How the Beatles are Like Duke Ellington

What two musical groups could be more different, right? Duke Ellington’s big band jazz from the 1940s, and the English group that made rock and roll famous. Writer Adam Gopnik* finds a common thread that he calls “the mystery of modern creativity.” Gopnik’s article is a book review of two books: an Ellington biography by Terry Teachout called Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, and Mark Lewisohn’s new book about the Beatles, Tune In. About Ellington, he writes:

Ellington’s ear, his energy, his organizational abilities, the sureness of his decisions are a case study for management school….He took what he needed to realize the ideal he had invented. This is not a secondary form of originality, which needs a postmodern apologia, in which “curating” is another kind of “creating.” It is the original kind of originality. Originality comes in two kinds: originality of ideas, and originality of labor, and although it is the first kind that we get agitated about, we should honor the second kind still more. It is an oddity of our civilization, and has been since the Renaissance, to think that the new idea “contributed” by the work matters more than the work itself.

This is exactly the argument I make in my own writings on creativity, grounded in creativity research. Gopnik is attacking what I call “the Western cultural model of creativity” (in my 2012 book, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation). Right on!

Decades ago, editor William Shawn (of The New Yorker magazine, where Gopnik’s joint review was published) wrote:

You can’t talk about the Beatles without mentioning the transcendent Duke Ellington…Like Ellington, they’re unclassifiable musicians.”

In reviewing Lewisohn’s new book about the Beatles, Gopnik gives one of the biggest complements a book reviewer can ever give an author: “Lewisohn manages to fill in blanks that no one knew were empty.” This reminds me of the famous quotation attributed to the philosopher Schopenhauer:  “Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.” So why does Gopnik review these two books together?

If one thing stands out as the source of the Beatles’ originality, it is the theft of improbable parts, the sheer range of their stealing.

And then:

A Beatles-Duke playlist, folded together, has a common quality (which took me by surprise, but shouldn’t have), and that is excitement. Go from “Please, Please Me” to “Take the A Train,” and you hear the shared fervor of musicians not just making a new sound but listening to themselves as they do. It’s the sound of self-discovery.

In the end, I’m not really convinced that Gopnik makes the case that Ellington and the Beatles are essentially similar. His article is subtitled “The mysteries of modern creativity” and it doesn’t quite live up to that ambition. Honestly, I think Gopnik just really liked these two books and couldn’t decide which one to review, so he came up with a way to do both. In the end, Gopnik is doing what he says these bands did: He’s working it through on the page, thinking out loud, trying to figure out what he means, how his intuition plays out. It’s a fascinating read, even if he doesn’t quite get all the way there.

*Gopnik, “A critic at large: Two bands.” The New Yorker, December 23 and 30, 2013, pp. 121-126.

3 thoughts on “How the Beatles are Like Duke Ellington

  1. Beautiful example of personal, social, and organizational improvisation in action, Keith. You are pointing at things that many feel but few truly understand and can explain. Thank you.

  2. This may not make your point or Gopnik’s, but in my humble opinion, much of Duke’s genius lies in the writing and arranging done for the band, either his own or Strayhorn’s. When the parts were passed out, they were not labeled “Trumpet 1, Trumpet2,” etc., but instead with the individual musician’s name. They were writing for a specific person, not an instrument, hence the unique stretched-out glissandos of lead alto sax player Johnny Hodges was harnessed into the unique sound of the Ellington orchestra; the first trumpet part was written knowingly to exploit the original and particular sound of “Cat” Anderson’s screeching high notes.

    Once they got away from their American bluesy start, The Beatles took on a similar uniqueness when Lennon and McCartney leveraged the special characteristics of their two voices singing in unison, the melodic, not overly technical guitar solos of George Harrison, etc.

    i think an essential element to any group genius is the presence to begin with of the Edward Ellington’s, the Billy Strayhorns, the John/Paul/George and Ringos.

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