Larry Kart

Adam Gopnik tackles Ellington and the Beatles

40 posts in this topic

An e-mail from a friend:


'I haven't even read the first sentence, but I feel a rant coming on: the latest issue of The New Yorker arrived in our mailbox a few minutes ago and the table of contents lists "Duke Ellington and the Beatles," by Adam Gopnik, subtitled "Duke Ellington, The Beatles, and the Mysteries of Modern Creativity."
IMO, and obviously in that of my friend, Gopnik is a twit in the very top class. Wouldn't be surprised if he's riding on the back of the Terry Teachout Ellington biography here and borrowing many of its dubious conclusions.

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Well, ok, here's what I can find free, and it appears that, yes, he is piggybacking on Teachout, and that, yes, he is a twit, or perhaps more to the point, an ignuntass fuck:

The historian John Lukacs, in “A Thread of Years” (1998), his collection of vignettes from across the twentieth century, imagines a few jazz fans listening to a cocktail pianist in New York in 1929. Then he talks about how this music—melodic swing at the beautiful, blurred boundary of jazz and popular song—defined a state of mind before the Second World War. Everybody “who responded to that kind of American music,” Lukacs states categorically, “hated the Nazis.” It’s a nice rejoinder to the Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno’s insistence that the “monotony” and rhythmic seductions of jazz were a friend to fascism. And it trails a question. What was in this dance music, heard in short takes on scratchy 78s, that left its devotees devoted to some larger set of humane values?

The question is at the heart of Terry Teachout’s searching new biography, “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington” (Gotham), which touches on the mystique of the great bandleader’s music as much as on its notes and measures. Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K. piano, got trapped for years playing “jungle music” in gangster night clubs, and at his height produced mostly tinny, brief recordings. (His finest was made on a bitter winter night in 1940, in a Fargo, North Dakota, ballroom.) How did he become a dominant figure of modern music and, for many people, an exemplar of art? The typical answer used to be that he was really a master composer on the European model, all score paper and seclusion and suites. On inspection, this doesn’t hold much water. Ellington’s best music turns out to be the crystallized collective improvisation of an exceptionally ornery group of musical malcontents. To explain it all, we seem to need new categories of value, and another kind of meditation on what originality is. . . .


That second paragraph suggest that he is not just an ingnuntass fuck, but an ignuntass fuck with a gig.

People can get hurt when that happens.

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It gets worse:

As Balliett pointed out, Ellington knew from the beginning that he needed a sound, more even than a beat or a style. The individual players he employed weren't up-to-date urban players but, often, less sophisticated New Orleans musicians, whose great gift was a distinctly human tone, often achieved with the use of homemade mutes and plungers....

...over the years, Ellington cultivated those kinds of players until, with the 1940 band, he achieved something extraordinary: an all-star band that played together, soloed luminously, and never sounded competitive. As critics still remark in proper wonder, at least five of the musicians [blanton, Webster, Hodges, Carney, and Nanton] are in the running for the very best ever to have picked up their instrument.

(boldface mine.) Setting aside the critical eye-popper about sophistication or the bizarre idea about "New Orleans" musicians (of the early Ellingtonians, who besides Barney Bigard came from New Orleans?) is there any non-tortured reading of these paragraphs that doesn't suggest that Gopnik either 1) has no idea when Hodges/Carney started with Duke; 2) thinks that those guys just sucked for a decade, lacking "sophistication," until Duke whipped them into shape?

Edited by Big Wheel

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Wellman Braud was more or less a New Orleanian (moved there in his early teens from just a little north), but still....that's just all kinds of all kinds of wrong.

I'd never heard of this Gopnik guy until now, nor do I still pay any attention to The New Yorker, so...proof that I've not been missing out on anything on either count is strongly suggested. I mean, I guess this will be the 21st Century, people just pulling stuff outta their ass and calling it history, and then one person's ass-pull will battle with another's and there will be spectacle galore for fun and profit, and all the young folk will form camps and have positions and such, but jeez, anybody mind if I just go out in the back yard and give an imaginary gutting to all of that with my imaginary Bowie knife and then drink all the imaginary blood that will spurt out, and then imaginary urinate on the carcasses?

