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Home Reviews Soundtrack to the Century

Soundtrack to the Century

Kevin Stevens
The Ellington Century, by David Schiff, University of California Press, 320 pp, $35.95, ISBN: 978-0520245877 Duke Ellington was born in 1899, at the dawn of what would become known as the American Century, and is a central figure in the development of jazz, America’s sole original art form and the soundtrack to the century. From the mid-1920s, when his band recorded dozens of three-minute blues songs and hot dance tunes, to his death in 1974, Ellington was America’s most important and innovative musical figure, recording for every major record label, achieving distinction as a composer, arranger, songwriter, bandleader and pianist, and writing and producing timeless music of every kind, from pop song and instrumental miniature to opera and film score. Yet throughout his career, Ellington battled not just the pervasive racism of his time and place, but the perception that his music, like the genre he helped most to define, was less than serious. As late as 1965, a few years before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honour, Ellington’s nomination for a Pulitzer Prize was turned down by the Pulitzer board. It was a staggering insult, both to him and to jazz. “Most Americans,” Ellington said afterwards with no little bitterness, “still take it for granted that European-based music – classical music, if you will – is the only really respectable kind.” It would be another thirty-two years before the Pulitzer judges would decide, in their wisdom, to cite a jazz musician for their music award, but as David Schiff’s study of Ellington makes clear, mainstream music criticism has finally caught up with the brilliance of jazz and the genius of the men and women who have created and sustained its traditions. The Ellington Century is the latest in an unprecedented wave of important jazz studies published in the last decade, including critical biographies of, among others, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and detailed theoretical analyses of classic documents such as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and Armstrong’s early recordings. Schiff’s ambitious study reaches for a dimension that many books on jazz choose not to explore: Ellington’s place in the history of twentieth century art music. The book’s roots are revisionist. On the eve of the millennium, The New York Times had asked Schiff to write a retrospective article on the music of the passing century. When he opened that article by asserting…

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