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 union of the blues and Chopin is a great moment, Miley leading the ensemble from one musical strain into another as seamlessly as Brancusi carving each subsequent serration on his King of Kings or Ellington swinging Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite in 1960 (partly orchestrated by Billy Strayhorn), the culminating marvel and joy of the burgeoning field of jazz multiculturalism. The latter is expressed with patriotic fervour in an extended, five-minute version of W.C. Handy’s ‘St Louis Blues’ recorded ‘live’ on the evening of 7 November 1940, at a dance at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, North Dakota. It’s the closing number, rousing but rough, as though they had no formal arrangement; they never did record it commercially. (Ellington recorded it in 1928.) The tempo is uncommonly fast for this song, they abandon most of the melody, and Ellington lets his soloists loose. It ends on a multicultural chord with the band quoting the main theme from ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’ followed quickly by the famous Rhapsody in Blue fanfare that Armstrong quoted in every performance over the years of Waller’s ‘(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue’ – Armstrong’s open-ended statement in favour of racial harmony. (Many blacks resented Gershwin’s ‘appropriation’ of the blues.) After several more moments, which include Ellington’s spoken ‘Goodnight and thank you’, the orchestra launches into an 18-second version (it fades out) of Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’ – generated spontaneously, it seems, because they sound like a high-school marching band at its first rehearsal. Ellington had never before performed ‘God Bless America’ (famously recorded by Kate Smith in 1939) and would never repeat this airing. Why did he offer it at Fargo?

If you accept Ellington’s truncated ‘God Bless America’ as a delayed coda to ‘St Louis Blues’, it introduces the idea of producing multicultural medleys for regions in need, such as North Dakota, a seriously Caucasian state. Handy’s great jazz standard is ideal, since, in addition to the blues, it draws on the tango, ragtime and church music. Franklin D. Roosevelt, much loved by black voters, had been re-elected the day before for an unprecedented third term, and the current issue of Life was celebrating the American electoral ideal with a cover photo of a smiling crowd of flag-waving citizens, captioned democracy: 50 million voters (4 November 1940). Wouldn’t you have played ‘God Bless America’, the unofficial second national anthem (written by an immigrant), if you had a band at your command and believed in the full democratic potential of your land? A poem to complement the exuberance at the Crystal Ballroom, exemplified by Nanton, who begins his plunger-mute solo on ‘St Louis Blues’ by bleating three wa-wa bars of ‘Whistle While You Work’, the seven dwarves’ song from Snow White (1938) – no loose St Louis woman, she – followed by a blatant blues cliché, as parody clears the way for the trombonist’s six choruses of inspired self-expression along a fresh jungle path. It is Nanton’s longest, most impassioned recorded solo. He roars in anger at the bejewelled St Louis woman (we know the song, and some of her faults), Tricky Sam swinging on a Picasso branch of the jungle style – e.g. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), where the grotesquely metamorphosing Africanesque women in his nightmare brothel are a threat rather than a promise of pleasure and joy. Does the ‘Whistle While You Work’ quotation signal that the woman in question has turned out to be a working girl? Poor Joe! Fooled again! He squawks through his plunger, the entire band riffing very loud moans and groans behind him, as though they’re saying ‘Poor Tricky! Oh, Joe! Give her Hell! Give her Hell! Stay on it, stay on it,’ in a primal language known to all beasts and men. Then they rush towards their concluding, upbeat ‘Black and Tan’/Gershwin conflation. It is stated out of tempo, raucously, a bus screeching to a stop. What did the dancers in Fargo make of the tumult, the jungle style and mix of allusions? What do we think? Most jazz critics are silently puzzled by such quotations or dismiss them as self-indulgent distractions or pointless jokes, which misses the mark.

