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Style vs. Content

David Berger

300 years ago, the greatest composer who ever lived was getting older.  Several of his sons became composers and became even more popular than their genius father.  They wrote in a newer, simpler style—less chromatic and contrapuntal than the old man.  300 years later J.S. Bach is revered and many musicians (myself included) consider his music to be the cornerstone of Western Music.  I learned harmony and counterpoint by studying Bach.  Not only that, but I learned how to tell a compelling and satisfying story from hours and hours of letting those wonderful complex textures seep into my soul. 


As far as Bach’s sons, I did learn a few of their piano pieces when I was young, but the Bachs were soon eclipsed by Haydn and Mozart.  The popular tastes of J.S. Bach’s later years moved on to the Classical style and his scores were used to wrap fish in.  Younger composers knew of Bach, but it wasn’t until Mendelssohn canonized Bach, that he took his rightful place in the pantheon.  


Bach is known as a consolidator.  He absorbed all the Baroque and Pre-Baroque techniques and conventions, and put them together in a more sophisticated and meaningful way.  He didn’t invent the string quartet or the symphony like Haydn.  Nor did he expand development and create Romanticism like Beethoven.  He used the forms of his day (dance suites, hymns, inventions, fugues, etc.), was creative within them and was so much better than his contemporaries that his music transcended the style.  To paraphrase Thelonious Monk, he wasn’t looking for something new, just something good. 


In the 20th century Duke Ellington was also labeled a consolidator.  For the most part, he was content to compose within the established forms of his day.  He loved the jazz tradition, and had no desire to abandon any of it.  He kept adding, but never subtracted.  Although he was deemed “old fashioned” by the advent of bebop in 1945, Ellington remained active on the scene until his death in 1974 at the age of 75.  Even so, he was consistently voted best composer and arranger in the Downbeat critics poll right up to the end.  The following year “Best Composer” skipped a couple of generations and went to Carla Bley.  By this time, jazz had become irrelevant to 90% of Americans.  My baby boomer friends saw 1960s and ’70s Ellington as a dinosaur.  They were into simpler music with less complex harmonies and counterpoint.  Sound familiar?


Tell me, when was the last time you listened to Sonny & Cher or The Jefferson Airplane, or even Janice Joplin, Cream or Jimi Hendrix?  All that stuff was incredibly popular in the late ’60s.  What about Bitches’ Brew?  I saw that band a few times, and haven’t listened to those recordings since I graduated from college in 1971.  But do I listen to Impressions of the Far East (Far East Suite)?  Not only do I love listening to it, but I’ve transcribed it and performed it while I was conductor of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  It was and continues to be inspiring.  The same goes for New Orleans Suite and a pile of other late Ellington masterpieces. 


The point here is that stylistically, jazz and popular music had moved on, but Ellington was still composing and performing great new music in an older style.  He was representing the world as he saw it.  As you age, you don’t lose your past.  You add your new experiences on top of your past ones and gradually evolve to a slightly newer perspective that expresses who you were and who you have become.   To deny the past is disingenuous and dangerous to your mental health as well as your art. 


And yet, the critics and many young musicians and fans have never learned this lesson.  Or perhaps they conveniently have forgotten it in order to try to fit into Pop Culture, which throws out the past with yesterday’s newspaper.  Or since I might be the last person to read an actual newspaper printed with ink on paper, yesterday’s news disappears from the Facebook crawl on your iPhone. 


Duke Ellington’s supreme compliment was “beyond category.”  What he meant was that someone or something transcended style and was so rich in content, that it will live forever.  Great music, great art and great thoughts can appear when you least expect it. 


40 years ago I was playing a big band gig, sitting in the trumpet section next to Jimmy Maxwell.  I don’t remember who the leader was or anything else about it except this: at one point one of the other musicians stood up to play a solo.  He was not a musician I held in high regard, but he played something really beautiful in this solo.  It startled me, so I turned to Jimmy.  He had a smile on his face.  I told him that I was really surprised.  I didn’t know that this guy had it in him, to which Jim replied, “Everyone has something great to say.”  I’ve never forgotten that.  My goal (inspired by Maestro Ellington) is to create situations to coax that greatness out of everyone I come in contact with—on the bandstand and off.  I’m not always successful, but I’m going to keep at it because the rewards are beyond category.

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  • River Bergstrom on

    As we got to know each other better and better, the stories and statements gained depth. 2004; playing with Cedar Walton, who one day told me that: “…my biggest influence comes from Duke Ellington…did you know that?” I had to admit that I didn’t know or realize Duke’s profound influence on Cedar. But the more I listened to some things, the influence was obvious. Others, not so much. I’m of the thinking that Cedar’s tunes need to be tunes that are in the “Real Books” and played more at “general business” occasions, or “Jazz Standards” gigs, by musicians every where. There are a lot of rewarding and brilliantly written tunes of Cedar’s that should at least be as well known as some of all the others that were steadily working through, when there was work to be had. I know I hope to someday form a quintet (trumpet and tenor/alto) and play Cedar’s tunes. Just my two cents…

  • Paul Baker on

    I take your point about content vs. style, but when you compare Ellington the composer to Miles, Janis, Jimi, etc. the artists, aren’t you comparing apples to oranges? Miles, Janis, and Jimi are still held in the highest regard as performers and artists, and yes, they are still broadcast today. They are iconic, just as Ellington is iconic as a composer. When the list of iconic pianists is compiled will Ellington be on it? Will Brookmeyer?

  • Steve Brown on

    Very well written. Totally agree!

  • Andrew Stonerock on

    Great article. I think Louis Armstrong is similar. A few of his later recordings are some of his most listened to, particularly Hello Dolly, Ella and Louis.

  • Bill Kirchner on

    Say what you will—or won’t—about BITCHES BREW, but the years 1969-71 arguably were Miles’s peak years as a trumpet player. I still listen to his so-called “electric music” from the ‘60s, ’70s, and ’80s on a selective basis. (Though admittedly, one reason for that is that I teach a course on his music at Manhattan School of Music.) Is it my favorite Miles? No. But it’s far from barren music. Try “Right Off” from JACK JOHNSON (1970) for starters.

    In general, thanks for a fine article. Though you’re more a fan of Ellington’s NEW ORLEANS SUITE than I am. My own feeling is that Duke’s writing declined after Billy Strayhorn’s death, though he was still capable of hitting an occasional home run. (By the way, if you compare Duke’s “The Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies” from NEW ORLEANS SUITE with Miles’s 1974 “He Loved Him Madly,” you’ll hear a striking similarity.)

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