An Interview with Duke Ellington

I have very little formal training in jazz, other than a basic knowledge of jazz history and a beginner-level improvisation class in graduate school.  However, this parallel art music fascinates me, and I have tremendous respect for the performer/composers and other brilliant figures in the field. I just started Robert Gottlieb’s Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now, and I’ve already been pulled into this amazing world, with its artistry, big personalities, and late nights.   In the first fifty pages, one of the most interesting chapters is by Duke Ellington, an iconic figure in jazz and the music world in general.  Part of the Ellington chapter consists of a self interview, full of probing questions as well as thoughtful and articulate answers.  I’ve included a brief sampling of the interview below.  And though not specifically horn-related, many of these thoughts can certainly be applied to a variety of fields in music.

Q. Do you consider yourself as a forerunner in the advanced musical trends derived from jazz?

A. There were many wonderful musicians who established themselves and the word “jazz” many years before my time. “Jazz” is only a word and really has no meaning. We stopped using it in 1943. To keep the whole thing clear, once and for all, I don’t believe in categories of any kind. (p. 36)

Q. Do you enjoy composing music, or do you prefer performing? And have you a magic formula for attracting audiences?

A. I like any and all of my associations with music — writing, playing, and listening. We write and play from our perspective, and the audience listens from its perspective. If and when we agree, I am lucky. (p. 37)

Q. Can you sense when something special is beginning to happen at a concert or on a record session?

A. When one is fortunate enough to have an extremely sensitive audience, and when every performer within the team on stage feels it, too, and reacts positively in coordination toward the pinnacle, and when both audience and performers are determined not to be outdone by the other, and when both have appreciation and taste to match — then it is indeed a very special moment, never to be forgotten. (p. 37-38)

Q. Who is the artist accountable to?

A. If artist he be, to himself. It is prostitution to sway or bend to money, or to the many other forms of advancement. (p. 39)

Q. If the work week of the foreseeable future is appreciably shortened, how do you think the cultural arts will fit into this kind of lifestyle?

A. People who make a living doing something they don’t enjoy wouldn’t even be happy with a one-day work week. (p. 40)

Q. When you don’t feel like performing, as must sometimes happen, how do you psyche yourself into doing a first-class job?

A. I have no preferred conditions for doing what I do for a living. I love it all, all of the time. (p. 41)

Q. What does America mean to you?

A. It’s where I was born.  It’s home. Its music world has been an extremely competitive scene, and that in itself incites drive. Without competition you wouldn’t have it. Then I’ve been very lucky in America.  I’ve been allowed to live well, and in many instances I’ve been spoiled. My friends and relatives live well, too. I’ve learned a lot there, where there are so many great musicians to learn from. Opportunity and luck are so important. You have to be in the right place at the right time. A gambler in a lucky streak can’t get lucky unless he’s shooting dice or doing what he does best. (p. 44)

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