The postwar bebop jazzmen employed musical quotations even more often than Ellington. Charlie Parker frequently concludes fast-paced, hard-swinging numbers by stopping on a dime and gaily quoting – out of tempo, with leisurely elegance – from Percy Grainger’s Country Gardens, a Brancusi cartoon crown of musical notes that evokes an English environment at a considerable remove from the main locus of the bebop experiment, New York’s fabled jungle of competition. ‘Koko’ (1945), the most brilliant of Parker’s improvisations, quotes part of the clarinet solo from the New Orleans warhorse ‘High Society’ so seamlessly that it appears to be part of Parker’s creation rather than some cutting, incongruous reference to outdated Dixieland jazz. In ‘Dexter’s Deck’ (1945), the tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon interpolates ‘Sonny Boy’, one of Al Jolson’s most famous blackface numbers, introduced in his second talky, The Singing Fool (1928); as in Parker, Gordon’s manner is not bitter or satiric. The tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, influenced by Parker’s and Gordon’s quirky allusions, was soon (1954-58) recording straight-faced and inspired versions of unlikely songs for a Harlemite to choose: ‘There’s No Business like Show Business’ (from Annie Get Your Gun), ‘I’m an Old Cowhand’, ‘Wagon Wheels’, ‘Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody’ and ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top’ (from Oklahoma!). At the height of their revolution and powers, these young bebop Modernists were positing a thoroughly American, pan-racial utopia where it’s all music, there’s room for every song and sound. God bless America indeed, racism notwithstanding. Brancusi’s cartoon crown is tilted at a jaunty angle, like Fats Waller’s derby in the movie Stormy Weather (1943), when he should be proclaiming: ‘There’s nothing we can’t swing!’ Near the end of his life (1955), Parker wanted to study with Edgard Varèse, the French-American composer of aleatory music, whose Ionisation (1931) is a sonata for percussion instruments and sirens.

Musical allusions in Ellington, Parker et al parallel the intertextual Modernist manner of Eliot, Joyce and Pound, which helps to define ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’ as the first work of black Modernism, however academic the designation. Of course its rank isn’t as apparent as the position of Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (1909) as the historical cornerstone of American experimental prose Modernism, even if the book’s life now depends on university and college syllabuses and the pass Stein gets for her persistent, primitivist racialism. (‘Rose had the simple, promiscuous unmorality of the black people,’ she writes, typically, in ‘Melanctha’.) The racial reading of ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’ and gloss on ‘St Louis Blues’ are of course blatantly ‘literary’, which doesn’t go against the grain of Ellington. His career-long involvement with language is more interesting than he himself would have realised, starting with his stage patter and persona (‘We love you madly’), which was variously charming, ingratiating and unctuous, in a myriad of fulsome, slyly insincere, constantly shifting shades – a put-on, expressing . . . who knows? ‘Mask is the key word,’ as Humbert Humbert says.

The speech-like intonations of the jungle style are related to Louis Armstrong’s scat but more radical because the jungle style doesn’t begin with comprehensible language. (Armstrong rejected the plunger, despite its importance to his mentor, King Oliver, in favour of scat.) Where the lyrics of certain Armstrong numbers allow that his secret language addresses sex and race, the brass growls of Nanton and Miley and wordless scat singing of Baby Cox on ‘Hot and Bothered’ and ‘The Mooche’ (the recording of 1 October 1928) are nondiscursive and teasing. As usual, Tricky Sam sounds as though he’s really trying to talk, but all efforts to discern meaning are as frustrating and funny as attempts to comprehend the needs of a barking dog or an earnestly babbling 18-month-old. It’s not only a joke, though, if Ellington is trying to distil and communicate his sense of the African-American experience, which is hardly a presumptuous surmise, given the titles of his subsequent extended works: Black, Brown and Beige (1943-46), A Tone Parallel to Harlem (Harlem Suite) (1951) and My People (1963). In 1928, the composer of ‘The Mooche’ could have explained, ‘words fail’ – we know the failure – and added: ‘That’s why we have music.’ The titles of many songs from his great 1940-42 period are ‘musical’ in that they alone traverse a happy tumult without being precise: ‘Cottontail’, ‘Conga Brava’, ‘Bli-Blip’, ‘Jumpin’ Punkins’, ‘Hayfoot Strawfoot’ – poetic feats, whatever they mean.

