The Elvis Presley Challenge

Elvis Presley Challenge No. 55 – Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington


Somewhere and at some time, jazz has to be mentioned.   Surely there cannot be a jazz musician more important than Duke Ellington.  He wrote a thousand compositions and that word is used because the term songs is inadequate.   His efforts include concertos and extended pieces.  The music flowed out of his brain, almost without interruption.   If that was not enough, he knew how to lead a band.  His soloists, people like Johnny Hodges, were as adored as some of the other band leaders.   Ellington also had the ability to compose for his soloists.   This helped them stay loyal.

The truth is that Duke Ellington makes a poor comparison for Elvis.  Ellington was cool and sophisticated but also disciplined.   The nearest equivalent to Ellington in rock music is probably Bob Dylan whose catalogue is so extensive that at times it appears to exhaust even him.  Dylan appears in public and the frail figure now looks drained by his achievements.  Ellington was different.  He was calm and charming, a man blessed with good looks and social authority.  Dylan has become haunted like Ezra Pound.

Duke Ellington and James StewartWhen James Stewart in the classic movie, ‘Anatomy Of Murder’, sits on the piano next to Ellington the scene makes this viewer uncomfortable.   It is not that it is barely credible that an amateur pianist will share a piano with Ellington.   As Hitchcock used to say, ‘It is only a movie’.  The scene disturbs in a way which is almost gothic, almost horror.   Something is wrong and like a bad dream it needs to be over soon.  His musical genius is entitled to personal space which should be left intact and not invaded by silliness and wrongheaded error.  Those sympathetic to the talent of Elvis watch his 29 movies with the same squeamishness.  Why is he being molested in this way?  We all know why, of course.  Money is important which is why so many of these challenges have drifted into politics.

But few jazz aficionados have sympathy for Elvis.  Compared to their giants, he was crude and unmusical.   He insisted Louis and Bingon immediate gratification and relief.   All the genres of American music have strengths and weaknesses.  Jazz is in hock to the saxophone and rock has the same obsession with the guitar.   In the film, ‘High Society’, Louis Armstrong teams with Bing Crosby on ‘And Now You Has Jazz.’  This fabulous record has a good tune and great performances, but in the final verse, when the song needs to swing at a higher level, it unashamedly quotes rock and roll.   The two genres exist because our nature requires both.

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong

The music critic, Henry Pleasants , does find a figure in jazz comparable to Elvis but it is not Duke Ellington.  His choice is Louis Armstrong.   He describes the two as exceptional talents whose instincts and intuition led American music to previously unimagined glories.   Pleasants argues that as great as both were neither required a long a career to achieve their possibilities.  Elvis sang and Louis blew and that was all we needed to hear.  Ellington like Dylan had a talent that produced song after song.  These were artists whose lives were essential for the realisation of their talent.   For Elvis and Armstrong their lives are almost irrelevant.   Louis covered the Edith Piaf song ’La Vie En Rose’ and Elvis warbled ‘Santa Lucia’.   Neither appears to have had any interest in the cultures that produced these songs.  When Ellington extended his range beyond his roots we assumed that he was expressing an aspect of a complex character.

Unfortunately, it is easy to confuse focus and purpose with destiny.  The outcomes for these performers were not solely determined by the nature of the talent.   A songwriter, especially one who is prolific, will have an autonomy that enables continued realisation.  Yet there are too many songwriters who have failed at longevity for us to assert that it Elvisis a talent that always enables continual discovery.   We can understand why Pleasants and many others have assumed that Elvis could only sing brilliantly for so long without repeating himself.  But Elvis had to endure self-inflicted physical decline and a team that encouraged him not to be creative.  Even with these restrictions his music took different directions.   He has endured.   Both Armstrong and Elvis could reinvent songs and make them special.  They also inspired the musicians around them.  Such attributes ensure longevity.  Indeed, both musicians made music all their lives.  The deterioration in quality that the critics detect was caused by their inability to overcome commercial compromises and retain integrity.  This is the gift that Dylan and Ellington had and which has inspired many other musicians to imitate their approach.  Without the talent of Dylan and Ellington these musicians have sometimes exposed themselves badly.    Pedestals especially when self-built can topple easily.

