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An interview with musicologist William Banfield
William Banfield
William Banfield currently holds the Endowed Chair in Arts and Humanities at the University of St.Thomas.

 

 



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Duke Ellington
(performed 06/10/00)

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Audio "David Danced" (9:24s)
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George Gershwin (performed 09/24/96)
Audio "Rhapsody in Blue" (16:24s)

 



 

WILLIAM BANFIELD: What I think we're talking about is tracking the development of orchestrated or enlarged jazz or black music forms. From spirituals to blues to rag to the concert things we see now in these larger orchestra pieces that utilize jazz practice tradition and are heard in larger forms and ensembles.
This notion of orchestrated jazz has an incredible and wonderful history, so by the time James P. Johnson is doing his piano and clarinet concertos--and we're familiar with Gershwin and certainly Ellington--you see people who are taking risks and experimenting with ad hoc instrumentation. This all started very early on, actually, as musicians began to pull together performance practices from the spirituals or blues (to chicken bones even). Rhythmic ideas of pulling these things together. We see this going on. Also, we have to mention Scott Joplin who was also doing early experimentation. We are talking about the late 19th century. It's already a practice in place and being notated by Scott Joplin and others in the ragtime period, and by the late 19th century we have all the musicians in New Orleans who were attempting to do the same thing. They were bringing spirituals, blues, European band music, and performing in smaller ensembles with mixed instrumentation so that the musicians have the capacity to do all kinds of things, to improvise as well as do things from the score.
So James P. Johnson and Gershwin, who are starting to dream about this thing in the '20s, have really remade a tradition that's already going on. That's what's really important.

One of the pioneers in this effort is James Reese, who in May of 1912 performed at Carnegie Hall with his Clef Club Symphony Orchestra. If you listen to the orchestration in that enterprise alone, 125 black musicians doing an ad hoc instrumentation using mandolins, banjos, five trap sets, 10 pianos. Basically, he said what he was attempting to do--the result was he and his musicians had developed a kind of symphony music that, no matter what you might think, it's different and distinctive. It lends itself to particular compositions of the race. Already, he's talking about how the music has to match the instrumentation, and, if you do it, you have to do it with a different kind of instrumentation. He was a pioneer in this effort, and we're talking about Carnegie Hall in 1912! By the time Paul Whiteman comes on the scene, and Benny Goodman, and George Gershwin, and all those that follow including James P. Johnson, they are already modeling what James Reese was doing in the early part of the century.

As a child, James P. Johnson is also watching his parents play. They are doing ring-shout dances, spirituals, and blues at the piano at home. Johnson is a child prodigy who is born with perfect pitch. Not only is he hearing everything, he's also watching the putting together of all these performance practices. Very early on, this is a part of how he sees the world musically. When he and Gershwin are dreaming about taking black popular forms--the spirituals, the blues, the ragtime--and putting them in larger orchestrated forms, they are dreaming about this in the '20s and making these piano rolls, and they both decide to do this. The interesting thing about this is that George always had a friendship with his musicians and colleagues in Harlem.

When Ellington and Johnson are doing this in Harlem, all of these guys are in New York and Gershwin is there too. William C. Handy has written a book and he is orchestrating the blues while this is going on. George Gershwin is a wonderful part of this discussion. Both of these gentlemen attempt to do this. Gershwin gets the credit for it and his works are great, but at the same time he becomes a great inspiration and a continual inspiration for James P. Johnson who then is able to initiate his pieces later on. We're talking about his jazz piano concerto from 1934; we're talking about his clarinet concerto in 1942. This is his dream to bring those vernacular forms to the concert stage and to orchestrate them for larger works and forms. He is able to do that. He does musicals and ballets. His opera in 1942 is a collaboration between him and Langston Hughes. Earlier this year, we had the premiere of this piece in Michigan that had been sitting for a long time.

ALAN BAKER: We don't think about James P. Johnson's name first, but it seems like he was a very significant player in the community. Talk a little bit about his significance historically.

James P. Johnson is considered the "Father of Stride Piano." That's how you've publicly come to know him. That's only one aspect of his work. He had these other aspirations from his parents and also from hanging out in Harlem at the time and really being impressed by what's called the "Race Men" ideology. There were great thinkers starting with Martin Delany. Then in 1903, we get W.E.B DuBois' "The Souls of Black Folks." There is a black intelligentsia that are writing about upholding the race and expanding the forms that black folks are using in literature and in music.