The title of ‘The Blues with a Feelin’’ (1928) is purposefully open-ended. Full emphasis should fall on the vague final word – no proper or improper nouns are provided, no St Louis or empty bed blues are cited, no hint of any ‘Brava’. Fill in the blank with your feelings. Find the word(s). It’s a challenge. On ‘Creole Love Song’ (1932, from the experimental long-playing stereo version), Cootie Williams tries to keep a stiff upper lip, to growl rather than whine. His plaintive wa-wa solo almost articulates ‘Why? Why? Why? Why?’ but not quite, preserving the sense of privacy if not dignity a singer would sacrifice in the process of overt expression, the risk taken by the trumpeter Louis Bacon on ‘Dear Old Southland’ (1933), a non-Ellington song based on the old spiritual ‘Deep River’. Bacon tries three times to sing ‘I wanna be –’ only to stop short each time and groan ‘oh-uh-ohh’, unable to complete the (futile dream?) lyric. ‘I wanna be – loved?’ ‘– safe?’ ‘– secure?’ ‘– rich?’ ‘– happy?’ Johnny Hodges follows with a beautiful lyrical soprano saxophone solo which suggests that at least four of those five wishes are within reach. ‘My man, Lily Pons,’ Charlie Parker once called Hodges.

The connotations of ‘Dear Old Southland’, Bacon’s three words and groans, and Cootie’s muffled ‘Why?’ speak African-American volumes – the ones that Toni Morrison, among others, is striving to write. But the shortcomings of Ellington’s verbal narratives for My People and the Second Sacred Concert (1968) demonstrate that his instincts were sounder in 1928, and that bigger is not necessarily better. The toilet plunger, as vernacular and democratic as an object gets, is the source of the most popular incarnation of avant-garde aleatory music. This is a major Ellington achievement, totally unremarked by the musicologists and critics who would readily admit that – save for movie soundtracks – aleatory music, from Boulez down, has not found an audience. Ellington’s jungle style is Varèse for the people by way of the plumber.

This may sound like qualified praise, in as much as Ellington’s stature is now a sensitive, charged issue. Serious discussion is vexed by the promotion of him as the greatest American or 20th-century composer, classical music included. It is therefore good to remember that Ellington’s reputation was enhanced as early as 1927 by highbrow praise of his miniatures alone, recordings that are, at most, three and a half minutes long. Mark Tucker has collected the early appraisals in his excellent Duke Ellington Reader (1993). Ellington’s reputation does not depend on his extended compositions. The latter do not have to be deemed better than, say, Copland’s for Ellington to remain ‘beyond category’, to use the highest praise he himself could bestow. His phrase should allow us to step fairly around the problematic tag ‘greatest’.

In 1932, Ellington expanded his band to 14 musicians and, with less call for Cotton Club scores, began to enlarge his orchestral palette well beyond the jungle style, a broadening that’s been misunderstood. Even Joe Nanton was allowed to voice human truths without imitating animals. On ‘Dear Old Southland’, for instance, he plays too loudly and busily over rather than behind Louis Bacon’s attempts to sing, but it’s purposeful. The listener almost misses the fact that Bacon is near tears. For a change, Nanton is imitating a very kind person who’s coughing to cover up a friend’s gaucherie – a growth in dramatic range equivalent to the ambitions and advances of Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, as it was now billed. Ravel, it was said, had influenced the new Ellington, whose ‘Solitude’ (1934) might be called Afro-French Impressionism thanks to its mellifluous saxophone scoring, its subdued brass passages, and Artie Whetsol’s lovely, astonishingly quiet open trumpet solo – low-volume without any loss of tone, a rare ability. At an opposite extreme is Ellington’s unique opening brass orchestration for ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’ (1934), which Bartók or Stravinsky might gladly have claimed: Nanton rather than a trumpeter plays the lead through his plunger-mute, this bottom sound in the brass-mix powering an instant jungle lift-off, it seems – rocketin’ in rhythm, music for Flash Gordon and vine-propelled Tarzan, the third white Negro, after Huck Finn and Brancusi. The fourth is Elvis Presley – king of kings, especially in the multicultural UK, where one of his old recordings recently rose to the top of the pop charts.

