It’s impossible to say too many great things about Duke Ellington— just try it! And if by accident of fate or fatigue one does get tongue-tied, Stephanie Stein Crease, author of the recently published Duke Ellington: His Life In Jazz (Chicago Review Press) will have heps making creole love calls again faster than they can say antidisestablishmentarianismist— just try it! The publishing racket (understandably) requires I tell ya’ll that Stephanie’s Duke is, in fact, a kids book written for ages 9 and up but keeping it hush-hush, on the QT and just between ya’ll and me: Edward Kennedy Ellington is for everyone, all the time— forever— although April 29, Duke’s birthday, will always be cause for special celebration.
Like many people in the New York City area, I rocked the 1999 Ellington Centennial by listening to WKCR, which played nothing but Duke for two weeks straight, 24 hours a day. It was awesome. Duke’s 110th anniversary in show business doesn’t have the same public profile but I’m hopeful that Stephanie’s highly engaging work will help raise a generation of kids who’ll keep Duke’s abundant genius alive: it’s not something to take for granted. As for Stephanie herself, her 2001 not-for-adults-only Gil Evans biography, Out Of The Cool was praised by Mr. American Splendor himself, Harvey Pekar, so— as with Pekar’s insistent championing of the Brooklyn-born jazz genius Joe Maneri— you know its quality. (For more on Stephanie’s Gil Evans, see her extensive interview with Jerry Jazz Musician.)
For those WWIB readers who don’t know Duke Ellington’s music, what can I say? In very brief, Ellington is one of the towering artistic figures of the 20th century. For a variety of aesthetic and historical reasons I’ll refrain from detailing here, the boldness, invention and sheer excitement of the best swing-era bands have been so marginalized, most people under the age of, say, 70, have a hard time considering them as more than hokum, or some fogey dancer’s nostalgia trip. That couldn’t be further from the truth— listen to Miles Davis’ Ellington memorial, “He Loved Him Madly” (from Get Up With It (1974)) to hear how one avant-garde composer/performer adored and transformed another. Likewise, as much as we all love Sun Ra, the Arkestra are no further out than Duke (check out Afro-Bossa from 1962, say) and, when he wants to, Duke can whomp a piano with as much weird space as Thelonious Monk, whose solo Plays Ellington (1955) is partial payback for the inspiration, genius-to-genius style.
From near a swampy river in Athens, Georgia, Brian Berger told Stephanie Stein Crease in New York he was “Tootin’ Through The Roof” with the spirit of “Dooji Wooji.” Stephanie kindly overlooked this indiscretion and their conversation swung onward. — Willis Still Sunsweet, Music Director
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Brian Berger: A good friend of mine, the historian Philip Dray, did a children’s book on journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells—how’d you get the idea to do a Duke Ellington children’s book?
Stephanie Stein Crease: Duke is a great subject for teens and pre-teens because of his inventiveness, his vast musical legacy and gifts as a composer, arranger, bandleader and pianist. His life story and rise to international acclaim is dramatic, and full of twists and turns due to his very longevity and the longevity of the Duke Ellington Orchestra; he was born in 1899 and died in 1974, and some of his musicians had been with him for decades. I also treated this biography as a window into American cultural history.
Brian: I take it there’s a certain editorial process for writing kid’s books, like you can go far but not too far. Your book is for ages 9 and up but I didn’t feel you wrote down much at all. Were there any places you had to pull back or revise?
Stephanie: This book is one of a series of history books for pre-teens. It is my first book for young people, and I trusted my editor Cynthia Sherry, who founded the series, to advise me on content and the narrative “voice.” I did not shy away from controversial topics, such as racism in D.C., when Duke was growing up, harsh aspects of the entertainment world during the Depression, and the racial inequities of the music business. But, there were several things that I did not dwell on: Duke’s extensive love life, the more complicated aspects of his working relationship with Strayhorn and other musicians, drug and alcohol abuse among musicians, etc.
Brian: It took me a while to get to this interview not because my enthusiasm dimmed but because I got caught up in the various musical activities that go along with the text— dig this washtub bass solo, S! [Boom boom boom boom] Had you been involved with teaching and/or music education before?
Stephanie: I have an extensive musical background, and am an advocate of music education, particularly instrumental training for children. My son started playing an instrument at age 4, and played in a children’s orchestra from early on, which was outside of most of the public schools he attended (he is now in high school). My book Music Lessons (Chicago Review Press, 2006), explores the state of music education in the schools, and how parents can fill what is now a huge gap in music education in school. Music is a great leveler—kids who are introduced to all kinds of music, and playing real instruments early on can carry that through life. It enriches everything they do, and benefits the many other kinds of learning they experience every day. The activities in the book are designed for children who may or may not have any musical training; they include rainy day activities like designing album covers to “Learn to Read Drum Notation”, or “Write Your Own Blues.”
Brian: I appreciated your look back to the minstrel and vaudeville roots of jazz, which have often been obscured because of distaste for the racial caricatures they utilized, although it should always be noted that minstrel shows were a Northern—and in fact, a New York—invention, not something borne from the racist South. Later, of course, there were important black minstrels, Bert Wiliams being the best known today. When did you become aware of this part of America’s pre-jazz music heritage?
