Duke Ellington, by James Lincoln Collier

October 1, 1988

Duke Ellington, by James Lincoln Collier. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. viii + 340 pp.

The conjunction of an author who has significant (if not universally accepted) credentials as a jazz writer with a subject as magisterial and important as Duke Ellington, a publisher as prestigious as Oxford University Press, and the Institute for the Study of American Music (acknowledged by the author to have supported his research through a fellowship), presages a book that might well constitute an important contribution to jazz scholarship. Unfortunately, Duke Ellington fails to realize such potential, principally because it serves not to illuminate the life and music of an American composer and musician who occupies a crucial and pivotal position in the history of American music, but rather to further its author's limited and idiosyncratic interpretation of Ellington's character and his contributions to music.

As a work of music history and scholarship, the book is seriously flawed. It lacks some of the most basic scholarly apparatus one would expect to find in a major biography of a jazz musician: there is neither a bibliography nor a discography. While one could argue that a proper Ellington discography constitutes a book-length project in and of itself, I would also hope that a book whose fly leaf trumpets it as "the definitive critical biography of both the man and his music" would provide more than a simple discographical note. And without the bibliography, we have no comprehensive list of sources cited in footnotes, and no way of knowing whether additional sources were consulted, and if so, which ones. As it stands, Collier makes no reference to discographies by Walter Bruyninckx and Brian Rust, or to commentaries by Gunther Schuller (in Early Jazz), and Larry Gushee (in liner notes for the Smithsonian's Duke Ellington 1940 album), all items one would have thought likely to be consulted in the course of a study of Ellington. In addition, Collier sometimes promotes unattributed assertions as données (as on pp. 102, 127, 166), and he can fail to cite sources adequately (there are no page numbers for the quotes from Ellington's memoirs on p. 49, from The Chicago Defender on p. 59, from Variety on p. 77, and from Orchestra World on pp. 125-26). At times he simply omits the source entirely, as in the case of the remarks attributed to Al Rose on p. 144. The real problem in all this rather slipshod scholarship is Collier's apparent willingness to accept second-hand comments and unsubstantiated allegations—even hearsay—as gospel, and it is this information he uses to fortify his sustained and rather brutal attack on Ellington's character. At one point, for example, he blithely reports what "somebody told Derek Jewell" (p. 272), never identifying the "somebody"—although he does have the modesty to suggest that while there is "undoubtedly some truth in this [statement by the unidentified somebody] . . . how much is difficult to say."

Another significant problem for the historian concerns Collier's occasional tendency to discuss events and issues in Ellington's life and career with little regard for the chronological sequence in which they occurred. In chapter 5, "Duke Takes Over," in which Collier traces the evolution of Ellington's band in terms of the addition of new personnel, the 1925-27 period is covered in a particularly confusing manner (pp. 58-61). Chronology seems similarly mishandled in chapter 13, where on p. 169 Collier refers to the 1934 loss of Jenkins and Whetsol, yet five pages later, on p. 174, he describes the band as "now clearly Ellington's, as Toby Hardwick discovered on his return in 1932" (i.e., before the band's trip to England, which itself is chronicled some 20 pages earlier). In other ways, too, the book's organization lacks clarity: the effects of Rex Stewart's half-valve technique are described in detail on p. 171, and the accidental way in which he discovered the technique on p. 188, yet Stewart is barely mentioned in the intervening 16 pages. Collier casually refers to or quotes Edmund Anderson half a dozen times in the first 200 pages of the book; then suddenly, on p. 217, he states "Ellington had by this time made friends with a twenty-two-year-old stockbroker named Edmund Anderson . . ." as if mentioning Anderson for the first time. On p. 66, Lew Leslie is "an important producer of Broadway shows"; on p. 78, he is reintroduced as "a respected Broadway producer."

Light has already been shed on other problematic aspects of Collier's study, including his pretensions to literary criticism, by other critics, notably Dan Morgenstern (in the New York Times, 22 November 1987) and Whitney Balliett (in The New Yorker, 28 December 1987). What has not been sufficiently addressed, in my opinion, are the flaws in Collier's approach to Ellington's music. For it is in Collier's analyses of specific performances that we encounter both the deepest disappointments of the book and the most serious indictment of Collier's credentials as a musician and scholar. The problems that arise concern Collier's methodology, sources, prose, and plain analytical errors—all problems that exist in other aspects of the book as well. The most basic difficulty, of course, is the complete lack of any musical examples in the book. Without transcriptions by Collier himself, we have no way of evaluating the information on which he has based his assertions regarding the music. By making our own transcriptions, of course, we could check the validity, of his conclusions, but this still would not enable us to verify the quality of the information he himself used—that is, we could not tell if the errors in his conclusions were based on faulty reasoning from accurate data or from data (i.e., transcriptions) that were flawed to begin with. (It is possible that the lack of music examples is the result of an editorial decision, based perhaps on the expense of using music type, although one would not like to think Oxford University Press so—I am afraid there is no other word for it—cheap. Still, the single item of music notation in the book—a metronome indication on page 187—uses a lower-case letter d as a substitute for, I presume, a half note, at best an amateurish solution to the dilemma, which suggests, to my mind, an editorial prohibition against music type in the text.) Collier does refer to a few analytical studies and transcriptions of Ellington's music, but oddly, these are by students; he cites a 1978 Mills College, M.A. thesis (p. 120), an unpublished paper by "a music student who has made a careful study of the piece ["Ko-Ko"] and has provided me with a transcription of it . . . (p. 226), an undated M.A. thesis by a student at San Francisco State University (p. 279), and another unpublished paper by "a music student who has studied the work [The Second Sacred Concert]" (p. 294). By normal scholarly standards, such authors could hardly be considered established authorities to whose work one would turn for corroboration of significant analytical points. This is not in any way to denigrate the value of these students' work, but rather to suggest that because their expertise is not proven, reliance on their critiques by an author writing a major biography is inappropriate: Collier should either do his own analytical homework (and publish the results) or cite critics whose bonae fides are unimpeachable.

When Collier himself writes about particular pieces, he falters on several fronts. His difficulties surface almost as soon as he begins evaluating specific performances; I will enumerate here three errors from his descriptions of the early Ellington recordings that typify Collier's weaknesses as a writer about music. The first, perhaps one of his most telling mistakes, is his assertion that "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" includes "three themes, in B-flat minor, A-flat, and E-flat" (p. 111). In fact, the A phrases of the AABA choruses are in C minor, not B-flat minor; to fail to recognize the obvious tonic minor-relative major relationship between C minor and E-flat major suggests either that Collier hasn't listened to the piece very carefully or that he is insufficiently skilled in ear training to recognize basic harmonic relationships. (Unfortunately, the identification of B-flat minor cannot be a typographical error, since Collier repeats it in the next sentence.) Either way, such a basic error signals the necessity on the reader's part both for constant vigilance regarding Collier's analytical abilities and for significant skepticism regarding his conclusions.

A second instance of Collier's failure to identify harmonic schemes accurately occurs in his analysis of the underlying harmonic plan of a phrase in "Black Beauty," although because he does not specify which recording and take he is discussing, we cannot be certain of the extent of his error: "Ellington recorded 'Black Beauty' twice as band numbers, but it is best known in a solo piano version he made later. (There has been some confusion over the opening trumpet solo on the Brunswick version. . . . ) The piece consists of two strains . . ." (p. 118). "Black Beauty" was recorded on March 21, 1928 for Brunswick, again on March 26, 1928 for Victor, and on October 1, 1928 in a piano solo version for OKeh. I suspect it is the piano solo version Collier discusses, since on page 119 he notes that the piano solo "Swampy River" (unidentified by recording date and matrix number) was recorded "to back 'Black Beauty.'" But since he prefaces his description of the harmonic scheme with generic reference to "the piece," as in the phrase quoted above, making a special claim for the opening harmonic scheme of the A phrase (e.g., "harmonies which were quite sophisticated for the time, and still are not easy to analyze"), I take it that he finds one consistent scheme for all recordings. But his analysis of that scheme is flawed; in the Brunswick recording, at least, the harmonies are not B-flat/Faug/Fmin/G7, as he suggests, but B-flat/Faug/B-flat9/G7. Collier's confusion about the identity of the third chord in this pattern may stem from a failure to hear the bass line return to the pitch B-flat from the preceding F; thus he incorrectly locates the pitches A-flat and C as part of an F-minor triad instead of the flat 7th and 9th degrees of a B-flat chord. Incidentally, the return to B-flat in the bass is unequivocally clear in the ABA chorus for piano solo, a detail that renders Collier's reading of the passage even more puzzling.

