Saturday, April 3, 2021

Ellington Meets Bernstein, Part II: Cultural Negotiations at the Highest Level

I just had to write some commentary on the Ellington/Bernstein interview that I posted yesterday, it’s such a strange and interesting set of conversations. Here’s the whole thing, which took place in 1966:

The interview took place on July 2, 1966 in Milwaukee. As it opens we see Bernstein being helicoptered in to what looks like a country club or a large estate. He walks up to Ellington, who is already there on the ground. They shake hands and embrace (c. 1.11). What’s that? said I to myself, a little surprised. Do they know one another, or is it a performance by two public figures? Bernstein is wearing a white suit while Ellington is more casually dressed, wearing a polka-dot shirt. They chat a bit, smiling.

I don’t actually know this, but I’m guessing that this is the first time these two met. After all, they traveled in different circles. There is an element of negotiation in this whole conversation – negotiation between the two, negotiation with the broader public. Just what ARE we talking about, and how do we say it? Early in the conversation Ellington and Bernstein are negotiating, if you will, with one another, albeit in public. Later each will get long uninterrupted stretches where they direct their remarks mostly to their interrogator and, by implication, the broader audience.

2:30, Duke, wiping his eyes, looks like he’s waking himself up (while someone off screen is asking a question about whether or not music is confined to “cultural centers”). Bernstein runs a hand through his hair.

3:09 or so, Bernstein refers to “the cultural explosion,” of which he approves, contra “the higher brow critics.” Remember, this is the high 1960s & the Beatles, for example, had landed in the USA in 1964.

3:41, Ellington is happy to know that the American audience is maturing. He goes on to say that “everyone gets their own audience more or less and ours of course is spread over a long period...We cover a lot of different generations.”

Ellington is a generation older than Bernstein and was broadcasting nationally from the Cotton Club in the 1920s. Big band swing was the popular music of the 30s and into the 40s. He continued to tour up to the end of his life, but I believe that at some point he was subsidizing the band from his royalties. But 1966 was surely on the down slope of his career trajectory (he died in 1974). The previous year the Pulitzer jury had recommended him for a special prize, but the board rejected it. This made the news at the time.

Bernstein, in contrast, was in full flower. West Side Story had been a smash on Broadway in the late 1950s; the film version won 10 Oscars in 1961. In 1966 Bernstein was lording it over New York society as director of the New York Philharmonic, now ensconced in Lincoln Center, which had opened in 1962. (Jazz didn’t show up there until the late 1980s.)

4:41, Bernstein observes “that we really share the same audiences to a much greater extent than we used to...the same kids, the same excited people.” Refers to “our kind of music.” And so begins the dance of just how do we talk about this music, what terms do we use, Cotton Club vs. Lincoln Center [& the Cotton Club audience was white, though the performers exclusively black]. Both of these men had long been in the public eye and had well-crafted public personas, but those personas were not crafted to talk with one another [in public view]. It seems they’re negotiating the terms of a discussion on the fly.

5:05, Ellington, “...what I’ve been trying in talking...trying to de-categorize this, it’s American music.” Note that Ellington did not particularly like the term “jazz.” He goes on, “it’s getting to the point where the modern contemporary composer and the guy who’s supposed to be a modern jazz composer, they all come out of the same conservatories.” [Really? Maybe now, but back then?*] Bernstein remarks that Ellington was one of the pioneers; he replies that he didn’t come out of the conservatory [laughter]. Bernstein refers to Ellington’s “so-called symphonic jazz” & Ellington remarks that he “had a conservatory in the capital theater...sit there and listen to the symphony before the picture.”

5:53, Bernstein offers, “you wrote symphonic jazz and I wrote jazz symphonies.” They laugh, Ellington offers his hand, Bernstein accepts. As musical analysis that phrase is, if not exactly nonsense, nearly so. As a proposal in a cultural negotiation, which this is, it is very good. And the chiasmic formulation (“symphonic jazz,” “jazz symphonies”) is crucial to the proposal. That’s what makes it work and elicits both the laughter and the handshake. The words are a proposal while the handshake is the mutual acceptance.

