Swing Time

The sweet and cool harmonies of Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo: clarinet, muted trombone, and trumpet atop the swingy walking bass of the banjo...

Robert Levin

The sweet and cool harmonies of Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo: clarinet, muted trombone, and trumpet atop the swingy walking bass of the banjo. These elegant sounds, fresh even now, elicit knowing smiles among the folks of a certain age scattered amidst the 570 undergraduates attending Literature and Arts B-80, "The Swing Era," in Sanders Theatre. It is not at all clear that the delights of recognition are shared by the core constituency of the class, aficionados of Madonna and Snoop Doggy Dogg, but they are busy copying useful information from the blackboard--"Mood Indigo, Ellington (12/10/30): 1st chorus (4+4+4+4), Ellington solo, 2nd chorus (Whetsol, trombone), 3rd chorus (Bigard, clarinet)"--and seem poised to learn.

"Swing-jazz represents a defining moment in our culture."



But check out the lecturer, that cat happily fox-trotting across the stage to the piano, head bobbing up and down, forefinger raised to heaven like an apostle in Brooks Brothers garb. Can it be? It is indeed: Robert D. Levin '68, Robinson professor of the humanities, who as recently as five years ago in these pages was called "the greatest Mozartian of our era," and who referred to himself as a Eurocentric New Yorker, "trained from a European point of view." What in the world is this pianist-scholar--known worldwide for his spontaneous Mozart improvisations and for his completion of Mozart's Requiem in D Minor--doing here, noodling with the chord changes of Mood Indigo?

We listen for clues. At the piano, he is saying, "Duke Ellington is in a class by himself, a creative artist nonpareil, present from the beginning of the process to the end. He writes most of the tunes, creates the arrangements, hires the band, plays, and conducts. What Ellington did with his band of a mere incredible 14 pieces is equivalent to anything attempted for 'serious' orchestra. This is not music to be danced to, or not primarily; in its miraculous chord progressions and harmonies and textures, this is art music."

Next, he plays for us a recording of Jimmie Lunceford's version of Mood Indigo, with its bouncy introduction and curlicues of reeds, a completely different take on Ellington's composition. Note, says Levin, "how very atmospheric this is. Lunceford's version has an autonomous character, just as a piece by Schubert has. And now, ladies and gentlemen," he concludes, "this is all great fodder for your lab discussions. And read the assigned pages in your book."

The "book" is Gunther Schuller's erudite and deliciously opinionated The Swing Era. Lab discussions are led by a roster of teaching fellows headed by Karim Al-Zand, a jazz musician and McGill graduate, who is doing his doctoral dissertation in music theory on saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. During a week when Levin is out of town performing, Al-Zand conducts the classes, including one on swing dancing featuring students from the Harvard Ballroom Dance Team. "Dancing," says he, "is an integral part of the swing era, and what gave a lot of these bands their popularity. In fact, a lot of B-80's attraction for students is due to the resurgence of swing dancing."

If swing dancing brought them in, it is the lab sections that guide them through the technical stuff beyond the lindy hop. In one section, Scott Roy, a jazz musician and graduate student in molecular biology, fields the inevitable anxiety about quizzes and papers. He also deals with genuine perplexity. One sophomore from Oregon says it's all "foreign" to him; he grew up on country music. Others question the terminology. "What's a glissando?" asks a freshman. Roy zips his finger up the keys of the piano to demonstrate. Another student asks for clarification of "stop-time." Answer: "A start-stop device for the band, originally for solo tap dancing: a sort of extended break to give the dancer a chance to show his stuff." By the end of the class, terms like "vamp," "riff," "two-feel," and "the blues" have been discussed, as well as the personnel of Ellington's orchestra and their defining characteristics: "If you hear a plunger-muted trombone, that's Tricky Sam Nanton; he was called that because he had a bag of tricks for muting."

"Mozart wrote, "I just play the first thing that comes into my head at that moment."