Duke Ellington is an exceptional figure.  He combines curiosity and authenticity and his music has roots that can reduce subsequent innovation by others to inconsequential affectation.  His brilliant version of ‘Fings Ain’t What They Duke EllingtonUsed To Be’ not only anticipates later jazz minimalism but also echoes with the blues.  It exists as a warning against future pretenders.  Plenty of jazz enthusiasts will claim that after Duke Ellington no one needs Elvis.

But, as Bing realised on ‘And Now You Has Jazz’, rock and roll has always had a carefree potential beyond jazz.  It is a special talent that can combine the two and it is worth suggesting that it is a talent rooted in instinct and exuberance rather than cerebral invention.   This is why Bing needed Louis Armstrong on ‘Now You Has Jazz’ and why Elvis was unable to sidestep his potential in this area.  Those who doubt that Elvis could not have combined jazz with rock and roll need to listen to his version of ‘Such A Night’ especially the last verse and the cool Mel Torme impression.

Fans will argue not unreasonably that jazz has more scope for improvisation.   Although true, Elvis pioneered repeating songs in the studio until he found the right groove.   He rarely sings a song the same way twice.   Some years ago, a book of photographs appeared that had been taken in a French nightclub.  Elvis appears posing alongside women who could well be prostitutes although some have teeth that suggest limited earning potential.   One of the women was later interviewed for the book.  She claims she told Elvis that she did not like his music and that she preferred jazz.  Elvis ignored the insult.  ‘It’s not that different to rock and roll really.’  And he is right; much is similar, especially jazz that has strong roots in the blues.   Of course, we have to be careful with what Elvis says.  When not in nightclubs he has told people that he does not understand jazz.   And yet he is one of the few rock and roll singers who, when carried away with a song, will scat his way through the tune, jazz style.  He actually does it on his very first record, ‘That’s All Right’.  Since his death, the record collection of Elvis has been revealed.  Gospel and rhythm and blues dominate.  Included is a Duke Ellington album, not the big band but the quartet.   It may even be the one that includes ‘Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be.’  No wonder we wonder.


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Elvis Presley Challenge No. 54 – Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband is in shape and has muscles.  The training in the riverside camp has worked.  The man is still a jabber.  He keeps his distance and the blows he lands, though consistent, are not frequent.  This boxer is more interested in victory than blood.  Those appetites are more evident in his opponent.  David Cameron has appetites nurtured by a callous elite which is why the vampire in him snarls when cornered in the sunlight.

Even in the highly praised speech by Miliband at the Labour Party Conference this week, the guard stayed high and close to his chin. The promises were modest although Ed did give numbers, the extra number of homes and apprenticeships.  Ed MilibandMiliband is no Roosevelt ready to embrace Keynesianism and he still has a chancellor who will take his misplaced loyalty to the banks to his grave.   But this is politics British style.  Leaders have to be careful.   The gloves have to be extra heavy because the rich bleed so easily and the Tory press will claim a premature knockout if you ever do slip.  The counts from right wing newspapers rarely go to ten.  This time it was different.  Ali it was not but Ed did dance around the ring.

The man displayed a confidence few would have imagined possible.  Twelve months can make a difference and at least two ‘I told you so’ moments have added to his self-belief.  All boxers will tell you that memory is important in a fight.  The boxer who lands the blow will remind his opponent throughout the fight that he has hurt him, even if it was half a dozen rounds earlier.  Boxers are not silent in the ring.  They insult one another constantly.  The hurt fighter will respond by doing all he can to pretend he hardly felt the blow.  As the world champion Jose Torrès once said, ‘All great fighters are liars.’

