I’m Jonathan Bogart, and close OWOB watchers may remember my Faces week back in March. I still tumbl under my name, and I’m writing in various other locations scattered about the web (and offline too), but check back at the end of the week for a full listing. We have too much to get to today.
First things first: what on earth am I doing here again already? It’s not fair — I get a second round when there are plenty of people who haven’t even had their first shot yet? Believe me, I think it’s as ridiculous as you do; but I’d offered a while back to take another week if our generous ringleader Hendrik ever had any emergency drop-outs, and apparently there was one (writing for free, amiright), so here we are.
Now onto the more important subject: what in God’s name am I getting us into? It says One Week One Band up there at the top, not One Week One Classic American Composer or One Week One Jazz Orchestra. Those of you who are here for the indie rock and nothing but the indie rock may well be rolling your eyes and snorting disdainfully throughout the week, as is your sacred right. But I’m much more of a pop historian (thanks Tom!) than a rock fan, and I thought I might be able to say something useful and intelligent about a form of music that doesn’t, to put it mildly, ordinarily get a lot of press on the usual hip-music-blog circuit.
But a couple of caveats before we go any further. Real jazz heads may well be utterly bored by this week. Choosing to write about Duke Ellington is the jazz equivalent of choosing to write about the Beatles, i.e. both the epoch-making influence and the immediate sensuous attraction of the music are so nakedly apparent to the ear of even the most haphazardly-educated music fan that it’s vanishingly unlikely I’ll be able to say anything that hasn’t been said a million times already, and better. Also, I’m not musically trained in any but the most general listening sense. I can’t describe what’s happening in the music without resorting to metaphor and simile, so this will be a pop appreciation rather than a compositional, technical, or musicological one. There will be some history, which I am as likely to get wrong as otherwise, and there will be a lot of borderline-incoherent attempts to explain just what excites me about music that is, at the very youngest, seventy-seven years old.
Because here’s the thing: when I first realized that I wanted to write about Duke Ellington, I knew that I wanted to write about a particular piece of his career. He cut his first record in 1924 and played his last gig in 1973, and in between he was one of the most prolific composers, live performers, recording artists, and touring musicians of the twentieth century. There would be no way to cover fifty years in five songs, no matter how many Youtube videos I interpolated.
So instead I’m covering the years 1927-1934. The reasons for those specific cutoffs I’ll hopefully explain when we get to the songs themselves; but I chose the era because it fascinates me generally and because in the broader conversation about music it’s underappreciated. Jazz heads, classic song aficionados, and the general population are much more likely to be interested in reworkings of this music in the 50s, 60s, and 70s than in its original form, for a whole host of reasons having to do with generational mythologizing, technological change, the tyranny of the living over the dead, and basic unfamiliarity with the aesthetics and tropes of a vanished world.
This music was almost entirely initially released on ten-inch slabs of shellac (not vinyl) that played back at 78 revolutions per minute (compare to the 33⅓ of the twelve-inch album and the 45 of vinyl singles), and held about four minutes’ worth of song on either side. For two generations, this was the standard format of recorded music, the format listened to by everyone from Mark Twain and Queen Victoria to J. Robert Oppenheimer and Jack Kerouac. It was replaced by high-fidelity vinyl in the 1950s, in an inspired turn of destroy-the-past marketing compared to which the CD revolution was small beer indeed (you can still find vinyl records), and every surviving artist of the years before recorded and re-recorded their old hits on the new equipment, with stereo separation, studio effects, and crystal-clear sound — and, inevitably, a loss of the old, charged atmosphere.
It could be argued, in fact, that the cults of Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson and Hank Williams are least partially due to the fact that they didn’t survive to re-record their records in hi-fi; not coincidentally, they made very nearly the only mastered-from-78s records everyone agrees are worth hearing. But for those willing to push through the surface noise, the limited dynamic range, and the clotted masses of sound, the old electrically-recorded (and, before 1925, acoustically-recorded) music has its own charm. For one thing, it has a specific sound that you can’t actually get with live instrumentation; people like Tom Waits have spent large sums of money trying to replicate the sound of old 78s with modern recording equipment; and the loss of hearing the band would actually have sounded like in the room is made up for by the elegant concision with which Duke (first among his peers) wrote and scored for the records. Through smart microphone placement and delicate arrangements, he used the studio as an instrument decades before technology made it possible for everyone to do so; and doing so, he pushed popular music into new territories, both making the record an art form in itself and making jazz something worth hearing in something other than a dancing or jamming-along context. But I’ll be talking more about all that throughout the week: for now, just get ready to hear music you may not quite understand all the rules to right away.
The past is indeed another country; my mission here will be to try to give you the tools to visit it, to walk around and explore without just hitting the obvious tourist attractions and saying you’ve been. Luckily, they (mostly) share a language with us, and the exchange rate has never been more favorable. But I’ll sign off before this metaphor gets too out of control.
Up next: the music.