Meanwhile, next door, Bill Reinhart, a pianist and graduate student at the Boston Conservatory, is conducting a somewhat more advanced section, handing out the music for Ellington's Ko-Ko to illustrate the bolero form, dissonance, and bi-tonality: "The band," he says, "is playing in one key, while Duke is playing in another. This was a novelty outside of classical music in 1940. Listen for the chromaticism; 'chromaticism' simply means color. See how the trombones call and the saxes respond? And take a look at those bunched-up chords. Do you see the marks for Cootie Williams's trumpet mutes? It was nothing more than a toilet plunger, by the way." Reinhart then moves to Ellington's Cotton Tail, with its anticipations of modern jazz: its dissonance, chromaticism, and pre-bop length and virtuosity of solos, particularly that of tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. The subject seems to be coming around to improvisation.


For such a question, it's time to speak to Levin himself, improviser nonpareil. In his dual-pianoed basement office, he elaborates and simultaneously solves the apparent mystery of his own involvement.

"I've had a hankering to do a swing course for years, and this is its maiden voyage," he says. "When I used to come back to the States from Germany [where he was professor of piano at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg], I would visit with my cousin, Dan Salzberg, who is now 85, and we always listened to jazz. He loves this music. All the listening and discussing renewed both my appetite, which I had formed in my childhood, and above all my astonishment at the invention of these great musicians. I mean, within the strictures of a three-minute, 10-inch 78, these players--without any apparent sense of that limitation--would be cooking, inventing, right up to the last second. There's no sense of stalling for time; the discipline of being able to marshal that prodigious imagination in a tiny amount of time leaves you breathless. Just at the snap of a finger, it's the clarinet's turn, the tenor saxophone's turn, the trombone's turn--you've got a 38-second place in the sun.

"The more I listened, the more I realized that it was directly related to what I was doing in classical music: I was going out and improvising free fantasies and cadenzas in Beethoven's or Haydn's or Mozart's style. And gradually I began to realize that people like Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson and Coleman Hawkins were really much closer to Mozart than the Brendels and Pollinis and Perahias are. These pianists are supreme artists, but the jazz greats were creating at the same time they were performing! Mozart, in one of his letters to his father, says something like, 'I'm sorry I haven't sent the cadenzas and lead-ins to my dear sister, but I have not yet decorated the lead-ins in the rondo, for you know when I perform this concerto, I just play the first thing that comes into my head at that moment.' Mozart could play for 20 minutes or 5 minutes, but these jazz players have 3 minutes for all!

"You talk about improvising," he continues. "Take Art Tatum. Now there is one of the most complex and fascinating personalities in jazz. In terms of sheer, raw, hair-trigger, terrifying technical gifts, there is no classical pianist I can think of who surpassed him, not even Liszt on the evidence of the written-down music, which is daunting enough. When you listen to Tatum get going with those riffs of double thirds in the right hand and those prestissimo strides leaping all over the place in the left hand, you feel as if you've had a dose of nitrous oxide; you begin laughing because you think this is just not possible for two human hands to be doing this. Of course, when we 'serious' pianists try to reproduce these things by transcribing them and playing them, we seldom reach that level, because we're playing a text and we're trying hard. What's amazing about Tatum and Armstrong and the others is the natural, casual ease with which they dispense these miracles. The issue is not only absolute spontaneity of invention, but above all spontaneity of declamation, of rhetoric. This is great art: the dialectic between untrammeled imagination and risk on the one hand and a certain kind of discipline on the other.

"Sure, when I returned to Harvard in 1993, I figured that I'd teach a Mozart course. But because this music is so qualitatively amazing, I've let Mozart recede into the background for the moment. And there are historical reasons for teaching this course. Swing-jazz, with its African-American antecedents in the blues and the stomp of New Orleans, represents a defining moment in American culture. It is our first national popular music, essentially an African-American achievement, but more, a brilliant cross-racial music that everybody could dance to. If this music were not about the highest quality, I wouldn't be doing it."

"Black musicians were not accepted in American society as classical musicians."

