What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, December 27, 2013

December 23 & 30, 2013 Issue

Adam Gopnik has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Author of one of this year’s most beautiful pieces, “Bread and Women” (The New Yorker, November 4, 2013), he’s now produced one of its most execrable. The piece, titled “Two Bands,” in this week’s issue, is a review of Terry Teachout’s Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington and Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In. In it, Gopnik calls Ellington a thief. He lists a number of Ellington classics (e.g., “Take the A Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Caravan,” “Mood Indigo,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “In a Sentimental Mood”) and says,

Ellington owned them, but they didn’t start in his head, or take form under his fingers. Teachout says all the right things about how, without Ellington’s ears to hear them and his intelligence to fix and resolve them, these might have been butterflies that lived a day, fluttered, and died. But you sense that he’s shaken by the news. It seems like theft.

Gopnik goes on to say, “Ellington really did take other men’s ideas and act as if they were his own. But he did this because he took other men’s ideas and made them his own. There are artists whose genius lies in exploiting other people’s talent, and we can recognize the exploitation as genius.” Gopnik undercuts Ellington’s status as a brilliant composer, praising instead his managerial skills (“Duke Ellington was a great impresario and bandleader who created the most stylish sound, and brand, in American music, and kept a company of musicians going for half a century”).

In his piece, Gopnik identifies two types of originality – originality of ideas and originality of labor. I have no problem with Gopnik’s equal valuation of these two kinds of originality, but I strongly object to his implication that Ellington’s originality was mainly in labor. It’s a stunted interpretation, emphasizing only part of Ellington’s creative process. Whitney Balliett, in his Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954 – 2000, describes this process as follows:

Ellington composes a number, which may be a blues, a capsule concerto, a ballad, a program piece, a tone poem, a sly bit of portraiture, an up-tempo celebration of nothing in particular, or a reworking of a standard. It is tried out by the band, which makes suggestions, and an arrangement is developed. This arrangement is orchestrated and played over and over and, if it is found not wanting, passes into the band’s repertory. Once there, it is far from static, for each time it is performed it is improvised upon, to different degrees, by both the ensemble and the soloists, among them the composer himself. Finally, a kind of composite rendition emerges, and a “Solitude” or “Mood Indigo” or “Never No Lament” takes permanent, though malleable shape. Thus Ellington is at once a classical and a popular-music composer, an interpretive classical musician, a conductor, and a jazz improviser.

This description is, to my mind, much fairer to Ellington than Gopnik’s “theft” accusation. Gopnik slights Ellington in another way, too. He says Ellington played “no better than O.K. piano.” Anyone who’s ever heard Ellington’s gorgeous “All The Things You Are (take 2),” on his superb Piano In The Foreground knows better than that. Balliett, in his review of a 1967 Ellington stand at the Rainbow Grill, wrote, “And of course there was Ellington, playing first-rate piano” (“Small Band,” Ecstasy at the Onion, 1971).  

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