Saturday, December 15, 2012

Not So Dukish!

"What a mess!" Ellington baffled by his so-called scholars

Ellington Plagiarized

One wintry evening, not long ago, I went down to 82 Marchmont Street where my favorite London bookshop Judd Books is located. I was accompanied by a jazz friend and when we stood in front of the music section of the store, the first Duke Ellington book I ever read in my life caught my eyes on the shelve: Duke Ellington and His World by A. H. Lawrence. Then, reminiscing the profound impact of reading it for the first time in Iran and the pleasure and knowledge it gave me, I started raving about the virtues of the beautifully produced publication, especially after remembering a moving anecdote about Harry Carney, after Duke's passing, when he keeps saying "with Duke gone I have nothing to live for."

My spontaneous speech was convincing enough that my friend picked the book and add it to his already extended collection of Duke materials. After having our pints of bitter Samuel Smith we departed and headed back home. Two or three hours later, an email from that friend set my flat and my naive enthusiasm for that book on fire.
The posh book
My evening companion was inflamed with a discovery about the book I had recommended and while one of his hands was typing furious words to me, the other was busy searching for a garbage bin to throw the book in. After reading his arguments which continued with a phone conversation, I learned my first big lesson about jazz literature: do not trust a text, unless you can prove that it is trust-able. 

The friend directed me to an open letter to the publisher of the book, Sylvia Miller of Routledge, written by a respected Ellington authority, Steven Lasker. The letter was shocking and painfully illuminating:

"I deeply regret to inform you that the manuscript as published is [...] so catastrophically compromised by Lawrence's flagrant plagiarisms, lack of knowledge and understanding of his subject, numerous errors, fabrications and questionable judgment as to constitute a harmful and egregious offense to the reputation of Duke Ellington and his family, and to pose a potential public relations debacle for you and your company."

The alarming intro is followed by a long list of errors, false claims, misspelled names, misidentified soloists on records, distortions, fabrications, and sadly, numerous examples of plagiarism. For instance, a comparison between Klaus Stratemann's Duke Ellington: Day by Day and Film by Film with Duke Ellington and His World, which is anything but difficult for an Ellington scholar of that caliber, reveals:

Black and Tan
Duke Ellington: Day by Day and Film by Film, p6:
This new system was available in combination of sound-on-disc and sound-on-film, or either of the two alone. In conjunction with its new low cost equipment, apparently, RCA Photophone began to market soundtrack discs of its films ... Quality of soundtracks reproduced from sound-on-disc equipment was necessarily lower that that coming from sound-on-film, because the discs were a secondary product: The transfer to disc took place after the picture was recorded and edited on film.

Duke Ellington and His World, p149:
This new system was capable of recording sound-on-disc and sound-on-film or either of the two alone, allowing the company to market sound-track discs of its films. The quality of the sound-on-disc was necessarily lower than that coming from film because the discs were a secondary product. The transfer to disc took place after the picture was recorded and edited on film.
Black and Tan. The last scene

If you want to read the letter in its complete form, visit this page, but if you simply want to know what is my point in telling this long tale, read the following part which, if you allow me, will have another introductory piece of information. 

J. Rosenbaum
The scars of that disappointing discovery were almost healed (mostly thanks to many great pieces of research I found access to in Europe) till my own new research on jazz and film took me back to the infamous
book of Lawrence. My aim was to gather as much information as possible about Black and Tan, a short film which marked the first appearance of Ellington on film. Among sources I checked, or rechecked, two, for the reason I am going to give now, were connected in a malicious way. Again, on one side of the story we have Lawrence, and on the other side, old entry for Monthly Film Bulletin, written by Jonathan Rosenbaum and republished on his very much respected film blog.

