When most people think of Duke Ellington, they remember the superb jazz musician – composer, arranger, pianist – and the great players who worked with him in his bands. Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown – these are names imbedded in the jazz lore of trombonists. This is reason enough to remember Ellington, but most people aren’t as aware that Ellington was also a deep thinker, a brilliant man who had a lot to say about music and music making, and many other subjects.
The three part series of articles about Ellington by Richard O. Boyer that appeared in The New Yorker magazine in June and July 1944 is “must reading” for any student of music. Part 1 is available to read online; click HERE to read it in The New Yorker archives. Unfortunately, parts 2 and 3 are only available to subscribers of the magazine but you can find back issues in many libraries.
But there is one small thing in part 3 that got my attention in a big way. Boyer wrote, speaking of Ellington,
New acquaintances are always surprised when they learn that Duke has written poetry in which he advances the thesis that the rhythm of jazz has been beaten into the Negro race by three centuries of oppression. The four beats to a bar in jazz are also found, he maintains in verse, in the Negro pulse. Duke doesn’t like to show people his poetry. “You can say anything you want on the trombone, but you gotta be careful with words,” he explains.”
Richard O. Boyer, “Profiles: The Hot Bach–III,” The New Yorker, Vol XX, No. 21, July 8, 1944, p. 27.
Oh, wow. There is a lot to unpack in these sentences, but I want to particularly draw your attention to Ellington’s quote about being careful with words. I wrote about this subject – being careful with words – on The Last Trombone several months ago (click HERE to read my article from August 2016 about the importance of words). As I keep working on several book projects, I keep Ellington’s quotation in front of me at all times: “You gotta be careful with words.” Now, I LITERALLY keep Ellington’s words in front of me, thanks to a nice little bit of artistic work by my friend, Kevin Mungons. Kevin and I are collaborating on a book for University of Illinois Press about Homer Rodeheaver, the trombone-playing song leader for evangelist Billy Sunday in the first third of the twentieth century. When I shared Ellington’s words with Kevin, he was so taken by them that he made up a poster that I now have hanging up in my home office (see the photo that appears at the top of this post; if you’re reading this by email and don’t see that image, click on the title of this post to see this article, including the featured image, in your web browser). I love it. Kevin made this poster in the style of an old Blue Note jazz album.
The next time you sit down to write something, remember Ellington’s words. He’s right: with a trombone in your hands, you can say anything. But words? You gotta be careful. Very careful!