Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

21 OCTOBER, 2013

Duke Ellington’s Artistry and Artifice: How the Jazz Icon Engineered His Own Image


“Ellington [was] a combination of Sir Galahad, Scrooge, Don Quixote, and God knows what other saints and sinners that were apt to pop out of his ever-changing personality.”

Much like Freud engineered his own myth and Salinger crafted his personal legend, jazz icon Duke Ellington — whose funeral was witnessed by 10,000 people in the pews at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, another 2,500 listening outside via loudspeakers, and thousands more tuned into the live radio broadcast, even prompting President Nixon to take a timeout from Watergate and praise “America’s foremost composer” — sculpted his public image with meticulous, obsessive, almost paranoid precision. In Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (public library), writer, playwright, librettist, and Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout sets out to lift the veneer of Ellington’s polished public persona and uncover the mysterious complexity of Duke’s private person. Though Teachout — who also penned Pops, the excellent 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong — calls his biography “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis” for its collaging of existing research, interviews, and materials, don’t let his humility deceive you: This is a masterwork of dimensional insight into an icon who sought to flatten and flatter himself as much as possible and to shroud his exceptional artistry in exceptional artifice, a man woven of paradoxes, who, consumed by his chronic failings of private self-control, exerted his every faculty on controlling his public image. And yet, somehow, Teachout manages to peel away these protective layers and expose the flawed human being beneath them by elevating rather than diminishing Ellington’s humanity, enriching rather than discrediting his legacy.

Even though he surrounded himself with a formidable entourage of deft PR custodians, he was ultimately his own best publicist — a man who employed the same charisma that made him an incredible entertainer in making his off-stage image as credible as possible, despite its assiduous artifice and methodical manipulation. Teachout writes:

That was Ellington’s way. He talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself. Even Ruth, his adoring younger sister, said that he “definitely wasn’t direct. He wasn’t direct with anybody about anything.” Yet he talked so fluently and impressively that nearly everyone believed him, save for those who had reason to know better.

Behind closed doors: Composing at the Dorchester, his favorite London hotel, in 1963. Unposed offstage photos of Ellington are comparatively rare. He went out of his way to shape his public image to his liking—and to keep his private life out of the papers

His publicists — who dubbed him “Harlem’s Aristocrat of Jazz” — took great care to echo and amplify the image Duke himself was projecting, pitching him not only as a mere jazzman but as a true artist bearing the seal of approval of the era’s glitterati. They issued actual publicity manuals that were sent out to the managers of theaters and ballrooms where Ellington performed. One read:

Sell Ellington as a great artist, a musical genius whose unique style and individual theories of harmony have created a new music. . . . Ellington’s genius as a composer, arranger and musician has won him the respect and admiration of such authorities as Percy Grainger, head of the department of music at the New York University; Basil Cameron, conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Leopold Stokowski, famed conductor of the celebrated Philadelphia Orchestra; Paul Whiteman, whose name is synonymous with jazz, and many others.

Ellington was especially attached to the idea of serving as a spokesperson for African Americans — an aspiration admirable enough on the surface, but only if unbridled from ego and self-inflation, something of which Ellington was far from innocent given the amount of personal publicity he poured into his objective. To support this goal of his, another publicity pamphlet emphasized his presentability in addition to his talent:

He is as genial as he is intelligent, always creates a good impression upon newspaper people with whom he comes in contact and invariably supplies them with good copy for their stories.

Ellington’s lifelong desire to “act on behalf of the race,” as he himself put it, was an expression of his own life’s contradictions — the son of a butler and the grandson of a slave, he carried himself with an air of regality; a high school dropout, he made a special effort to teach himself the etiquette and manners of high society. Teachout notes the effect of this deliberate application:

For all his polish, it was his artistry, not his personality, that was the source of his enduring appeal. But it was the personality that made white people who might not otherwise have done so give him a second glance, and in time it opened doors of opportunity through which few other blacks had been allowed to pass.

A different kind of black man: With Rex Stewart and the band, Philadelphia, 1939. Ellington’s immaculately polished onstage appearance was one of countless manifestations of his lifelong resolve to “act in behalf of the race”

And yet beneath the persona Ellington projected lay a person of swelling imperfection — he shamelessly “borrowed” creative material from his band musicians without sharing the royalties or accolades, and had ceaseless extramarital and extra-extramarital affairs, cheating on his wife Edna with his longterm lover Evie, on whom he cheated with countless other women. (So intense were the private passions around his publicly muzzled affairs that, at one point, Edna attacked him with a razor after finding out he had been sleeping with another woman, reportedly his Black and Tan co-star Fredi Washington. What Edna didn’t know was that Duke had a regular habit of checking into several hotels, handing out keys to different women, only later deciding which hotel room he wanted to ravage for the night.) Teachout puts it rather bluntly, but certainly not an unwarranted observation given the evidence of Ellington’s life:

Underneath his soigné exterior, Ellington was a self-centered hedonist who lived a nomadic existence in which everything was subordinated to his art — and, insofar as possible, his pleasure.