Ellington’s reputation soared giddily after a tour of France and England in the summer of 1933, where the band’s triumphant two-week run at the London Palladium broke all box-office records and inspired ever higher praise. ‘I received the thrill of a lifetime to hear what is unquestionably the world’s greatest brass section,’ Constant Lambert wrote in the Sunday Referee. ‘His music has a truly Shakespearean universality,’ another London critic declared. In 1934, Lambert wrote of Ellington’s 1928 ‘Hot and Bothered’: ‘I know of nothing in Ravel so dextrous in treatment as the varied solos in the middle . . . and nothing in Stravinsky more dynamic than the final section.’ Gunther Schuller, an Ellington admirer, thinks this is extravagant and doubts that Ellington had even heard Ravel at this point. But highbrow praise such as Lambert’s and Percy Grainger’s (he ranked Ellington with Bach and Delius) set the tone and trajectory of subsequent commentary on Ellington, which has usually asserted that the composer gave up the jungle style after the Palladium apotheosis of 1933 as he progressed towards his prime achievement, the 1940-42 orchestra. This is wrong, and worth arguing if it deepens an appreciation of that band’s subtlety and range. Point of fact: in London, July 1933, right after the Palladium triumph, Ellington composed ‘Harlem Speaks’ (it’s in Brancusi’s surviving collection of jazz records), a catchy, chugging, riff-dominated piece capped by three choruses of Nanton’s plunger-work and back and forth out-chorus growls exchanged by two trumpeters, all of which reasserts Ellington’s roots and route to success – the pun as metonym for an expanding universe of form, content and emotional affect.

Simply stated, as Ellington’s post-Cotton Club arrangements evolved in the 1930s, the jungle idea – vamps, blue interludes, growls – receded from the conceptual centre, making room for as many as five soloists on a piece, only one or two of them in the jungle manner (Nanton, Williams, Stewart), and not necessarily on every number. Sudden bursts of self-conscious primitivism now helped to create a range of startling contrasts in the more complex and densely textured orchestrations of 1940-42, especially since they are cushioned by the richer sound banks achieved by the saxophone section, expanded to five with the addition of Ben Webster’s tenor in late 1939. By turns volcanic and lyrical (‘Rosebud,’ he seems about to whisper at the end of ballads), Webster became the band’s most compelling solo voice, a great instrumental crooner and jungle player without plunger whose tone, on up-tempo numbers, sometimes took on the angry rasp of hornets on the loose.

Judicious jungle-style solos add bite to many of the most civilised arrangements for the 1940-42 orchestra (all cited recordings are by this edition of the band, available on the classic three-CD set Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Band). ‘Ko-Ko’, from the first recording session and one of its greatest works (no relation to Charlie Parker’s ‘Koko’), opens with an aggressive, almost defiant plunger solo by Nanton, as if to say: musical advances aren’t going to make me take a back seat in your train or trolley, as he soon demonstrated in Fargo with his ‘St Louis Blues’ solo. ‘Ko-Ko’ is in fact based on only a 12-bar minor blues, Ellington challenging himself to make the most of the least, like limited-vocabulary Hemingway at his best. Ellington never loses touch with the vernacular either, opening many of his ‘advanced’ arrangements almost alone at the piano, as in ‘Across the Track Blues’, accompanied only by his brilliant young bassist Jimmie Blanton and drummer Sonny Greer on brushes, and then Barney Bigard may enter gently on clarinet. They vamp together momentarily, Duke playing sparely, day-dreaming at the piano, it seems, tinkling, coming up with the next number quickly – block chords, now – beneath an empty mural space that will shortly accommodate a busy crew of sophisticated colourists and the plumber’s helpers, too, a boisterous union.