I don't intend to add a new chapter to the sad book of Lawrence and juggles of his "authorship," but mostly I want to defend a real author, as serious and knowledgeable (not only in cinema, but also passionately in jazz) as Rosenbaum who happened to be a friend, too. I think this case of plagiarism not only surpassed all the examples given by Steven Lasker, but shows a malevolent tactic employed by Lawrence which is completely new in its dishonesty and twisting the truth.

I've been a reader of Rosenbaum's blog for the last 4-5 years, and what I've earned from my daily visits to his generous and free-for-all banquet of cinematic knowledge obliges me to draw your attention to a chapter from Duke Ellington and His World, when Lawrence is discussing Black and Tan. Let's start with the original text from Rosenbaum's pioneering article about the films:

Jonathan Rosenbaum, online publication:

"Duke Ellington rehearses his “Black and Tan Fantasy” for a club date in his flat with trumpeter Arthur Whetsol until interrupted by two men from the piano company, sent to remove the instrument because he has fallen behind in the payments. Dancer Fredi Washington bribes the movers with a bottle of gin into telling their boss that no one was home. Duke tells Fredi that they can’t take the job at the club because of her heart condition, but despite her faintness, which causes her to see multiple images, she insists on performing her dance and collapses at the end of her number. A chorus of other dancers is brought on, but Duke stops their band in the middle of their tune so that he and his men can stand by Fredi on her deathbed. There, at her request, they play the “Black and Tan Fantasy” as she loses consciousness.
The scene shifts to the club, where two eerie dances are performed by five men of ascending height in tuxedos, making strict linear formations on a mirror-like floor while the Ellington band plays behind them. Even more strangely, when the point of view shifts to Fredi Washington, the first number is repeated precisely, immediately upsetting one’s sense of linear time, while one’s visual bearings are confused by the splitting up of the musicians and already duplicated dancers into a myriad mosaic. By the time Washington has made her own entrance and gone into her wild shimmying number, the mood and music have both turned fairly demonic, and a sudden shot of her gyrations from beneath the glass floor, echoing L'entr'acte, increases the dislocation. Soon afterwards, the scene shifts once again to her death chamber, where the chiaroscuro effects, compression of space (the entire Ellington band and Hall Johnson Choir appear to be crowded around her bed, and silhouetted on the far wall), and powerful, relentless thumping of Wellman Braud’s bass heard against the ensemble on “Same Train” are so extreme that the effect is truly unsettling. When the assemblage goes into a “full-dress” version of the title tune at her dying request — complete with solos on trumpet, trombone, and Bigard’s piercing clarinet — the spare, growling blues with which the film began, which literally quotes the famous “Funeral March” from a Chopin piano sonata in the fifth and sixth bars, and again the eleventh and twelfth, has grown into a Dionysian lament. Assuming once again Washington’s viewpoint, the camera focuses on Ellington in an image that gradually blurs, like a guttering candle. Then she dies, and the camera cuts to the last and most disturbing image — another blurred shot of Ellington that is no longer justified by Washington’s viewpoint, thereby collapsing the film’s co-ordinates of space as well as time into the realm of pure idea, or pure music; and both slowly fade away in the same flickering breath."
"Don't steal in my name!"

And now A. H. Lawrence's (pp. 128-129) :

