The Best Books of 2013

It is quite possible that I sacrificed some of my best reading hours in 2013 wading through anything written by or having to do with James Joyce: all part of my slow yet methodical efforts to advance behind #77 in the Modern Library Reading Challenge.* I’ve been working on Joyce since November 20, 2012. It’s a healthy relationship. He cooks dinner. I wash the dishes. On pleasant days, we go for long walks together. Sometimes, we even cuddle. Reading Finnegans Wake at a near glacial pace has forced me to revisit Dubliners, Portrait, and Ulysses, which has summoned Richard Ellmann, Gordon Bowker, and Homer from the stacks and Frank Delaney through the earbuds. I have looked up endless esoteric references. I have met with Joyce acolytes in secret dens. I have spent many late nights contemplating everything from Vico’s New Science to back issues of Tit-Bits published around 1904. All this will be written about in depth — hopefully sometime in 2014, when I reach the mighty “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” wending its cyclical posterior back to “riverrun.”

Despite all this, I did manage to read 125 books in 2013. The fifteen titles below all popped out like scandalous performers exploding from a giant birthday cake. I also started Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a wise and breathtaking autobiographical novel that chronicles the pains and pleasures of existence. I didn’t include My Struggle on my list because, as marvelous as it is, I really need to see how it ends. (There are six volumes in total. Only the first two have been translated into English, with the third due in May.) But I am fairly certain that Knausgaard will make the cut in the future, once the extraordinarily capable Don Bartlett concludes his fine translation work on this quite important contribution to literature.

Here are my fifteen favorite books from 2013, in alphabetical order. I was able to interview many of these writers for The Bat Segundo Show and Follow Your Ears and have provided links to the shows.

mattbellMatt Bell, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods: It remains my belief that bears are among the most underrated animals in fiction. Not enough novelists use them. When bears do show up in narratives, they are often found in trite poems written by addled hipsters who are more concerned with courting shallow attention than writing real literature. Bell’s debut novel not only contains a bear. It includes a whole universe of squids and “fingerlings” that could be fabulist creations or could originate from intricate grief. It uses minimalist designators (“the husband,” “the wife,” “the fingerling,” a fixed location seemingly in the middle of nowhere) to grow a maximalist universe, with endless rooms in the titular house propagating in direct proportion with complicated feelings. Language itself obscures and deepens seemingly simplistic sentiments. (It wasn’t a surprise to see the unadventurous reactionaries at the New York Times Book Review willfully misunderstand that last flourish, not kenning how Bell’s repetition and emphasis on physicality could be part of the puzzle.) After one too many wretched novels written by loathsome subjects of vapid Thought Catalog essays, it turned out that Bell’s book was the surreal corrective we needed all along. (Bat Segundo interview, 62 minutes)

Eleanor CattonEleanor Catton, The Luminaries: What if you designed a 900 page novel around the dichotomy paradox, where each section was half the length of the previous section? What if you also attempted to work in the golden ratio? And just for the hell of it, what if you decided to set the action in 1865 and 1866, aligning the temperament of twelve characters to astrology? But let’s not stop there. What if you also injected this novel with slyly accurate historical detail and a shifting relationship between what is articulated to the reader and what is not? You’d have Eleanor Catton’s extraordinary second novel, which has been wrongfully trivialized in America as a mere Dickens pastiche. I’m sure that if you’re a joyless illiterate dope like Janet Maslin, this probably is a “critic’s nightmare.” But here’s the truth: I have not read a contemporary novel that has so adroitly manipulated massive strands of storytelling with an ambitious thematic structure since David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. There is much in this great book to chew on: what we know about people through facts and gossip, how wealth becomes fluid through avarice and want. Even the way in which narrative information is conveyed and reader assumptions is skillfully challenged, forming almost an alternative astrology beneath the apparent astrological structure. Catton is a novelist of the first rank. She absolutely deserved the Booker for this. And I urge all interested parties to read this massive novel when they have the chance. (Bat Segundo interview, 71 minutes)

duplexcoverKathryn Davis, Duplex: I must confess that I have a slight prejudice against novels that go out of their way to destroy the underlying structure every other chapter. Yet it is to Davis’s tremendous credit that I was not only won over by her remarkably inventive and deeply emotional novel, but that I found myself urging strangers in bookstores to buy it. This novel, with its robots, dogs, sorcerers, outlandish suburbs, tsunamis, and rabbits, is almost impossible to describe. But it offers its own unusual argument for the promising anarchism of life. When we stick to our conclusive guns, what do we give up in knowing people? Are there indeed duplexes we will discover when we’re not looking? I found myself greatly enjoying the fluidity of Davis’s universe, in part because of the novel’s descriptive precision (“The Woodard Estate used to be a brilliant jewel on the brow of the third of the three little green hills you come to upon leaving the schoolyard, after passing the water tower and crossing the old railroad bridge.”). You may very well enjoy meticulous geography as you experience it, but Davis’s provocative question involves knowing how to survive when it disappears tomorrow. (Bat Segundo interview, 62 minutes)

