Echoes of Ellington @ UT-Austin, Day #2
Bright-eyed and bushy tailed, I arrived back at the Butler School of Music for day two of the Echoes of Ellington Conference. (See Day #1 Here)
Before the first session got started, I had a nice conversation with James Lincoln Collier, whose keynote I had missed due to travel. I’ve got an interest in musical biography and biographers, so I asked Collier how he came to write his book on Ellington (1987). Those of you familiar with his prolific output know that in addition to his work as a journalist and novelist, he has also written biographies on Louis Armstrong (1985) and Benny Goodman (1989). Collier told me that he initially intended to write a book on saxophonist Lester Young, but his publisher asked him to write on Armstrong instead–presumably the trumpeter would have a larger readership. Likewise, after completing the Armstrong book he suggested a book on bebop to his publisher. This idea was nixed in favor of the eventual book on Ellington. While we were talking, he acknowledged the criticism his biography has received (mentioned in yesterday’s post), but stands firmly behind his assessment of Ellington based on the evidence he had access to at the time. Although pure speculation on my part, I wonder if part of the disdain that critics of Collier’s work sense in his writing on Ellington stems from not being allowed to write on the subjects initially proposed to his publisher.
The first paper of the day was a reception history of Ellington’s visit to the UK in 1933, presented by Catherine Tackley ( née Parsonage) from The Open University (Milton, Keynes). The Duke’s first trip abroad has been discussed before, however, Tackley brought a distinctly Brittish point of view to the tour, placing the band’s music in the context of UK jazz at the time through a discussion of Jack Hilton and Spike Hughes. Fun fact: Ellington was a fan of haggis.
As revealed by my twitter, I skipped out on the remainder of the morning papers to attend to some research at the Harry Ransom Center. If your work ever takes you to this archive, you are in for a treat. Fantastic facilities, staff, and collections. Materials are easy to locate either online or via the card catalog and are paged very quickly. As part of my aforementioned interest in biographers, I was able to dig through several boxes in the Edward Jablonski/Lawrence Stewart collection. My return to the conference was delayed by a significant thunderstorm.
Apparently, I was not the only person caught in the rain. The final keynote speaker, John Franceschina, author of Duke Ellington’s Music for the Theatre, was due to speak after lunch, but his flight had been delayed. As a result, changes were made to the conference schedule, which I didn’t know about due to my truancy, and I missed two additional papers, including Michael Baumgartner’s presentation on “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” The final two papers of the second day of the conference included Anthony Bushard’s (University of Nebraska) well-polished walk-through of the Far East Suite and a discussion of manifestations of the urban in a live 1946 recording of “Air Conditioned Jungle” by Andrew Berish (University of South Florida).
Professor Francescina finally arrived and closed out the conference with a presentation on the extended history of Ellington’s Queenie Pie (unfinished at the time of his death in 1974), a work that he sees as connected to Ellington’s output as early as the mid 1930s. This closing keynote was interesting in light of pending performance of the opera that evening. At the same time, it is unfortunate that Francescina was unable to attend the entire conference, since there were various points in his talk where he touched on subjects discussed by other presenters.
For me, the highlight of the second day was the premiere performance of UT’s production of Queenie Pie. Vocalist Carmen Bradford performed the title role (though wasn’t featured much until the final third of the opera) and was supported by a talented group of undergraduate performers. Jeff Hellmer conducted the on-stage jazz ensemble, which, really tore up (in a good way) the reconstructed score.* They are making a professional recording of it, which all conference attendees will receive when completed in the fall.
Although it was strange to show up at a conference where I knew no one going in, over the course of two days, I met several new and interesting people and made some great professional contacts. That’s one of the advantages to attending a small, single topic conference. Another is the opportunity to see what interesting new directions research on the given subject is going. Reading back over my post from yesterday, I notice that my favorite presentations all came from graduate students, some of whom traveled to the conference with the support of “Emerging Scholar Prizes” awarded by the conference committee.
All-in-all, I enjoyed Echoes of Ellington very much. There was certainly something for Ellington enthusiasts of every stripe. A hearty congratulations and thank you is in order for all the conference organizers. I understand that plans are already underway for a film music conference at UT in 2012. I can’t wait!
* The program book credits Marc Bolin as the arranger, though, apparently, the UT production only used a small portion of the version he prepared for Oakland Opera.