1/15/08 - duke ellington and the harlem renaissance

In today's excerpt - Duke Ellington (1899-1974), one of the most influential composers in jazz, if not in all American music, and the Harlem Renaissance. In the early twentienth century, there was an outpouring of American black literature, painting and music, known as the Harlem Renaissance. This movement faced its own challenges, though especially the continued burden of prejudice and exclusion, along with the artistic tension between emulating white forms of art and pursuing a more 'authentic' black art:

"The Harlem Renaissance, insofar as [NAACP founder] W.E.B. Du Bois and others defined it, aspired to create an African-American version of 'high culture.' By the early thirties, that mission was becoming more difficult to sustain. A terrible riot in 1935 exposed the misery and rage behind the illusion of an upwardly mobile black culture.

"As Paul Allen Anderson explains in his book Deep River, a split opened between the original leaders of the Renaissance and younger artists such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who disavowed what Hughes called the 'Nordicized Negro intelligentsia' and sought a less status-conscious, less politely affirmative definition of black culture. Du Bois and his colleagues had dreamed ... of a 'hybridic fusion' of African-American, mainstream-American and European ideas. ... By contrast, the young rebel Hughes ... celebrated the authenticity of 'hot' jazz and rural blues. ...

"The split between the Harlem Renaissance elders and the new radical Negroes formed the backdrop for Duke Ellington's career. Like Gershwin, Ellington had a flair for ambivalence. He partook of Du Bois and Locke's cosmopolitanism, their rhetoric of uplift and transcendence. Yet he also adopted Hughes's slogans of resistance and subversion.

"There's a wonderful scene in a 1944 New Yorker profile, in which Ellington is shown deflating the expectations of an Icelandic music student who tries to nudge him toward the 'classical,' 'genius' category. The student keeps peppering the master with questions about Bach, and, before answering, Ellington makes an elaborate show of unwrapping a pork chop he has stowed in his pocket. 'Bach and myself,' he says taking a bite from the chop, 'both write with individual performers in mind.' With that pork chop maneuver, Ellington puts distance between himself and the European conception of genius, though without rejecting it entirely. Another time he addressed the issue head-on: 'To attempt to elevate the status of the jazz musician by forcing the level of his best work into comparisons with classical music is to deny him his rightful share of originality.' ...

"[Antonin] Dvorak had assumed that American music would come into his its own when it succeeded in importing African—American material into European form, but in the end the opposite thing happened: African-American composers appropriated European material into self-invented forms of blues and jazz."


Alex Ross


The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century


Farrar Straus Giroux


Copyright 2007 by Alex Ross


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