The Best Laid Plans

The Best Laid Plans

I had planned to talk about bassists this week, especially about the upcoming Interpretations-sponsored performance by John Eckhardt at Roulette on Monday, October 11, but it has finally come to pass that my priorities have veered so far toward the banal that I must appeal to the universe for guidance. Here are the particulars:

I had made plans to attend Brianna Thomas’s engagement at ZEB’S in the Chelsea district of Manhattan (actually two blocks away from the 28th Street location I described in my post about Tin Pan Alley). I had mentioned Thomas in last week’s post as one of the excellent vocalists I had the pleasure of accompanying in a concert where a problem of authorship arose around a composition, “Solar,” that was misattributed to Miles Davis. It turns out that I had first heard Thomas sing at a recital for Janet Lawson’s class at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in 2010. Although I was very impressed with her singing then, I didn’t remember the incident until long after the event that we played together, possibly because our contact there was limited to one on-stage rehearsal and the concert itself. We only spoke with each other for a total of two minutes and that was pretty much limited to a discussion of how we would play Duke Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone,” a piece that Ellington did compose (with lyrics by Milt Gaber), but as a new melody to the chord progression for Harry Williams and Art Hickman’s “In Sunny Roseland” (a. k. a. “Rose Room”).

I emphasize the authorship of “In A Mellow Tone” for two reasons: (1) to show that the practice of remelodicizing chord progressions of popular songs didn’t begin (in case anyone was wondering) during the bebop era, although it was raised to a high art then; and (2) to bring up a point about misattribution in Duke Ellington’s musical output. It seems that Ellington was in the practice of claiming authorship for the music created by his sidemen. Although it was a limited practice, he, nonetheless, did engage in what I will call “contractual plagiarism.” The best-known example of this was with his long-time collaborator, Billy Strayhorn. In this model, Parties A (Strayhorn) and B (Ellington) would agree that a certain work or certain works created by Party A will be attributed in part or whole to Party B, who wasn’t actually involved in the creation of that work beyond hiring Party A to create it. In copyright terms, a “work for hire.” This is a different situation than the one I cited regarding “Solar,” Miles Davis’s plagiarism of Chuck Wayne’s “Sonny.” A case that is somewhat similar to “Solar” is raised around the very popular “Creole Love Call.” The song’s melody was brought to Ellington (who took a co-composer credit) by one of Ellington’s saxophonists, Rudy Jackson, who claimed it as his own invention. King Oliver, who had recorded the melody of the song as “Camp Meeting Blues” some years before, sued Ellington, who won the lawsuit but was so upset that he fired Jackson. But Ellington’s “contractual” misattributions worked both ways, which is clear in his relationship with Irving Mills, who, in return for supplying Ellington with many lucrative performing engagements—including the long-term stay at the Cotton Club, was granted ownership over half of Duke Ellington, Inc. This resulted in many of Ellington’s best-known works being credited to Mills as a co-author.

The case of Ellingtonian misattribution is an example of professional symbiosis where both parties have something to gain from the obfuscation of authorship, the sort that only deceives the public and whatever higher power(s) might have something to say about it in the hereafter. It appears to have been a fairly common practice. I was recently corrected by jazz historian Scott Yanow about what turns out to be an entirely unsupported claim on my part about the music of Paul Whiteman. I once posited that the music he composed and considered to be jazz was “drivel,” but it was pointed out to me that Whiteman actually never composed anything, that he got his name attached to the copyright of a song in return for having his band record it. While it seems a somewhat overly simplistic way to be excluded from any criticism based on aesthetic criteria, Mr. Whiteman’s compositional acumen is now vindicated, since he had none. But that leaves the question of whether or not contractual misattribution is morally right or wrong.

