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Suite History, Part 1: Michael McGerr on Duke Ellington

Historian Michael McGerr discusses Ellington's musical portrayals of the African-American experience.

Michael McGerrOur guest on this week’s Night Lights program Suite History is Michael McGerr, a historian and professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. Michael, author of the book A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, frequently teaches a course at IU on American popular music in the 20th century. He has a particular passion and expertise for Duke Ellington, one of the three composers whose music is featured in Suite History, and he can be heard in two previous WFIU documentaries that I produced, Jump For Joy: Duke Ellington’s Celebratory Musical and Bix Beiderbecke: Never the Same Way Twice. Here’s part one of the interview that I did with Michael for this week’s Night Lights show:

DBJ: James P. Johnson had undertaken extended compositions, starting in the 1920s and into the 30s—probably most notably “Yamekraw,” and his opera Da Organizer has recently been unearthed. Ellington had been moving towards Black, Brown and Beige, really, I think, since “Creole Rhapsody” in 1931—

MM: Before that.

DBJ:–what were the contemporary forces—obviously there were individual forces with the composers themselves—but what’s in the air in the 1920s and 30s that’s driving them to undertake these kinds of works? Which I think were fairly unprecedented

MM: Ellington emerged to fame in New York City in the 1920s in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance, this period, this burst of artistic creativity in the African-American community. And poets, writers, others who were exploring the black experience and laying the foundation for a more assertive cultural presence in the United States—I think Ellington was inspired by that. But he also was sui generis. You can’t think of another African-American musician who from such a young age, so early in his career, was so consistently interested in exploring what he would later call “social significance” thrusts—the use of the music to push for, to thrust against opposition for the cause of social change.

DBJ: What were some of the precedents, musical and otherwise, that he had for Black, Brown and Beige in African-American culture? Were there previous musical works by Will Marion Cook, or books, or any sort of specific precedents that might have influenced Black, Brown and Beige?

MM: Ellington did have some predecessors. Certainly the great Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson had been interested in writing more directly about the black experience…James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook, leaders of black ragtime and creators of black orchestras in the 1910s and 1920s, were interested in those things too. And of course Scott Joplin had written that last opera, Treemonisha, which never quite happened in his lifetime as he had hoped. But I have to say, as an academic, that you can get too academic-y about Ellington’s background and what inspired him. He was creative and he sensed an opportunity to write about black history, and black aspirations, and do it in a way that could be commercially acceptable. Which is why he could bring his projects to fruition, why he could keep doing this and truly not offend people…while moving toward this majestic statement about black history in the midst of World War II—Black, Brown and Beige, a very long piece. And you can say he wanted to be like a classical composer, but as many critics have pointed out, a piece like Black, Brown and Beige isn’t a classical symphony. It doesn’t owe a lot to classical form, except that it’s much longer than the standard two-and-a-half minute, three-minute 78 rpm record of the time.

DBJ: But even just undertaking a structure like that seems to be making a statement that “our music and our history and our humanity is worth as much as white people’s history and humanity.”

MM: Absolutely, and that’s also why Ellington was so interested in appearing at what had been considered one of the bastions of classical music such as Carnegie Hall in New York, where he staged these famous concerts in the mid-1940s, and where he helped to premiere Black, Brown and Beige. Absolutely, but he also wanted acceptance for a message that most other black jazz artists of the time weren’t quite comfortable making. And so he has this combination of a yearning for respectability, but a desire to do something radical that wasn’t the standard thing at all.

DBJ: Well, it’s really interesting to look at the context of the concert. It was Ellington’s debut at Carnegie Hall. He’d just finished making a contribution to the film Cabin in the Sky—in fact, he initially was supposed to perform at Carnegie in October of 1942, and it was postponed in part because he was doing the film—which is a film that seems to be considered a little bit problematic in a lot of ways, but is still a major black film of the early 1940s. And the concert was for Russian War Relief—which was a cause that within (laughs) several years would not be looked back upon so positively. It’s fascinating to me, the kind of environment that this was launched in.

MM: Ellington was stunningly able to put up with chaos, it seems to me. He had, like all of us, the advantages of his disadvantages and vice-versa. The fact that Ellington had such a popular band that he could use as an instrument meant not only that he had a group of people to play his music, but it also meant that he had a kind of continuous visibility in the culture that other black musicians didn’t tend to have. The downside of that for him, the disadvantage, was that he had to run this band. And it meant that Black, Brown and Beige was, in the end, a very hurried piece of work. He was still working on it to the end, he had the themes but he was still struggling with many of the transitions—the things that he needed to make this a very effective long piece. He paid a price for it at Carnegie Hall. It was a big, splashy event, but there were critics who reacted adversely to the very raw, hurried nature of the piece.

