The Tragedy Of Duke Ellington, The ‘Black Prince Of Jazz’by John Hammond — 11/1/1935
A Musician of Great Talent Forsakes Simplicity for Pretension
Of all our native popular composers Duke Ellington is probably the most gifted and original. For more than ten years, he has been producing, with the aid of the most accomplished orchestra in America, songs and arrangements quite unlike those of any other musician, black or white. His work has been received with international acclamation, in some cases, less than it deserved and in a few, considerable more.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Ellington is a hard-working, ambitious individual. Confronted with the undiscriminating praise of critics like Constant Lambert, he felt it necessary to go out and prove that he could write really important music, far removed from the simplicity and charm of his earlier tunes. “Daybreak Express,” and “Rude Interlude.” were the first signs of this, but even they could not prepare us for the pretension of his new 12-minute work, “Reminiscing,” which Brunswick has just seen fit to release on two ten-inch records. The saddest part of the tale is that the composer considers it his most important contribution to the field of music.
The reasons for the complete sterility of this new opus are so numerous that it is difficult to know exactly where to begin. The most logical place would be with the Duke himself, since his life during the last eight years is almost the ideal example of what the modern composer, Negro or white should avoid at all costs.
As a person, Ellington is one of the most completely charming I have ever come across. His disposition is without rival among artists, for he has never been known to lose his temper or do conscious ill to anyone. He suffers abuse and exploitation with an Olympian calm and fortitude, never deigning to fight back or stand up for even his most elemental rights. Unpleasantness of any sort he flees from. He would greatly prefer not seeing the seamier side of existence and has spent most of his recent years in escaping from the harsh reality that faces even the most secure among negroes.
The Duke has been exploited in a way that is absolutely appalling to anyone not thoroughly conversant with the ethics of Broadway. Although he and his orchestra have earned between $5-and-$10 thousand a week consistently for the last eight years, he has received disgracefully little himself. His living habits are exceedingly modest for one in his position, and yet he has accumulated nothing.
Ellington is fully conscious of the fact that Broadway has not treated him fairly, knowing many of the sordid details. And yet, he did not lift a finger to protect himself because he has the completely defeatist outlook which chokes so many of the artists of his race.
It is easier to accept abuse without fighting back than to go through the unpleasantness of rows with associates. As a result, Duke has no time for rest and contemplation. He must be steadily on the run, hopping from one spot to the other in grinding out one night stands, picking up work when it can be had in theaters, and never getting down to any sustained labor. Since his music is losing the distinctive flavor it once had—both because of the fact he has added slick, un-negroid musicians to his band and because he himself is aping Tin Pan Alley composers for commercial reasons—he and his music are definitely losing favor with a once-idolatrous public. And unless there are definite changes very soon, he will be in a very precarious position.
Shuts His Eyes to Abuses
But the real trouble with Duke’s music is the fact that he has purposely kept himself from any contact with the troubles of his people or mankind in general. It would probably take a Granville Hicks or Langston Hughes to describe the way he shuts his eyes to the abuses being heaped upon his race and his original class. He consciously keeps himself from thinking about such problems as those of the southern share croppers, the Scottsboro boys, intolerable working and relief conditions in the North and South—although, he is too intelligent not to know that these all do exist. He has very real fears as to his own future, and yet, he has never shown any desire of aligning himself with forces that are seeking to remove the causes of these disgraceful conditions.
Consequently, Ellington’s music has become vapid and without the slightest semblance of guts. His newer stuff bears superficial resemblance to Debussy and Delius without any of the peculiar vitality that used to pervade his work. The Duke is afraid even to think about himself, his struggles and his disappointments, and that is why his “Reminiscing” is so formless and shallow a piece of music.
There is one extremely significant factor regardless of whatever worth there still exists in Ellington’s orchestra. the majority of the musicians do not accept unfair dealings with the equanimity of their leader. Within the past year, they have struck together twice in my knowledge and won their demands from an unwilling manager. Even the most highly paid among Harlem musicians do not forget the fact that they come from a race that has been traditionally exploited and that a determined fight has to be waged to preserve even their present status.