues (32). It is not at all obvious that white Americans of all ages, classes and walks of life should so passionately embrace the music of the country’s most oppressed minority group. What is it about black music that has overcome the white mainstream’s general indifference or contempt toward the black people that created it?

One answer might be to say that the music is great, and the white mainstream recognizes that. But there must be something else at work. The answer probably lies in the concept of soul and the emotional work that it does. Black music expresses the full range of human emotion, but when we talk about soul, we mean something specific: a recognition of pain and tragedy, coupled with a resilience, determination, and even joy. Soul is the sound of coping with adversity, not by denying or avoiding it, but by confronting it and moving through it. African-Americans have endured the worst aspects of our social and economic systems while still retaining their humanity, and many white people could use some emotional support in enduring as well. Small (2011) calls America’s Puritanical industrial capitalist culture “the rational god” and notes how incompatible that god can be with our basic emotional needs.

[T]he people of the African diaspora have been intimately acquainted with the rational god for nearly five hundred years, far longer… than any other of the world’s peoples, and their musicking and their dancing have been tools by means of which they have learned to confront the god and his monstrous system, and to survive (Small 2011, 481).

African-Americans have had to improvise their way through life within white industrial culture, using the scattered cultural inheritance of the African diaspora. A great many white people evidently find both the improvisation and the inheritance enviable or inspiring.

With his unparalleled mastery of soul, Ellington is an invaluable emotional teacher. His music is intellectually abstract while also being of the body; it supports the quietest introspection and the most ecstatic social dance; and it encompasses joy and anguish, sometimes in the same phrase. Black performance like Ellington’s is

the ongoing improvisation of a kind of lyricism of the surplus—invagination, rupture, collision, augmentation. This surplus lyricism—think here of the muted, mutating horns of Tricky Sam Nanton or Cootie Williams—is what a lot of people are after when they invoke the art and culture—the radical (both rooted and out there, immanent and transcendent) sensuality—of and for [black] people (Moten 2003, 26).

Black American vernacular music undergoes a predictable cycle: it is popular with black audiences and reviled by the white mainstream; then it crosses over into popularity with young white audiences; then those white audiences get older and attain cultural authority, which they bestow on their preferred music styles; and then the music becomes canonized. Spirituals crossed over into canonical “art” status first, followed by jazz, then soul and R&B; rock is well on the way, and hip-hop is already in the early stages. As noted above, this transition can only safely happen once black music is no longer associated with sensuality and dance. Our cultural gatekeepers continue to find it difficult to see the music that young people enjoy dancing to as “art.” Malcolm X (1965) describes dancers at the Roseland Ballroom in an ecstatic frenzy, a polar opposite to the atmosphere of the concert hall, or the college classroom. Ellington saw no contradiction between playing for dancers and being an artist, but the academy only fully embraced him once he ceased to be a dance musician. To this day, the music academy remains reluctant to embrace social dance or the music that inspires it.

Jazz would appear to be “safe” for formal academic settings. It has been many years since Ellington’s music was associated with hustlers, gangsters, nightclubs and zoots. But those plunger mutes still have the power to shock with their bodily intimacy. “The sounds of pain are often indistinguishable from those of ecstasy. Hearing either one makes us uncomfortable, as if we were listening to something not meant for our ears, but that, upon the hearing, draws us into and implicates us in the experience, often as interlopers” (Kapchan, Kindle Locations 5915-5935). Listening to such sounds is a full-body experience, and our reactions can be very much neck-down. When we listen to “Creole Love Call” or “Black and Tan Fantasy,” the rhythms and melodies might be safely dated and distant, but the animalistic sounds of the horns continue to be as arresting as an unexpected physical touch.

That college music departments have admitted Ellington to the canon is a great improvement over excluding him. But American colleges and universities continue to center the traditions of upper-class Western Europeans from centuries ago. In so doing, they send a message: that European-descended tastes are a fundamental truth rather than a set of arbitrary and contingent preferences, and that white cultural dominance is normative. Music is an art form and a craft, but it is also a discipline, a set of techniques and procedures, a technology of cultural power. The state and its laws are “only the terminal forms power takes,” the “institutional crystallization” of forces at play throughout all the hierarchies that make up a society (Foucault 1978, 92-93). Figures like Ellington are still exceptions, still special cases. When we accord him the full respect he is due, and learn to embrace his process as well as his product, we will send a very different message to students about the value of blackness in general. We will no longer legitimize contempt for blackness, or well-meaning condescension to it.