Teachout cites the recollection of producer John Houseman, who worked with Ellington on his first Broadway show, Beggar’s Holiday:

At the time I worked with him the Duke had abandoned all attempts to organize his own life. Between late-night engagements with his band, concerts, recordings, interviews, composing and other activities he had turned over the scheduling of his days and nights to his wife, his manager and other associates. They woke him up when it was time, fed him, laid out the right clothes for him, transported and delivered him on time for whatever engagement he was committed to, picked him up, changed his clothes, delivered him once more, fed him again and finally put him to bed. In this way, he explained, by ceasing to concern himself with time and space, he was able to preserve his energy and his sanity.

And yet, Teachout argues, Houseman mistook Ellington’s meticulous manipulation of his people-machinery for mere passivity — instead, he was hard at work controlling every aspect of his life:

What Houseman did not see was that Ellington sought to exert the maximum possible amount of control over everyone in his life — by stealth. “What you need to do is wake up after two o’clock, make phone calls, but don’t move an inch,” he told [his son] Mercer Ellington. “Just lie flat on your back and phone, and tell everybody everything that has to be done, and lay all your plans without going out anywhere. . . . When you come downstairs you’ll have prepared your day, and you’ll be The Greatest!” After he died, Mercer found a handwritten note among his father’s papers in which Ellington summed himself up in three lapidary sentences: “No problem. I’m easy to please. I just want to have everybody in the palm of my hand.”

His selfishness was unswerving, though it did not exclude benevolence, if only on his own terms.

Arthur Whetsel, Fredi Washington, and Duke Ellington in a publicity still from Black and Tan. While Black and Tan shows Washington dancing herself to death in the flimsiest of costumes, it also presents Ellington and the members of his band as serious, committed artists—an uncommon way for black jazzmen to be portrayed on-screen in 1929 and for many years afterward

Teachout, however, takes great care not to dim the enormity of Ellington’s talent in light of his immutable imperfection, noting instead that he used the former as a vehicle for both exorcising and tucking away the latter:

He was, like Chopin, Paul Klee, Jorge Luis Borges, and Flannery O’Connor, a disciplined lyric miniaturist who knew how to express the grandest of emotions on the smallest of scales, and who needed no more room in which to suggest his immortal longings.

Arguably the most accurate, succinctly eloquent description of Ellington’s elusive personhood comes from Rex Stewart, cornetist of the Duke Ellington Orchestra:

Ellington is the most complex and paradoxical individual that I’ve ever known . . . a combination of Sir Galahad, Scrooge, Don Quixote, and God knows what other saints and sinners that were apt to pop out of his ever-changing personality.

Indeed, Ellington was a bundle of inner contradictions — the kind we all grapple with by virtue of being human, only his were far more numerous, more entangled, and more full of friction than average. Teachout writes:

He was at once deeply (if superstitiously) religious and a tireless philanderer who, in the words of an admiring friend, had the sexual appetite of “a romping, stomping alley cat.” He pretended to be a devoted family man for the benefit of the ever-vigilant press, he deserted Edna, his first and only wife, later settling into a long-term relationship with a Cotton Club showgirl whom he chose not to marry (he never divorced Edna) and on whom he cheated as often as he liked.

In fact, one of Ellington’s most pressing publicity concerns was keeping his affairs out of the papers — information he felt would greatly compromise the very presentability and wholesomeness he worked so hard to craft in order to feel like he belonged in high society. As Teachout observes, he went to great lengths to make sure “his fans saw only what he wished them to see, and nothing more.” At one point, he even went as far as paying off gossip columnists and placing expensive ads in newspapers to prevent his relationship with Evie from being reported.

