You won't find it discussed in the leading biographies, but these two visionary artists had a fraught behind-the-scenes relationship.
This is an outstanding piece of work, Ted! The part about Harlem pianists worrying about their rivals stealing their ideas reminds me of something Sun Ra told me years ago (let’s stipulate that Sun Ra was a tad paranoid): He said that when he was playing at the Club DeLisa, Ahmad Jamal would ‘hang out on the pay phone’ nearby in the club, listening to Ra so he could steal his progressions. Thank you for such an enjoyable essay.
Wow. What a story. My experience of this kind of conflict is entirely in the literary world. And I think of the great literary feuds of the past and present, namely Richard Ford spitting on Colson Whitehead after a wickedly smart bad review. I wonder if the mutual benefits apply in the book world like they apply among musicians. Did Mailer and Vidal become better writers because of their rivalry? What other examples exist of this in music world? Just great stuff to think about. Thanks.
A quiet rivalry, beautifully explored by Ted. Also enjoyed the conceptualization of "nemesis," a fancier word for "rivalry," which exists in every artform under either label. Thanks, Ted Gioia, for so literate and erudite a blog.
Congratulations on the awards, Ted!
First of all, congratulations on your well-deserved awards, and secondly, thanks for this fascinating investigation of the potential rivalry between Ellington and Gershwin.
I just don’t know where I’d read an article of this historical detail and deep perspective. So glad you’ve created this platform to share your work.
Wow. In reading your essay, had visions of an ‘opera’ based on the two artists. Thanks for that deep dive! Indeed, in the end it is we who benefit.
Thanks a lot, Mr. Gioia, for your perspicuous musings on Ellington vs Gershwin, I really enjoyed reading them. They nicely complement what other bloggers have written about the two composers, for instance the Gershwin entry in Donald Clarke's Encyclopedia of Popular Music <http://www.donaldclarkemusicbox.com/encyclopedia/detail.php?s=1461>, or Ethan Iverson's Do The Math articles entitled “Gershwin Comes Home” <https://ethaniverson.com/2016/09/22/gershwin-comes-home/> and “George Gershwin plays piano with Fred and Adele Astaire; Duke Ellington plays 'Summertime'” <https://ethaniverson.com/2020/03/27/riffs/>.
Another fine piece Ted. I don't recall Ellington mentioning Gershwin in "Music Is My Mistress", but I read it quite a few years ago.
Fascinating piece. Great points about rivalry and nemesis. The Bible says one man sharpens another like iron sharpens iron.
Per Duke Ellington, interviewed 6/12/40 by Norman Pierce for "Radio Newsreel," a Mutual Broadcasting program:
Q: Present company excepted, of course, whom do you think is the finest composer America has produced?
A: George Gershwin, without a doubt. He had the broadest scope and wrote in the vein of all America. He occasionally was influenced by the masters, but much of his work was purely original.
The very first biography of Duke Ellington, by Barry Ulanov (1946), quoted many of Ellington's comments from the New Theatre article on pages 240-41.
Thanks Ted, a great story! In March 1961 Duke recorded a piano trio version of Summertime, with Sam Woodyard and Aaron Bell. I seldom heard so much aggression and anger in any of Duke's recordings as in this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzG3G4C8jMY. Judge for yourself!
I sometimes wonder if the lyrics to "I Got It Bad" ("when the fish are jumpin'...")weren't something of as sardonic riposte to "Summertime"...
The insights about rivalries among musicians--esp. jazz pianists like Willie the Lion and Duke--ring true after hearing Oscar Peterson's self-congratulatory stories about vanquishing other pianists in what was for him a kind of musical "blood sport." As for Duke's copping Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" changes for "Cottontail," it's hard to say if that surreptitious exchange was intentional or accidental borrowing--or, simply, coincidental. Those changes (usually in Bb) were 2nd in popularity only to the 12-bar blues among jamming musicians--at least by the late '50s, when musicians would simply say "rhythm changes" without knowledge of song reference or title. Perhaps Duke was the first to show the chord progression's usefulness for spontaneous composition/improvisation?