By Daniel Gewertz
What exactly did the Duke’s music symbolize to Russell’s shifty characters, two upwardly mobile lowlifes more anxious to fleece the world than fall in love?
A few years after seeing David O. Russell’s 2013 movie American Hustle, a funny thing happened. A line of dubious dialogue became personally significant to me.
Duke Ellington… “He saved my life many times.”
The line of dialogue falls from the lips of partygoer and wannabe femme fatale Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams. It’s a movie line that I didn’t believe for a moment, and I still don’t. American Hustle’s protagonists don’t even seem convincing as jazz lovers, no less Ellington fanatics.
American Hustle was a lauded film. It was nominated for 10 Oscars, though, oddly, it didn’t win any. But the oddity I want to focus on is the way the screenplay, set in 1974, features a leading man and lady who profess an out-sized adoration for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. This reverence crops up in an early scene, and it might even be seen as a key to the couple’s mutual aspirations. Irving Rosenfeld, a businessman/con-artist, sees Sydney across a crowded room, his own living room, where a swanky party is in full swing. Their eyes meet. Noticing a “Duke Ellington charm” attached to Sydney’s charm bracelet, Irving impulsively grabs her wrist.
Irving Rosenfeld: Is that Duke Ellington on your bracelet?
Sydney Prosser: As a matter of fact, it is. He died this year, you know.
Rosenfeld: I know. I doubt anyone else here knows or cares about it.
Prosser: Well I care. He saved my life many times.
Rosenfeld (impressed): Mine too. Which one?
Prosser: “Jeep’s Blues.”
Now this is one wacky piece of dialogue. How many times have you heard a music fan say of a musician: he saved my life? Possibly never. Sure, it’s easy to imagine a beloved piece of music brightening a mood or soothing a day. But saving a life? And many times over? How frequently is her life in danger of being lost? If you ever heard a line like this at a crowded party, you might at least ask your new party-mate to elaborate on the phrase “saved my life.” But instead, Irving, without a pause, agrees that his own life was also saved by the Duke many times over. And then, instantly, he asks: “Which one?”
Which one! Irving has assumed, as if it is self-evident, that it was not Duke’s output – a vast, diverse catalog of music – that was Sydney’s lifesaver. No, a single tune — one out of among nearly 50 years of prolific recordings — was responsible for the life-preserving feat! Unfazed by the question, Sydney comes back, also straightaway, with a tune title: “Jeep’s Blues.” (The title is uttered in a tentative mutter unlike the character’s confident tone. It’s as if the actress herself isn’t buying the line.)
“Jeep’s Blues,” I admit, is a perfectly fine tune. It served as one of the finest vehicles for Ellington’s signature soloist, alto-saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Neither balladic nor up-tempo, it fuses Hodges’s groove-laden blues with his rapturous romanticism. And it was a tune named for Hodges; Jeep was one of the reedman’s nicknames. Yet, these two jazz fans fail to mention either Hodges’s name or his commanding presence. They don’t toss the titles of favorite Duke compositions back and forth, mention other versions of the same song, or even talk about which period of Duke they think is his greatest, a common conversational tidbit among Ellington buffs. Irving just grabs an LP and plays the song for Sydney.
So why “Jeep’s Blues?” Oft-recorded by Ellington, yet hardly a famous composition, what is uniquely rejuvenating about the tune? Why is the film’s con-woman protagonist so attached to it? We never learn. But, sitting in the movie theater, I quickly guessed the hurried, makeshift manner of the choice.
