Review: From Dvorak to Duke Ellington by Maurice Peress Print E-mail

Duke_Ellington_1943(American Book Review January/February 2005, Volume 26, Number 2)

The Soul of American Music

The hybridization of racial and ethnic cultures in American art, particularly in literature, film, dance, and painting, did not really begin until after 1950. Before then there was little mixing—not because artists were incapable of cross-cultural influences but because European traditions of song and dance were so set, audiences so white, and barriers so thick, that racial commingling seldom occurred. One notes Mark Twain and Langston Hughes as exceptions, but they also prove the rule. Such a lineage, however, is not true of music. Music is America’s most democratic art, probably because of its, rather than, our nature. And yet the identity of American music—a dialogue and debate with those European traditions—arose from the experiences of slaves.

Recently on Book TV, Stanley Crouch clarified our music’s peculiar originality by saying that the blues moan, born in the fields of 1880s reconstruction, is an American invention by Africans released to freedom and grief after slavery. Its blackness as a musical element, he stressed, is to us what the well-tempered clavier was to Bach. No one thinks the soul in Gershwin or Sinatra or Elvis or any rock ’n’ roll band was pried from the vestiges of Viennese divertimenti or Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. (Current proof exists in the wanna-bees and winners of American Idol, who all try to sound like Celine Dion, a white French-Canadian gospel-influenced singer, who herself mimics—exceedingly well—the great Whitney Houston.)

Which is to say, the music we Americans respond to stems from the social traditions that black musicians have created, a kind of artistic usefulness you’ll hear at a New Orleans funeral march or in the sexual excitement of a nightclub. This sensibility drives Maurice Peress’s self-involved, tradition-savvy, and illuminating study, From Dvorak to Duke Ellington. The child of a Polish mother and a Jewish-Iraqi father, conductor Peress tells with a musician’s heart how American music, as it was shaped by a few black and black-influenced white composers, is the story of "the transfer of creative power from Europe to America, [with] Dvorak being the prophet and Ellington its fulfillment."

Yes, but not so fast. That leap requires a good century of crossover, moving from white to black, from East European to African American, from composition to jazz. Peress tracks this evolution by heeding Virgil Thomson’s dictum: "The history of music is the history of its composition, not its performance." Of course, jazz has turned that notion topsy-turvy. But, as the composer’s advocate, Peress finds his story in a curious line of black and black-imbued innovators: Dvorak, Will Marion Cook, George Gershwin, George Antheil, Leonard Bernstein, and Duke Ellington.

Via recording, orchestration, and writing, Peress is both definer and unifier of our musical tradition, born in the first half of the twentieth century. He has, also, during the 1980s and 1990s, re-created historic jazz concerts, among them Paul Whiteman’s 1924 premiere of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Ellington’s 1943 premiere of Black, Brown, and Beige. Furthermore, Peress is an educator, resembling his beloved Bernstein, who brought a generation to the symphony with his televised young people’s concerts. (In a chapter Peress describes how Bernstein hired him as an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic in 1961 and how Peress became the musical director of Bernstein’s Mass, first staged in 1971.) The golden thread in this book is its living history, with Peress as musician, memoirist, and musical archivist.

Dvorak is the most famous white composer to be enthralled by Negro song; most everyone knows the result: those American-sounding folk and spiritual elements of his Symphony No. 9, "From the New World." Peress believes this chestnut and other pieces Dvorak wrote during his three-year stay in America (1892 - 1895) anchored our musical individuality in folk (read, black) music. The Czech composer was a seasoned adaptor of such music, having based his "Slavonic Dances" on Bohemian folk tunes. After traveling to the Czech settlement of Spillville, Iowa, Dvorak wrote: "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music." It took a European to point out the obvious, namely, that the difference in American music had been its ragged, blues-baked voice that started with minstrelsy during the Civil War. Indeed, Dvorak was more right than he may have known—most serious black composers would never mount the European warhorses; in America, the symphony became an orchestra (minus the violins) of brass, winds, percussion, and piano; the string quartet, a jazz ensemble; and the Lutheran hymn, a gospel song. Each shift was further altered as improvisation complemented composition.

Though some readers might prefer Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz for more complete musical analyses, Peress’s historical contexts are well-honed. His archival lust, admirable. His eagerness to honor the serious and seriously forgotten black composers and arrangers like James Reese Europe and Will Marion Cook, again, perfectly tuned. His point feels nostalgic, especially with his concert re-creations. We should love this music more because it’s as animated and irreverent as we are. Some of us do love it. And yet not enough. The question chaffs: Why hasn’t the tradition of orchestral jazz from the 1920s to the 1950s become our classical music with its own halls, bands, and subscription series?

The best gift here is Peress’s journey through Duke Ellington’s extended works. Peress worked with Ellington on several occasions, transcribing the jazz suite Queenie Pie for symphony orchestra. Following Ellington’s death in 1974, Peress took up Black, Brown and Beige, originally subtitled, "A Tone Parallel to the American Negro." With work songs, blues, dances, and a gospel song, "Come Sunday," (which Mahalia Jackson recorded, her only non-gospel recording ever), the 44-minute suite is a living museum of black musical history as well as Ellington’s melodic genius, the distinctive timbres he got from players like Johnny Hodges, and those players’ improvisations which, to Peress’s amazement, the Duke had actually written out! Peress wants American musicians to listen to Ellington’s records and to observe the nuances of his scores so that, in Peress’s words, players might "capture the inflections, phrasing, and coloring of Duke’s own magnificent orchestra." (A program note: Avoid the 1992 Peress/Louis Bellson version of Black, Brown, and Beige; it features a very un-Ellington over-miking of Bellson’s snare drum and cymbal, which muddies the suite’s textures. Peress’s orchestration of the suite for the American Composers Orchestra, recorded in 1988, is superb.)

American music seems largely free of the prejudice which its African descendants still endure. Because Americans need to be told, Peress’s book also embodies this moral lesson about black music: It has only humanized us. Yet as racism roars on—we are reminded of inequalities still in the "celebratory" fiftieth anniversary year of Brown vs. Board of Education—it seems the humanity that black music stirs in us is forever beyond our grasp.