elliottholtElliott Holt, You Are One of Them: It’s fascinating to me that two coruscating works of art in 2013 — Elliott Holt’s debut novel and the wonderful television series, The Americans — have involved revisiting the end of the Cold War. There’s a part of me that would like to think that the artists in question were preparing themselves for Edward Snowden’s extremely disturbing revelations about our surveillance state. But exploring defection, in both cases, reveals that pivotal tie between loyalty and memory. You Are One of Them starts with the most seemingly innocuous of premises: idealistic letters sent by two schoolgirls to Premier Andropov beseeching peace. One of the sisters gets an answer and a Samantha Smith-style invitation to visit the Soviet Union. Fame follows. So does death. Or does it? Years later, Sarah Zuckerman (the other schoolgirl) takes a trip to Russia. And her journey, intermingled with such exacting details expat nightclubs in Moscow, the Russian advertising world, and American cleanliness, is a painful unveiling of how to contend with the lies and deceits of other people as an adult while holding onto your dignity. (Bat Segundo interview, 65 minutes)

kieselaymonKiese Laymon, Long Division: While other writers squandered the sad scraps of their waning talent with inane books about zombies and poker, beckoning empty nostalgic calories to fulfill a book contract, Kiese Laymon — much like James McBride and Mitchell S. Jackson — had the vivacity and the stones to explore the uncomfortable truths about what it means to live in America, specifically Mississippi, through genre’s empowering possibilities. Long Division is a bold time-traveling saga unafraid to take risks, recalling the biting ire of a young Percival Everett. It includes daring comparisons between slavery and the Holocaust. It’s one of the few novels I read this year exploring how a community survives on throwaway book culture (“the Bible was better than those other spinach-colored Classic books that spent most of their time flossing with long sentences about pastures and fake sunsets and white dudes named Spence”), even as it stares down the influence of viral videos, teenage sex, and celebrity. In offering two versions of a 14-year-old boy named City Coldson, one in 1985 and one in 2013, Laymon confronts how black identity remains rooted in fragmentation, what he has identified in a separate essay as “the worst of white folks.” Long Division‘s original corporate publisher was too afraid to put out this book. Fortunately, the good folks at Agate Publishing allowed Kiese to be Kiese. Let us hope that more important voices like Laymons’s are allowed to storm the gates in 2014. (Bat Segundo interview, 54 minutes)

mailerJ. Michael Lennon, Norman Mailer: A Double Life: It’s easy to dog on Norman Mailer. He stabbed his second wife Adele and didn’t suffer any consequences. He helped to get Jack Henry Abbott released from prison, only to see Abbott stab a waiter to death as he was loose on the streets. He stood against women’s liberation. There is an undeniably savage quality to Mailer as a writer and Mailer as a man. Indeed, I penned a vituperative obituary not long after Mailer kicked the bucket. (I had not read The Armies of the Night, arguably a Mailer masterpiece, at the time.) Lennon’s biography does a remarkable job at getting 21st century readers to understand that there was more to Mailer than his sins would lead us to believe. Lennon doesn’t flinch from many of Mailer’s indiscretions, nor is he diffident in pointing out just how crazy some of his arguments were. This biography makes such a persuasive case for Mailer that it actually compelled me to read all of Mind of an Outlaw (a big, carefully edited essay collection released by Random House this year), as well as other Mailer books. It turns out that Mailer’s spirit is strangely inspiring amid the turmoil of today. And one comes away from this book wondering whether any talent close to Mailer could flourish in today’s atmosphere of instant digital gratification. Perhaps within Mailer’s double life are some kernels of tomorrow’s possibilities. (Bat Segundo interview, 63 minutes)

messudClaire Messud, The Woman Upstairs: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” So begins The Woman Upstairs. Nora Eldridge, the self-proclaimed “good girl” who narrates Messud’s latest novel, has the kind of anger that seethes just underneath the surface of American life, but that is rarely voiced in fiction and in public debate: in part because Nora is a woman and in part because she thinks and feels in ways we’re not expected to express anymore. Of course, none of these prohibitions stops Nora. As Nora tells us more about her life, we begin to wonder just how responsible she is for the place she’s in. Does cruelty from others beget more cruelty? Or are we all the victims of, quite literally, naked opportunism? Many literary tastemakers leaned toward Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, which was a laudable portrait of 1970s radicalism. But, for me, Messud’s was the more slyly political and visceral novel. In an age where people are more determined to hide how they really feel, what’s more subversive than telling someone what’s really on your mind? (Bat Segundo interview, 51 minutes)

