The Smiles of the Duke

The first stanza of my favorite poem of William Blake’s goes:

There is a smile of love,
And there is a smile of deceit,
And there is a smile of smiles
In which those two smiles meet.

It’s the perfect description of almost every photograph of Duke Ellington, the smile of Mona Lisa, only much happier.

What other world-class composer would ever be so portrayed? I get a kick out of imagining a row of busts atop a piano: scowling Beethoven, melancholy Chopin, a worried Franz Liszt, and at the end a beaming wide-grinned Duke Ellington!

Americans are prone to smiling. And I’ve heard non-Americans (or Americans who want to style themselves as European) complain of the deceit in our ubiquitous grin. Of course, there’s some deceit in it, all you scowlers! The deceit is the distance necessary to keep the self protected yet still to welcome those with different selves, selves potentially built up according to very different religious or cultural architectures. The face almost always wears some kind of deceit: the blank look, the scowl, the proper-ritual visage. Our inner and outer selves merge at very rare moments. Even crying and laughing, except at the extremes of grief and tearful hilarity, get crammed a little into social standards. So the dilemma isn’t between the phony American smile and the authentic scowl; it’s all about what kind of outward form is the default, and the extent to which it can accommodate truer expressions of our humanity.

Duke Ellington’s smile contains multitudes; it’s knowing, noble, disdainful of all that’s lowdown or moronic, tolerant, loving, respectful, gently mocking. The Duke’s personality and music reconciled two usually disparate forces: on the one hand, there’s an elevation and cultivation to all he does; on the other hand, there’s a naughtiness, an ironic twinkle, to it as well. All in all, his is an ideal smile for a healthy democracy.

In the early days black jazzmen wore big smiles in part to disarm racist fears.

In this sense, the smile really was that open space where two different selves could attend to each other, though admittedly there was an ugly power-differential at work. In the post-war years, the smile vanished from the face of jazz, which had now become serious music. In a funny way, it was the scowl that became the invitation to the music, but now it was an invitation only to the elect.

And there is a frown of hate,
And there is a frown of disdain,
And there is a frown of frowns
Which you strive to forget in vain.

For it sticks in the heart’s deep core,
And it sticks in the deep back bone.

There’s a famous anecdote about Miles Davis in which a woman comes up to him at Birdland and says that she loves his music and owns all his records. He responds, “So what, bitch.” After she slinks away, a companion says to Davis, “You’re an evil son of a bitch, aren’t you?” Davis replies, “Now the bitch will buy two of every one of my records. They want me to be their evil nigger, and that’s what I’m ready to be.”

Ralph Ellison writes of

. . . a grim comedy of racial manners, with the musicians employing a calculated surliness and rudeness, treating the audience very much as many white merchants in poor Negro neighborhoods treat their customers, and the white audiences were shocked at first but learned quickly to accept such treatment as evidence of the “artistic” temperament. Then comes a comic reversal. Today the white audience expects the rudeness as part of the entertainment.

I’m hoping that by now we can purge the frowns of hate and disdain and return to that big smile of Ellington’s, just as Blake’s poem surges, as you’d expect, towards the marvelous synthesis.

And no smile that ever was smiled,
But only one smile alone

That betwixt the cradle and grave
It only once smiled can be,
But when it once is smiled,
There’s an end to all misery.

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One Response to The Smiles of the Duke

  1. Hello There!
    Just came across your site whilst researching for a musical program we are presenting. I would like to read a line or two from this post on Duke and of course give the author credit. What name should I use? Could you get back to me asap?
    Enjoyed the post very much. Thank You.
    Perley Rousseau / Sonny & Perley

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