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12 thoughts on “Duke Ellington, Percy Grainger, and the status of jazz in the academy

  1. Bobby, requiring “serious” music to be “about” any particular thing or things seems to me problematic. The western classical tradition of Absolute music is (according to Wikipedia) “music that is not explicitly “about” anything”. That’s likely to include a lot of music that a lot of people take seriously.

    If your requirement is valid, I’ll just choose to take some music seriously on my own terms. Those terms would probably need to include that it stimulates me intellectually, emotionally or even physically. I think that any music that includes at least two of those characteristics would fit my own idea of music to be taken seriously.

    If you don’t agree, that’s okay with me, but I don’t like the idea of non-serious music not being “respectable”.

    • For music to be serious/respectable, there has to be depth to it. A rap song about pimping hoes has no depth and is not serious art. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be listened to, but it’s not worthy of serious academic study.
      A rock song about dancing (i.e. Twist and Shout) also is not really worthy of serious academic study.
      It’s just that a lot of rock has deep meaning, and most rap is just about sex and drugs, and most dance music is just about dancing.

      EDM may be fun for some people, but it’s not serious art the same way something like Stairway to Heaven or Livin on a Prayer is.

      Michael Jackson made a lot of very serious, artistic, music – like Stranger in Moscow, Childhood, or Billie Jean, but he also made a lot of meaningless fluff like Burn This Disco Out and Rock With You. They’re both good songs, but they’re not deeply meaningful.

  2. Music about dancing or sensuality is not respectable. Once it stops being about those things, it becomes respectable.

    • What exactly is wrong with dancing or sensuality?

      It’s a deep sickness of Western culture that we’ve divorced music from dance, and that we loathe our own bodies so intensely. Many traditional world cultures don’t even have separate words for “music” and “dance” because there’s no meaningful separation between the two concepts.

      • Sorry for the late response.

        It’s not inherently wrong, it’s just not artistically serious. Serious art addresses deep and meaningful themes, and “shake your butt” is not a deep and meaningful theme.

        Some rock is serious music, like this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShWruNoMDx0). It addresses deep and meaningful themes like isolation/alienation

        Some rock is not really serious, like this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbzhtEyVOU8) That doesn’t make it a bad song, it just means it’s enjoyable fluff instead of serious art.

        • Dismissing social dance as not being “deep” or “serious” points to the soul-deadening emptiness that’s endemic to our culture. Joy and connection are as profound as isolation and alienation. There’s plenty of deep art about isolation and alienation, but there’s also plenty of vacuous whining. And there’s plenty of shallow and vapid dance music, but it’s also where the best music comes from, with Duke Ellington as a case in point.

          • There are a lot of beautiful and serious songs about joy and connection, such as “If I Could” by Ray Charles.

            “If I could
            I would teach you
            All the things
            I’ve never learned
            And I’d help you
            Cross the bridges
            That I’ve burned”

            It’s about connection, and love for another person, and it’s a deep message.

            “Celebrate good times come on” is a well-crafted, catchy song, but it’s not deep and serious the way “If I Could” is.

  3. Hi – I don’t know if you are aware that Lambert (a composer first and foremost, then a conductor, and after that a writer and critic) consistently championed Ellington. The two struck up a close friendship when Ellington visited the UK. Spike Hughes recalled: “When the Duke first came here in [July] 1933 I don’t think that he and I and Constant ever went to bed at all. We used to go to little night clubs, real sort of night clubs in Soho with an iron door and a hole and southern fried pork chops, and we sat there always until dawn”. (From ‘Constant Lambert Remembered’, 1966). During one of those nights out Ellington was inspired by a comment from Lambert’s wife Flo to write “Rude Interlude” https://twitter.com/i/web/status/885433972666363908. I would also encourage you to listen to Lambert’s own jazz-related compositions, particularly the short piano piece Elegiac Blues (which he dedicated to Florence Mills) and the more ambitious Concerto for Piano and Nine Players (1931).

  4. Thanks for this very thoughtful and incisive contribution to a worthy topic. Any time you visit Melbourne I’ll happily escort you to the fascinating Grainger museum. BTW, I think I picked up a small error: the British critic was Constant, not Constance, Lambert.

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