Two Far Gone

Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington: If the music doesn't say it, it probably shouldn't be said

With Ellington, it was somewhat different. Armstrong thought of himself primarily as an entertainer and only secondarily, if at all, as the creative jazz innovator that millions had worshipped for decades, whereas Duke regarded his role with more intellectual detachment. And because of his superficially hip, elegant public persona, not to mention his use of more advanced harmonic techniques in his music, boppers retained respect for him while at the same time trashing Armstrong.

If these two Olympian gods had ever troubled to observe the mortal rumblings going on beneath them, they would most certainly have been more confused than amused. Their minds were on loftier planes of concern than such superficialities as styles of demeanor or the manner of their deportment on stage. But where Ellington had become, without artifice, the embodiment of the middle-class black's hope for social acceptance in white America, Armstrong symbolized an embarrassing step backward. It seems fair to say that Louis as entertainer was loved by whites everywhere because he represented no threat to tradition. But to increasingly younger generations of blacks, he -- or, more accurately, his stage persona -- was a constant reminder of a past best forgotten.

In the early Thirties, when Armstrong's work grew more formulized and less innovative, Ellington's writing became increasingly experimental and challenging. From the point of view of harmony, counterpoint, melodic inventiveness, and tone color, no one in the world was writing like Duke Ellington. Nor did anyone ever have a band like his, especially in the prewar years. But while Ellington's star was in ascendance, Armstrong's was falling. Saddled with one mediocre, poorly rehearsed band after another, and dreary, uninspired, hack arrangements of Tin Pan Alley pop tunes, Armstrong had only himself to rely on. It's miraculous, indeed, considering all of these odds against him, that he turned out as many good records as he did during these years. His playing and singing on a long string of Decca 78s, soon to be reissued in their entirety by GRP, should be a revelation to a whole new generation of listeners. Just don't expect his band to sound as exotic or as provocative as Ellington's, as swinging as Basie's, or as well drilled as Lunceford's. Just concentrate on him, and you'll get your money's worth.

Since the Thirties, many critiques have been written about Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, their various musical contributions and slips from artistic grace, their relative ups and downs over the course of their equally long careers (Armstrong died in 1971, Ellington in '74, both while still professionally active), and, least important of all, their perceived failures as spokesmen for the political demands of Afro-Americans. From the critical perspective, it's perfectly reasonable to castigate an artist for "selling out" to commercial interests, even if it does help him meet his bills. That is a legitimate ground for complaint, for it is a violation of artistic responsibility. But to fault an artist for not taking a stand on a political issue is to miss the point of artistic expression. Picasso made his feelings about war eminently clear with Guernica. Should we expect more from a jazz musician?

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