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Eric Hobsbawm's secret passion: Ellington and Ella

18 February 1966.

Duke Ellington, who comes to us for his usual triumphal visit, is more or less as old as the century. Ella Fitzgerald, who joins forces with him for the first time, is not far short of 50. Ellington has had his band without a break since before Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. Ella made her first record before Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. In a world increasingly dominated by fashion-change and where artists not only have obsolescence built-in like ears but are actually becoming disposable like paper handkerchiefs, such permanence calls for a special salute. In neither case does a long career conceal a long period of darkness between the wavering but more or less periodic beams of fashionableness.

There has never been a single moment from the late 1920s to the present when Ellington has not been the acknowledged prince of the jazz orchestra; never a moment from 1935 to the present when critical opinion about Fitzgerald has varied. What is more, neither of these artists has ever fundamentally changed the style they discovered in their youth. They have merely matured.

Since jazz is still – to judge by the audience at Hammersmith – a music for fairly young people (though not at present for a high proportion of teenagers), and since jazz lovers often regard themselves a part of the general avant-garde, this homage to their grandparents’ generation is rather surprising, though also welcome. It demonstrates the seriousness and maturity of the standards of jazz criticism. In fact, jazz has always been the art of a minority but not of an avant-garde, though it has developed its own forward fringe (at present represented by the “new thing” of Messrs Shepp, Ayler and the rest).

Its public is probably not very much bigger today than it was 33 years ago, when Ellington first came to London, incidentally with several of the musicians he has brought with him again this time. Yet it has always been a public for quality. Ellington and Ella have had their ups and downs but, craftsmen as well as artists, they have lasted – like all first-rate jazz musicians except those who drank and drugged themselves into an early grave.

The great man comes to us with the usual mixture of old and new compositions – including the familiar and brilliantly successful excursions into Caribbean and African exoticism. His musical palette remains quite unchanged, though the absence of Cootie Williams threw extra weight on to “Cat” Anderson’s trumpet (which he carried splendidly) and there is still trouble with the trombones, except for the veteran Lawrence Brown.

The drummer Elvin Jones, the darling of the avant-garde, has left the band. It wasn’t easy to see this vastly talented individualist working happily with the Duke. At the end of the band’s programme, Johnny Hodges stood up and blew like some ancient, hardbitten but lyrical sergeant major leading his regiment into the charge on Cythera or the land of Cockaigne.

There is no better alto player alive. On the other hand, the combination of Ellington and Fitzgerald was not a 100 per cent success. The band had brilliantly rehearsed one number, “Cotton Tail”, with the singer; for the rest, Miss Fitzgerald relied on her own rhythm section and allowed the band to make vague background noises. This is rather like using Arkle to pull a milk float. But Miss Fitzgerald, of course, remains unique.

Thirty or 40 years have not changed these artists. Yet as one listens to them once again with rapture, one can’t help noticing that the 1920s and 1930s have stamped both of them more deeply than is good for them. Both came out of that depressing environment in which great Negro talents were entertainers for whites – entertainers, moreover, in that deliberately superficial mode in which tired businessmen and tired housewives were supposed to relax. The Duke is sufficient of a genius to have burst these limits, though he still maintains a tongue-in-cheek (perhaps also a sincere) presence as a Broadway dandy. Ella has been lucky, because her personality fits naturally into that mood of sentimental reverie that produces her finest ballads. But as the late Billie Holiday showed, there are more things to be done with pop songs than lie within Miss Fitzgerald’s scope.

From 1956 to 1966, Eric Hobsbawm moonlighted as the New Statesman’s jazz critic, writing under the pseudonym Francis Newton.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture