Jazz Notes: Shocking! Women fell on their faces

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The Independent Culture
EDWARD KENNEDY "Duke" Ellington, born 100 years ago this week, was one of the commanding figures in jazz, responsible for some of the finest performed, most adventurously crafted and emotionally serious work in 20th-century music. Charismatic and eloquent, he came to epitomise black dignity, but beneath the sophisticated facade the public saw was a personality as rich and as complex as the sounds he wove into his music.

The more that is written about this remarkable man the faster and further he recedes from us. Flaubert said an artist should manage to make posterity believe he never existed but Ellington was too large a figure to elude posterity entirely, so he did the next best thing, he gave posterity only that part of him which was necessary to achieve his ends.

Today it is his music that rightly commands our attention, but this has left a void where his life used to be, a separation between art and artist that fails to acknowledge the tensions, internal and external, that shaped his life. Yet, in searching for those tensions, the more such scrutiny makes any life, however exemplary, take on human shape with all too human weaknesses.

Ellington was an aristocrat who chose to live an itinerant life, crossing and recrossing America to wherever his next engagement might take him. Such a life, lived out of a different hotel room every night, allowed him to indulge in his passion for sex. "There were only two things in his life," said his son Mercer, "his music and his ladies. Women were his hobby, his leisure-time pursuit."

A bon vivant who thrilled at the prospect of the chase and conquest, Ellington charmed wives from under the noses of their husbands, young women in their first flush of maturity and older women who could exploit his love of foreplay. The handsome Ellington's "ladies" sought him out everywhere he played. "They absolutely adored him, it was shocking! I couldn't believe it, absolutely shocking! The way the women fell on their faces in front of him," said his sister Ruth.

Jazz, forever banging at the door of European culture, demanding recognition as an art form in its own right, is extremely self-conscious about itself and in Ellington it had its most profound image, an image of class. His success lay in his democratisation of white cultural connoisseurship with over 2,000 compositions that possess a range and breadth wider than any composer before or since his death.

Yet sex in all its technicolour variety was a constant theme running through his song titles, such as "Bird in Paradise", a portrait of a lesbian, "Warm Valley", a sensuous musical fantasy inspired by a cleavage and "Night Creature", a portrait of a transvestite.

Today, classical masters such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner have all been the subject of the most detailed scrutiny - thus only Christ and Napoleon have been the subjects of more books than Wagner - and their place in cultural history is permanently established no matter what their human frailties. Hence the sublime elevation of Mozart's finest music is in no way questioned by the schoolboy scatological preoccupations of some of his letters.

Mindful that Ellington is quite obviously jazz's finest composer, reference to his voracious sexual appetite invites resentment in the mistaken belief that such allusions might somehow demean his artistic achievements in the eyes of the gatekeepers of culture. Maybe this unease reflects the saddest part of Freud's legacy, that no one can talk about sex without offending someone, or perhaps it has its roots in America's traditional insecurity when confronted by the European cultural establishment, an insecurity that seems to have been taken over by jazz fans in both America and Europe.

Stuart Nicholson is author of `A Portrait of Duke Ellington: reminiscing in tempo' (Sidgwick & Jackson, pounds 20)