Fashion plate: Duke Ellington in his dressing room at New York’s Paramount Theatre, photographed in May 1946 by William Gottlieb. In the thirties, he traveled with five trunks of clothes plus a separate trunk for his shoes. Ellington’s hair, as always, has been meticulously straightened, a look that he never abandoned, even after it became unfashionable among younger blacks

In addition to crafting his public personality, he was equally meticulous about his appearance. Always clad in the latest fashion, he straightened his hair and even wore a corset. His sleek “conk” hair style, however, was particularly paradoxical and a visceral testament to both his cultural obliviousness to anything other than himself and his choice of personal vanity over the civil rights cause he alleged to stand for:

Ellington wore his hair in a “conk,” a style created with a hair-straightening process that made use of hot lye. Straight hair, or “good hair,” was as highly valued by middle-class blacks of his generation as was light skin, and they were willing to endure much for it. Black newspapers were full of ads for products that promised to rid the user of “kinky woolly hair. . . . All hipsters in Harlem are using superior hair straightener.” No amount of shame was too much to bear in the quest for good hair. Every jar of Kongolene, one of the most popular hair-processing products of the day, was decorated with a logo on which the initials KKK were, fantastic as it may sound, clearly visible. Most of the top black bandleaders of the period, including Ellington and Cab Calloway, wore conks (Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton were prominent exceptions) long after the style had been repudiated by a new generation of politically conscious musicians. “We were against kinky hair in those days,” recalled the jazz trumpeter Joe Wilder. “We didn’t have better sense. . . . You know there was no pride in nappy hair in those days. We all wanted straight hair—we wanted people to think we had good hair.”

In time Malcolm X came to see the conk he had worn in his youth as an unnatural act of “self-degradation.” He wrote contemptuously of the practice in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, taking care not to mention Ellington (whom he admired) by name: “You’ll see the conk worn by many, many so-called ‘upper class’ Negroes, and, as much as I hate to say it about them, on all too many Negro entertainers. . . . I don’t see how on earth a black woman with any race pride could walk down the street with any black man wearing a conk—the emblem of his shame that he is black.” But Ellington would never stop straightening his hair, oblivious of the impression that it made on younger blacks for whom “good hair” was a badge of dishonor.

In another manifestation — perhaps the manifestation — of his paradoxical desire for wide public visibility and tightly controlled private invisibility, Ellington even wrote an autobiography, aptly titled Music Is My Mistress and released a year before his death. (How much of his decision was creative and how much commercial will remain a mystery, but Doubleday did pay him a $50,000 advance for it, equivalent to about $319,000 today.) But rather than using it as a final saving grace of honesty, Ellington used it to further conceal rather than reveal the truth of who he really was — perhaps, in a less cynical view, simply because it was a truth that eluded him more than anyone. Teachout finds the book’s intentional evasiveness especially frustrating:

He of all people should have left behind a frank memoir, one in which he told the story of how a somewhat better-than-average stride pianist largely devoid of formal musical training managed to turn himself into a great composer — for that is what he was, and why he matters to us today.

And yet Teachout finds “at least one undeniable truth” revealed in the self-interview with which Ellington, this “improbably gaudy bird of paradise,” ends his autobiography:

Q. Can you keep from writing music? Do you write in spite of yourself?

A. I don’t know how strong the chains, cells, and bars are. I’ve never tried to escape.

But if an answer to Ellington’s elusive character is ever to be found, perhaps it offers itself up in the verse with which he closed Black, Brown and Beige, his multimovement piece about the black experience in America, which he spent a decade crafting — and more than a decade pitching for publicity, long before the piece was finished, or even started. The proclamation was intended as commentary on the question of race relations addressed by this particular piece and his general public persona, but it endures as one that ultimately reveals the agony of the private person who remained unseen, even by himself, beneath the public veneer of charisma and bravado:

And so, your song has stirred the souls
Of men in strange and distant places
The picture drawn by many hands
For many eyes of many races.
But did it ever speak to them
Of what you really are?

Still, it’s hard to judge Ellington’s tangle of paradoxes too harshly given it was merely a magnified — however exponentially — version of our shared humanity. As a 1944 New Yorker profile of him put it, he was a man who had “a stage self and a real self.” This is the thing: We all do — with those who live in the spotlight, the public persona and the private person are just much more easily delineated and discernible, the contrast between them thus starker. But all of us, especially today, are equally our own publicists as we craft our public personae with every Facebook status shared and every Instagram photo uploaded, using those increasingly as tools to conceal as much as to reveal. Fittingly, Rex Stewart remarked of Ellington that he had “apparently learned to give more of himself in public but less in private” — a tendency to which it’s all too easy to succumb as we too explore and manipulate our own boundaries of visibility and invisibility.

'He looks beat and kind of lonely': With Jimmy Hamilton, London, 1963

Dimensional, thoughtful, and rigorously researched, Duke is an enthralling read from cover to cover, revealing through the specificity of one conflicted life the universality of the human condition and our constant struggle for integration, for wholeness, for reining in our angels and our demons into a unity of self, both public and private.