The album Irving puts on his turntable is Duke Ellington at Newport. I assumed it was chosen because screenwriter-director Russell discovered — by Googling Ellington — it was the best-selling album of the Duke’s career. Ellington’s Newport fest appearance in ’56 is frequently credited with reviving the Ellington Orchestra’s flagging fortunes. The original release of the album contains just three works. The first, “Festival Suite,” has a boring title; the album’s most famous track, “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” is saddled with an overly complicated title. So the screenwriter was left with “Jeep’s Blues” as his only plausible choice. But if Russell had simply chosen a “best of” LP, he would’ve had a dozen more likely choices. Yes, there is a rhapsodic intensity to this Newport Festival iteration of “Jeep’s Blues” that is nearly symphonic, especially compared to the original, sedate 1938 version. But had the screenwriter spent more than five minutes researching the Duke, he might’ve come up with a less quizzical flow of party-chatter.
What exactly did the Duke’s music symbolize to Russell’s shifty characters, two upwardly mobile lowlifes more anxious to fleece the world than fall in love? My initial hunch: Ellington symbolizes generic glamour and classiness. A reading of the screenplay corroborated my guess. In one scene, while flipping through LPs at her hometown record store, Sydney is entranced by the “elegance” of albums by Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. They represent a sophisticated world far from her seedy life. The voice-over explains that Sydney decided to invent an entirely new identity built on those suave, uptown images and sounds.
Voilà! Ellington equals elegance. A shallow understanding of the most significant jazz artist of the 20th century, perhaps, but a possible one. Sydney – formerly a stripper in a sleazy small-town bar – is able to envision a more refined life for herself with Duke’s music as the fantasy’s soundtrack. It soon becomes clear that fraud, sham, and deception are at the heart of Sydney’s new life. One hopes these seamy traits weren’t suggested by Johnny “Jeep” Hodges’s alto sax!
How does music save a life? Is “save” synonymous with finding the ability to go on, no matter one’s diminished quality of life? Or does it imply the creation of a newly invigorated existence? The year 2014 was a low point in my life: professionally, creatively, and medically. This triptych of miseries consisted of the loss of a longtime journalism job, a completed novel that remained unpublished, and a seemingly permanent post-concussive syndrome. When I attempted to write, the words did not dance their way to my brain with the fluidity and grace of old. I was stuck in my tracks and when I looked to see where those rusty tracks were headed, they faded away.
I don’t believe Ellington saved my life, but I do know his music was one of the things that sustained me during this critically rough patch.
Ellington’s music first entered my life in the precise year American Hustle was set: 1974. In fact, the Duke’s death – the event mentioned in the movie’s party scene – was the reason I added my first jazz album to my already voluminous collection of rock, blues, and folk music. I was 24 at the time. Reading the Duke’s obit on a day in May, 46 years ago, prompted me to buy a low-budget, scattershot collection of his ’30s work. That acquisition was followed the next day with the addition of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis LPs. Those purchases marked the birth of a lifetime of jazz listening: within five years, I became a jazz deejay; and in the early ’80s I began a career as a music journalist.
Yet it was many years later, in the middle of the last decade, that my appreciation for the Duke finally ripened into full-blown obsession. Over the last few years, my Ellington collection — albums bought, borrowed, and downloaded — has grown past 100, and counting. I purchased an album like some other troubled men bought a liter of bourbon. There were many days I listened to nothing but Duke. Given the colossal span of his music – from stride piano ditties to jazz-classical suites, from swing to bop to world music – being an Ellington “completist” was hardly constricting.
Hearing substantive music can lift a mood. No matter your tastes, that’s a truism. If I were forced to pick a single song capable of that transitory feat, it would be Rockin’ in Rhythm, that infectious party of a tune that rockets along like a multipart conversation colliding with a merry riot. Like “Jeep’s Blues,” it was transformed over the decades, getting better with age in ways we mortals cannot.
But let’s forget about this nonsense of a single song serving as a savior. To hear Ellington recording sessions spanning five-plus decades is to comprehend a life spent searching for and achieving beauty. That itself is a kind of heroism. To hear Duke and his orchestra play their hearts out at some obscure dance date in Yakima, WA, during a financial and critical low point in their long history, or in a ballroom in Fargo, ND, at an acclaimed highpoint, or at Carnegie Hall — that’s what sustained creative vision and effort are all about. As I listen to those 100+ albums I frequently catch a glimpse of men achieving artistic bliss, and accomplishing it on a nightly basis, era after era. It makes me know that these gifted guys – even the drunks, druggies, and rascals among them – were rare angels on this earth.