That inspires James P. Johnson. He is in Harlem and doing the Harlem Renaissance, doing the jazz age and so he is a part of all of this. The most popular way we come to know him is as the "Father of Stride Piano." It is this very virtuosic piano approach that is the next leg and arm of ragtime. This is how we come to know him. At the same time, he's writing music with his mentor Fats Waller, and he is also a songwriter. He's also accompanying Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. He's writing musicals and then hanging out with Gershwin. The idea is that he's going to take these forms, and "You and I, Gershwin, are going to write these large orchestrated pieces for symphony orchestra or large ensemble and then I'm going to take these ragtime piano pieces and these blues pieces and these show tunes and take it to the next level on the concert hall."

Gershwin was able to do this and James P. Johnson was able to do it and get the opportunities to do that. He continued to study as well: contemporary harmony and counterpoint and theory. He was making those applications as well in addition to studying orchestration. By the late '30s and '40s, this is when the other larger pieces are beginning to emerge: his "Harlem Symphony" in 1932, a piano concerto in 1934, a clarinet concerto in 1942, and so we see that he is able to work consistently up to his death.

Tell me a little about what we are hearing in the "Harlem Symphony" and in the confluence of all that music that comes out in the larger forms.

What you are hearing is a well-developed ragtime style. Vestiges of black church music, certainly the blues, and you are also hearing a lot of popular music traditions that you would hear in the minstrel show, in the Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley traditions. He's mixing all of that together. He's also aware of the classical form. There are some of those traditional forms that are being spun out.

You are hearing all of these things together and at the time it was "experimental." It was new. Now it seems very common to us. These gentlemen were true trailblazers to bring all of these forms together, and at a time when the country was still divided on how to value the vernacular forms. By the time we get to Duke Ellington, his attempt is to do the same thing. He gets the critical acclaim for it in 1943. The critics are confused and they say, "We don't understand what he is doing." Gershwin, James P. Johnson, and Duke Ellington, when you look at that period, then you get to see what it is they are doing. They were trying to shake out this interest between what was "popular" and what was "classical." That's the formula that we are still trying to shake out.

Talk about the premiere of "Black, brown, and beige" and that struggle in Ellington's music.

"Black, Brown and Beige" in 1943 was a media event at Carnegie Hall because it was well publicized in popular print, it was well attended by the leading critics and art circles and supporters of the time and Duke Ellington had a number of successes internationally. There were a lot of things written about the work of Duke Ellington. We have a major star here at age 44. The critics could like him. It was okay to like Duke Ellington. So the concert was very much appreciated and highly written about. The critics had a problem with "Black, Brown and Beige" because of the premise that this was a tone poem that would somehow pull together the entire history of the African American. It was an interesting idea to do musically, but many of the critics had a problem being able to pull it together. They saw it more as a wonderful vehicle for several jazz tunes. The synthesis of this larger form with the jazz energy, they really didn't understand this. Paul Bowles wrote that it was an "impossible synthesis" and that these two styles are on different wavelengths. The classical mindset is on a different wavelength than the jazz or popular music, and that people would walk away confused. That's what people noticed, that they were sure they liked everything that was going on, but there were various ways to interpret that. There were good moments here and there, but "Black, Brown and Beige" we didn't quite get. When you listen to it now, the many recordings of it now, it was quite an adventuresome piece. It was quite beautifully done, but just like "The Rite of Spring," people didn't get it. It's the same thing.

We may get into trouble for comparing the "Black, Brown and Beige" premiere to "The Rite of Spring." But the same consciousness is there. What we are doing is breaking into some new territory. Audiences are not sure what that is because they have not heard it. The artist is left with trying to pull together these things, and be true to his own voice, and be true to tradition, and at the same time move ahead. This is difficult.

Do you think that the breaking of those rules made people uneasy? They didn't know how to absorb it? Do you think that because of the notoriety that preceded the concert, do you think that they weren't prepared for it?

I think that with any artist, when the popular culture sets a formula for that artist, that's what people want. When the artist decides to continue to grow--which is what Ellington was doing this whole time--people have a problem with that. They say, "No, we like that good thing that you do." This is something we see played out even today. When an artist decides to try to change a little bit, his or her core audience doesn't follow them down the path very often. This is the case with Ellington. It continued to be a problem as he tried to expand these forms. They were telling him, "No! This is what you should be doing." To a large degree he did that, but then we have recordings where he plays with John Coltrane, where he's hanging out and trying to get a sense of things. In the same way, he's not as forward or fast as Miles Davis, but certainly he is expanding the form. He experimented with the sounds within it by having players play violin or taking the orchestration and spinning it a different way. He was constantly experimenting from the very beginning. There is this interesting innovation going on with Ellington all of the time, even if his audience is not aware of his conscious attempt to innovate and go beyond the borders.