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18 OCTOBER, 2013

Jazz Legend Wynton Marsalis on the Magic of Music


“That’s the soulful thing about playing: you offer something to somebody. You don’t know if they’ll like it, but you offer it.”

“Without music I should wish to die,” young Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a letter. Music, indeed, has shaped our evolution as a species, can profoundly affect our emotions, and even has a way of enthralling the brain on a neurological level. Learning to listen to music is itself a skill to be mastered, but learning to play it — and to play it stirringly, enchantingly, with equal parts conviction and imaginative freedom — is a rare kind of art.

In To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road (public library), Pulitzer-Prize-winning musician Wynton Marsalis — legendary trumpeter, composer, and educator, Artistic Director of New York’s iconic Jazz at Lincoln Center, and one of the greatest jazz musicians alive — riffs off Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and offers his hard-earned wisdom on what it takes to make good music and live a good life.

In one of the most powerful passages, he considers the pure joy of playing — the transcendent experience afforded after you’ve mastered the practicalities of the craft through deliberate practice:

The thing about jazz, through all the business involved in practicing and improvement, it’s always sweet: the improvement that you notice in the ability to express yourself, the feeling of playing, pushing yourself out into an open space through a sound, man. That’s an unbelievable feeling, an uplifting feeling of joy to be able to express the range of what you feel and see, have felt and have seen. A lot of this has nothing to do with you. It comes from another time, another space. To be able to channel those things and then project them though an instrument, that’s something that brings unbelievable joy.

His most beautiful observation, however, has to do with the opposite of what music gives the musician and extols, instead, what the musician gives to the world. He recounts a heartening anecdote from the road, while touring in Istanbul:

We were close to a housing project. A girl sat up on the balcony, she was maybe thirteen or fourteen. The people kept saying, “She speaks English, she’s studying English in school.” So she spoke a little broken English, talked to us. Then she disappeared. Dusk started to come on. After a moment, she reappeared, coming down to the street with some Turkish coffee for us in what had been her family’s best silverware. She poured it and stood there while we drank it. It was tender, man; had a sweetness to it. And that’s the soulful thing about playing: you offer something to somebody. You don’t know if they’ll like it, but you offer it.

To a Young Jazz Musician is magical in its entirety. Complement it with these 7 essential reads on music, emotion, and the brain.

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03 OCTOBER, 2013

David Bowie’s 75 Must-Read Books


From poetry to history to theory of mind, with plenty of fiction and a few magazines for good measure.

Creativity is a combinatorial force — it rests on our ability to fuse, usually unconsciously, existing concepts, memories, bits of information, pieces of knowledge, and fragmentary impression into novel ideas that we call our own. A mind of exceptional creativity, then, is a mind brimming with vibrantly diverse bits that can be fused together into a boundless array of possible combinations. One way to fully appreciate the power of such cross-disciplinary curiosity is to look at the intellectual diet of those we revere as geniuses, whatever their field of exceptional ability — take, for instance, the reading lists of Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, and Nick Cave.

Naturally, I was thrilled to come across the itemized intellectual diet of one of the most celebrated creative icons in modern history, David Bowie. A new retrospective of the artist’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario features 75 of Bowie’s must-read books — a fascinating tour of his cross-disciplinary curiosity and the fuel for his combinatorial creativity. Although all but two of the books were published within Bowie’s lifetime — with the exceptions published within two years of his birth — he makes up for the presentism bias with an extraordinary diversity of disciplines, topics, and sensibilities, ranging from poetry to history to theory of mind, with plenty of fiction and a few magazines for good measure.

I was especially delighted to discover that Bowie too is fascinated by the routines, habits, and creative wisdom of great writers — among his favorite books is the vintage gem Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series, which also gave us Malcolm Cowley’s theory of the four stages of writing, William Faulkner on literature and life, and the entrepreneurial story of how the Paris Review reinvented the art of the interview.

