John Clare Writings

The Phoney Duke

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When you feel you have very little time the deepest enthusiasms of your life – those which embody whatever meaning your life has had – sometimes intensify in an extraordinary blending of immediate pleasure (visceral and emotional), memory, and what can seem like a column of freezing white adrenalin, like cirrus clouds soaring in flawless blue, pressing ice chips into you; thrills of fear. Be adrenalin white, transparent or invisible matters not: this is an experience beyond physical categories which takes you up within its imagined beam towards unimaginable space. Perhaps into the quantum world, where subatomic particles behave  differently. Diagrams exist, indicating the existence of particles that are also wave forms, but they give no sense of the substance of the other world.

While algebra is in a sense abstract we are accustomed to see it used to solve visualised problems, and it is a process in which one thing stands in for another. Still, no sense of the substance of the other world. Mathematics will not give us that. Voices, knockings in the dark, objects hurled against a wall: these give no sense either, except it seems rather empty and soulless, populated by quite irksome spirits.  Enough. Or perhaps there is the nothingness of real death. Or so I’d like to think. It struck me a moment ago that Duke Ellington had died at my present age of 75. I know that several great ones listened to nothing else in their last year or so. Gil Evans comes to mind. Miles Davis, for whom Evans had written arrangements at the highest level (Miles Ahead, Birth Of The Cool, Porgy & Bess, Sketches Of Spain, Summer Nights) said that on a certain day all musicians should get down on their knees and thank Duke Ellington. Well, myself I listen to a great deal as well as Ellington, but I know what it is: genius, the substance of this life. I recognise it, and I know that there are often within  a genius two contrasting streams of characteristics. Here was the music in the air: delicate, surging, overwhelming, subtle, deep, at play, as full of tonal intrigue as Debussy, Bartok and the rest of my favourites; and as full of rhythmic force and variety.

Sometimes the music was a passage of weaving murmurs, of  low register saxophones, a floating transparent trombone, a trombone choir, cicatrices of clarinet as bright as silver. Colours you rarely heard in music: sepia, sienna, umber. Sometimes it was like a furnace blast, a roaring wall of dissonance. The trumpets screamed in ecstacy. Sometimes it was blithe, sometimes melancholy. Sometimes the saxophones ran with the joy and upward tension of ocean waves. All of it appearing with absolute certainty. With a unique play of percussion, piano and bass

Yet, when his co arranger and composer Billy Strayhorn died he recorded some of the younger man’s works with one of the great chapters of the band… and… well, he called  it And his Mother Called Him Bill….What! This is the show biz Ellington, the purple, the disingenuous, the leader the band called The Phoney Duke (and he knew it).

His father was a well enough liked servant of  comfortably set up white people who passed on clothes and books to him, some of which were given to the son. And this is likely a source of the grand ducal airs; of a vocabulary that sometimes turned purple. Another source was his sincere faith and equally serious superstitions. A book and subsequent TV programme created by the Duke was called A Drum Is A Woman. Yes, terrible. He was deeply religious and as sincerely superstitious, but most of his sacred music is awful, and I don’t mean awe-inspiring. Come Sunday is a masterpiece of suspended sunlight, but that is a religious interlude within a suite evoking many aspects of black American life. When this theme appears in the suite it is sometimes played by Ray Nance’s violin and Johnny Hodges’s alto saxophone. These musicians were two of the greatest spontaneous melodists of all. Suspended sunlight? Hodges could glide in slow motion up through every microtone of a single note so that it sounded like the sun rising.

Many titles were perfect. ‘Harlem Air Shaft’, ‘Happy Go Lucky Local’, ‘Rain Check’ (by Strayhorn in fact), ‘Creole Love Call’, ‘Daybreak Express’, ‘A Tone Parallel To Harlem’, ‘The Clothed Woman’. The first recordings  heard were on 10″ LPs from the late forties and early fifties. Yes, some of the titles were dubious.  ‘Transblucency’, ‘Lady Of The Lavender Mist’, ‘On A Turquoise Cloud’, ‘Magenta Haze’. It could seem that the Duke had entered his proto psychedelic phase. But there were also ‘New York City Blues’ and ‘Hiya Sue’. Perhaps it should be remembered that I was in my early to mid teens when I heard this music (in the early to mid 1950s). To me it was all magic. It came from somewhere far from Essendon and The Mighty Bombers (not that Melbourne and its institutions did not mean a great deal to me. Most of the time!) ‘Happy Go Lucky Local’ is possibly the greatest program music written. One meaning of program music is a direct musical imitation of some natural or mechanical phenomenon, rather than an evocation or expression of feeling inspired by some such phenomena. Of course if the imitation is felicitous it is also evocative. 

There is an elegant photo of the phoney Duke early in the 20th century, wearing a top hat like Fred Astaire. He was very popular, therefore he was in show business. This could send his language purple, but it did not stop him aiming for the highest musical standards. Some of these late forties tracks were a strange combination of the mysterious and exotic and  intense nostalgia like the embers of a fire. Curiously there is something magnetic about this for a teenager and this is when I first heard them.

While the Duke travelled the world and can be heard as a musician of the world he is also sublimely the essence of New York: the two rivers, the bridges. Uptown and Downtown, bohemia and monied sophistication. When I was in New York I walked back across the Brooklyn Bridge after visiting Queens where my uncle Charles Valentine was born. I looked up at the two towers on the hill against the sky. They were soon gone. Ellington seemed to be still there.

Ellington was superior yet often kind to his musicians. He paid one man’s mother’s hospital bill. He subsidised another’s drinking. The Duke would have made more money if he had quit touring – an expensive business with a large band – and lived on the royalties from his songs and jazz compositions. No “The band is my instrument,” he said. He composed not just for an instrumentation, but for a group of highly individualistic players. Some were still in the band or in it again when he died. One of the last two albums – The Afro Eurasian Eclipse – features  a number of them, including baritone saxophonist Harry Carney who was there almost at the beginning. Carney was 18 then and Ellington had to get his parents’ permission to take him on the road. He remained one of the Duke’s best friends. I met him in the ABC studios, a warm and dignified but relaxed gentleman. I saw the orchestra twice in London and three times in Australia – once in the old Sydney stadium where the stage revolved and the roof was corrugated iron. They sounded magnificent there as they did everywhere. In the row behind me sat Bob Bertles and Stewart Speer. And all the members of Max Merritt And The Meteors, a leading rock band of the time. I have to say the band sounded great as soon as they started, but when Ellington appeared and touched the piano something else happened. I mean something else.

It seems that Ellington only ever fired one musician – the bassist/composer Charles Mingus, who produced his knife when he heard Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol complain, “These niggers can’t play in tune.” Tizol thought they were making a hash of his tune  which they’d played many times before. The volatile Chaz Mingus (who was part Chinese, part Negro) chased him across the stage. They both leaped over Ellington’s Piano.  With one quizzical glance overhead the unflappable if phoney Duke played on immaculately.

Incidentally there is of course a Count of Basie as well as a Duke of Ellington, along with assorted Earls etc. This satisfies some English folk that  the Americans sorely miss having an aristocracy. They have one, of wealth and accomplishment.      

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