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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