Another kind of analytical problem concerns Collier's faulty descriptions of structure; this problem is illustrated by his observations on "Birmingham Breakdown." He suggests the piece is "built, once again, on contrasting themes in C minor and A-flat major" (p. 113), and then focuses his commentary on the structure of the A-flat major twenty-bar chorus. Assuming Collier is referring to the Vocalion recording of November 29, 1926, both his general assertion about the piece's structure and his review of the twenty-bar chorus are flawed. First, a C-minor harmony appears only briefly, at the beginning of each eight-bar phrase of the opening sixteen-bar chorus—a chorus that itself appears only once more, following two statements of the twenty-bar chorus. In each of these eight-bar phrases, the harmony quickly turns away from C minor towards B-flat, a chord that serves as the dominant for E-flat major. This theme, then, could hardly be said to be "in" C minor. Much more significant in my view, both in terms of the key scheme for "Birmingham Breakdown" and for its structure, are the two sixteen-bar choruses in D-flat major, and the two twelve-bar blues choruses in D-flat that conclude the piece, neither of which Collier even mentions. The twenty-bar A-flat major choruses in this context function as a kind of dominant preparation for the D-flat major material; Collier, incorrectly identifying the "extra four bars [as] essentially a tag" (p. 113), misses the turn to D-flat in the fourth four-bar segment that prefigures the key of the later sixteen- and twelve-bar choruses. In addition, Collier fails to discern the overall structure of the piece correctly: the two sixteen-bar choruses in D-flat major have a fundamentally different key scheme than the twenty-bar choruses, and thus constitute a third structural element (what I suppose Collier means by "theme") of the piece, and the two twelve-bar blues choruses constitute a fourth element. The piece, therefore, is not built on "contrasting themes in C minor and A-flat major" at all, but on four distinct chorus patterns that appear in the following order:

A (8 + 8, C minor to vol28id834 major)
B (4 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4, vol28id834 major)
C (8 + 8, vol28id834 major to vol28id834 major)
D (12-bar blues in vol28id834 major)

(Collier suggests that "when Toby Hardwick plays his solo, he limits it to sixteen bars without the tag . . ." [p. 113]; it's impossible to know what he is referring to here, since the sixteen-bar choruses are fundamentally different in key scheme from the twenty-bar choruses, and since the only places Hardwick might be soloing on the Vocalion take are the first phrase of the first C chorus and the first twelve-bar blues chorus.)

Although these errors in analysis may seem small individually, each casts significant doubt on the author's ability to hear pitch relationships, harmonic patterns and structure correctly. And because they are representative of other problems in analysis in the book, collectively they call Collier's conclusions into question.

Collier also falls to establish an accurate chronology for the various recordings of "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," and in general he cites specific dates for recording all too infrequently; indeed, as I have already implied, he never identifies a recording by its matrix, take, or label numbers, often making it difficult to know which recording he is discussing. It is only by hunting back through the text, for example, that we can establish that the "Toodle-Oo" version Collier discusses on p. 111 was recorded for Vocalion (label number 1064, matrix E-4110) on November 29, 1926. Then, at the conclusion of his commentary on the piece, Collier refers vaguely to a "second version of the number, made for Columbia about a month later" (p. 112). In fact, this is a fourth take, made on March 22, 1927, four months after the Vocalion take. In between these two recordings came a rejected take from a February 28, 1927 session, and a Brunswick take recorded March 14, 1927. Because such discographical details could easily have been verified, these inaccuracies alert the reader to the possibility that similar slips occur elsewhere in the book.

