- Ralph Ellison’s Righteous Riffs: Jazz, Democracy, and the Sacred
I am not particularly religious, but I am claimed by music.—Ralph Ellison, “Living with Music” (1955)
I don’t know what it was, some kinda church song, I guess. All I know is I ends up singin’ the blues.—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
We were rebirthed dancing, we were rebirthed crying affirmation of the Word. . . . We stamped our feet at the trumpet’s sound and we clapped our hands, ah, in joy! And we moved, yes, together in a dance, amen!—Ralph Ellison, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . (2010)
A recent public service advertisement from Americans for the Arts speaks suggestively to contemporary understandings of jazz music’s cultural value. Confronting a putative pandemic of American musical ignorance, the full-page print ad wonders rhetorically “Why Some People Think Duke Ellington Is a Member of the Royal Family,” then proceeds, in prose surrounding a portrait of Ellington in white tie and top hat, to address the composer’s “royal” status in remarkably ambivalent ways. “Kids don’t get enough art these days,” it begins. “They don’t have enough access to theater, poetry or jazz. So you can see why some kids might confuse a jazz legend named Duke with royalty named duke. But it’s time to set the record straight.” This lumping-together of jazz with poetry and theater under the rubric of High Art suggests already the gains and losses sustained by classic jazz in the age of its entrenched canonization, what we might call its “Ken Burns era.” It also paves the way for the royal treatment Ellington subsequently receives—or would receive, if not for the ad’s rhetorical inconsistency:
Hear ye, hear ye. His Royal Highness, Sir Duke. . . . He didn’t wear a crown. He didn’t rule over a small English state. Instead he ruled with an orchestra that blew the roof off the joint. He reigned over jazz institutions like Harlem’s Cotton Club. . . . By the time he was telling folks to “Take the ‘A’ Train,” Duke Ellington and his orchestra were sitting on the throne of jazz royalty.
“His Royal Highness”—not to be confused, remember, with “royalty named duke”—nonetheless “ruled,” “reigned,” and occupied “the throne of jazz royalty.” But if such a throne exists, then aren’t the uninitiated correct in supposing what the ad elsewhere implies is a false assumption, namely that Ellington belongs to a royal family?
This apparent self-contradiction betrays the often false and always slippery dichotomies in jazz discourse between the inertly iconic and the violently iconoclastic. Which, after all, is the true nature of the Ellington orchestra—did it lounge on its throne, or did it “blow the roof off the joint”? How can one square the ad’s praise of Ellington’s “nontraditional approach to jazz” with its offering of Ellington as jazz tradition incarnate? At stake here is the relation between the sacred (transcendent, authoritative, pure) and the profane (pedestrian, improvised, corrupt), categories that have long informed the reception of jazz, and which a careful study of the music can help to clarify. For what this ad does, finally, is to hail jazz’s profane, un-aristocratic status as a way of exalting and re-crowning a neglected jazz deity. Counterintuitively, its unabashedly secular status makes the music of Ellington and [End Page 185] his ilk culturally sacred; somehow not being a duke makes Ellington the Duke, his iconoclasm sealing his status as icon. His ethereal “throne” rests securely among the “gritty sound” of “growling trombones” and “sultry saxophone chords” that distinguish his music, which is still profane enough to be hip—Ellington appreciators, the ad assures us, make for “well-rounded, finger-snapping members of society, daddy-o”—yet so sacred that ignorance of Ellington constitutes a kind of sacrilege, a woeful blindness to the divine Word of jazz: a Word made flesh in the jazz pantheon where Duke sits, presumably, at the right hand of Louis Armstrong.
Of course, the ad’s ambivalent aims—to affirm Ellington’s canonicity and to make him fashionable for...