A week ago, my friend KLW, a distinguished New York jazz critic, called to ask if I had read Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker essay on Duke Ellington (and the Beatles). I had not, nor did I plan to. The prospect of Gopnik writing on something you care passionately about is always more than mildly dispiriting. KLW, however, was insistent. “Listen to this,” he said, and began to read portions of the piece, a review of Terry Teachout‘s new Ellington biography. KLW is a calm person, not easily roused to anger, but his irritation was palpable. Having now read the piece, I can hardly blame him.

Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about jazz often bemoan how little critical attention it receives in magazines like The New Yorker. But no attention would almost be better than the condescending “praise” of a critic like Gopnik.

Reading Gopnik, I was reminded of something Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in a recent post for The Atlantic:

I came up in a time when white intellectuals were forever making breathless pronouncements about their world, about my world, and about the world itself. My life was delineated lists like “Geniuses of Western Music” written by people who evidently believed Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin did not exist.

Gopnik knows that Ellington exists. He also knows that Ellington’s creativity, the inimitable stamp he left on all the music he orchestrated, does not lie solely, or mainly, in the notes he put on paper: “We seem to need new categories of value, and another kind of meditation on what originality is.” (Read: categories other than those applied to classical music.) Still, the essay seems to announce that, at last, someone not beholden to the jazz world has come along to explain why this peculiar music, this music that can’t be evaluated according to the old and still coveted (Western, classical) categories of value, merits consideration.

Perhaps to reassure his (white, middle-class) readers that he hasn’t been taken in, Gopnik begins by taking a swipe at jazz writers who have allegedly been handicapped by “liberal piety”. Out of said piety, jazz writers have produced “apologetics” for jazz, and “apologetics are the enemy of art criticism.” Yet over the course of its history, jazz hasn’t suffered much from liberal apologetics. The contrary seems more plausible: that for decades, racism kept white critics from taking jazz seriously. (And that history isn’t over, either.) Does Gopnik realize that for years, Chet Baker frequently ran ahead of Miles Davis in critics’ polls, or that the search for a great white hope has deformed jazz criticism far more deeply than “liberal piety,” or that Coltrane’s sound on the tenor was routinely described as “ugly”? The piety that Gopnik deplores — if “piety” is the appropriate word for a belief in equality — is part of what allowed critics to recognize that jazz, a music that grew out of the blues whose major innovators have largely been African-Americans, is an art form worthy of respectful attention and analysis.

Gopnik never spells out what he means by “liberal piety,” but he hints at it when he complains of the “ideological passions that can encumber jazz: not everything has to be seen as an allegory of persecution and salvation.” I wonder whom he’s referring to. Few critics have described jazz as an allegory of “persecution and salvation,” or engaged in special pleading, as he implies. Even at the height of free jazz, when the avant-garde was championed as if it were a political cause in its own right, there was often ferocious debate over the merits of individual performers. Gopnik obviously hasn’t read John Gennari’s superb history of jazz criticism, Blowin’ Hot and Cool.

And whom does Gopnik urge us to read instead of these defenders of the liberal faith? The “Tory Philip Larkin.” Larkin, of course, is unfailingly entertaining, never short of the acid quip. But he was also a curmudgeon who hated almost everything after Charlie Parker, whether it was the “passionless creep of a Miles Davis trumpet solo,” or the “terrier-shaking-a-rat-school of Archie Shepp (a white rat, of course).” To these ears, that line about Shepp sounds like a bitter old white man’s piety; do we really think it preferable to (or more productive of critical honesty or fairness than) “liberal piety”?

As for Gopnik’s portrait of Ellington, it is superficial at best, and demeaning at worst. Ellington is depicted as a well-dressed operator, a thief of other people’s work whose suit became a “strait jacket.” Oh, he was also a cad. (Well, he didn’t lie about it: “music is my mistress,” as he put it.) We learn of Ellington’s cool managerial style when he fired Charles Mingus, but not of the impeccable social grace (and stiff upper lip) that enabled him to say, when he failed to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1965: “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young.”

Ellington’s greatest recordings, Gopnik says, were short tunes recorded in the 1930s and 1940s, and mostly “tinny”. But then most of the records made in the Swing Era were tinny (and short). It’s not exactly wrong to say he achieved his peak in the early 40s, but that judgment has been reshaped, if not eclipsed, by the reappraisal of his extraordinary work of the 50s and 60s. Many of those pieces are suites and film scores that are anything but tinny thanks to modern recording technology. The majesty of late Ellington has been explored by Stanley Crouch and other Ellingtonians, but Gopnik seems to be unaware of it.

He seems no more aware of Ellington’s influence as a pianist. Ellington, he says, was merely OK as a pianist: another cliche of an older (and superseded) school of critics, never shared by musicians. An entire school of jazz pianism grew out of Ellington’s work: the work of Monk, Randy Weston, Jaki Byard, and Cecil Taylor, among others, is unimaginable without Ellington’s example. Monk devoted a record to his tunes; Cecil Taylor has spoken frequently of Ellington’s “orchestral” style at the piano; Coltrane teamed up with him on a memorable record. Again, one wonders: is Gopnik aware that Ellington has been an enormous influence on the playing — not merely, or mainly, the repertoire — of younger pianists like Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran?

Perhaps Gopnik simply hasn’t listened to much post-Ellington jazz piano beyond Bill Evans, about whom he wrote an admiring piece some years ago. That piece was a lyrical celebration of the recordings that Evans made at the Village Vanguard in 1961 with the drummer Paul Motian and the bassist Scott LaFaro. Not only was it rapturous, it had none of the condescension that mars Gopnik’s discussion of Ellington. (It takes nothing away from Evans’s remarkable achievement to say that there has always been something off-putting about the way he’s lionized by certain critics, as if it took a white man to turn jazz into a modernist art form.)

But it’s not, finally, the errors or assumptions that are most troubling about this essay: it’s that entirely undeserved tone of magisterial (indeed “breathless”) authority. It’s an unhappy reminder that if the subject is a jazz musician, even a figure as towering as Edward Kennedy Ellington, the usual critical standards are suspended.

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A writer with the London Review of Books. On Twitter: @AdamShatz.

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3 thoughts on “How not to write about Duke Ellington: a reader’s guide

  1. I’ve read a lot of enjoyable pieces on jazz and jazz artists. But none of them were great writing. Not many Pulitzers are handed out to jazz critics. Jazz does not translate into language. Unless you’ve heard A Love Supreme, there are no words to convey the experience. Once you’ve heard it, words are no longer sufficient. To argue with Gopnik is a fool’s errand. To get upset about what someone writes about the music, especially Duke’s music, is a waste of time.

  2. The sarcasm and generalizations made in this article detract from what was an otherwise exceptionally written piece. Succumbing to the lows of others is, never has been, nor ever will be an effective tool of debate.

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