The language Collier employs in his discussions of specific pieces can be inappropriate, even bizarre (timbres are referred to as "reds . . . juxtaposed against blacks, greens against brown" [p. 230), a melody "has a curious feel of Renaissance music to it" (p. 297], a style is described as "exploring a tropical rain forest thick with patches of purple orchids and heavy bunches of breadfruit" [p. 273]), and occasionally lacks precision (what is a "good riff" [p. 265], and why is it good? what do passages sound like that "tend to ramble" and are "rather diffuse" [p. 219]? what makes the descending line Collier describes on p. 288 "interesting", and what does it have in common with the "very interesting melody" referred to on the next page?). Perhaps most frustrating is Collier's repeated use of the same linguistic formula to frame his analyses. "Ring Dem Bells" uses "a very simple melodic idea" (p. 136); "Rockin' in Rhythm" "is all very simple" (p. 140); "Mood Indigo" "could hardly be simpler" (p. 144); "In 'Caravan,' Ellington makes a great deal of a rather simple melody" (p. 186); "the plan for ['Crescendo and Diminuendo in Blue'] is simple enough" (p. 187); "the structure of ['Harlem Airshaft'] could hardly be more basic" (p. 231); the third movement of The Deep South Suite "could hardly be simpler" (p. 281), and so on. Ultimately this barrage, which seems calculated to obscure the subtleties of Ellington's music and to undercut its significance as great jazz, serves only to reveal the paucity of Collier's critical apparatus.

Indeed, Collier uses other rhetorical formulas repeatedly to similar effect; the phrases "as we shall see" (or its equivalent) and "as we have seen" crop up frequently, freeing the author of the need to support his conclusions with specific data at those junctures. The problem with these particular phrases, of course, is that the reader is required either to retain in his or her mind a basic assertion, taking it on faith until such time as the author sees fit to reveal the supporting data, or to recall the data described earlier in the text that support the just-mentioned conclusion. Often, too, Collier will claim that a sequence of events is "difficult to determine," "impossible to know," or "a matter of dispute," without making much of an effort to establish which alternative might be the most valid. At one point, he cavalierly asserts "On the basis of not much, I am inclined to believe . . ." (p. 149). At other times, Collier's language can be significantly more distressing from other perspectives. In his discussion of the role Billy Strayhorn played in Ellington's career, for example, Collier writes that "Ellington always evinced a tendency—weakness, if you will—toward lushness, prettiness, at the expense of the masculine leanness and strength of his best work, the most 'jazzlike' pieces" (pp. 272-73). The opposition of "masculine leanness" and "his best work" on the one hand to "weakness," "lushness," and prettiness" on the other reveals the sexism that in this instance underlies Collier's critical stance. Equally disturbing, when he describes the relationship between black musicians and their managers, who were often Jewish, he subtly hints at exploitation: "For Jews, black show business was an open opportunity; blacks needed white managers, and anybody willing to fill that need might do very well for himself. As it turned out, some of them did exceedingly well for themselves" (p. 65). When he then labels these managers "Jewish business sharps" (p. 65), however, he comes in my view, dangerously close to an ethnic slur.

If in this review I have focused on linguistic and musical details, it is because Collier's mishandling of them in his evaluations of the recordings does substantial disservice to Ellington the musician. But, as I have also suggested, the book is flawed in other respects as well. Collier's choice to interpret commentary from others about Ellington's habits and personality in a consistently negative light has led him, as I see it, to a deliberately iconoclastic stance. In his revisionist itch to magnify Ellington's shortcomings and belittle his achievements as composer and bandleader, Collier seems to have lost the ability, so crucial in the exercise of biography, to maintain a balanced perspective on his subject. This failing is by itself sufficiently disabling. As Oscar Wilde observed in his review of Joseph Knight's study of Dante, biographies of this sort "rob life of much of its dignity and its wonder, add to death itself a new terror, and make one wish that all art were anonymous." (Quoted in "Insincerity and Authenticity," Denis Donoghue, The New Republic, February 15, 1988, p. 25.) Yet there is an even greater misfortune here—the lost opportunity to write the study of the man and his music that the blurb writers at Oxford would have us believe Duke Ellington is. Ironically enough, once upon a time Collier himself might even have been the author to undertake such a project. For earlier in his career, Collier came closer to the mark; in The Making of Jazz (1978), he writes:

Despite the contributions made by the musicians, the Ellington band was essentially the creation of the master himself. None of his players ever had significant careers apart from him; it was he who found out what they could do and then made them do it, and his ability to do this was crucial to his accomplishment. In sum, Ellington's genius lay not in a single insight, but in a mastery of many facets of music. Selecting a few records from analysis from the hundreds Ellington made is a fruitless exercise; as Dryden said of Chaucer, ". . . here is God's plenty" (p. 255).

4317 Last modified on October 23, 2018