"In the film, Ellington portrays a struggling young bandleader. He and his friend, played by trumpeter Arthur Whetsol, are rehearsing “Black & Tan Fantasy” in Ellington’s flat when they are interrupted by two movers (played by Alec Lovejoy and Edgar Connor) who have been sent to repossess Ellington’s piano because he has fallen behind on the payments. Freddie, played by Fredi Washington, is a young dancer and Duke’s love interest (both onstage and off during this period). She arrives with the good news that she has found a nightclub to hire Ellington and his orchestra. However, the manager stipulates that she must dance there, which she insists on doing despite a grave heart condition. She bribes the movers with a bottle of gin so that Ellington and Whetsol can play their new composition for her. The camera comes to rest on Ellington’s hands, then pulls back to reveal the full orchestra on stage at the club playing “The Duke Steps Out.” On the dance floor, five tuxedo-clad men of ascending heights (the Five Blazers) perform a precision dance on the mirror-like floor. As Washington watches from the wings, her faintness causes her to see double. We see the action through her eyes, the dancers and orchestra splitting into a revolving kaleidoscope. Washington makes her entrance and, despite her condition, goes into a wild, shimmying dance to Ellington’s “Cotton Club Stomp.” A sudden shot of her gyrations from below increases the eerie tension of the film. At the end of the number, Washington collapses and is carried off the stage. The club’s manager insists that the show must go on. The orchestra continues to play, as the chorus line (the Cotton Club Girls) is brought on and dances to Ellington’s “Flaming Youth.” In the middle of the number, Ellington stops the band in disgust, and the band members join Washington in her dressing room. The scene jumps to Freddie’s deathbed, where Ellington and the mourners (the Hall Johnson Choir) are crowded around her. Ellington is at the piano, with Guy, Braud, and Tizol in the foreground; Whetsol, Bigard, and Nanton stand at the back of the room, their figures silhouetted with chiaroscuro lighting. At Washington’s dying request, the group goes into a “full dress” version of the “Black & Tan Fantasy,” the complete composition with solos by trumpet, trombone, and clarinet, as opposed to the spare, growling rendition with which the film began. The scene is again shot from Freddie’s point of view: The camera focuses on Ellington’s face, which gradually blurs into darkness as the young woman dies. The band and singers end the work with the famous musical quotation from Chopin’s “Marche Funebre.”"

Reading the Lawrence book?

Needless to say, no source is mentioned. Ironically, later, when Lawrence wants to show his talent of critical approach — without revealing anything that might caught him red-handed — he writes that a writer from "Film Bulletin" has said the film is not good, which is obviously distorting the truth. But even his distortion is not done properly, because the publication is Monthly Film Bulletin, not Film Bulletin (it was a bible of cinephiles till 1991), in the same manner that Downbeat is Downbeat and not Upbeat for instance. He also doesn't bother to say the "Film Bulletin" entry is from July 1976 and causally writes "in the 1970s."

I'm not only upset with the act of plagiarism or the lack of any citation, but even more shocked by the trick Lawrence plays after stealing the story line and scene description and factual details from Rosenbaum. In his last paragraph of the chapter 17, Lawrence writes:

"When reviewing the film retrospectively in the 1970s, the British Film Institute’s Film Bulletin found it dated and awkward. Yet the reviewer admitted that this brief film, from the very onset of the sound era, managed to fuse two different categories rarely produced by Hollywood: a dramatic film that used jazz organically, and a jazz film that featured music dramatically. When I first saw Black and Tan forty years after its creation, I was struck by its daring, poetic synthesis of music and images, and the total integration of the two new art forms of the twentieth century: jazz and motion pictures."  

Lessons of gratitude: Ellington kissing Armstrong 

Here, Lawrence's only direct quote is so out of context that one wonders how he can take everything from Rosenbaum, and then instead of citing him, attacks the writer as someone who has called the film "dated and awkward," and still right after that re-write another part of Rosenbaum's article as the conclusion to the Black and Tan chapter. Unforgivable. Now read what Rosenbaum has really written:

"Dramatic films which use jazz organically (To Have and Have Not is a supreme example) are few and far between, while jazz films which feature the music dramatically are perhaps even rarer. The singularity of Black and Tan, which comprises the first appearance of Duke Ellington on film, is that it fuses both categories — developing a sort of  poetic synthesis in less than twenty minutes that, while clearly awkward and dated in many of its ingredients, nevertheless demonstrates, at the very onset of the sound period, that the two new art films of this century don’t necessarily have to trample on one another." 

