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.
When 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 on 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.
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 is 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 Used 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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