"You know, Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, "Oh, yes, that's done like this. But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and I don't know what it is!" André Previn
Let's talk for moment about Duke Ellington. But more to the point let us think about a recent blog post by Maria Popova. She has three relatively new posts about Terry Teachout's biography of Duke Ellington. To my view--yes I am biased and completely agree with Miles Davis's assertion that "all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington" at least once a year-- her excitement over Teachout's book seems to have brought out an almost tabloid-like focus on aspects of Ellington's private life and compositional method in her review. In full disclosure, I have not read Mr. Teachout's book yet, but hope to very soon.
Popova asks, "Is genius a mosaic of "magpie like borrowings"?" She then goes on to assert--through selected pull quotes from Teachout's work-- that Ellington was, fundamentally a plagiarist, stealing from his musicians and seldom giving attribution or royalty fees. Picasso once said "good artists copy but great artists steal." For me there is an important distinction being made here: when you "steal" something, you want it for keeps and no matter the consequences. Copying, akin to "borrowing," suggests a more lackadaisical approach: you look from a distance, appreciate the sound, but you don't make it fully yours. The level of commitment, artistically speaking, is different. Stealing, on the other hand, implies you're wrestling with the thing, getting to know it intimately, and paying some dues to keep it and apply it. You become that captivated by it.
Ellington was a great artist, in the Picasso sense, and so were most of the men in his band. The music they played, Jazz, Swing, Stride, whatever you label their highly emotive and improvised musings, existed and still exists, in an environment founded on the purloining of phrases. And I might add, a very prideful purloining it is. The stealing of phrases from players' solos is a very important way for a Jazz musician to a) pay homage to their mentors and b) to show that they have studied their craft and c) to give a sense of where they have come from, who their influences are. It is the way in which an improvisor learns their craft and, ultimately, develops their own language.
Billy Strayhorn, Ellington's long time collaborator, pointed out that "Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is his band. Each member of the band is to him a distinctive tone color and set of emotions, which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing, which I like to call the Ellington Effect. Of course Ellington would be listening closely, learning the "language" of each player and weaving it into his arrangements, crafting tunes from it, making it his own for his band to play. He had the vision and devoted his life energies to this endeavor. Add to this, that we are talking about an African American art form. Mentorship plays no small role in this community as does the oral tradition. The cry of "plagiarism," which as we know in this digital world we now live in, has the similar effect as crying"Wolf" did for Aesop's crowd: one needs to dig a bit and separate out things like time, culture, and performance practices before labeling Ellington's work, as Popova does, a "failure of creative integrity."
It is interesting to note that many early music practices--and I'm thinking as early as Medieval chant--were based on oral traditions and heavy "borrowing" (hopefully "stealing"). This corpus of work is considered as foundational to the history and practice of Western European music. Was Ellington practicing "centonization"? Sometimes described in music history (dealing specifically with European music history that is) as an "archaic" form of composition, it is the process of using formulaic patterns to connect disparate musical thoughts together, either in the moment (as Sonny Rollins does brilliantly) or in a more formal manner, such as writing it down on manuscript paper.
I believe that Ellington was a genius of "centonization." Moreover, keeping a band together, mind you a big band, performing, recording and touring for more than fifty years, pre and post-British Invasion, is a feat that very few sane people would undertake. Ellington may not have given attribution, but how do you give attribution to eight notes, or twelve bars? You listen to the record and hear Barney Bigard play a few notes so lovingly that you think that was written just for him, and only him, to play. Well, it was and it is. In a sense that is the attribution, or a tribute to his sound and manner of playing: Duke had to capture it and he had to make a song out of it. That band was truly a melting pot of ideas. A complicated one to be sure, and without a doubt there were grievances, but listen to the Ellington band and hear the collective genius at work led by The Genius, Duke Ellington. It is the music that matters.
Ellington's concern is with the individual musician, and what happens when they put their musical characters together." Billy Strayhorn
Duke Ellington's America by Harvey G. Cohen (2010, University of Chicago Press). Delves boldly and authoritatively into all things Ellington and the complex relationship between him and Irving Mills.
Gregorian Chant by Willi Apel (1958. Bloomington: Indiana University Press). Sharp focus lens on Gregorian chant and all of its workings.
Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu (1997: Northpoint Press). Very intimate and thorough portrait of a very special man and musician--one gets a glimpse of how the "Ellington Effect" was achieved.
Music of the Middle Ages by David Fenwick Wilson (1990, New York: Schirmer Books)
Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Jazz Improvisation by Paul F. Berliner ( 1994, University of Chicago Press). Highly recommended tome on how Jazz is learned and passed on, to put it very simply.