Musically, plungers fix everyday moments we all know. On ‘The Giddybug Gallop’, a very up-tempo train number, Sonny Greer swooshes his brushes (not sticks) heavily to simulate the wheels of a crowded train pulling out of the station so fast that Nanton, on his feet in the unsteady car, is jostled this way and that so rudely that he solos immediately, sputtering and complaining loudly like an ordinary guy but through a plunger-mute: why don’t somebody give a poor ol’ trombonist a hand or seat? In ‘John Hardy’s Wife’, the characteristically smooth ensemble performance is suddenly interrupted by the agitated, antic, plunger-driven and half-valve squawking of Rex Stewart as Hardy’s hen-pecking wife (the title draws on the band’s own name for a threatening gal), whom Lawrence Brown, nicknamed the Deacon for his proper bearing, answers with a mollifying, creamy-toned trombone solo, the soothing five-man saxophone section rolling in as one to apply more salve – an accurate projection, as it happens, of Ellington’s well-known compulsion to avoid all personal unpleasantness. ‘In a Mellowtone’, based on the chords of ‘Rose Room’, is highlighted by a sequence of 16 swift two and four-bar conversational exchanges between the muted, querulous jungle trumpet of Cootie Williams and the swelling lines of the ever-so soigné saxophone section – Dionysus versus Apollo, or the id, ego and superego figuring out how to keep everything mellow.

Jungle effects, especially Nanton’s, are crucial in rescue operations of non-Ellington stuff, growing funnier, it seems, with every advance of the Ducal reputation. ‘Chloe (Song of the Swamp)’, a foolish 1927 number that had been sung to death, opens with Tricky Sam whining the melody through his plunger mute, which sounds more like yoi-yoi than wa-wa, a Yiddish complaint in the jungle that sets us up for surprising delights when we’re treated to a series of beautiful statements rather than further eccentric turns – silken scoring for the five saxophones that produces a Queen Mary glide (by Ellington’s associate, Billy Strayhorn); a dulcet, dignified half-chorus by the trombonist Lawrence Brown; and the wistfulness of Ben Webster’s measured solo – all played off Nanton’s antic, jagged-edged opening. (Walter van de Leur’s recent book, Something to Live for: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, is highly recommended.*) In ‘The Sidewalks of New York’, four gallant soloists improvise uphill on the 1904 chestnut only to have Tricky Sam assume the unexpected role of straight man at the end and anti-climactically play the familiar melody so faithfully through his muted plunger that it’s impossible not to remember the lyrics and laugh: ‘East Side, West Side/All around the town.’ Where is that jungle message coming from? Central Park? On ‘The C Jam Blues’, Nanton’s speechlike growling almost forms a comprehensible phonetic statement that urges his leader to ‘keep the game preserve open,’ which Ellington did, having recently recorded the comically outrageous and gamy ‘Menelik (The Lion of Judah)’ and the tender ‘A Portrait of Bert Williams’. The latter pays tribute to the much loved but now forgotten Negro blackface comedian. Barney Bigard’s gentle, tentative clarinet solo is said to emulate Williams’s halting speech, but Nanton concludes with a stabbing, oblique solo whose plaintive hints of speech only point to the mystery of Williams’s complex persona and Ellington’s 1928 philosophy of language.

Although mutes and plungers most often serve comic purposes in arrangements from 1940-42, Ellington’s use of them in the trumpet showcases of the time makes more direct human sense than ever before: in ‘Concerto for Cootie’, Williams opens his solo by playing quaveringly with a plunger over an already cup-muted trumpet bell, grandly removing these fetters on his magisterial second chorus to release Armstrong-like joys. But after only half a chorus, he tamps and conserves them with another, even tighter mute, evidently to meet tomorrow’s anticipated needs. They seem to ride on ‘Take the “A” Train’ (composed by Strayhorn), where Williams’s replacement in the band, Ray Nance, removes his mute unconditionally after two sonically subdued choruses and quickly ascends the subway stairs to a brilliant, open-horned Harlem day on 125th Street, no doubt, since it was the main stop and ‘main stem’, to use the wonderfully organic jive idiom for the most happening Negro avenue in every town and city. Ellington’s ‘Main Stem’, a 12-bar blues that isn’t blue, celebrates their collective vitality by letting seven men solo (the most ever), including Deacon Lawrence Brown, for once as rambunctious as Nanton, whose raunchy plunger statement affirms the stem. The plunger is just as hortatory a device to Nance, who opens Harlem Suite (1951) with a two-note plunger articulation: ‘Har-lem’, a telescopic Ellington moment. The plunger and its sound potential clearly represent and render the deepest, most ineffable reaches of the composer’s racial consciousness.