alissanuttingAlissa Nutting, Tampa: So Nutting’s controversial novel about a Florida middle-school teacher named Celeste Price who seduces and sexually abuses her students makes you uncomfortable? Cry me a fucking river. Life is uncomfortable. Like all great art, Tampa enters into dangerous territory. But it is brave, vivacious, and it has the courage to pursue its subject with a sense of humor. The people who have condemned this book have done so without actually engaging with the text. Earlier this year, at the Strand Bookstore, I observed an obnoxious and humorless freelance book critic, someone who has been published in several outlets, speak very loudly about how she couldn’t be bothered to make it past Page 50 because she was so offended by the book. She derided Tampa in the strongest possible terms, even though she had never finished it. I also got into an online argument with some illiterate nitwit who writes for Book Riot because she too had condemned the book as “unbelievable” even though she couldn’t cite a specific example when I challenged her. If you feel the need to condemn a book and you can cannot be bothered to read it or cite it, then you don’t have the right to venture an opinion. You are lazy, ignorant, and uninformed. No better than some Tea Party type holding the government hostage. More importantly, you’re missing out on one of the best books of 2013. (Bat Segundo interview, 75 minutes)

bleedingedgeThomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge: Several reviewers were needlessly hostile to Pynchon’s latest volume, blaming the famous recluse for not delivering another Gravity’s Rainbow. But Bleeding Edge is not only a very funny book stacked to the nines with references (meticulously documented by the good folks at Pynchon Wiki). It’s a loving and sometimes irreverent portrait of the end of the 20th century and perhaps the end of America’s soul, reading at times like a call and response to William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition with its many simulacra, its worlds within worlds, and its fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow, much like Cayce Pollard, trying to make sense of some digital plot tied in with organized crime as the very real factor of family comes increasingly closer into the picture.

roxanaorbinsonRoxana Robinson, Sparta: It’s absolutely criminal that Roxana Robinson’s carefully observed study of an Iraq War veteran returning home hasn’t received wider recognition. Perhaps some readers were too busy wasting their time blasting Jonathan Franzen over his latest grumbling or writing another installment in the meaningless snark vs. smarm war. Whatever the reason, it’s a poor excuse to ignore this honed, gut-wrenching novel revealing just what happens when you cannot return to the life you gave up, along with the psychological costs of being left for dead even after you escape a mortal fate on the battlefield. Like Messud, Robinson probes with wisdom and sensitivity into every anger-inducing quality of her protagonist, Conrad Farrell, who cannot even be solaced by his classics education. As we come to realize that not even a stable family is panacea for PTSD or returning home without a clearly defined role, we begin to understand how callous this nation has been to the men we asked to do the dirty work. And if the “hard, burnished carapace” of spent men hollowed out Sparta, what is it doing to our nation today? This is a vital and needlessly ignored work of fiction. (Bat Segundo interview, 55 minutes)

nucleartestEric Schlosser, Command and Control: Thirty-three years ago, the United States came very close to a nuclear holocaust in Damascus, Arkansas. In a Titan II silo, an overworked airman dropped a socket wrench, which pierced the skin on the missile’s fuel tank, causing poisonous oxidizer to permeate through the air. The W-53 nuclear warhead mounted at the top of the missile came very close to exploding. This is all documented in Command and Control, which also covers our reckless history of avoiding safety and taking shortcuts to maintain missiles. It’s a sobering and necessary reminder on how unsafe we have been in the past and how reckless we may be operating today, as other nations develop the same nuclear capabilities (and concomitant measures) that we once had. (Bat Segundo interview, 56 minutes)

sloukacloseMark Slouka, Brewster: I’m going to confess that when I first read Mark Slouka’s novel, I was a little suspicious of its narrative swagger. Here was a book told from the story of a teenager named Jon Mosher who seemed to talk just a little too tough. But as I read on, I realized that this was the point. If you’re not part of the panorama that other people insist is the one to watch, then aren’t you going to speak a little louder? Brewster describes life in the more blue-collar area of upstate New York, portraying teenagers who didn’t have the bread to attend Woodstock and who need friendship to make it past the hidden brutality of daily life. Slouka is smart enough to reveal Brewster as a town where nearly everyone comes from somewhere else. Jon Mosher, the book’s narrator, portrays Ray Cappicciano is a sleek bad boy who can skim his finger across any metal surface. But as the reader gets to know Ray Cap, we come to understand how not being known reveals hidden torrents of other people’s cruelty. (Bat Segundo interview, 61 minutes)

dukeellingtonTerry Teachout, Duke: Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington is arguably his smoothest and best-researched book. Longlisted for the National Book Awards, Duke demonstrates, like the best of arts-related biographies, that it is as much about chronicling the culture that allowed Ellington to flourish as it is about revealing the niceties of this titanic jazz figure. Thanks to Teachout, I spent large chunks of a weekend listening to all sorts of music, tracing, for example, Bubber Miley’s solo on “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” to Jimi Hendrix’s wah-wah work on “All Along the Watchtower” after Teachout found a fascinating connection. I was happy to fall down this YouTube rabbit hole and follow the eventful ups and downs of a man who could be found dazzling audiences at the Newport Jazz Festival one minute and appearing with Herman’s Hermits on The Ed Sullivan Show the next. (Bat Segundo interview, 50 minutes)

rosaparksJeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks: Released at the beginning of the year, Theoharis’s meticulously researched volume of the woman who refused to give up her seat reveals a far more sophisticated and politically active figure than the one in the history books. This is a much needed replacement for such cheap hagiographies as David Brinkley’s Rosa Parks: A Life that reveals everything that happened after the famous day in Montgomery. It exposes the sexism of Black Power, shows how numerous statesmen attempted to co-opt Parks to gain extra footing during their careers, and illustrates the costs and personal hardships of being a revolutionary. (Follow Your Ears #5, “Rosa Parks: Not Just a Meek Seamstress” radio segment at 47:16)

jesmynward3Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped: Jesmyn Ward remains one of our most vital chroniclers of American life. This searing yet understated memoir examines why racism continues to flourish and why so many young black men continue to die. It looks into how five needless deaths, including West’s own brother, affected and informed her own life. It’s a deeply affecting book which points out how the deck is stacked against you if you’re a young African-American living in Mississippi. But it also reveals how stories allow us to live and understand and possibly break out of some of these vicious cycles. Maybe if we focus our attention into how other people live, we may just come up with a new way of storytelling that allows us to lob some stones at the incompetent political forces that would prefer to shut down our government than address our deepest needs and our greatest ills. (Bat Segundo interview, 42 minutes)

* I also started another reading project, The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge. I am presently reading Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance and will be writing about the volumes before this in the next few weeks.

Terry Teachout (The Bat Segundo Show #525)

Terry Teachout is most recently the author of Duke. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #314.

[PROGRAM NOTE: There are a few modest errors in this program, all of them spoken by Our Correspondent. Our Correspondent referred to the “National Front,” when he meant the “Popular Front.” He misstated the year of Duke Ellington’s comeback concert at the Newport Jazz Festival. It was 1956, not 1959. There are also a number of moments where Our Correspondent refers to Duke Ellington as “the Duke.” We strive to keep this show as accurate as possible and apologize for these errors.]