The last shot of Black and Tan

The whole story is too obvious to need more explanation. What could have been a simple number for citing a source and respecting the author's rights have been deliberately denied, something as straightforward as this example from Susan Delson's Dudley Murphy, Hollywood Wild Card (p.93):

"The film opens with Ellington at the piano in his tenement apartment, working up the song with his horn player. 47 A pair of movers arrive to repossess the piano, bumbling their way through a comic routine that is saved from offensive stereotyping, barely, by the sly, improvisatory use of language."

Where number 47 leads us to: "Jonathan Rosenbaum has identified the horn player as Arthur Whetsol. See Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Short Films: Black and Tan,” Monthly Film Bulletin 43, no. 510, (July 1976): 158.

I hate muggers, but I'm especially disgusted with those who steal and then stab or hurt the victim. I have nothing more to add, except my deepest regrets, because after all the subject here is one of the most grateful and appreciative artists of the 20th whose remarks about his colleagues and his sources of inspiration are as grand as his music.

Mr. A. H. Lawrence, that was so 'undukish' of you, if you really understand the word.


  1. Ehsan
    I read Steven Lasker's piece against Lawrence's book years ago and hence have been able to avoid this piece of shit.
    There are too many interesting books on Duke Ellington out there to waste time and money on it! (even if it's true that there is no "definitive" book on Ellington yet)
    Are you aware of the upcoming EKE bio by Terry Teachout? Yes, he may be not everybody's cup of tea, but has done thorough research and his books are always well written, which is not too common these days!
    All the best in this period of the year,

    1. Agustín, that was my kind of luck that the first Ellington book I read happened to be Lawrence's. But later I read/translated Gunther Schuller's technical analysis of Duke's music which was both great and too obsessed with mechanics (how can you talk about the man and leave the magic and mystery out?)
      And of course, Stanley Dance's. Last month I was at Kings College for an Ellington presentation by Harvey Cohen (author of Duke Ellington's America) which, again, revealed the countless problems we face in approaching Ellington. In Harvey's treatment there is too much unnecessary emphasis on Mills Brothers, as if they have invented Duke. Whitney Balliett's short memorial for Duke is still a revelation, isn't it?

      I heard about Teachout's book (for now, titled DUKE) and recently watched Ciafu's TV portrait of Ellington for TVE which was better than its American counterparts.

  2. Ehsan. First off, really enjoy your blog. I do want to mention that I think you are a little quick to discount the merit of the book to you personally, as it was instrumental (nice pun, eh) in your development as an aficionado. Sometimes the purpose of things is simply to open our eyes to the realm of possibility, after which it is up to us to find the truth of the matter. Just my thought. Please accept my sincere gratitude in opening my mind to the many layers of jazz that exist beyond Take Five and Kind of Blue. Cobey

    1. Cobey, thanks for your kind remarks about this blog. My purpose in writing this post was just telling the truth, without any intention to harm Mr. Lawrence as a human being, who like all of us can make mistakes. I will never deny the impact of that book on my "development" or learning certain facts about Ellingtonia (though some scholars even doubt that). But also I feel, as we "grow", we need to revise what we cherish or even what we despise, and here, I just wanted to say what Lawrence has done is not right, professional or morally correct.
      I can imagine a writer like Rosenbaum carrying cans of Black & Tan in 16mm print - years away from DVD era - to give a precise description, as well as personal observation on the film, and years later, Lawrence pretends that he can interpret the history and solid facts, in any way he likes and treats the source as disrespectfully as he can.
      Sometimes a simple article, humble and original, can “open our eyes to the realm of possibility,” as many other authors have done before and will continue to do in future. But when the project is as huge as this, and the publicity machine is strong, I feel it is my responsibility to side with what is necessary for the expansion of the cultural domain in the appropriate directions. The intentions are all good, if not, I haven't stayed true to Ellington and those whom I believe in.

  3. Hello, I've been looking through the weblog a pair of times and basically needed to say that the way with phrases is best notch. All the best.
    movers in San Francisco
    low cost movers in ca