Do you think that is because he is successful at maintaining his voice no matter what the forces employed.

Absolutely. I think his voice is always there. That's a part of the thing that defines Ellington. The voice includes experimentation. Artists have a way of voicing and writing tunes. They have a particular palette that you come to know as their voice. That doesn't change. All the way up to the '60s and middle '70s. You still here the Ellington voice, but he's trying to spin that voice. Every artist is always inspired and influenced by the other cultural forces that are around him or her. When Ellington is playing it safe and just doing what the people want, he's also concerned about social issues, particularly of black folks. Sometimes people didn't want him to go there. He always was committed to that. He thought that his music was the way black peoples' experiences were viewed and how those were explored and how those were growing.

He always stayed true to the folks. That's something that's beautiful about Ellington's work. Even though you hear it up on the stage, you still hear black culture expanded and put on the concert stage. These folks didn't want you to lose the essence or the essentials of the culture in the music. They are just saying that it, too, can have this expanded form and be heard in these various ways.

I'm assuming there was plenty of resistance from musical insiders who were giving concerts. Politically, talk a little about his struggles to keep his voice and make those statements in venues that may not have been welcoming.

I'm not going to address that because it's well documented and I don't want to cite anything. "The Duke Ellington Reader," edited by Mark Tucker, has many of the correspondences, but mostly the critical reviews and also has a lot of Ellington's own articles where he would talk about his music and works in music journals. You can see in his public discourse in the press that there were some questions where he stepped outside of what is his accepted role. Oftentimes, you can see this going back and forth. He was true to his plan from the very beginning.

He was attempting to provide people with entertainment, but it was enlightened entertainment. We use the word "entertainment" to mean just that: It's to make people feel good, but it's also to move people in various ways. I think that's what Ellington was always doing with his forms all the way from the '20s up to his death. You see it in the larger suites that he began to record. Those were an attempt to bring all kinds of North African music forms in, and so you see him dealing with this all the way through his life.

Now, when you get to Anthony Braxton, the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), we also have a real attempt here to experiment. I think Anthony Braxton is the black version of Schönberg or Babbitt. This is the black intellectual avant-garde. They brought black vernacular culture to the experimental framework. It's a different formula here. They are reconstituting forms and traditions. We were talking about James P. Johnson and Ellington who went to black vernacular, but what's interesting about the Chicago movement in the '60s was the fact that they also went to social dynamics of black folks. There was an incredible bursting open of new kinds of expressive modes. Political venues were being looked at. The establishment was being shot down, as it were. That's institutions of education, politics, and economics as well as musical institutions. That means the symphony orchestra and western European mechanisms. These were being shouted at. This is not only the black avant-garde, but also the European avant-garde.

White American avant-garde was attempting to reconfigure music in different ways. The Chicago music looked to Africa. They saw in the way in which African music was organized, there was a spirituality of Africa, the notion of music as ritual. You aren't just doing something for the concert stage, but are really engaged with the audience. These were some of the other things that shaped the music and the movement.
Black social cause, American social cause. You have the avant-garde that's going on in both of these circles. Black traditional music circles and jazz performers and traditional concert music performers are also breaking in new areas.

So there is a wonderful mix there. "Free jazz," which came with Ornette Coleman's album in 1961, is an attempt to turn jazz on its head again and just have no changes. Play exactly what the energy dictates in terms of the performers playing of the instruments. What does that tell us about where we are going to go as opposed to a score? This is kind of a radical thing. With this side of concert music, you had aleatoric practices. Free associations. You had atonality and serialism going on. All of these forces together begin to converge and I think that the AACM and this group of musicians really brought all of this together in some very wonderful ways. Anthony Braxton becomes a central composer in that movement.

This whole Chicago movement was also trying to move away from the European notion of a sole composer, that there was a communal music that was important. It was important because that was central to the kind of social politics that were going on with the civil rights movement, which then got mechanized a little later on. You see how it's all moving together. They were also bent on playing original music and helping each other facilitate one another's music. They had the founding of the AACM on May 8; they drew up the papers in 1965. This ensemble and this political and musical group tried to keep all of these principals in place and they trained younger musicians in this way.

They did clinics, performances, and concerts where these musicians upheld the principles and ideas of the AACM.

 

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