A wickedly ironic aspect of Ellington’s musical wit was his deployment of the jungle style against both racial stereotyping and false racial consciousness or pride. As the nominal leader of a small Ellington unit called Cootie Williams and His Rug Cutters, Williams takes down ‘Ol’ Man River’ (1938). (Stellar sidemen such as Williams, Rex Stewart, Johnny Hodges and Barney Bigard made some hundred recordings between 1936 and 1941 under their own names, though the piano player – Ellington or Strayhorn – invariably called the shots.) Although ‘Ol’ Man River’ had gained national operatic status as sung by Paul Robeson (not yet a racial hero) in the 1936 film version of Show Boat, Ellington and Williams treat the Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein aria as a pretentious darky number. They make it absurd by assigning the vocal to a mediocre white female singer, Jerry Kruger. ‘You and me we sweat and strain,’ she pipes sweetly, and we have to smile, no less than if a bear-chested Fats Waller were singing in falsetto. She takes liberties with the lyrics, primly refining its black English and interpolating a new line: ‘Smoke a little tea/And sing o sole mee-uh.’ But Cootie Williams follows the letter, his plunger solo phonetically rendering the familiar opening lines with syllabic exactitude; if one knows the melody, the considerable humour even comes across on the page. ‘Ol’ man river, dat ol’ man river’ (plus other lines) are growled as ‘wa-wa wa-wa, wa wa-wa-WAH-wa’, and so forth. ‘Ol’ Man River’, always sung rubato, is taken up-tempo against all prevailing currents by Cootie and the Rug Cutters, which makes us visualise the stevedores, male and female, shirts optional, ‘liftin’ an’ totin’’ at a comically impossible pace, rushing back and forth, herky-jerky, as in a speeded-up old slapstick comedy – Mack Sennett in blackface, Show Boat aground. Satire and brass can bring down any construct, especially if it’s as friable as the idea of minstrelsy.

The Ellingtonians have thoroughly denuded the famous song. The bass-baritone Noble Negro is now just another black buck in an ignoble revue. ‘Give him a parachute,’ Ellington could be saying, as though commenting on the Cotton Club’s wretched sketch. ‘Buckle it up tight. Now jump!’ Jump for Joy, Ellington’s stage musical of 1941, presented in Los Angeles, was a witty frontal attack on racial injustice and stereotypes (book and lyrics by Paul Francis Webster and Sid Kuller). Backed by the full Ellington Orchestra, Herb Jeffries sings the show’s title tune with a stentorian tone worthy of a Negro spiritual:

Fare thee well, land of cotton
Cotton lille is out of style
Honey chile – jump for joy!
Don’t you grieve little Eve
All the hounds I do believe
Have been killed
Ain’t you thrilled? Jump for joy!

(‘Lille’ is lace; ‘Eve’ is the character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) ‘Oh, Green Pastures was just a Technicolor movie,’ Jeffries sings, dismissing the 1936 film version of Connelly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, historically important as the most respected racially condescending production of its time and a standard inclusion in Great American Plays anthologies into the 1950s. (Jeffries, b. 1911, is the only surviving member of the 1940-42 band.) ‘In Jump for Joy, Uncle Tom is dead. God rest his bones,’ wrote an ecstatic reviewer in the Los Angeles Tribune, a black weekly newspaper. Fittingly, the title tune opens with Tricky Sam Nanton growling the as-yet-unheard lyrics with phonetic literalness, a respectful prefiguration and droll stomp of approval on the demise of the cotton locus and culture. Webster and Hodges solo emphatically and the ensemble does jump for joy, having made its unambiguous main statement in plain English, so crucial to many jazz singers – and to Joyce in the final chapter of Ulysses.

