Friday, October 12, 2012

Duke's Clothed Woman

The relationship between classical music and American jazz in the first half of the 20th century is in some respects two stories. On the one hand, jazz is seen as a separate indigenous American movement beginning along the arterial Mississippi lifeline, with cross-currents and blurrings of influence. Its initial affect on classical traditions seems minimal, and simple-minded. On the other hand, late Romantic traditions begin to break up or fragment at the very same time, as the tonal paradigm gives way to new formal explorations, but this disintegration seems to have very little to do with popular, regional New World inventions which have their beginnings in New Orleans and the Negro folk culture. 

It isn't until the 1920's that nominally "serious" composers begin to incorporate syncopations and blues-y chord changes into their otherwise straightforward approaches. At the same time, subtle adaptations are being employed by innovative popular jazz figures such as Duke Ellington, whose moody and richly-textured instrumentations of the "dark side" of blues improvisation seem to indicate an absorption  of the polytonality of late Debussy and Albeniz, or early Stravinsky and Bartok.

The American band tradition of the 1920's and 1930's was breaking up after the war, and Ellington's compositions reflected a less dense orchestrational style, and a somewhat purified musical line. His music of the late 1940's began to sound rather like chamber music, instead of dance panels. He was following his more abstract tastes into new areas. In a sense, he no longer needed external examples to suggest alternative approaches--his originality had been freed. 

His "Clothed Woman" [1947] (played here by Marco Fumo) for piano solo has been seldom heard or appreciated, surprisingly so, given its prescient abstract qualities. Its astonishing dissonances and quick-changing tempos and moods looks forward to Monk, or Parker, or Tristano, or Tyner McCoy. I first heard the piece played by Marian McPartland about 15 years ago, and I nearly elevated out of my chair.  Though framed as querulous meditation, it contains an effusive central section that is as joyful as anything he ever did in the tinselly Twenties, yet in this context--or perhaps from our much postponed vantage today--it seems touchingly nostalgic, and a resignation without remorse.

Traditional jazz is principally limited to two modes: Dionysian and Tragic (or elegaic). Clothed Woman seems to rise above this dialectic towards a synthesis which is transcendent, though unsettled. One would find it difficult to find a collateral kind of statement in the classical keyboard repertory--perhaps a Rachmaninoff prelude . . . maybe. Its free use of tempos and abrupt turns is like a series of questions and anxious moments. It's important to remember that Ellington was not an "old" man at this point; he was still in his forties, the prime, one could say, of his creative life. He was creating ambitious longer works, though without much public success, and staying viable by any means he could. This period is nicely documented with some important selections on the Night Lights Classic Jazz website on a program called "On a Turquoise Cloud: Duke Ellington After the War, 1945-47" for those interested to hear some of the ambient work he was producing at the time [click on the PLAY EPISODE button to hear it on RealPlayer]; in it we hear Ellington himself rolling it out at Carnegie Hall in 1947. 

What in the world did the audience think they were hearing!? Suddenly the foot-tapping stopped, and a darker moment intervened. Time stood still. For a few stunning intervals, we hear America's greatest jazz composer looking into the abyss, seeing the uncertainty of America's possibility while remembering the liberation of his first great triumph in the Twenties. Mercy!   

1 comment:

Tom Beckett said...

Very nice post. Thanks.