It leads us rather neatly back to politics because there are a few left wing optimists who believe that Ed is just that.  They think that he is being deceitful and that he is more radical than he pretends.   They lick their lips at the thought of a Green Bank and nationalised railways without the subsidies currently being paid to private companies.   Ed, the optimists say, will do the same as the Tories do, hide his plans behind talk of ‘One nation politics’.   A couple of drinks and some left wingers imagine Miliband as Chavez without the red beret, someone who will create a participative democracy.  If only.  But there may be surprises.  Every so often even the jabbers land knock out blows.

David Cameron is losing itBritain is a failed neo conservative experiment and the tragedy for the British is that the neo conservatives are ideologues who believe that failure can only occur because the model is not pure enough. They are like the Communists who preceded them, sometimes in the same families.  Prior to these madmen and women, though, Britain was a malfunctioning social democracy.  There are two causes that have to be addressed by any UK politician who claims to be serious.  They are social class and the broken UK industrial model.  Neo conservatives think it can be fixed simply by removing regulation.   Entrepreneurs and inventors, like they did in the 18th century, will rush out into the street from their living rooms and reshape the world.   Neo conservatives are not interested in the successful industrial models that were established around the world in the last century.  Invariably, all required government support and direction but when did facts have consequence for a neo conservative?  Showbiz historian Niall Ferguson is claimed by them to be an intellectual.  Well, we now know what has happened to his empirical credibility.   The wary ask whether Ed is serious enough.  He could be like the rest of the austerity clinging power seekers within the Labour Party who have spent their lives avoiding these questions.   Ed Balls, the right hand man of Miliband, still imagines a future for Britain based on its financial sector.    But Ed M, rather than Ed B, has two qualities that make the disenchanted still hope.   He is not Tony Blair and he is not his brother David.   They were superior political performers to Ed but flawed deeply by their elitist self-regard.  Ed also has very good hair and Cameron is losing his.  That must be worth at least three seats in the House of Commons.

And let us assume that Ed ducks the real questions that haunt Britain.  Why not?  Everybody else has in the past 100 years.  We can still look forward to a personal contest that Westminster gossip demands, Ed Miliband versus Boris Johnson.  We can all imagine.  It would be the comic versus the serious, vaudeville versus drama and pop versus classical.    One has to be pessimistic about the result.  Britain is the country that did, after all, produce the X Factor.   The great Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, died this week.  He had a great affection for the English.  He thought that we were a bit thick but ‘awfully good people’.   I think he should have said blinkered and that takes us to the other cause of our failure, social class.   There was much celebration over the Olympics ceremony and what was created by the Labour Government after the Second World War.  Some people within the Labour Party believe that Miliband will be the Clement Attlee of our age.  He will say a lot less than Tony Blair but produce a lot more.  They forget that Attlee left the institutions of aristocratic privilege intact.   One nation Miliband could make

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm

the same mistakes.  Neither should we assume that Miliband is an intellectual nor underestimate Johnson.  Miliband may be a cerebral giant compared to Blair but considering his cultural inheritance from his family we are entitled to be sniffy about his degree.  Johnson also knows what plays.  When the nurses danced on the beds at the Olympics Cameron looked uncomfortable.  Johnson would have the cheek to cut the NHS and join in the fun in the wards.

Nobody should be surprised that the Miliband speech was impressive.  With a ten point lead he now thinks he can win.   The brother is history and it will be a while before he gathers an army to lead a revolt.  What is odd these days is that it is the Tories who speak out of turn.   I cannot remember in this parliament one Labour MP being criticised for outspoken views.  People in the Labour Party tell me that shadow ministers fear having their performance being reviewed by their Party leader.  Like Attlee, Miliband is tougher than we think.  But the King has to know that he really is the monarch.  This takes us to Elvis and possibly his most important failing.  He never understood just how much power he had.  His success made him wary rather than confident.  He eventually aimed his music at country charts, Vegas and Middle America.  The rest of the world wanted to know why he ignored the other lands and people that he had conquered.   Elvis underestimated himself and sometimes blamed himself for the death of his infant twin.  Miliband has to avoid the same mistake but, unlike Elvis, he has no regrets about the blood on his hands from the defeated brother.  Now that is a thought to give us confidence.


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