Alfred Appel Jr
Duke Ellington’s ten-man group of 1927-32 was billed for a time as the Jungle Band, a title in keeping with the Southern plantation/Afro-Deco interior and exotic-erotic floor shows of the Cotton Club, the grandest Harlem venue (it seated more than six hundred), where Ellington performed, before whites only, for the five years from 1927, and in the spring seasons of 1933, 1937 and 1938. The fact of racial segregation is musically important since it draws attention to the collective expectations and putative Caucasian needs of a specific audience. A two-part 1929 record, A Night at the Cotton Club, simulates a club performance, replete with applause and an overbearing announcer, who salutes Ellington for creating ‘a real Hades in Harlem’. Although Ellington recorded simultaneously for several companies, using different pseudonyms, ‘Jungle Band’ and ‘jungle style’ have rightly survived as generic labels for the records that established his reputation, starting with such memorable early pieces as ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’, ‘East St Louis Toodle-oo’, ‘Creole Love Call’, ‘Jubilee Stomp’, ‘The Mooche’ and ‘Hot and Bothered’, all from 1927-28, before Ellington was thirty.
The generic label has stuck, but no one wants to discuss the jungle style, repelled as they are by circumstances at the Cotton Club; embarrassed by Ellington’s (necessary) complicity; and angered or made uneasy by ‘primitivism’ (quotation marks are invariably applied to defend against charges of condescension, colonialism and racism). Primitivism, whether it’s of the show-business sort (Josephine Baker’s La Revue nègre, 1925) or in the fine arts, draws on the Romantic/ racial idea of the vitalism of black folks. The first wave of Modernists submitted themselves to the spell of Oceanic and African tribal art as part of an across-the-board effort to revitalise fettered and supposedly moribund Europe. Africanesque wood sculptures by Brancusi didactically entitled Adam and Eve, Socrates, Little French Girl and – shown here – King of Kings (Spirit of Buddha) together define the breadth of the perceived cultural malaise and the role of self-conscious primitivism as plasma: ‘self-conscious’ because it was the product of educated, independent, ego-driven artistic choice rather than a selfless village artisan’s efforts to meet the religious/ceremonial needs of his community.
The spindly, comical Little French Girl of 1914-18 is obviously indebted to an African source. Adam and Eve (1921), however, represents a great advance: basic African forms such as bold sawtoothed edges are integrated with body parts that follow no tribal template. Brancusi then went more than fifteen years without carving in an Africanesque mode before returning to the fold to fashion the ten-foot-high King of Kings (c.1938, now in the Guggenheim Museum, New York) with no self-consciousness, it seems, quite possibly sculpting to jazz, since he’d built up a first-rate record collection, mainly of blacks (including Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins and Cab Calloway). Unlike his friend Léger, who merely adapted ethnological textbook drawings for his ‘primitive’ stage designs, Brancusi had finally internalised it all, had become an African, if you will, at the age of 62 – a tribe of one, free to improvise an almost source-proof golden work that looks thoroughly African and could be exhibited as such, save for the cartoonish crown (only the serrations of the neck are old hat). The anachronistic crown of King of Kings is a serious, self-reflexive joke that breaks the most convincing African spell ever cast by a Western Modernist and reminds us that art creates its own reality and issues no passports. This swirling, uplifting work (its oak kept young and vital by varnish) may also realise Brancusi’s sole intention, ‘to bring joy’, and he’s abetted by its accessibility, a vexing issue in regard to Modernism’s afterlife. How often is Ulysses read beyond the classroom? Have you ever noticed how most museum-goers don’t stop in front of Picasso’s dense, brown-hued Cubist masterpieces of 1911-12? Is Ellington’s accessibility compromised by puzzlement at the band’s idiosyncratic jungle sounds?