Stephanie: To me, jazz history and music history goes hand-in-hand with social and cultural history. Vaudeville grew from minstrelsy, with all its murky racial background. The vaudeville circuit, black and white, gave several prominent musicians their first professional jobs along with survival skills to cope with getting stranded in small towns without pay, and other life mishaps. Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Mary Lou Williams, Thelonious Monk were just a handful of jazz musicians who started their careers in vaudeville.
Brian: Although Duke has rightly occupied a vaunted place in African-American and American musical culture, there’s this impression that Ellington was apolitical. I think this is obviously NOT the case and also blurs his biography a great deal. Duke was obviously an artist and—by necessity—a showman first but that is hardly all he was. I highly doubt that younger, more ‘outspoken’ Duke admirers like Charles Mingus and Max Roach felt that way, i.e. they knew Duke did what he could—which was quite a bit—in the context of his times.
Stephanie: Max Roach was outspoken and visible during the civil rights era. He was once carried off the stage of Carnegie Hall bearing carrying a sign that said “Give Africa Back to the Africans.” Harry Belafonte participated in some of the watershed civil rights marches, as did other noted African-American performers. Duke had many sides. He did not want to be made a public spokesman, but by virtue of his acclaim he became one. Yet his music and some large works were what he used as his strongest means of expression. He composed and staged several ambitious instrumental works and shows that expressed the beauty, richness, and significance of African-American history and experience. “Black, Brown and Beige,” “Jump for Joy,” “My People,” “The Sacred Concerts,” and his many musical portraits of Harlem are terrific examples of this. He received several awards from the NAACP and other civil rights organizations; in 1965 he was awarded the President’s Gold Medal by Lyndon B. Johnson, and in 1969 was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the U.S., by President Nixon.
Brian: Today, it’s somewhat hard to convey the excitement and glamor of the big bands to young people yet all evidence shows how thrilling they were and that– even after the rise of be-bop— you could love Charlie Parker and still think wow, Harry James and Gene Krupa still have great bands! What’s your relationship to big bands been and what are some of your favorites (records, periods, etc)?
Stephanie: The big band era was fabulous for many reasons, but one of the most significant is that jazz was popular music—dance music. Big band music, the best of it, had so much swinging unity. Big bands and the dancing that went with it—mainly the lindy hop –galvanized youth culture through the Depression and World War II. Plus, the bands were hot houses for talent. The bands of Ellington, Basie, Earl Hines, Jimmie Lunceford, Bennie Goodman, Woody Herman, Billy Eckstine and others featured the likes of Lester Young, Cootie Williams, Dizzy Gillepsie, Ben Webster, and Miles Davis. This parade of musicians became the next trend-setters in jazz styles.
Brian: It seems the great Duke biography has yet to be written, with David Hajdu’s Billy Strayhorn book the last major advance. I don’t keep up with academic writing on Ellington so perhaps I’ve missed something. With respect to John Edward Hasse, Beyond Category is a fine summary but there’s still a place—and need—to fully embrace the man and the cultures he travelled through.
Stephanie: I really appreciate Mark Tucker’s Early Ellington, and all Tucker’s work on Ellington, including The Duke Ellington Reader, which he compiled and edited. Sadly Tucker died in 2000, I am sure he would have continued to research and write about Ellington’s music and life. Ellington was a very complex man, so I appreciate reading about him from many perspectives—I actually don’t think there can be one definitive book.
Brian: What’s a brief list of your favorite Duke records (sides for the early years, albums later) and given your closeness to Duke and Gil, who are some of your other favorite composers working in the jazz idiom? I’m fanatical about Cecil Taylor Unit Structures as the modernist interpretation of Duke but sometimes I still long for a modernist big band—something combining Cecil with the traditional power of the later Woody Herman bands might be especially great.
Stephanie: Duke Ellington:
“Black and Tan Fantasy”
“Creole Love Call”
“Come Sunday” (from Black, Brown and Beige)
“It Don’t Mean A Thing” (1945 vocal version)
“Jack the Bear”
“Take the ‘A’ Train” (Strayhorn)
Chelsea Bridge (Strayhorn)
“A Tone Parallel to Harlem”
“Such Sweet Thunder”
“Rockin’ in Rhythm” (from Ella Fitzgerlad Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook)
“Blood Count” (Strayhorn)
Gil Evans Plus Ten (with Steve Lacy)
Porgy and Bess, featuring Miles Davis
New Bottle, Old Wine, Featuring Cannonball Adderley
Out of the Cool
The Individualism of Gil Evans
The Gil Evans Orchestra— Live at the Public Theater
Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
OLIVER NELSON Blues and the Abstract Truth
The list is endless. My listening tastes are “beyond category”— Stephen Sondheim, Bernstein; New York-style Cuban and Puerto Rican music of the ‘50s (pre-salsa) ; Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Copland, Berio, Ella, Billy Holiday, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum—the list is endless. I get on listening jags depending on specific work projects, or what my family are listening to (for ex., my son is back to all-Beatles, all the time.)
Brian: What’s next for Stephanie Stein Crease and how can people help support the musical education which is part of the Duke book’s purpose?
Stephanie: At the moment, I have several book ideas that I have yet to formalize. I am very fortunate to work in the Jazz Arts Program at Manhattan School of Music, where there is an amazing amount of concentrated musical talent, creativity and dedication in action, from the students and faculty. I would encourage parents, family members and friends to do whatever you can to bring live music into children’s lives, sing with them, bring instruments into your home to learn together, and go hear live music— be it a Young People’s Concert at the Philharmonic, or a stop-and-listen to a great player in the subway.