Author: Terry Teachout

Play

Subjects Discussed: Guther Schuller’s Early Jazz, vertical harmony vs. horizontal melody, the way Ellington used his musicians, David Hajdu’s Lush Life, Ellington’s exploitation of Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s ability to attract women close to his death, attempts to track Strayhorn’s true contributions, what pop songs reveal about Ellington’s composition skills, transformative art vs. plagiarism, the Cotton Club, playing racially segregated venues, broadcasting on CBS Radio, William Paley, Irving Mills as publicist and manager, Ellington’s terrible management skills, his tolerance of drunken and drugged up musicians, Paul Gonslaves, Ellington’s comeback at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show with Herman’s Hermits, the decline of jazz and the rise of R&B, the ribald songs of the 1920s written by Jimmy McHugh, Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man”, Dorothy Fields’s lyrics, high-class talents writing smutty songs, Ellington’s emulation of pop, why Duke Ellington is sexy, the suggestive qualities of “Warm Valley,” Ellington’s remarkable promiscuity (and his adroit skills in using as many as four hotel rooms at once in one city), the influence of Bubber Miley’s solo on “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” on Jimi Hendrix’s wah-wah, how Ellington surrounded himself with master musicians, viewing Ellington as the auteur of the band, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, why Ellington’s band members kept coming back, Cootie Williams leaving Ellington’s band for Benny Goodman, Raymond Scott’s “When Cootie Left the Duke,” Clark Terry, why Ellington’s best soloists didn’t function as well when they tried to make a break on their own, Billy Strayhorn’s body of work, the one interview that Edna Ellington gave to Ebony, the circumstances that caused Duke’s scar on his left cheek, why Duke and Edna stayed married, Duke’s philandering, Ellington’s fear and distrust of women, the value of Betty McGettigan’s oral history, networks of Ellington gossip, plausible vs. usable material, the mysterious Countess Fernanda de Castro Monte, fakes who contain multitudes, women who are prepared to lick the feet of geniuses, Ellington’s contradictory politics, Ellington’s idea of fighting segregation through paying people, his views on the 1963 March on Washington, Ellington winning the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, Ellington’s Popular Front activities, Jump for Joy, Ellington’s pecuniary political commitment, fame and money as the road to equality, being a member of the black bourgeoisie, Ellington’s devastation over not getting the Pulitzer Prize, the tight-lipped Teachout moment, John Hammond’s inept evisceration of “Reminiscing in Tempo,” the difficulties of synthesizing one man’s life, Mercer Ellington, quintessential connections between geniuses and their talented sons, the 1941 ASCAP strike, Herb Jeffries, John Garfield’s questionable suggestions about makeup, lighter skinned performers asked to darken their skin, Ellington’s sensitivity to questions of intra-prejudice, clueless white audiences and Duke, Ellington playing country clubs, the working life of a musician, Duke taking care of his fellow musicians, being beholden to marketing demands, a spontaneous 1940 recording in Fargo, North Dakota, the convergence of popular and sophisticated tastes.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I want to start with a very geeky musical technical question. You point out that Duke Ellington thought almost exclusively in terms of vertical harmony rather than horizontal melody, that his best-known tunes were little more than elaborations on the top notes of chord progressions. You quote Gunther Schuller in Early Jazz about him noticing, “The parallel blocks of sound he favors so predominantly are handled with such variety that we as listeners never notice the lack of occasional contrapuntal relief.” You suggest that this compositional liability, which Duke was, in fact, able to work around led him to rely on other composers, other musicians, other band members. And, of course, he didn’t always share credit. So I’m wondering. To what degree was Duke himself aware of this creative liability? How was he able to keep so many of his collaborators, and even the audience who was listening to him, in the dark about this for so long?

Teachout: Well, a lot of it has to do with the fact that Ellington was the biggest public personality in his band. I mean, his great soloists, except for Ben Webster, who was known to beat up people, tended not to have that kind of flashy personality. So even though, if you look at the credits of a song like “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” You see Johnny Hodges’s name on there. You’re not going to think Hodges. You’re going to think of Ellington. Because Ellington is the trademark of the Ellington Band. And this is even true in the case of Billy Strayhorn, a composer of equal quality and I think equal genius to Ellington. But Strayhorn is completely in the background, doesn’t appear with the band. Maybe a half dozen times in the band’s whole life. I’ve only seen one bit of film with Strayhorn playing with the Ellington Band at a gig. So even though for the last fifteen years or so of their working together their albums were jointly credited to Ellington and Strayhorn, and that’s to be taken very seriously, the fact is that if you don’t know the score, if you don’t know how important Strayhorn is, you’re going to assume that Ellington is the senior partner.

Correspondent: Yeah. And actually there’s also a wonderful book by David Hajdu, Lush Life, as well. Let’s talk about Strayhorn. He’s one of the tragic figures in this book.

Teachout: Yes.

Correspondent: He’s a man who has composed and arranged many of Duke’s finest moments. Duke, as we are implying here and establishing here, was an incessant credit hog. And he strung Strayhorn along for decades. So I’m wondering. What was it about Duke’s charisma? It was so formidable that he even attracted women when he came close to death, when he was ill. Which was really impressive, I gotta say! (laughs)

Teachout: (laughs) I was pretty amazed by that myself. Yes.

Correspondent: What caused people like Strayhorn and other people who were robbed of their credit — what kept them coming back to Duke?

