An American Arc from Emerson to Ellington

Comments   0   Date Arrow  August 14, 2023 at 6:00am   User  by Mark Willis

Duke Ellington in 1963. [Photo by John Pratt/Keystone Features-Getty Images/NYT]

One of my great joys in listening to Radio Open Source is Christopher Lydon’s reliable insight into the cultural resonance of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I never imagined a connection between Emerson and Duke Ellington until Lydon traced it in an interview with Ellington biographer Harvey Cohen:

Who was Duke Ellington, really, without the music? I say he was the Ralph Waldo Emerson of the 20th Century — the affirming genius of a specially American democratic energy. Emerson, like Ellington, was both blues man and enthusiast, a definer of public style and inner ecstasies. Ellington, like Emerson, was a lonely, compulsive composer better known as an itinerant performance artist. It intrigues me that Ellington and Emerson were both towering individualists, each set in his own band of eccentric voices: Ellington in his orchestra, Emerson in the Concord circle.  Both would be remembered as enablers if they had created nothing themselves. It is fun to think of Johnny Hodges, the alto saxophone star, as Ellington’s Hawthorne, or of co-composer Billy Strayhorn as Duke’s Walt Whitman. Or of Herman Melville as Emerson’s version of Ben Webster or Charles Mingus.

Albert Murray, in Stomping the Blues and elsewhere, helped me feel the giant scale of Ellington’s achievement, up there with the Henry James class of American immortals. “Those who regard Ellington as the most representative American composer have good reason,” Murray writes. “Not unlike Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner in literature, he quite obviously has converted more of the actual texture and vitality of American life into first rate, universally appealing music than anybody else.”

You can hear echoes of Emerson’s “American scholar” address in Harvey Cohen’s take on the connection:

Before World War II, here in the United States, if you were teaching at a college, as I do, it was dangerous to your career to teach courses about American art, American music, American literature — because it was not held up as anything respectable. Everybody knew at that time that European culture was the kind of culture that everybody should aspire to, and that American culture, especially African-American culture, was second-rate or worse.

What I argue in the book is that Ellington was a primary influence in getting Americans to accept their own art as something serious and lasting. He did it by broadcasting his music on the radio from the Cotton Club in the late 1920?s, which really changed the definition of African-American music. His extended pieces really expanded what Americans expected from African-Americans.

Also when Ellington went on tour for the first time after the Cotton Club, he toured on a theater circuit. People were listening to the Ellington Orchestra while sitting down, as in a theater or at a classical concert. To us today this is not so striking. But back in the day, in the context of the 1930s, it was huge.

According to Lydon:

Harvey Cohen’s jam-packed Duke Ellington’s America makes it a great long season of jazz biographies — after Robin Kelley’s Thelonious Monk and Terry Teachout’s Pops.

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