The Long-Playing Duke

But most of the shots were fired, unbelievably, from the jazz world. Ellington always insisted, "I don't believe in categories of any kind." In transcending boundaries, however, he alienated many listeners he initially attracted. He took critical lumps every decade from pundits who judged his latest work a decline from the masterpieces that were also once decried as failures. Furious with lexicological critics who kept trying to lash him to the latest definition of jazz and then thundered in condemnation when he wriggled free, he defined jazz loosely ("an American idiom with African roots") or not at all: "Jazz is only a word and has no meaning...I don't know how such great extremes as now exist can be contained under the one heading."

Still, if Ellington's music stands apart, it is inseparable from jazz principles and always exhibits some or all of jazz's standard characteristics: an equation of composition and improvisation, robust swing rhythms, dance-band instrumentation, blues or pop-song frameworks, blues tonality. Jazz is a music of improvisation, and improvisers of genius—Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker—have been able to recast it in their own idioms. But no instrumentalist experimented so constantly and variously for so long as Ellington did with his orchestra. Calling him a bandleader is like calling Bach an organist—which is, of course, precisely how both were known to their contemporaries. Ellington was his orchestra's composer, arranger, conductor, pianist, talent scout, entertainer, agent, nursemaid, and advocate. He bristled at condescension of any kind, particularly the sort that disguised racial sociology as music criticism. In responding to a patronizing article by Winthrop Sargeant, Ellington expressed dismay at the notion that "jazz doesn't encompass such emotions as tragedy, romantic nostalgia, wonder, delicate shades of humor, et cetera," and continued: "Most of all, I was struck by Mr. Sargeant's concluding statement, that given a chance to study, the Negro will soon turn from boogie-woogie to Beethoven. Maybe so, but what a shame!"

A recent problem has been uneven documentation by the record companies. Ellington's most acclaimed period is the early 1940s, the years Billy Strayhorn, Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton, and Ray Nance joined up. Given carte blanche at Victor, Ellington enjoyed enormous record sales in those years, and he produced one benchmark after another. A record consumer in the '50s and '60s could buy anthologies on the order of In a Mellow Tone, At His Very Best, or Things Ain't What They Used To Be, and know that in each instance he or she was getting 16 superb tracks. In the age of completism, you are asked to invest in the triple-disc Blanton-Webster Band with the admittedly small amount of chaff restored (including the first cut!) and no creativity or logic in the sequencing of 66 tracks (we won't discuss the sound). The consumer is now expected to do the work of the a&r person.

Needless to say, I'm of mixed mind about all this. I want the complete works and, indeed, exultantly purchased them when, in the '70s, French RCA issued 24 LPs covering 1927–1952 and French CBS released 16 LPs covering 1925–1937. But I don't play them as much as I do the good anthologies and I suspect that the absence of those anthologies explains why so many are daunted by the Ellington labyrinth. Ellington has become received wisdom, like Shakespeare, certain to make you a better person if you take the trouble. Trouble? To listen to Duke? Go put on "Sepia Panorama" and see if the opening passage doesn't make you glow, then go to "Conga Brava" and consider how he might have flourished in hip-hop America. This stuff is so alive you can scarcely believe the recording dates. "Rockin' in Rhythm": 1928! "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing": 1932! The Far East Suite: 1966!

RCA Victor has just released a $400 limited edition 24-disc box, containing all of the label's Ellington, 1927–1973, with acceptable fidelity—vivid if a bit trebly on the early material, more luxurious on the later work. Ellingtonians will gratefully gorge themselves. But it will be a poor birthday celebration if, when breaking the box into separate components, the separate volumes stick to chronology. Once again, the label messed with the incomparable And His Mother Called Him Bill, though not as badly as on the 1987 CD. This time it's properly sequenced except for an inexplicable alternate take of "Raincheck," but spread over two discs; with sensible sequencing, the entire original LP would have fit on the one disc, ending with the unforgettably lachrymose "Lotus Blossom," as intended. Pray the labyrinth is rethought before it is opened to the general public. Columbia, which has more to answer for because it keeps more out of print, is about to issue several 1950s Ellington LPs. Rumor has it that Sony has mucked up the marvelous chimera created by Ellington and producer George Avakian in combining studio recordings with live material to recreate the excitement of the concert (advance not available); but it will include the Voice of America tape of the actual event, unearthed by Avakian years ago and never previously released. The Columbia advance discs I have heard are very solid, with the original LPs kept intact (including the mighty Such Sweet Thunder and the long undervalued Anatomy of a Murder), and numerous alternate takes and bonuses placed at the end.

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