Ellington Hits 100 | The Nation


Ellington Hits 100

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With the exception of Gershwin, such Dvorak-inspired efforts, however, did not lead to music that was significantly more peculiar to the United States than was Dvorak's own. The subject matter was indigenous, to be sure, but the process of stylization was hardly less European than his. Indeed, it was as if American musical training was primarily geared toward putting American subject matter into the European canon. The concert hall status of the traditional Negro spirituals and gospel and jubilee songs was obviously enhanced by Dvorak's enthusiastic admiration, but, alas, even they were often Europeanized by conservatory-trained musicians. After all, European conventions of stylization were precisely what American musical training was all about.

About the Author

Albert Murray
Albert Murray is the author of, among other books, Stomping the Blues (De Capo) and the novels The Seven League Boots...

And yet within less than a generation of Dvorak's sojourn at the American conservatory there was American music that Europeans recognized as such and that had a universal appeal that was downright infectious. And it was clearly the employment of indigenous devices of stylization that led ever-so-sophisticated European musicians and theorists not only to admire it but also to place it in the context of avant-garde innovation rather than that of the homespun or the primitive.

Obviously the keyboard skill--nay, virtuosity--required to play the ragtime piano music of Scott Joplin, for instance, was not only beyond the level of primitive and folk musicians but also the precision of conservatory-trained musicians in America and Europe alike, who were very hard put to reproduce the subtleties of its idiomatic nuances even after careful study and rehearsal of the scores and the piano rolls of American musicians.

On the other hand, in the American musical context in which Duke Ellington grew up and formulated his vocational and professional objectives, the technical nuances of ragtime or Harlem stride piano were among the earliest challenges one had to learn to cope with, and as for the "Negro melodies" that so captivated Dvorak, they were as much a part of his everyday musical environment as were the idioms of everyday discourse.

Duke Ellington, né Edward Kennedy Ellington, the musician who was to become the composer who would process or stylize--which is to say extend, elaborate and refine--more indigenous American raw material into universally appealing fine art by means of idiomatic devices than any other, was born in Washington, DC, on April 29, 1899, six years after Dvorak's pronouncement preliminary to the premiere of the New World Symphony.

So in addition to the intricacies of ragtime keyboard technique as such, Ellington's musical context from the very outset of his apprenticeship (c. 1914) was one in which primary emphasis was placed on coming to terms with the vernacular music of New Orleans, the blues, vaudeville show tunes and novelties, and popular dance melodies. After all, the audiences that he was hoping to please were not in the great concert, recital and philharmonic halls. They were in the vaudeville and variety-show theaters, in dance halls, at parties, parlor socials, honky-tonks, after-hours joints and dives. Moreover, Ellington always used to point out that while some of his mentors were conservatory-trained, others who were no less formidable played by ear, and he was strongly influenced by both.

Such was the beginning context of the natural history of the sensibility of the musician whose idiomatic approach to composition would produce the largest body of works that amount to the musical equivalent of the representative verbal or literary anecdotes about the national character and attitudes toward life in the United States during the formative years of the twentieth century. By contrast, in most of the works of the most publicized of American concert hall­oriented composers, even such idiomatic subject matter as life in Appalachia or on the Mexican border, the world of the rodeo or New York's Central Park, the Louisiana bayous or the Great Plains, tends to sound more like European avant-garde experimentation than the extension, elaboration and refinement of American vernacular experience that has achieved the stylistic level of fine art. Nor does any of it amount to a significant or influential US export. In any case, Ellington's music was to win a sophisticated international following even as he began to receive national recognition as a popular entertainment star in the United States.

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