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A Tale of Three Songwriters: Duke Ellington, Joni Mitchell & Johnny Green
Will Friedwald looks at popular composers who found fulfillment beyond commercial hits
I’m delighted to showcase a new guest writer at The Honest Broker.
Many of my readers will already be familiar with Will Friedwald. In my opinion, he is our leading living expert on what’s known as the Great American Songbook, namely that repository of artful popular music that flourished in the United States during the middle decades of the 20th century.
I’ve been learning from Will for decades. His books are essential volumes for anyone who cares about American music. But you may have also seen his writing in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, The Village Voice or elsewhere. In addition, he has written liner notes for over 600 albums, and has earned seven Grammy nominations.
Today he looks at the unusual case of great songwriters whose career arc took them beyond the hit-making machine of the commercial music world.
(By the way, Will is launching his own Substack this week—it’s evocatively named Slouching Towards Birdland. If you’re a music lover, I highly recommend taking out a subscription.)
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, media & culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
Three Songwriters Who Left the Hits Behind
By Will Friedwald
You would think that being a successful songwriter, one who makes a good living by writing music or lyrics, and has written songs that are loved by almost everyone, would be enough of a career goal for almost anyone. Yet there are certain songwriters whose music evolves into something else, and whose careers ultimately go off in an entirely different direction.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974) started his musical career as a pianist and composer of ragtime-influenced music for piano; as he became a bandleader, he became a master of composing instrumental music for a jazz orchestra. In 1930, he established himself as a writer of songs—music with lyrics intended for singers—when publisher Irving Mills commissioned Mitchell Parish to write words for “Mood Indigo,” which had originally been performed as a band instrumental.
For the next 25 years, Ellington, in addition to leading what is generally acknowledged as the greatest ensemble in the history of jazz and American music—and being the primary composer for that ensemble—was also a highly prolific songwriter. As an obvious point of comparison, Ellington was the creator of at least as many hits and standards as, say, Jerome Kern. And then he gradually became less and less interested in writing songs. The 1953 “Satin Doll,” written by Ellington and his musical partner Billy Strayhorn with lyrics by Johnny Mercer is perhaps the last Ellington song that everybody knows.
In the mid-1950s, many things were happening. First, there was a new kind of youth-driven popular music that was taking over, and the chances of a jazz-oriented writer like Ellington scoring another hit song were increasingly rare. Jazz was being pushed upstairs, and increasingly being considered more of an art music than a pop music. At the same time that the long-playing recording was becoming the de facto format for jazz—producer George Avakian told me that Columbia Records refused to even release Ellington’s music as singles by this time—he was intrigued by the possibility of writing long form works for albums.
Thus, the last 20 years of Ellington’s career were devoted to extended instrumental works, many of which were labeled “suites,” rather than songs—among them such masterpieces as Such Sweet Thunder and The Far East Suite. This is some of the greatest orchestral music ever produced in America, and these works are regularly performed by jazz repertory organizations like Jazz at Lincoln Center, as well as by student bands at nearly every university. In the 1960s, Ellington did occasionally write songs, like “Imagine My Frustration,” and the various spiritual numbers for his three Concerts of Sacred Music, but virtually every song of his that you’re likely to hear is from the 1930s and ‘40s.
Johnny Green (1908-1989) was a child prodigy, who attended Harvard at the age of 15 and started doing arrangements for dance bands during summer vacations. At 19, he wrote his first song, “Coquette,” which became a jazz standard, and at 21 he wrote the melody for the song that might be the best-known jazz standard of all time—right up to this day—“Body and Soul.” In the early ‘30s, Green continued to write many more very successful songs that are still performed today, “I’m Yours,” “I Wanna Be Loved,” “You’re Mine, You,” and at least two that remain huge standards, “Out of Nowhere” (the harmonies form the foundation for the original theme from Star Trek) and “I Cover the Waterfront.”
By this time, he was performing as a piano soloist and prolifically conducting orchestras both for radio and recordings. In 1943, his friend Richard Rodgers asked him to become musical director on By Jupiter, which would be that great Broadway composer’s final collaboration with Lorenz Hart. When MGM producer Arthur Freed saw the show, he was so impressed with the orchestrations that he made Green an offer.
As Green told Freed’s biographer, Hugh Fordin:
“I had already accepted a $1,500 advance on Dick Rodgers' next musical [which would be Oklahoma!]—and I'm making $300 a week on By Jupiter. I'm in New York, I'm writing again and I'm pot-boiling with what a composer may have to pot-boil with, which isn't like scoring a picture. 'God knows, I love you, Arthur,' I said, 'but, frankly, unless I'm brought to Hollywood to write songs or to compose, I'm really not interested.' First they offered me $450 a week. I turned them down. Then the son of a bitch offers me $600, and I said 'no' again. When he got to $750 a week, I crumbled."
That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise. Green went on to enjoy a rich and rewarding career, not only orchestrating movie music, but supervising other composers; he served as the head of the MGM music department from 1949 to 1959. After 1943, Green only occasionally wrote songs, and some of them were just as good as his earlier work, like the themes from Something in the Wind for Deanna Durbin and “Song of Raintree County,” beautifully sung by Nat King Cole. Was it a loss that he traded songwriting for composing movie music? Ultimately, it’s a judgment call. His overall output as a songwriter was much smaller than either of the other composers profiled here, but he wrote at least a dozen of the greatest works that the American songbook has to offer.
Joni Mitchell (born 1943) started as a singer-songwriter in what we now call the folk-rock movement. She made an immediate impact as a performer and especially as a composer and lyricist of songs in the general area of such popular folk-oriented performers as Joan Baez and Judy Collins. Her best music has a truly universal appeal to both performers and audiences, her most well-known songs are loved and performed by almost everybody—jazz singers, pop singers, opera singers, cabaret and musical theater performers.
But in a distinct parallel to Duke Ellington in particular, as Ms. Mitchell continued to mature as an artist, her work got more and more, well, mature. The harmonies grew denser, the melodies more intricate, the stories they told were more nuanced—and her work was already more sophisticated by far than the average pop, folk, or rock song of the late 1950s. By the mid-1970s, she was working with the most advanced jazz icons around, most famously Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, and, eventually even Charles Mingus himself. Her 1976 release Hejira is by, almost any metric, a pure-jazz album, in a parallel to the noirishly jazzy work of her contemporary Tom Waits. (The title song has a reference to Benny Goodman that I still don’t fully understand.)
The consequence was that the more complex her albums became, the more they were loved by jazz nerds like myself, but not by the general public. It was a curious paradox: the better her music became, the less popular it was. Ultimately, she became like Ellington, although perhaps even more dramatically: when people say that they love the songs of Joni Mitchell, they almost always mean the music she wrote in her 20s. When you hear someone sing a Joni Mitchell song, it’s invariably from before 1975.
Lord knows that writing popular songs—even universally loved songs—is not always a final stop on a career. A number of first rate songwriters went on to become producers on Broadway and Hollywood, among them Buddy DeSylva, Arthur Schwartz, Sam Coslow, Cy Feuer, and especially Jule Styne, and, as the Honest Broker himself points out, other successful songwriters went into finance, like Coslow again, and the excellent arranger Marion Evans. But Duke Ellington, Johnny Green, and Joni Mitchell represent three fascinating examples of great composers who essentially stopped writing songs in order to write music.