But to return to improvisation: how about improvisation in the impeccably crafted compositions of Duke Ellington? "Well," says Levin, "some of Ellington's scorings did in fact leave room for improvising. Jazz encompasses a kind of scored-up possibility, a coexistence between the controlled and the fantastically inspired chaotic." Here follows a private lecture on the improvisation ladder in jazz. There is Dixieland, where everybody is improvising--"controlled chaos," he calls it; "head" arrangements, existing in the heads of the players, and thus very close to improvisation; staff arrangements; and stock arrangements, which the great bands "wouldn't be caught dead using. But Ellington is beyond category, he's a force of nature. He had a much more ambitious agenda than just swing; he was an auteur. The beauty of Ellington's style is that, because he knew his musicians so well, the things he prescribed for them always took their personalities and specialties into account. He was doing the same thing as Mozart did when he wrote an opera, making the characters fit the singers' personalities and vocal gifts like a Savile Row suit.

"Here is the perfect example of the difference in feel between solo improv and arrangement," he says. "A lot of all this is predicated on the fact that black musicians were not accepted in American society as classical musicians. People like Lunceford and Tatum and Coleman Hawkins were trained as classical musicians. Hawkins, who is one of my personal gods, listened to or played Bach for two hours every day.

"In France, jazz was accepted immediately as a serious art form. In 1937 in Paris, a session was arranged for Hawkins with a group of real stars, called Coleman Hawkins and his All-Star Jam Band. It included Benny Carter, trumpet and alto saxophone; Stephane Grapelli, who played piano at this session; Django Reinhardt, the Belgian guitarist; and a bunch of French reed players. They recorded four tracks: Honeysuckle Rose, Crazy Rhythm, Out of Nowhere, and Sweet Georgia Brown. Carter arranged two of them--Crazy Rhythm and Honeysuckle Rose--and these are fine arrangements. But he ran out of time, and when it came to Out of Nowhere here is what happens. The reed people are simply sustaining pitches fitting the harmonies, just accompanying sotto voce. There are a couple of nice little riffs from Django, and then Benny plays the tune on trumpet. Once he's finished, the rest of the cut consists of Hawkins doing a glorious improvisation on this tune, just being accompanied in the simplest way. So it's a rhapsody for tenor sax, a kind of harbinger of the masterpiece of Hawkins's rhapsodizing, which is his 1939 Body and Soul, one of the greatest jazz recordings ever made. The last cut on that session was Sweet Georgia Brown, which they did Dixieland style with everybody losing their minds. So here is the package: two great arrangements, one solo approach with discreet accompaniment, and one totally daredevil improvisation. And that is jazz in a capsule."

He has to stop, for his piano student arrives, but he calls out, "Don't forget tomorrow is Jimmie Lunceford!"


As it happens, the lecture on bandleader Jimmie Lunceford coincides with Junior Parents' Weekend, so the geezer quotient is higher than usual in the class, maybe also due to yesterday's little piece on B-80 in the Boston Globe. "Jimmie Lunceford," he tells the augmented crowd, after setting the mood with For Dancers Only, "brings up the complex question of the purity of jazz, of whether a former Fisk University professor, classically trained, who is a teetotaler and a dedicated disciplinarian, can actually deliver 'real' swing-jazz."

He then plays Stratosphere, an up-tempo, syncopated piece featuring Sy Oliver on trumpet, making what can only be described as insect sounds, followed by a passage for kettle drum: "Hey," laughs Levin, "kettle drum! That's what you get in a Beethoven symphony!" This track is, as he says, "way out, wild." But nothing compared to what fol- lows--Organ Grinder's Swing, with its use of celesta and temple blocks, its boogie-woogie bass, and then Sy Oliver's plunger-muted growling trumpet: "Over the top, a daring parody--or a celebration--of all the extravagant combinations the human imagination is capable of," exults Levin. "Even the Boston Symphony Orchestra would need lots of rehearsals to get this chart together and even more to get it to swing.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he concludes, "this is music of an extraordinarily high level of refinement, of artistic aspiration and realization, of invention and audacity. You can see in this music everything that has been created in America in the name of art."

Lunceford--even Mozart--would be pleased.

Contributing editor Janet Tassel, who wrote "Yo-Yo Ma's Journeys" in the March-April issue of this magazine, profiled Robert Levin in "Musician with a Mission," published in the (print-only) May-June 1995 issue.

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