Even more noteworthy is another 1941 Ellington occasion, the recording of ‘Menelik (The Lion of Judah)’, by an eight-man group led by Rex Stewart, the Alexander Calder of the cornet, whose uninhibited behaviour as man and musician had earned him the nickname ‘Boy’. ‘Boy Meets Horn’ (1938), with its witty half-valving, was Stewart’s most famous solo feature with Ellington. ‘Menelik (The Lion of Judah)’ is said to be a tribute to Haile Selassie, who had become an international cultural hero to blacks and whites alike in 1936 after Mussolini’s modern Army had easily overwhelmed Ethiopia’s spear-bearing defenders, and Selassie’s personal plea before the assembled League of Nations had fallen on unsympathetic ears. He fled to British protection and, in 1941, following Italian defeats, regained his throne with British support, much to the delight of everyone – except Ellington, it seems.

Stewart opens ‘Menelik’ (one of Selassie’s royal family names) over rolling tom-toms with his plunger-mute version of a lion’s roar, a low-comedy, tone-free, growling, rumbling alimentary sound in very dubious taste, signalling acute indigestion at New York City’s Central Park Zoo. This surprisingly irreverent beginning is followed by some stately enough open-horn tooting topped by Stewart’s closing ‘roar’, where good taste is thrown to the wind, truly, and his bottom notes sound like dangerous flatulence. No child of any age could fail to recognise and laugh at the first-grade schoolyard fun wrought by bad boy Rex, King of the Jungle Style, on this day, anyway. The plumber’s helper, handle intact, is more than apt as sceptre and emergency measure. The Lion has fallen, much like ‘Ol’ Man River’.

Rex, with Ellington’s backing, is kingly, asserting his independence bravely, in the face of Selassie’s undeserved status. The mock tribute speaks to current pretensions and follies in the areas of Afrocentrism, identity politics and the false gods of sport and entertainment. Selassie was in truth a petty despot indifferent to the poverty of his subjects, a colonial pawn, a toothless lion who maintained his grandiose claim to be the 111th descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba – roots to spare, and rib. Small wonder the executives at RCA Victor rejected the record, finding it in poor taste, one guesses, or unacceptably disrespectful to the Lion of Judah, or too reminiscent of the sometimes alimentary musical burlesque performed by Spike Jones and His City Slickers. ‘Menelik’ went unreleased in the States and UK until 1953, when it appeared on a Rex Stewart LP. It qualifies as the band’s most outrageous jungle music since the title figure in ‘Arabian Lover’ (1929) turned out to be a camel on heat, or so Nanton’s plunger-work suggests, in a number that definitively mocks that area of exotica – Rudolph Valentino, cinema’s ‘Arabian Lover’ in The Sheik (1921) and Son of the Sheik (1926) – drummer Sonny Greer replicating hot hoofbeats, somehow. Adepts of aleatory music might ask: how did Greer do this? Coconut shells on blocks of wood? Doesn’t that alone sound like a museum-bound neo-Dadaist work possibly titled Sheik Dumb? And professors pursuing post-colonial studies could reasonably term Ellington’s ‘Arabian Lover’ a serious critique of Orientalism before the letter – to grab at any (camel) straw to get Ellington and Louis Armstrong into the ‘diversified’ current curriculum ahead of, say, the estimable and now canonical Langston Hughes.