Yes, there are favorite albums I listen to frequently. But what gives me a jolt of pleasure is to play an album I had once rejected as minor – as not quite to my taste – and realize how tasty and well-realized it truly is. Ellington has become established as a paragon of American culture; a “cast in bronze” monumentality has seeped in. His most famous work – much of it from the early ’40s – has gained a set-in-stone critical recognition as his masterworks. Being close to what is called an Ellington “completist” led me to discover that many of Ellington’s greatest studio albums come from the late ’50s and ‘6os … as well as the worst. (Blues in Orbit, Piano in the Background, Anatomy of a Murder, Far East Suite, and the 10 volume Private Collection are among my favorites.). And as late as The Great Paris Concert (1963) and Berlin ’65/Paris ’67, the band could reach historic heights live.
Yes, 1943’s Black, Brown & Beige is a highlight of his long-form works, but so is a little known foray into world music, La Plus Belle Africane (1967), or the infectious John Steinbeck tribute, Suite Thursday (1960). There were times Ellington couldn’t record an album, and other times (again, the late ’50s and the ’60s) where he recorded far too many. (I will not touch Ellington Plays Mary Poppins, Ellington ’65 or ’66, or the plush MOR-jazz of Bal Masque.)
There is another angle to Ellington as a role model: he fought off his fair share of trouble. If hero worship is to amount to more than idolatry, there needs to be evidence of serious struggle. In the early ’50s, as bebop surged, the Duke became an afterthought to many. But just listen to live shows from that period, like 1952’s Crystal Gardens Ballroom gig in Salem, OR. This was just one of thousands of far-flung dance gigs Duke’s band dutifully played, this one from the band’s brief Louie Bellson era. It is not the work of a band relying on nostalgia. The hits are revamped. The drive is dynamic. The bop influences infiltrate in fresh ways, with the great saxophonist Paul Gonsalves leading the propulsive pack. The recording level isn’t high grade, but the disc still cooks.
When star players left the Duke, critics consistently wondered if the band was in decline. There was even a song called “When Cootie Left the Duke” that followed trumpeter Cootie Williams’s exit in 1940. But Williams was replaced by the indomitable trumpeter Ray Nance, who also played inventive jazz violin, and sang, and danced. (Duke called him “Floorshow.”) Nance stayed over 25 years. The underrated clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton was no Barney Bigard, but his horn, sometimes called “facile,” was endlessly sparkling. He stayed 20 years. Johnny Hodges returned after leading his own band for five years, just in time to ignite the famed 1956 Ellington “comeback.” Hodges played “Jeep’s Blues” until his death in 1970. Arranger-writer Billy Strayhorn returned to the fold. Even Williams came back in the ’60s. The Duke’s big band was the only one of the era to never break up. He kept his musicians on salary — even in the bleak times. (The royalties from the oft-covered “Satin Doll” helped keep the band afloat in the ’50s.) There was love and intrepid vision there. But also rugged perseverance.
At this point, there’s little doubt Ellington’s stature extends far beyond his contributions to big-band jazz. But let’s leave my consideration of the possibility of musical rescue in that sub-genre. The arrangements of big-band jazz recreate the individual’s role within society; you could even argue that they mimic the drama of existence — a single soul working in improvisational concert with the universe. There was a time, a few years ago, when Ellington helped me shore up my own soul. So, if the Ellington canon is capable of improving not just a mood, but an outlook, is that not a type of life-saving?
For 30 years, Daniel Gewertz wrote about music, theater and movies for the Boston Herald, among other periodicals. More recently, he’s published personal essays, taught memoir writing, and participated in the local storytelling scene. In the 1970s, at Boston University, he was best known for his Elvis Presley imitation.