6:16 or so, The questioner uses the phrase “longhair music”, which used to refer to European classical music. I suppose the phrase still had some currency in that use in 1966 – I remember it – but was certainly on its last legs. Bernstein offers the obvious remark that things have certainly changed, clearly alluding to the long hair fashionable in rock and roll (“the plinking on a guitar”).

Bernstein goes on to talk about the subsidization of (classical) music, mentioning several levels of government and (c. 7:20) “foundations and great industrial complexes like Schlitz.” As he mentions Schlitz he makes a gesture indicating the present event, which establishes the auspices of this conversation. Schlitz Brewing was out of business by the end of the century.

He’s then asked about “rock and roll as an art form” and he says he doesn’t “know what the word art form means anymore and particularly in connection with rock and roll.” Here’s more cultural negotion, though not particulary directed toward Ellington. Bernstein is now negotiating on his own behalf and on behalf of whatever social-cultural mesh he embodies. He offers that only 5% of “pop” music (he’s just rejected “rock and roll” as old hat) is any good, but then that’s true of “serious” music as well.

10:00, Ellington is asked about the relationship “between the spontaneity of improvisation, on the one hand, and composed jazz music on the other.” Ellington begins by noting that he’s been writing for the same guys since 1927, 28, 29, 32 [those dates will come back later with names attached] so he knows their capabilities and writes to and for them. This, he points is, is quite different from writing for whoever picks up the music and plays it. This leads to an interesting discussion about notation from both Ellington and Bernstein. Bernstein notes, however, that there is greater interpretive leeway in jazz. It’s an interesting little conversation, well worth attending to.

There’s a long stretch in which Bernstein talks about the current state in classical music and just what do we do about tonality?

17:27 or so, Ellington is asked about the influence of classical music on his own music. He remarks about how all the movie houses on Broadway used of have symphony orchestras in them [presumably he’s talking about the silent era; “talkies” didn't start until the late 1920s]. He tried to make his six piece band sound like a symphony, “no success, but a lot of fun.”

19:16 or so, Ellington is asked about the influence of “folk music and basic spontaneous American jazz itself.”

19:35 or so – a very interesting and important set of remarks, Ellington: “I think spontaneity has its limitations; it’s very much exaggerated. I think there is very little spontaneity. You must take in account the fact that a man plays a great solo and the audience likes it so well he does it again. Well I think the second time he does it it’s an orchestration.” He goes on to give the example of Coleman Hawkins’ famous recorded solo on “Body and Soul.” He had to play that same solo for the rest of his life, not necessarily because he wanted to, but because audiences wanted him to.

21:08 or so, “Spontaneity is this spontaneous, that if it’s worth listening it has to be anticipated. I’ve never heard anybody play anything that wasn’t anticipated.” He goes on with qualification and clarification. Ellington is countering the wide-spread idea that improvisation is complete invention out of nothing, a myth that makes improvisation as exotic and mysterious as, you know, “darkest Africa” and “natural rhythm.”

In response to another question Ellington will go on to talk about the importance of providing suitable settings for his (star) soloists. He rattles off their names along with the dates they joined the orchestra: Harry Carney, 1927; Johnny Hodges 1928; Cootie Williams, 1929; Lawrence Brown, 1932; Strayhorn, 1939 (not a soloist but an arranger and composer, Ellington’s alter ego); Jimmy Hamilton, 1943; Cat Anderson, 1944; Procope, 1945; Paul Gonsalvez, 1950; Sam Woodyard, 1954). Think of the rhetorical force of the names and dates. He’s been around. And consider the fact that he reels off the names and dates so easily and casually.

Ellington ends (25:39): “Please tell all of your lovely listeners that we do love them madly.” 

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*Wikipedia has a useful timeline of jazz education. North Texas started its jazz degree program in 1947. In 1972 only 15 U.S. institutions of higher learning offered jazz degree programs, though many more had jazz ensembles and offered some courses. New England Conservatory was the first conservatory to offer a jazz degree in 1969. Manhattan School of Music opened a jazz department in 1982. Julliard offered courses and ensembles in 2001 and a degree program in 2004. Thus in 1966 the idea of people studying jazz in “conservatories” was mostly figurative (like the school of hard knocks), and both Ellington and Bernstein would surely have known that.

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Bonus: Bernstein rocks out.

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Bernstein on the future of music in a rebirth of tonality (1973):

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