The musical flatulence of ‘Menelik’ might have been accepted by the more enlightened executives at RCA if someone had thought to place it in line with the experiments of Varèse and the Joyce who created ‘Sirens’, the elaborately wrought ‘aleatory’ musical chapter of Ulysses. It sustains the contrapuntal play of verbal themes, songs and sounds ranging from hoofbeats and the expanding tap-tapping of a blind man’s cane to the accelerated rumblings of Bloom’s upper and lower digestive tracts. The delicately orchestrated prose-poetry of the chapter’s five last pages incorporates the onomatopoeic libretto that Stewart could have been following in ‘Menelik’: ‘Rrr’ at first, then ‘Rrrrrr’, and then ‘Prrprr’ and ‘Fff. Oo. Rrpr’ on the last page, concluded in its closing lines by ‘Karaaaaaaa’ and ‘Pprrpffrrppfff’. Bloom’s explosive fart (to drain it of its music and poetry) is counterpointed by fragmented italicised phrases recollected from the once famous courtroom speech of the doomed Irish patriot, Robert Emmet, Bloom counting off like Rex Stewart or a rocketeer: ‘One. Two. Let my epitaph be. Karaaaaaaa.’ Joyce’s political point about gaseous rhetoric and false consciousness is analogous to Stewart’s lionising of Haile Selassie.

Although most contemporary readers would probably miss this send-up of pride and rhetoric, the jazz-Joyce elision is hope-filled. Ulysses is most reader-friendly when it’s got rhythm: the sociopolitical parodies of ‘Cyclops’, with their comic catalogues of names; the sustained parody of cliché-ridden sentimental fiction in ‘Nausicaa’; the witching-hour vaudeville of ‘Circe’ (Nighttown); and the syncopated musical prose of ‘Penelope’ (Molly Bloom), the 20th century’s greatest piece of vernacular writing. Except for the final page and a third, Molly Bloom’s unpunctuated, seamless monologue throbs at about eighty-six beats per minute on the metronome, a physiologically unremarkable pulse as steady and reassuring as the cardiovascular power of Jimmie Blanton’s bass ostinato at the centre of the Ellington ensemble. Listen particularly to ‘Jack the Bear’, ‘Just A-Settin’ and A-Rockin’’ and ‘Harlem Air Shaft’ for Blanton, and Ellington’s ‘Perdido’ (1942), whose pulse is the same as Molly Bloom’s. Listen to ‘Perdido’ while you read a page or two of Molly until you’re in Joyce’s groove, rockin’ in your seat or tapping your slippered foot. ‘Perdido’ was written by Juan Tizol, Ellington’s Puerto Rican valve trombonist, whose several exotic ‘tropical’ pieces constitute another telling jazz-Joyce fusion.

The Molly Bloom chapter is a kind of Dublin Cotton Club production. Joyce, the sexually imploded Celt, is standing in the wintry wings, directing the putative floor show. He’s almost didactic about race and primal geography. Molly Bloom thinks she might arouse her impotent husband if she got ‘a nice pair of red slippers like those Turks with the fez used to sell’ – in Gibraltar, her girlhood home – ‘or yellow and a nice semitransparent morning gown’, a kasbah outfit à la Matisse’s bare-breasted Odalisque in Red Trousers (1921), who is lying on an evenly saturated red carpet. Matisse’s clarion reds sound like several open trumpets, no mutes in sight, though the grey tendrils on her wallpaper is jungle style. On the penultimate page of Ulysses, Joyce doubles Molly’s pulse as she remembers the harbour of Gibraltar ‘and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the Jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else . . . and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings’, and the reader may recall Matisse’s Moroccan paintings of 1912-13 – another aspect of his jungle style – especially the brooding, brown-skinned, green-gowned Rif warriors and equally florid foliage and bursts of primary flowers that complement Joyce’s prose here as it flows into the last page of Ulysses, where Molly the aspiring singer and musing odalisque remembers the sound of castanets and

O . . . the sea and the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes

(this affirmative red is the chromatic high note of Ulysses) and then on the last page she remembers how she made love for the first time ‘under the Moorish wall’, all of which brings Molly and her maker as close to sexy Africa as they’ll ever get, like Ellington’s brass players growling through their plungers. The self-conscious primitivism of the entire Molly chapter, its open pantheism, Matisse palette and musical prose constitute accessible joys for everyone, as do Ellington’s recordings – tonic art to reduce or raze the jungle of our discontent, depression and despair, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

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