Or even better yet, instead of imaginary stuff, can I perhaps gather up all this bullshit on my foot, and then not so imaginarily put that foot all the way up the ass of the next anybody I come across who plays this game, and then present them with a card (handwritten, of course) that says, "Returned To Sender! Love, Jim"?

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Well, ok, here's what I can find free, and it appears that, yes, he is piggybacking on Teachout, and that, yes, he is a twit, or perhaps more to the point, an ignuntass fuck:

The historian John Lukacs, in “A Thread of Years” (1998), his collection of vignettes from across the twentieth century, imagines a few jazz fans listening to a cocktail pianist in New York in 1929. Then he talks about how this music—melodic swing at the beautiful, blurred boundary of jazz and popular song—defined a state of mind before the Second World War. Everybody “who responded to that kind of American music,” Lukacs states categorically, “hated the Nazis.” It’s a nice rejoinder to the Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno’s insistence that the “monotony” and rhythmic seductions of jazz were a friend to fascism. And it trails a question. What was in this dance music, heard in short takes on scratchy 78s, that left its devotees devoted to some larger set of humane values?

What an awful and pretentious opening paragraph.

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  1. Yeah, it's all kinds of wrong, but to me the worstest thing is that somewhere in there, buried under the bullshit, is a decent idea or two (borrowed no doubt) struggling to get out...

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Sorry if this is kind of a stupid question, but when a publication has Critic B review Critic A's book, how do they ensure that Critic B also doesn't repeat Critic A's errors? Chances are that most of the time, Critic B doesn't know as much about the subject as Critic A - after all, he's not the guy who wrote the book about it! (Except in the handful of cases where he already did.)

And yeah, I know the New Yorker, unlike most magazines, has a team of fact-checkers and so forth, but I suspect they give a little more leeway with the book reviews - and of course, being scrupulous about the basic facts doesn't preclude howlers of interpretation like "no better than OK piano" from getting into print. It's just that this kind of thing seems to be an inherent problem with criticism...I remember reading an amateur's laughably bad review of Walter Isaacson's Ben Franklin bio and starting to rip apart his terrible understanding of social theory as applied to Franklin, only to realize once I had a chance to skim the bio that all of the reviewer's errors in understanding Marx and Weber came straight from Isaacson himself...

Here's some "no better than OK piano": <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1-LVInsiFI>

Edited by Big Wheel

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Adam Gopnik has been around for years. Until this article, I thought he was a better than average critic. MUCH better than his brother, Blake, who is an insult to anyone who set words to paper or digital form. Blake was an art critic for the Washington Post who was always condescending towards his readers and/or his subject matter. Adam always wrote about classical, rarely jazz, so I have no idea where this revisionist history about Ellington is coming from.

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Gopnik wants to make a point

To explain it all, we seem to need new categories of value, and another kind of meditation on what originality is.

and to do that, he makes up a premise

Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K. piano, got trapped for years playing “jungle music” in gangster night clubs, and at his height produced mostly tinny, brief recordings.

which doesn't hold water at all, and it is so far away from the truth that you have to question either his ability as a listener, or his honesty as a writer.

And that gets published in The New Yorker.

F

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my theory is that the powers-that-be are trying to deflect attention from Teachout; read Gopnik, and Teachout's book then appears to be a masterpiece, relatively speaking.

part 2 of this evil plan:

Bill O'Reilly's book on Charlie Parker will be out in January.

Edited by AllenLowe

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Adam Gopnik has been around for years. Until this article, I thought he was a better than average critic. MUCH better than his brother, Blake, who is an insult to anyone who set words to paper or digital form. Blake was an art critic for the Washington Post who was always condescending towards his readers and/or his subject matter. Adam always wrote about classical, rarely jazz, so I have no idea where this revisionist history about Ellington is coming from.

I don't think that Adam Gopnik is a critic. Rather, like David Brooks (and Tom Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell for that matter), Gopnik is more or less an agglomerator, notorious for bouncing off of books and "studies" by other people in fields where he himself has no particular knowledge and then attempting to put his own stamp on the resulting pile of faux contrarian b.s.

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Larry, you are probably right. I am less knowledgable with his overall work, just the snippets of classical that sometimes get my attention.