Teachout: He was what he was. He was a genius. I mean, Strayhorn became what he became because Ellington was his model. And also we have to talk about the specific nature of Strayhorn’s life and personality and why it worked for him to work for Ellington. Billy Strayhorn was a homosexual. You were not a homosexual who was out and a public figure. Least of all if you were black in the world of jazz in the ’30s and ’40s. This was not an option for Strayhorn. And Strayhorn, who was completely at ease with his sexuality, wished to live his life the way he wanted to live it. So he made a kind of bargain — with himself, with the world, and with Ellington — that he would remain on the sidelines. Ellington would pay him — quite generously as a matter of fact. Strayhorn essentially had the equivalent of a drawing account and could pretty much do whatever he wanted. And in return for this, in supplying this music and writing hundreds of uncredited arrangements for Ellington, he just steps back into the shadows and lets Edward, as he always called him — “We’ll let Edward do that” would be Strayhorn’s line. And Ellington, unlike Strayhorn, was not only a creative personality, but a kind of theatrical figure. Now one of Duke Ellington’s greatest creations was Duke Ellington, the man who goes out on stage with the fabulous outfits and the baggy eyes and the gorgeous bass baritone voice and the catchphrases. And he charms your socks off. Now even if he couldn’t have done all this, he would have still been Duke Ellington the great composer. But because he served it up with all that frosting, people whom might not otherwise have been drawn to him and especially, when we talk about race again, drawn to a black man in the ’20s and ’30s, this is a different kind of black man. This is the elegant presentable fellow. And that is an important part of what Ellington was. And Strayhorn knew, consciously or not, that he needed this kind of front man to lead the kind of life he wanted to lead and be able to have that great Ellington Band play his music the way it played Ellington’s music.

Correspondent: Do we really know in 2013 the full extent of Strayhorn’s contributions to Ellington? Because it’s come out over and over in the last several decades. We have suddenly understood, “Well, he did this. He did this.”

Teachout: It’s completely knowable now. Because the manuscripts have survived. And a lot of people in Ellington’s life and in Strayhorn’s life, and for many years after it, speculated about who wrote what. Now it’s not a matter of speculation. We know right down to the fact that Billy Strayhorn wrote the last ten bars of Ellington’s Harlem, for example. That’s the level of specificity that we’re talking about. So there is a debunking line that’s gotten about, that Strayhorn was the power behind the throne. And that’s just not true. In the suites that they wrote together, Strayhorn would normally compose maybe between a third and a quarter of the numbers. They were not written jointly. The movements are separate. There’s a Strayhorn movement. There’s an Ellington movement.

Correspondent: You describe that moment in the hotel room where they’re trading off. One’s asleep. The other composing.

Teachout: It’s a wonderful story.

Correspondent: There’s a monster movie playing in the background.

Teachout: It’s an unusual thing to have happen. So Strayhorn’s contribution is immensely important. And he didn’t get, for these complicated reasons we’ve talked about, complete credit for it. But most of the music that we believe is written by Duke Ellington is written by Duke Ellington, including virtually all of his major instrumental works. The real problem of attribution with Ellington is the pop songs. For me, that was the big surprise. When I started to go systematically into the Ellington output, I heard stories about this. I heard stories about that. But suddenly, as I looked at the work as a totality, the light went on. And I realized, “Well, of course! It’s the pop songs. Because he’s not a natural melody writer.” It stands to reason that that would be where he went. To those natural melody improvisers like Johnny Hodges.

Correspondent: Pop songs not only reveal Duke’s limitations. It also reveals how much he plundered from other people.

Teachout: Yes. That’s right. But there’s another side of it. It also reveals what his essential contribution is. In a song like “Sophisticated Lady” — that’s the most striking example of this — the main strain is by Lawrence Brown, the trombone player. The bridge, the release is by Otto Hardwick, the alto saxophone player. But it was Duke Ellington’s idea to take these two bar fragments and put them together in a 32 bar pop song and harmonize them and orchestrate it and create the total composition that we know as “Sophisticated Lady.” So who wrote what? The question is, and the answer is, Ellington didn’t write the melody. But it is his composer’s mind that took these two found objects, if you want to put it that way, and transformed them into the song “Sophisticated Lady.” So it’s a complex attribution problem. You can’t just sum it up by saying, “Oh yes. Duke Ellington was a plagiarist.” Duke Ellington was never — in the sense that a literary person normally uses the term — a plagiarist. He didn’t steal without telling you and then you looked up six months later and your work was in print under his name.

Correspondent: He was not the Jonah Lehrer of… (laughs)

Teachout: No, sir. Not in the slightest. Was he scrupulous? Not always. And sometimes he was entirely unscrupulous. And sometimes unscrupulous things were done in his name. A fair number of Strayhorn pieces — the royalties were copyrighted in Ellington’s name. But there’s no reason to assume that Ellington himself was responsible for that. It may, in some cases, just have been sloppy bookkeeping. But when Strayhorn finally did look into this, he was horrified and it led to a temporary break between the two men and ultimately to the renegotiation of billing that created the later Ellington/Strayhorn compositions where they always get equal billing.

Correspondent: I’m abashed almost to say this. But I have not once mentioned the Cotton Club in more than 500 shows of Bat Segundo.

Teachout: (laughs)

Correspondent: So thank goodness you wrote about it, Terry!

Teachout: Now’s the time.

