- Duke Ellington Studies ed. by John Howland
Few publications among the literature on Duke Ellington to have appeared in recent years—the output of which has burgeoned noticeably since this singular musician's centenary was celebrated in 1999—can claim to have shed as much light on their subject as the impressive collection of essays assembled by John Howland for his new symposium, Duke Ellington Studies. Many years in the making, the book was originally designed to complement Edward Green's The Cambridge Companion to Ellington (Cambridge, 2014), the latter pitched towards a more general readership as befits the remit of its particular series. In fact, both books are similarly rigorous in their scholarship (and Green had a significant hand in the initial planning of the Studies volume), and they can with great benefit be read side by side. Duke Ellington Studies is especially notable, however, for its engagement with an unusually wide range of contemporary issues in jazz studies, many of them interdisciplinary.
The four principal topics covered by the book are: (1) what the editor terms Ellington's 'relation to art and entertainment discourse'; (2) his international reputation and its consequences for his music; (3) the mechanics of the music itself, both in terms of his distinctive piano-playing and his far more celebrated compositional achievements; and (4) a particular and welcome focus on the latter stages of his career, which have generally received scant coverage in both popular and critical literature. More than one chapter is devoted to each of these distinctive areas of enquiry, though chapters on related topics are not necessarily contiguous: the book as a whole is instead organized in a broadly chronological structure, which means that the immediately relevant contexts of Ellington's life and works are always clear to the reader. The result of this simple strategy is that the book (rather unusually for an academic symposium of this kind) can meaningfully be read from cover to cover. It admirably succeeds in providing a rounded critical and biographical account of its subject that is likely to appeal as much to those with a general interest in jazz and its historiography as to more specialized readers engaging with the project's sometimes highly detailed analytical insights.
Phil Ford's opening chapter examines Ellington's persona as an entertainer, specifically as expressed through the medium of film between the two world wars. The composer's principal achievement here is seen not as a jettisoning of the racial stereotypes that blighted so much popular entertainment of the time, but his development instead of a more wholesome typecasting in the shape of a mythic African American pageantry primarily enacted through 'the suffering, laboring, or performing black body' (p. 4). This is followed by John Howland's own contribution, which explores at some length how Ellington (with a good deal of assistance from his agents, managers, and critics) soon cultivated a more sophisticated image as a composer who deserved to be accorded the kind of respect traditionally bestowed on his counterparts in the classical arena, while at the same time occupying an emergent and uniquely middlebrow aesthetic territory.
Ellington's reception outside the United States is covered in chapters by Catherine Tackley and Carl Woideck. Tackley provides a straightforward historical overview of Ellington's various tours to the United Kingdom: the most important of these were in 1933, 1958, and the performances of the Sacred Concerts in 1966–7 and 1973. A visit in 1948, when Ellington came without his band in order to circumvent the restrictions on appearances by American musicians which were then in force, is less well known, but the author argues that it represented a significant transition from his former variety-theatre appearances to a clear preference for more respectable concert-hall venues (albeit at this stage situated in the provinces rather than the metropolis). The altogether different cultural significance of the first of Ellington's two visits to Africa, in 1966, is explored by Woideck, who assesses exactly what the continent might have...