Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), but he’s also a huge music buff and author of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, Pops: A life of Louis Armstrong, and Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man play about Armstrong. In a recent WSJ article called “Duke of the Three-Minute Masterpiece,” Terry explored some of the creative aspects of Duke’s work that have made it beloved and timeless. Here are some of this gifted artist’s approaches that we may find helpful as we pursue our own masterpieces:
Write for the long haul: Think timeless, not timely: Some of Ellington’s numbers like “Black and Tan Fantasy” are almost 90 years old, and yet, observes Terry, “they’re as arrestingly fresh and original-sounding today as they were in the Roaring Twenties.”
Cultivate your own voice: Unlike one-hit wonders, Duke’s music always has an “unmistakably individual” quality to it. He forged his old unique style by building on the old and the new: According to Terry, Duke Ellington was “the first jazz composer to write music that used the still-new medium of the big band with the same coloristic imagination brought by classical composers to their symphonic works.” The message for us: draw inspiration from the classic works in your genre and bring their strengths to bear while also taking advantage of newer storytelling techniques — all with the goal of creating a distinctive voice.
Be innovative: Aspire to say something fresh and new. According to Terry, in his classic pieces — the ones that are truly timeless — Duke “used the language of jazz to say things that it had never said before.” He used it to plumb his own inner life and to capture “every imaginable emotion: joy and sadness, passion and despair. “He looked, listened and felt, then transformed his feelings into music.”
Observe life with curiosity: Duke Ellington’s 1,700 or so compositions captured musical portraits of “pretty women, tap-dancing comedians, express trains, Shakespearean characters, and ordinary events. “I just watch people and observe life,” he once said, “and then I write about them.”
Strive to convey a sense of wholeness: While very concise and tightly written, Duke’s “musical cameos had an architectural wholeness that is all but unique among early jazz compositions,” notes Terry. “A disciplined lyric miniaturist, Ellington could express the grandest of emotions on the smallest of scales, and he knew how to fuse written ensembles and improvised solos into fully integrated musical structures that are, like the exquisite “Mood Indigo,” as simple-sounding and unforgettable as proverbs.” Bravo, Duke! With his inspiration, let’s write on!