Friday, April 29, 2011

Beyond Category

Continuing our celebration of Duke Ellington. The song that defines the "Jazz Age" for me is "Take the A-Train" composed by Billy Strayhorn for Duke Ellington in 1938. The "A" Train is a reference to the subway line that runs from Brooklyn to Harlem upon the express tracks through Manhattan, in New York City. The inspiration for the song comes from Ellington giving Strayhorn directions to get to his house.

I confess to being one of those obnoxious tourists who took a ride on the "A" Train merely because of this composition. But that's just payback for all those tourists that make driving along Hollywood Blvd or Sunset such a trial. ;-)

Anyways, within the Jazz tradition reinterpretation of the standards is a vital form of aesthetic progression. Successive generations of performers apply their new styles in a reassessment of the classics. This is sharp contrast to the Classical music tradition. For instance, one doesn't reinterpret a Bach piece in the style of Stravinsky or restructure Mozart as a minimalist piece from Glass. I think this is one of the principle charms of jazz music.

While Classical composers like Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin are preserve and revered in a manner similar to museum pieces, the Jazz masters like Ellington, Armstrong, and Gillespie are still providing grist to the mill of Jazz creativity. Yes, that's a generalization with definite exceptions, but as a broad analysis I believe it holds true.

Anyways, let's look at this tradition. Here's Duke:

Here's a post-Swing interpretation featuring Anita O'Day:

Now, we go West Coast "cool" with Dave Brubeck:

Finally, Charles Mingus give it the late Hard Bop treatment:

In each interpretation, what were the primary emotive techniques? Positing the Ellington performance as the model for comparison, what are the new qualities that the subsequent interpretations bring? These are the types of questions that make the Jazz tradition so intellectually stimulating. And it was Ellington's special talents that established the standards by which we may judge other performances.

Anyways, here the Wikipedia page for Take the "A" Train.

Here are the Wikipedia pages for Anita O'Day, Dave Brubeck, and Charles Mingus.


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