While I believe that anything done between consenting adults is not morally wrong, there is the problem of whether something agreed to vis-à-vis economic coercion is actually a matter of mutual consent. The contractual misattributions of Whiteman and Ellington are prima facie examples of win-win situations once agreed upon. But what if they weren’t agreed upon? Would Ellington have become a household name or even been able to keep his band together as long as he did if he didn’t agree to give Mills equal partnership in his organization? It’s difficult to say. I believe that Ellington would have managed to become very successful without the influence of Mills. In fact, it was his success, or the obvious promise of it, up to then that attracted Mills in the first place. But consider how often the refusal to hand over one’s intellectual property has led to obscurity and financial struggle for a musician. Such was the case of trumpeter and territory band leader Don Albert, who refused to agree to the terms Joe Glaser offered (to reduce Albert’s band to ten musicians from fourteen) and thus lost the lucrative market of New York City as a place to include on his itinerary. (Details can be found on pages 331-33 of this article.) It isn’t a great stretch of the imagination to see how this becomes part of the current trend of underpaying (or not paying at all) musicians for their performances. It seems that there is a misconception that professional musicians are actually hobbyists who play music in their spare time for a spare dime or that musicians should be happy to get a chance to be “exposed” to the public. This translates into a state of affairs where an artist’s best chance of financial success is to not need to work at all! Artistic expression then becomes proportional to class status and rare is the case where a musician of limited means can develop his or her art.

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3 thoughts on “The Best Laid Plans

  1. Michael Robinson

    With your continuing attacks on the career of Irving Mills, do you also dispute that he wrote the lyrics to Minnie the Moocher and When My Sugar Walks Down The Street in the years before he met Ellington?

    Have you read the article in that Robert Mills wrote about his father, which included the following quote? “Ellington and Mills collaborated on quite a number of tunes that became popular standards: Mood Indigo, Solitude, It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Sophisticated Lady, Black and Tan Fantasy, and many others that you’ll find listed on ACAPS’s website. In spite of a limited vocabulary Irving had a poetic sense of beauty and knew how to create a lyric, sometimes using a ghostwriter to complete his idea, and sometimes building on the idea of a ghostwriter.

    Have you read what Paul Mills, another son, is quoted as saying about his father and Duke Ellington: “I’m sure they [Mills and Ellington] must have had some kind of arrangements,” Paul Mills surmised. “I can’t tell you for a fact what they were, but I know that my father wrote a lot of the lyrics, not only with Duke, but with a lot of other people. Duke himself acknowledges that [Irving Mills] was the writer, so who is anyone to say he’s not?”

    Does is concern you that Duke Ellington never disputed Mills’ credits, and Helen Oakley Dance wrote that Ellington “defended [Mills’] views on the subject [of song credits] and was not among his detractors.”

    Your assertions about Irving Mills seem dubious to me. As I have previously written, I feel that the role of Jewish American song composers and lyricists played a central role in the history of jazz, and that fact is seldom acknowledged in books about jazz, and the teaching of jazz.

    It occurs to me that there may be elements in the jazz community who are uncomfortable with the fact that Duke Ellington collaborated with a lyricist who was Jewish American rather than African American, and they are determined to rewrite history to reflect that lack of cultural diversity and acceptance, even though it does not diminish Ellington in any way, of course.

    The only Ellington and Mills song I know of that is specifically disputed is Mood Indigo, where Mitchell Parish, toward the very end of his life, claimed he wrote the lyrics. He did so after Irving Mills was diseased, and who really knows the true details, including the possibility that both men contributed to the lyrics?

  2. Michael Robinson

    Your statement: “I believe that Ellington would have managed to become very successful without the influence of Mills,” is a form of “Let’s make believe” taken at the expense of a person who a prominent African American publication of the time termed “the Abraham Lincoln of jazz” for his promotion of African American musical artists.

    Following the logic of your statement, the Beatles had no real need for Brian Epstein, and The Doors would have lit the world on fire just as brightly without Jac Holzman.

  3. Jon Greenblatt

    Does anyone have any insight into how the distinctive hit Everything Happens to Me, intro’d in 1940 (by Tommy Dorsey w/Sinatra no less) could have been released as Sentimental Lady by Ellington in 1943 without attribution? Or is this cut on Blues in Orbit just mislabelled?


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