Duke Ellington

Lorenz Hart’s Street Talk and Usher’s Post-Verbal Pop
June 25, 2012

The late musical wizard-for-hire Luther Henderson, who helped would-be singers develop nightclub acts between his arranging assignments for Duke Ellington, once explained in an interview that there used to be an unpublicized policy in effect at the Bonsoir, the Greenwich Village spot where Barbra Streisand got her start in the early 1960s. The club owners had a prohibition against performances of “My Funny Valentine”—written into the contracts, according to Henderson.

The Cotton Club Parade Marches Backward
November 26, 2011

An origin narrative needs grounding in place, and the myth of jazz’s maturation during the Harlem Renaissance positions the music in the nexus of black expression, white emulation, cross-exploitation, and kitsch at the Cotton Club. From the time of its rise in the Prohibition Era, the club has been notorious for packaging African-American performance as exotica for white oglers. A newly staged production at City Center in New York, Cotton Club Parade, does some repackaging of that packaging for the 21st-century.

When Actors Sing
August 19, 2011

Duke Ellington, asked once in a TV interview about the music of his people, bridled at the question and improvised a riff on the fluidity of identity. "Let's see—'my people,'" Ellington said, feigning puzzlement. "Now, which of my people? You know, I'm in several groups. I'm in—let's see... I'm in the group of piano players. I'm in the group of listeners.

Spotify: Access Without Objects
August 05, 2011

Because their physical form is the quality that most obviously distinguishes vinyl records and CDs from digital music, we forget today that spinning discs were once more important as mechanisms of access than as objects. Music existed before record players, of course, and my grandparents could hear it performed in the dance halls of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Brooklyn, where they courted.

Spotify: Access Without Objects
August 05, 2011

Because their physical form is the quality that most obviously distinguishes vinyl records and CDs from digital music, we forget today that spinning discs were once more important as mechanisms of access than as objects. Music existed before record players, of course, and my grandparents could hear it performed in the dance halls of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Brooklyn, where they courted.

A Few Words in Defense of Randy Newman
March 04, 2011

In the era of the last presidential administration, Randy Newman, the distinguished elder of pop-song irony, wrote a tune called “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” in which he gave George W. Bush credit for doing no more harm than the Caesars, Hitler, or Stalin. “Now, the leaders we have,” he sang, “while they’re the worst that we’ve had, are hardly the worst that this poor world has seen.” In the same spirit, I’d like to offer a defense of “We Belong Together,” the Newman song from Toy Story 3 that just won the Academy Award for Best Song.

It's Good to Love the Banana
November 12, 2010

In music as well as politics, there is something marvelous in the human capacity to embrace bad ideas that jibe with one’s personal experience or taste. I’ve been thinking about this since last weekend, when I attended a pair of concerts devoted to the music of my favorite composer, Billy Strayhorn, at Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC).

The Road to Mastery
September 22, 2010

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong By Terry Teachout (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 475 pp., $30) Duke Ellington’s America By Harvey G. Cohen (University of Chicago Press, 688 pp., $40) Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original By Robin D.G. Kelley (Free Press, 588 pp., $30) Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone By Nadine Cohodas (Pantheon, 449 pp., $30) I. During one of his engagements at the Cotton Club in the mid-’30s, Duke Ellington spotted Leopold Stokowski sitting near the stage a short time before the start of the show.

On Harvey Pekar
July 16, 2010

I'd like to honor divergent traditions and share a couple of thoughts about Harvey Pekar, the comic-book writer, cult celebrity, and jazz lover, who died on July 12 at age 70. In eulogistic tradition, I have some nice things to say. Pekar cared deeply about music and made a life-long study of jazz. He came to the genre, as many of his fans came to him, in pursuit of a kind of anti-heroism that reinforced his self-image as an outcast marginalized for his superiority.

Just How Bad Were the Songs Paul and Linda McCartney Did Together?
June 11, 2010

I am little enriched for having listened over the past week to most (though not all) of more than 90 songs published with Paul and Linda McCartney credited jointly as co-writers. In fact, I almost wish that President Obama had never given Sir Paul the Gershwin Prize and stirred me to reconsider this remarkably unmemorable work, much of which I had heard at one time or another over the years and appropriately forgot.

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