The Jungle Band’s most extraordinary sounds were produced by the trumpeters Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams (who took Miley’s place in 1929) and the trombonist Joe Nanton, whose nickname ‘Tricky Sam’ projected the essence of ‘jungle’ techniques. Following the example of King Oliver, they developed a wider variety of often speech-like growling and wa-wa sounds by humming and/or gargling gutturally in their throats while blowing legitimate musical notes on brass instruments that were distorted by various metal mutes and/or the manual manipulation in front of the horn of a rubber toilet plunger (the plumber’s helper) without its long wooden handle – the now famous plunger-mute. These devices expanded the possibilities of brass expressiveness the way tribal masks offered examples of facial distortion that no sane Westerner had yet delineated. Even rough and raw Emil Nolde, the boldest German Expressionist, emulated jungle styles, especially effigies with animalistic, bared teeth. The jungle plunger was wielded most wondrously by Nanton, whose sound-effects, according to the cornetist Rex Stewart, ranged ‘from the wail of a new-born baby to the raucous hoot of an owl, from the bloodcurdling scream of an enraged tiger to the eerie cooing of a mourning dove. Tricky had them all in his bag of tricks and he utilised them with thoughtful discretion and good taste.’
‘Thoughtful’ is the operative word, since the jungle style has long been misunderstood. Ellington’s jungle exists on no map. Although his style has been linked with the talking drum signals of Africa, it is as calculated an artistic construct as the primitivism of Brancusi and the Africanesque paintings of Picasso, Derain and Matisse, among others. None of them got their art supplies, plumbing equipment or ‘Eurocentric’ brass instruments at the jungle trading post. The only strange god they jointly serve is the West’s persistent notion that the possibility of a better, elemental, passional life is passing us by and may exist somewhere else, though probably not at the tropical resorts advertised on television. Tricky Sam Nanton, a quiet, unsociable man, also searched, deeply, as the Ellington band’s only apparent intellectual: a constant reader, even on stage during intermissions (his trombone case was always filled with books and journals of opinion), Nanton was no one’s idea of a ‘primitive’.
In America, the primitivist appeal persists in areas closer to La Revue nègre and Cotton Club routines than Brancusi et al. The extraordinary athleticism and stamina of black basketball players can stand for any kind of performance. On another stage, the misogyny and baggy-trousered swagger of gangsta rap/hip-hop artists finds a large audience among 14-year-old suburban white boys who feel cut off from freedom and authenticity, Tom Sawyer again yearning to be Huck Finn, the first white Negro. Brancusi, that natural-born free agent, remained as open-minded as his King of Kings is literally open-headed and hence all-seeing. The sculptor’s next-to-last record acquisition, made in 1954, three years before his death, was ‘Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)’, by Bill Haley and His Comets, from the film Rock around the Clock – the new wave, then, of poor white primitivism.
Although the connotations of ‘Jungle Band’ may be offensive to current sensibilities, its first clear masterpiece, ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’, can be interpreted as an inspiring racial statement (the best recording is the RCA Victor version, made on 26 October 1927; three other similar versions were recorded on different labels in the same month). The ‘Tan’ of the title refers to light complexions, long deemed a social advantage to African-Americans, starting with candidates for the chorus line at the Cotton Club. Colour-consciousness also informed the floor shows that Ellington accompanied: in one sketch c.1929, a light-skinned, very muscular Negro aviator, wearing only shorts, headgear and goggles, parachutes into the jungle of darkest Africa to rescue a blonde white goddess from a band of tar-black painted savages. (There are few accounts or photos of Cotton Club sketches and no documentation of which recorded Ellington numbers might have accompanied them, though such titles as ‘Hottentot’, ‘Jungle Stomp’ and ‘Jungle Nights in Harlem’ sound all-purpose.)
The dirge tempo of ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’ would have disqualified it as background music for the rescue sketch, but it surely addresses the same racial issues. Composed by Bubber Miley and Ellington, it comprises two minor and major blues choruses. Miley’s mournful second plunger solo, following Nanton’s, concludes by unexpectedly quoting Chopin’s Funeral March, a readily identifiable allusion. (The solos may well have been composed to begin with, or written out after an initial improvisation, since all subsequent recordings and performances stick very close to the original recording.) A funeral march is appropriate if Ellington is grieving that the race issue – crippling colour-consciousness and self-hatred among blacks, simple bigotry almost everywhere else – could prove the death of America. ‘The Black and Tan’, Ellington told Stanley Dance in 1962, ‘was a speakeasy of the period where people of all races and colours mixed together.’ Ellington’s fantasy proposes music as a healing, multicultural balm, comic relief included. Nanton’s trombone horse-whinny at the end of his plaintive plunger solo points to the nag pulling the coffin and the fun in ‘funeral’, to try to replicate the wit and ebullience that’s invariably around the corner in Duke’s jungle.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
You are not logged in
[*] Oxford, 352 pp., $25, 25 April, 0 19 512448 0.