Here are Bowie’s booktrysts, in reverse chronological order:

  1. The Age of American Unreason (public library) by Susan Jacoby (2008)
  2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (public library) by Junot Diaz (2007)
  3. The Coast of Utopia (trilogy) (public library) by Tom Stoppard (2007)
  4. Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875–1945 (public library) by Jon Savage (2007)
  5. Fingersmith (public library) by Sarah Waters (2002)
  6. The Trial of Henry Kissinger (public library) by Christopher Hitchens (2001)
  7. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder (public library) by Lawrence Weschler (1997)
  8. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1890–1924 (public library) by Orlando Figes (1997)
  9. The Insult (public library) by Rupert Thomson (1996)
  10. Wonder Boys (public library) by Michael Chabon (1995)
  11. The Bird Artist (public library) by Howard Norman (1994)
  12. Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (public library) by Anatole Broyard (1993)
  13. Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective (public library) by Arthur C. Danto (1992)
  14. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (public library) by Camille Paglia (1990)
  15. David Bomberg (public library) by Richard Cork (1988)
  16. Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (public library) by Peter Guralnick (1986)
  17. The Songlines (public library) by Bruce Chatwin (1986)
  18. Hawksmoor (public library) by Peter Ackroyd (1985)
  19. Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music (public library) by Gerri Hirshey (1984)
  20. Nights at the Circus (public library) by Angela Carter (1984)
  21. Money (public library) by Martin Amis (1984)
  22. White Noise (public library) by Don DeLillo (1984)
  23. Flaubert’s Parrot (public library) by Julian Barnes (1984)
  24. The Life and Times of Little Richard (public library) by Charles White (1984)
  25. A People’s History of the United States (public library) by Howard Zinn (1980)
  26. A Confederacy of Dunces (public library) by John Kennedy Toole (1980)
  27. Interviews with Francis Bacon (public library) by David Sylvester (1980)
  28. Darkness at Noon (public library) by Arthur Koestler (1980)
  29. Earthly Powers (public library) by Anthony Burgess (1980)
  30. Raw, a “graphix magazine” (1980–1991)
  31. Viz, magazine (1979–)
  32. The Gnostic Gospels (public library) by Elaine Pagels (1979)
  33. Metropolitan Life (public library) by Fran Lebowitz (1978)
  34. In Between the Sheets (public library) by Ian McEwan (1978)
  35. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (public library) by ed Malcolm Cowley (1977)
  36. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (public library) by Julian Jaynes (1976)
  37. Tales of Beatnik Glory (public library) by Ed Saunders (1975)
  38. Mystery Train (public library) by Greil Marcus (1975)
  39. Selected Poems (public library) by Frank O’Hara (1974)
  40. Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s (public library) by Otto Friedrich (1972)
  41. In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture (public library) by George Steiner (1971)
  42. Octobriana and the Russian Underground (public library) by Peter Sadecky (1971)
  43. The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll (public library) by Charlie Gillett (1970)
  44. The Quest for Christa T (public library) by Christa Wolf (1968)
  45. Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock (public library) by Nik Cohn (1968)
  46. The Master and Margarita (public library) by Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
  47. Journey into the Whirlwind (public library) by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967)
  48. Last Exit to Brooklyn (public library) by Hubert Selby Jr. (1966)
  49. In Cold Blood (public library) by Truman Capote (1965)
  50. City of Night (public library) by John Rechy (1965)
  51. Herzog (public library) by Saul Bellow (1964)
  52. Puckoon (public library) by Spike Milligan (1963)
  53. The American Way of Death (public library) by Jessica Mitford (1963)
  54. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea (public library) by Yukio Mishima (1963)
  55. The Fire Next Time (public library) by James Baldwin (1963)
  56. A Clockwork Orange (public library) by Anthony Burgess (1962)
  57. Inside the Whale and Other Essays (public library) by George Orwell (1962)
  58. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (public library) by Muriel Spark (1961)
  59. Private Eye, magazine (1961–)
  60. On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious (public library) by Douglas Harding (1961)
  61. Silence: Lectures and Writing (public library) by John Cage (1961)
  62. Strange People (public library) by Frank Edwards (1961)
  63. The Divided Self (public library) by R. D. Laing (1960)
  64. All the Emperor’s Horses (public library) by David Kidd (1960)
  65. Billy Liar (public library) by Keith Waterhouse (1959)
  66. The Leopard (public library) by Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1958)
  67. On the Road (public library) by Jack Kerouac (1957)
  68. The Hidden Persuaders (public library) by Vance Packard (1957)
  69. Room at the Top (public library) by John Braine (1957)
  70. A Grave for a Dolphin (public library) by Alberto Denti di Pirajno (1956)
  71. The Outsider (public library) by Colin Wilson (1956)
  72. Lolita (public library) by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
  73. Nineteen Eighty-Four (public library) by George Orwell (1949)
  74. The Street (public library) by Ann Petry (1946)
  75. Black Boy (public library) by Richard Wright (1945)

Complement with the story of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona — you might find yourself tracing it back to a number of Bowie’s influences above.

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