Correspondent: Now is the time. And I wanted to get into this. You know, here was a segregated venue. A place that paid its performers quite handsomely.

Teachout: And mobbed up to the eyebrows.

Correspondent: That’s right. Langston Hughes railed against how most whites who attended the Cotton Club saw the cabarets rather than the houses of Harlem. Duke played there. But he didn’t really mention this other aspect of the Cotton Club in his memoir, Music is My Mistress.

Teachout: Right.

Correspondent: But he also broadcast on CBS Radio from the Cotton Club. This risk taken by William Paley. And he got the attention of the press simultaneously by playing midtown clubs. So he has these broadcasts through CBS that give him that national attention while simultaneously it had me wondering. Was there any other way for Duke to make his way to CBS without the Cotton Club? Was he going to face racial segregation no matter what path he took?

Teachout: Oh sure. Remember. We’re talking about 1927, 1928. Black bands get paid less. They get inferior gigs. So suddenly Ellington gets this break. And it’s an extraordinary break. The price he pays for it is he’s coming into a segregated club in the middle of Harlem, where the only way that a black person can get in is if he is very famous and then they put him in a table in a corner. Preferably in the shadows. But in return for that, the Cotton Club’s got a national radio wire on CBS. Every rich person in New York is going to hear him. The word gets around. And that radio wire suddenly puts Duke Ellington in your living room, no matter where you live. So I think the biggest break that ever happened to Duke Ellington was meeting Irving Mills. The second biggest — and it’s related to this — is going into the Cotton Club. That and Mills’s publicity campaign, presenting Ellington as a different kind of black man — you fuse those together and you get the root to the great success that Ellington had by the ’30s.

Correspondent: But when Mills was no longer around, Ellington seems to collapse. Did he really take any hard lessons? Did any of the hard lessons he learned from Mills get taken to heart in later years? Because I was reading this book and my mouth was agog at what a terrible organizer he was. He tolerated his band coming at odd hours. Any hour. Even not showing up to the actual gig. He tolerated musicians who were hopped up on heroin, who were alcoholic.

Teachout: His was the most irresponsible band maybe in jazz. But you have to remember that Duke Ellington had a very clear sense of priorities. He knew what he wanted. He wanted a band that would play his music every night. He was willing to put up with an enormous amount of nonsense from extraordinarily gifted players. Because they were the particular guys that he wanted on the stand at the time. He was never a businessman. And when he worked with organized businessmen after Mills — well, Mills really ran the show. But after that, they had to do things within the parameters of the way Ellington wanted them to be done. You know, if you’d brought in a hardass manager in 1956 to transform the situation with the Ellington Band, probably the first thing you would have done would have been to fire Paul Gonsalves, this man who was simultaneously an alcoholic and a heroin addict, who would nod off on the bandstand. But if you made that smart business decision, then you wouldn’t have had Paul Gonsalves on the bandstand for the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, where he plays a million choruses and “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” and the crowd explodes and Ellington is on the cover of Time Magazine. So I think in the long run, Ellington wasn’t interested in money. He wanted an operation that would allow him to lead the life he wanted, which was a life on the road, a life where a lot of women were passing through his life, a life lived in hotel rooms, and a life where his music gets played every night. He didn’t want to be a millionaire. He wouldn’t have known what to do with it.

Correspondent: But before that 1956 Newport appearance, he is really on the skids. I mean, it seems as if he is not going to come back. But even with that Newport appearance that is a huge sensation, he’s going onto Ed Sullivan and he’s sharing the bill with Herman’s Hermits.

Teachout: Well, yes, the world has changed. Ellington predates the Big Band era. But it was the booster rocket that made him the culture celebrity that he was in the ’40s. But he outlived it. After World War II, first big bands themselves become financially dicey. And then the whole flavor of pop music changes. You have rhythm and blues, which soaks up the black audience that was formerly in jazz. You have rock and roll becoming the lingua franca of modern music. And so by ’56, Ellington was perceived pretty widely as yesterday’s news. And it wasn’t just him. It was everybody who was playing that kind of music. This incredible good fortune that he had, of coming into the Newport Jazz Festival and getting on the cover of Time Magazine, which pretty much insured that for the rest of his life people who didn’t necessarily know much about jazz would know who he was. And you mentioned Ed Sullivan. Television exposure generally, but Sullivan in particular, is enormously important to Ellington in those last twenty years of his life. Because he is, as we said earlier, this personality. I looked through thousands of photographs to choose the ones for the book and they’re all good. You can’t take a bad picture of Duke Ellington. So you put a guy like that on television. And television was made for him. Just like it was made for Louis Armstrong. So even if Ellington went on Ed Sullivan — maybe he wasn’t playing particularly what you wanted to hear or the bill was an odd mixed one — the fact was that it was going out to the largest audience in television.