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Larry, you are probably right. I am less knowledgable with his overall work, just the snippets of classical that sometimes get my attention.

Are you perhaps thinking of Alex Ross, also at The New Yorker?

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part 2 of this evil plan:

Bill O'Reilly's book on Charlie Parker will be out in January.

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I notice that nobody's yet mentioned what this guy says about The Beatles. I wonder if it's as ill-informed/intentioned s what he say about Ellington, or if he gets it kinda right, in which case I would then begin to wonder if that's the only way he can hear/understand "popular music", which would explain some things, but not the more important issue of why his noise is finding its way into general circulation in the first place.

Well, there is an explanation, but...

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'Duke Ellington is my favorite piano player' Jaki Byard It would almost be worth sending that quote to Gopnik. Except that he probably never heard of Byard.

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I notice that nobody's yet mentioned what this guy says about The Beatles. I wonder if it's as ill-informed/intentioned s what he say about Ellington, or if he gets it kinda right, in which case I would then begin to wonder if that's the only way he can hear/understand "popular music", which would explain some things, but not the more important issue of why his noise is finding its way into general circulation in the first place.

Well, there is an explanation, but...

http://issuu.com/franj.glez/docs/the_new_yorker_-_23___30_december_2/139#/signin

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Adam Gopnik has been around for years. Until this article, I thought he was a better than average critic. MUCH better than his brother, Blake, who is an insult to anyone who set words to paper or digital form. Blake was an art critic for the Washington Post who was always condescending towards his readers and/or his subject matter. Adam always wrote about classical, rarely jazz, so I have no idea where this revisionist history about Ellington is coming from.

I don't think that Adam Gopnik is a critic. Rather, like David Brooks (and Tom Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell for that matter), Gopnik is more or less an agglomerator, notorious for bouncing off of books and "studies" by other people in fields where he himself has no particular knowledge and then attempting to put his own stamp on the resulting pile of faux contrarian b.s.

Nail on the head.

I would not be at all surprised if he namechecks Gladwell on The Beatles.

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Gopnik wants to make a point

To explain it all, we seem to need new categories of value, and another kind of meditation on what originality is.

and to do that, he makes up a premise

Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K. piano, got trapped for years playing “jungle music” in gangster night clubs, and at his height produced mostly tinny, brief recordings.

which doesn't hold water at all, and it is so far away from the truth that you have to question either his ability as a listener, or his honesty as a writer.

And that gets published in The New Yorker.

F

Holy hell -- how does someone write a sentence that allegedly defines what Ellington "was" without even mentioning his compositional skills?

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Unbelievable! Are we sure he's not a writer for The Onion?

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I read the first two pages of this article this morning before leaving for work and had the same horrified reaction as everybody else in this thread. This sentence alone...

Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K. piano, got trapped for years playing “jungle music” in gangster night clubs, and at his height produced mostly tinny, brief recordings.

... was enough to send me careening off my mental highway. Does Giddins still write for the New Yorker? I know many here are less than fond of his work, but I think he might have approached DKE with a more knowledgeable perspective.

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The revelation with which Gopnik leaves us:

"A Beatles-Duke playlist, folded together, has a common quality (which took me by surprise, but shouldn't have) and that is excitement. The most obvious thing is the most easily overlooked, or mis-heard. The drummer drives the band. The performers sound exhilarated by the act of making music. Go from 'Please, Please Me' to 'Take the A Train,' and you hear the shared fervor of musicians not just making a new sound but listening to themselves as they do. It's the sound of self-discovery. That must be why American music became the soundtrack of self-emancipation, East and West alike.... Most people would rather swing than march, and would rather rock than live a regimented life. That was a very big lesson of the sad century just past. It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. It can't.'
BTW, who in the heck ever "overlooked or mis-heard" the fact that the music of Ellington and the Beatles (and that of Basie, and Armstrong, and Parker, and the Stones, and Aretha Franklin, and James Brown et al.) was exciting? Gopnik reminds of the guy in the Mel Brooks-Carl Reiner "2000-Year-Old-Man" routine who wakes up one morning and tells the tribe "Hey -- dere's ladies here."

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Gopnik tackles Ellington and the Beatles, but wait...there's a flag on the play, unnecessary roughness (of analysis) and it's now first and 15!

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