DBJ: Is that part of why there was a generally hostile critical reaction to it, or were there other factors at play, do you think, in 1943? Why it didn’t go over well with the New York critics?

MM: I think Ellington, like a lot of popular artistic figures, maybe even sports figures and politicians too, suffered the consequences of his own build-up. By the time he played at Carnegie Hall he’d been a star for 15 years, he’d been a critical darling for that period of time. He was built up to the point where people’s expectations were ratcheted very high. I don’t think he really suffered a backlash because of the content of Black, Brown and Beige. It’s interesting—nobody said, “How dare you write about black history.” What they responded to more was the notion that he was placing himself with classical musicians by writing something seemingly symphonic. And by that standard, then, critics were going to want to criticize him. And yet the thing that was most daring, really, was to say, “I want to make the history of my own people the center of my music, in an open way.” And that didn’t get condemned.

DBJ: In other ways that concert seems to have been a success. Although it’s kind of routinely looked back upon now as—it seems like a lot of attention that gets paid to it in 1943 is, “Oh, the critics didn’t like it.” But it was sold out, and it led to annual appearances by Ellington at Carnegie throughout the 1940s, and at each concert he introduced a new, extended work. This was practically expected of him—which just makes me think in some ways this concert went over better than perhaps we’ve thought of how it went over today.

MM: I think that you’re right, and it did exactly that. It established him on a new level, as a respectable artistic figure who was worthy of the kind of adulation of a classical musician—but also who had a kind of national, political significance that…with that Carnegie concert, he weds a classical setting to black themes. And it makes it possible for him to become a frequent writer about just those themes again. And he would write New World a-Coming, The Liberian Suite, Harlem—about the black community in New York—My People, and on and on. And he would do it on an increasingly world stage, in part for just the things that he had established at that concert in New York at Carnegie Hall in ’43.

DBJ: Ellington also later remarked that it was around this time that he stopped calling his music “jazz.” Do you think that was influenced to some extent by the kind of critical reaction that he got at Carnegie? Or just his overall desire to be working in a—to have his music received as music and not as something that critics could see only through a jazz lens?

MM: I think that’s true. Ellington was like a number of creative musicians and creative artists who don’t like being pigeonholed, who feel that they’re being trapped somehow when they’re given a label and forced to perform within it, and to remain consistent within it. And Ellington was a tricky guy. He was affable and outgoing, but he used those qualities to hold people at arm’s length. In the same way, he wanted to say that his music was, as he put it, “beyond category,” and that was some of the highest praise that he had for anything, that it was beyond category. Because he felt that those categories, those terms like jazz were becoming imprisoning. I certainly think his reaction to critics, to the criticism that he had gotten from some critics, was part of the reason for that—an attempt to escape them. So it’s wrapped up in his personality and it’s wrapped up in his situation.

DBJ: He returned to this suite several times throughout his career—he went into the studio to record it in 1944 when the recording ban ends—a very shortened version of it—he continues to perform parts of it live throughout the mid-1940s…he goes back and does it again in 1958, without Johnny Hodges but with Mahalia Jackson…and then a recording that you hipped me to, he goes back in the mid-1960s and has another go at it. What kept bringing him back to it? For 25 years, really.

MM: I think that Ellington had more investment emotionally in Black, Brown and Beige, probably, than anything else he wrote—except perhaps his later sacred music. But I think it meant the most to him, I think he was bothered by the criticism that somehow it lacked form …plus, he was ahead of his time. He certainly was technologically, in that the recording industry really thought of jazz in three-minute bursts. And the only way he could record Black, Brown and Beige commercially in the 1940s was in this set of short bursts, which only gave you little tastes of what Black, Brown and Beige was, instead of this whole experience that he’d created. So he had good reasons to go back to it, because he knew, on some level, that it needed to be better, that the transitions in it hadn’t worked as well as they might—but also because he wanted the recognition he thought it deserved, and that it hadn’t gotten—in part because of the limits of the recording industry.

(To be continued. In the second half of this interview, Michael McGerr talks about the precedent that Black, Brown and Beige set, and the extended works of Oliver Nelson, John Carter, and Wynton Marsalis.)

Photo of Michael McGerr from IU Home Pages

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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