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Sunday, January 23, 2005


Duke Ellington was famously diplomatic; his incredibly charming memoir, "Music Is My Mistress," contains scarcely a cross word for anybody. One of the few public imbroglios of his 50-year very public career was with George Gershwin, whose "Porgy and Bess" he allegedly dissed in terms not unlike criticisms made by Virgil Thomson. I say allegedly because Ellington denied making the criticism and accused the reporter who quoted him of lying. The one point he admitted to making was that Gershwin's music was not in the Negro idiom as the subject matter demanded. This is very close to Thomson's critique that the opera is fake folklore about people perfectly capable of expressing their own folklore themselves.

Almost 40 years later, when Ellington wrote his memoir, he had nothing but praise for Gershwin -- though praise of a possibly sly sort. Lavishly complimenting Gershwin's temperament and character, he neglects to mention Gershwin's music, except to say how proud he was to hear that Gershwin had told Oscar Levant he wished he had written the bridge to Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady." Not that Duke's avowal of flattery wasn't necessarily sincere. It's just, hmmm.

What intrigues me more about Duke's memoir is who gets left out. The narrative chapters are broken up by profiles of Duke's band members, friends, colleagues, relatives. He calls these mini-essays "Dramatis Felidae" -- "Cast of Cats." Glowing sketches of Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Fletcher Henderson, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Rushing, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, many more. Every widely-remembered Harlem stride pianist of the 1920s but one gets heaps of praise, as does Duke's co-noble-swing-band champ Count Basie. The one exception: nowhere is Count's teacher and major influence Fats Waller mentioned. Surely he and Duke crossed paths in the small world of top-flight 1920s New York jazz composers and stride pianists. Fats, five years Duke's junior, was a successful Broadway songwriter in the '20s, while Duke never succeeded in his lifelong ambition to conquer Broadway. Hmmm.

By 1926 Duke Ellington was a top-flight jazz composer and already an unparalleled bandleader, two reputations he continued to build for the next 47 years in an unparalleled career. In 1971, at the age of 72, he was making the most dissonant music of his life, on the spectacular album "Afro-Eurasian Eclipse," some of which is set to a rock and roll beat. Speculation on characterological enigmas on the margins of his public pronouncements is just so much gossip. His music -- that's the thing. And if you want charming gossip along with deeply felt memoir, his book is great too.

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