Pierre Dorge's "New Jungle Orchestra" is inspired by Duke Ellington's original Jungle orchestra that performed at the Cotton Club in Harlem in the late 1920s. The nine-piece Danish band is appearing at New York's Sweet Basil and I saw them last night. I knew I was in for a treat when I got a seat at the foot of the bandstand and one of the trombonists, Mads Pederson, peered down at me and said, "Good seat! You will get your money's worth tonight", with a broad grin on his face. It is unusual to get a musician to look at you nowadays, let alone exchange pleasantries.
Ellington's Jungle Orchestra got its name because the horn players emulated the growls of lions and other wild animals. Also, the dancers at the Cotton Club put on revues that emphasized exotic, African themes. All this was geared to titillate the mainly affluent white audiences that patronized the Cotton Club. It was an up-scale minstrel show in many respects. Louis Armstrong also catered to the expectations of such audiences in the late 1920s as well. He would sing songs like "When It's Sleepy Time Down South", that spoke of "darkies". The racism expressed in the performer-audience relationship was transcended by the awesome beauty and inventiveness of the music. Armstrong virtually invented the jazz solo at this time, while Ellington showed that a big band could swing. Before Ellington, the only jazz band of note was Paul Whiteman's. Despite having exceptional soloists like Bix Beiderbecke, Whiteman's band was plodding and uninspired.
Ellington's main contribution was to fully explore the harmonic possibilities of ensemble play. His arrangements featured highly novel chordal combinations of instruments that nobody had considered before, such as trombones doubled with alto sax. The typical Ellington composition had a harmonic richness that could compete with classical music on its own terms. Ellington studied the orchestrations of Debussy and Ravel and borrowed liberally from their impressionist palette. The final product was uniquely African-American, however, and owed as much to the Sunday morning gospel choir as it did to the tone poems of twentieth century French composers.
With the advent of the 1930s, Ellington no longer wrote "jungle" music. He had achieved considerable fame and could sell out Carnegie Hall. The idea of catering to a white audience's taste for Africana had become distasteful to the aristocratic Ellington. Moreover, he had been going through a political awakening as had many other black artists in this period. He developed the idea for the revue "Jump for Joy" in 1936 in discussions with Langston Hughes. They both were deeply dissatisfied with the image of the black man and woman in most musicals. Ellington had already developed loose ties with the left by 1930, when he played at Communist Party fund-raisers in Harlem. In 1932 and 1935, he performed at benefits for the Scottsboro boys defense, according to Michael Denning in his superlative "The Cultural Front", a study of left culture of the 1930s and 40s.
Ellington finally got the production together for "Jump for Joy" in 1940. Ironically, the musical borrowed from the skit structure of the old Cotton Club, but the content was altered radically. Instead of depicting the "dark continent", the revue featured sharp political satire influenced by such left-wing theater revues as "Pins and Needles." Ellington said that he wanted to "take Uncle Tom out of the theater" and "eliminate the stereotyped image that had been exploited by Hollywood and Broadway."
In Ellington's spoken introduction, he explained to the audience what the show was about:
"Now, every Broadway colored show, According to tradition, Must be a carbon copy Of the previous edition. With the truth discreetly muted, And the accent on the brasses. The punch that should be present In a colored show, alas, is Disinfected with magnolia And dripping with molasses. In other words, We're shown to you Through Stephen Foster's Glasses."
Years later, Ellington was pressured into disavowing his leftist ties before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. He continued to write inspired music that attempted to portray black society in dignified and humane terms.
By the 1950s, the big band swing style had been superseded by bebop, the idiom pioneered by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Modern jazz went even further than Ellington did in attempting to stress the seriousness of the art. Some musicians disavowed the use of the word "jazz" entirely, which they noted correctly was slang for sexual intercourse. They tended to view themselves as operating on the same plane as classical musicians and performances more and more took on the character of chamber recitals rather than dance music. The Modern Jazz Quartet, which performed in formal wear, consciously adopted this stance and performed jazz arrangements of Bach.
In the 1960s, jazz was swept up by the black revolution and artists began to shun the idea of entertaining an audience entirely. The purpose of music was to galvanize people into struggle, not make their feet tap. Jazz had forsaken the minstrel roots of the 1920s, but something was lost in the process. If music was not entertaining, then what good was it? Wynton Marsalis has rejected the stridency of 1960s jazz and has sought to return jazz to its roots in his capacity as musical director of the jazz program at Lincoln Center. His co-director is Stanley Crouch, an African-American writer who has become a celebrity for his harsh attacks on black nationalism and avant-garde jazz. Both Marsalis and Crouch are regarded in some circles as neo-conservatives. Marsalis has styled himself to some extent as a new Ellington and has written a orchestral suite about slavery. The problem with Marsalis's music, according to some critics, is that it is nothing but a museum-like recreation of earlier idioms and expresses no new creative energy.
This brings us back to Pierre Dorge. Dorge's New Jungle Orchestra is like no other jazz group I have heard in recent years. It attempts in a very deliberate way to entertain an audience. There are a number of ways in which it does this. For one thing, the band avoids atonality. Nearly every jazz musician performing today, except the neo-classicists grouped around Marsalis, spices a solo with dissonant honks and squawks. While this device might have been adventuresome in 1961, today it is hackneyed and serves no purpose. Dorge's band plays straight-ahead, swinging, bluesy arrangements of its own tunes and occasionally a tune from Ellington's Jungle Orchestra repertory, such as "The Mooche."
The band consists of Dorge on Electric Guitar, two trombonists, a trumpeter, alto and tenor sax and a rhythm section. Everybody in the band is from Denmark, except a percussionist Ayi Solomon from Africa. While the band is smaller than Ellington's big band, the arrangements are Ellington-like. Dorge is fond of writing unusual harmonies for unexpected combinations of instruments, such as trombone and bass fiddle. The band has been deeply influenced by world music and in the set I attended performed one piece based on a Chinese song and another tune from South Africa.
Their music is rollicking, joyful and inspired. Does it represent any sort of trend? It is difficult to say. One of the most problematic aspects of art in late capitalism is that it has a short shelf-life. Yesterday's trend-setter, like Pop Art, looks dated in the span of a decade. The atonal experiments of 1960s jazz are also dated, while Marsalis's efforts to put music back on the tracks has only returned fitful results. It is safe to say that jazz lost something when it lost its ability to entertain, so the dedication of Dorge's band to this end is to be applauded. I strongly urge people to look for his CD's if you want to give your ears a treat.