Reading the liner notes, listening to the 1973 release of “The Ellington Suites”, a compilation of Ellington’s late career pieces, more formal than his 1920s big band jazz, they are jazzy and contemplative, and I am reminded again of the alternative future that jazz presented us in the mid-20th century. They are regal tributes to a life well-lived. He was granted the privilege of crossing racial lines, a high-yellow ambassador from the underworld.
Jazz had proved its worth among the great musical forms of history, African Americans had constructed their own high culture to promenade the red carpets next to the baroques and lutes and yayues of the world. It was a moment before the civil rights movement, and in many ways the cause of it. But because it came before it marked a hard earned achievement indeed, as were the civil rights. And because of the success of those two movements and the parallel infantilization of American culture, the tiresome offense we all take at all the little insults of life impoverishes us.
Ellington could well afford to be magnanimous, the old lion had earned it, and he wore a few scars from his rise, as did so many men of that more unforgiving age. And because the age was unforgiving, they could be forgiving. He had the wherewithal to build beauty about him, a beauty that kept the lynchings at bay and allowed the construction of a new world within. In that ramparted courtyard, it was never a matter of arguing over affirmative action and the constant doubts such action inspires. It was never a matter of obtuse claims about slavery and redlining. It was never a matter of police brutality and doin’ what I gotta do to get by. It was about all of those things, and none of them, because they could only serve as first causes and not excuses. They could only serve to do what all historical tragedies do in the long run. They serve as pedestals of the spirit.
In that moment African American culture, a young culture by any measure in that it was a new creation built out of the severed limbs that were scattered across the New World when they emptied out the ships. It said that Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein upon reading the narrative of a freed slave who encountered a distrustful world with a consciousness built of scraps and pieces rotted from disuse from the many corpses that lay between Africa and Alabama. It was a young culture, but not so infertile as Frankenstein. The pieces were human and full of real life and whole children who, in the brothels and shantytowns where jazz was born, were unafraid of life itself.
That life was cruel, they never doubted. And that was their freedom. And it was that knowledge that bound them to the rest of the unwashed humanity who splashed upon American shores from the vast cruel world. They and jazz came of age in the 20th century, when the scales dropped from the eyes of the aristocratic world that had always taken the peasants for granted. The wars flaunted their evisceration of all those hypocrisies. And jazz found its home among the cubists and the crushed. Nothing’s quiet on the 116th Street Front.
With jazz there was no longer any need to carry around the fear that the slavers were right. Duke had a lot of slaver blood in his veins, but Parker didn’t, Miles didn’t, Strayhorn didn’t, at least not visibly. And maybe they bore a little more visible bitterness because of it, because of the scar that color becomes in a society that cringes over it. Jazz didn’t cringe for color. Its bantering genius was also its barricade, just like the ones that had protected Beethoven and Bonaparte. We live here now, with the polka playing Germans and dirty Jews discovering disorder in the universe. We’re all peasants here now, and in America’s crass rush for monopolization, the ruling class didn’t even bother to impress upon the proletariat its culture. Bebop and billy clubs in bocca al lupo. Good luck to all that and a hard drink of liquor.
There was no law, no court, no lawmaker, no president who had to rule upon jazz, no surly cop who resented the respect required of him when the law came to defy his demons. With jazz, slavery was not so much to be regretted as gutted. Like a fertile corpse, slavery nourished the new growth. Much as Yeats and Joyce took root in the famine. The nitpicking over legal arrangements and bitchy slights were yet to come, and inevitable though they were, they are, in them we forget that the Duke discovered beauty and forgiveness.
In that world of jazz Duke Ellington was a prince like any other. He played for the Queen at her cousin’s house in Leeds who he beguiled with his droopy eyes and virile years. When was the last time your band toured our isles? Ah your majesty, in 1933, many years before you were born… while she cast her eyes aside, her belly all a-flutter, and for her he wrote Sunset and the Mocking Bird and the Single Petal of a Rose. She had laid out a banquet for him, and he parried her favor.
The University of Wisconsin held another festival for him, and he recalled the cold years when he rode the circus train to Milwaukee and served as a novelty act at a polka festival. He did not dwell upon the indignities that all entertainers face. They pander to cruel crowds, not the ones who throw tomatoes, no, at least they are paying attention, it is the gross inattention and appetites of those who pay for wedding decorations that leave the most bitter taste. He saw past all the indignities of pecking orders and peasant infelicities to hear German jazz in the adorable childishness of the polka beat. And just as he wrote the Queen a suite, so he did for Yank Yankovic.
We can never again quite capture the dignity of mid-century jazz, the stoic virtue of dancing a ballet upon the fields of the Western Front.