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JAZZ : Christmas Gifts: A 'Bah, Humbug!' for Ellington Book

December 20, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

For the holiday gift season, a couple of book recommendations are in order. But first, a caveat is in order.

"DUKE ELLINGTON" by James Lincoln Collier (Oxford University Press: $19.95; 340 pages). The Ellington family is up in arms about Collier's book--and with good reason. Written from a muckraking perspective, it is a shot of literary poison squirted in the face of responsible musicology, an insult to the memory of an incomparably gifted black American artist.

Most dangerous is that naive readers, dazzled by the author's seemingly scholarly and authoritative prose, may place credence in his false premises and irrational conclusions. His all-encompassing derogations extend far beyond the boundaries of de gustibus .

Collier's failure is in keeping with his track record of stirring up controversy. He began by writing a few years ago that Americans, not Europeans, were the first to treat jazz seriously as an art form (a concept so preposterous that John Hammond, who could speak to the issue better than anyone else in this country, was the first to laugh at it). He later wrote a book about Louis Armstrong that did for its subject roughly what he has now tried to do with Ellington.

This time he has gone too far. Appraising Ellington's recorded oeuvre ("much of it memorable") and granting that "he wrote thousands upon thousands of bars of music," he tells us in the very next paragraph that "we are entitled to question . . . whether he was a composer at all."

We are told that, aside from "Solitude," none of his best-known works were written without outside help; that he "did not really know what good writing was" and that almost anything he composed running over three minutes ("Black, Brown & Beige," "The Harlem Suite," "The Shakespearean Suite" and other masterpieces) was valueless because Ellington was too ill-educated to imitate the structure of European music.

He devotes a mere 50 pages to the entire last 28 years of Ellington's career, starting with a chapter called "Decline and Fall." On the one hand, he derogates the Paul Whiteman genre of "symphonic jazz," yet he denounces the very Ellington works through which Duke showed the way out of that blind alley.

Collier's superficiality becomes clear in this statement: "Who Duke Ellington was is critical to the work he produced. If he had been different in this way or that, his work would have been different or might not even have existed." Delete Ellington's name, substitute the name of any musician, painter, actor or sculptor who ever lived, and the sentence will make no more or less sense.

Collier beats to death the idea that Ellington was too middle-class, too lazy, too celebrity-and-woman-conscious, an indifferent pianist, a lyricist totally without talent and not sufficiently committed to the cause of his people. (This of a man who talked proudly of writing Negro music, whose first extended work was called "A Tone Parallel to the History of the American Negro.") He is gratuitously unkind to Ruth Ellington who, unlike her brother, is still around to read this contumely.

Having known the subject, warts and all--and nobody denies that there were warts--for much of his adult life, and having worked for him off and on for seven years, I was in a position to find in Collier's analyses flaws that may not be apparent to the average reader. What should be clear to anyone is that Ellington's genius will live in the minds of music lovers long after his detractors have been forgotten.

To sum up: Giving this to an Ellington fan for Christmas would be akin to presenting Juliet Prowse with a leopard.

"SINGERS & THE SONG" by Gene Lees (Oxford University Press: $18.95; 257 pages). Though he has had many successes in other areas (as one-time Down Beat editor, as lyricist and singer), Lees is best known as author-editor of the monthly Jazzletter.

Just as the subject matter of the publication extends far beyond the realm of jazz, "Singers & the Song" is no less broad in its compass--understandably, since it comprises 10 essays from that source. Only five of the pieces are strictly about singers: Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Dick Haymes, Jo Stafford. All are written with insight, compassion and the very special sensitivity with which Lees has become identified.

The other subjects are the lyricist/singer Johnny Mercer, the decline of the big bands, a delightful history of the English language as it applies to the writing of song lyrics, the late composer Hugo Friedhofer and, finally, taking up the last third of the book, "A Journey to Cologne," an altogether riveting account of how Lees was pressed into duty as translator (though there was much more to it than mere translation) of some poems written by a young man named Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II. Set to music, they were recorded in an album with Sarah Vaughan as the principal singer.

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