Correspondent: But I think we’re straying away from the point I’m trying to get from you. We were talking about how Ellington was a terrible organizer while simultaneously he’s facing the reality of rock and roll becoming a dominant part of the culture and rhythm and blues taking away the audience. I mean, he faced Frank Sinatra before. If he was yesterday’s news, could any amount of mad organization revive his career? I mean, he had so many shots there with the Newport thing and all that.

Teachout: If he’d lived another fifteen years, I don’t know what his life would have been like. He and Louis Armstrong, who died around the same time. Early to mid ’70s. Remember that Armstrong made the last number one pop single, “Hello Dolly,” which was jazz. After that, never again. So they may have died at a particularly fortuitous moment. It would have gotten harder for Ellington. The bookings, they weren’t drying up. But they were becoming more difficult in the ’70s. You know, part of genius is having good timing. And maybe he knew when to make the exit.

The Bat Segundo Show #525: Terry Teachout II (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

The Bat Segundo Show: Terry Teachout

Terry Teachout appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #314. He is most recently the author of Pops.

segundo314

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Playing for handy water closets.

Author: Terry Teachout

Subjects Discussed: Managing professional duties, the exigencies of sifting through 650 reels of Louis Armstrong’s tapes, Armstrong’s encounters with the mob, Armstrong’s relationship with manager Joe Glaser, the aborted Duke Ellington collaborative album, Pierre “Frenchy” Tallerie’s rough tour management, Frenchy as company spy, the effect of Armstrong’s star status on his musicians, the disparity between the net worth of Armstrong’s estate and Glaser’s estate, Armstrong’s remarks on the Little Rock Nine, FBI files and FOIA requests, condemnations Armstrong received in later years, rivalry between Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, James Baldwin, Armstrong’s aversion to bebop, why Armstrong didn’t break from his popular style, whether or not an artist has a responsibility to push past a middlebrow reception, floundering artists, disbanding the All Stars and improving the musical dynamic with the All Stars’s second iteration, Armstrong’s unexpected late career collaboration with Dave Brubeck, Armstrong’s ability to sell records during the Great Administration, popular tunes and mainstream accessibility in the 1920s, the dangers of critical consensus, Armstrong’s in-performance improvisation within “Stardust,” Armstrong’s unwavering affinity for the Swiss Kriss herbal laxative, the 1953 conflict between Armstrong and Benny Goodman, the question of artistic ego, the entertainer’s instinct, Armstrong’s conflict with Earl Hines’s showboating, Duke Ellington’s insistence on top billing, Armstrong’s tour of England and racist critics, the mistaken notion of Europe as an Eden for jazz musicians, exploring reception histories, Armstrong’s lawsuit with OKeh Records, the difficulty of collating Armstrong’s correspondence, Armstrong as writer, and self-awareness.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

teachouttCorrespondent: In light of Armstrong’s remarks about the Little Rock Nine, and of course his infamous remarks about Eisenhower, did the guy have an FBI file? Were you able to…?

Teachout: He did. It was mostly innocuous.

Correspondent: Oh, okay.

Teachout: There just isn’t anything of interest in it. I know this because I’ve seen it, but also because I FOIAed Joe Glaser. He doesn’t have a file.

Correspondent: None?

Teachout: None.

Correspondent: Despite his mob connections?

Teachout: I appealed the decision to make sure. And they told me that there was no file in Glaser. And this is a guy whose business was taken over by Sidney Korshak, who has an FBI file the size of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. So I can only assume that the FBI saw Glaser as too small-time in terms of their interests to start a file on him.

Correspondent: Unless, of course, it was expunged in some capacity.

Teachout: It could have been. I don’t have any reason to think that it was and, since Korshak’s file wasn’t, I assumed that there simply wasn’t anything there. Armstrong’s file contains nothing of any interest because he didn’t play at political benefits. I mean, the FBI was aware of the fact that he used marijuana. Because he was vetted by the State Department. But other than that, there wasn’t anything that was even worth passing on in the book. I mention actually in one of the endnotes that he had a file and that its contents were of no interest. But Glaser — we were all on pins. I had actually alerted the Armstrong Archive that I FOIAed Glaser. Because no one had ever thought to do this before.

Correspondent: Wow.

Teachout: And it took me a year and a half from end to end, from the original Freedom of Information request to wrapping up the appeal and concluding that there just wasn’t anything there.

BSS #314: Terry Teachout (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Play