Educational Supplement Blog

22 March 2013.

Today’s new word is Feague. Feague is a verb, meaning “To insert a live eel into a horse’s bum”. The reason we have this verb is that feaguing used to be a common activity in horse markets of old. Apparently, the inclusion of the eel in the lot for sale made Dobbin look really quite lively, and therefore easier to sell. Watch out for eel DNA in Lidl meatballs, that’s all I’ll say. I merely present this fact without comment, but it is germane to a matter from this week.

It’s been a good week so far for having Duke Ellington around the place, as he’s been cropping up in a variety of different locations in a variety of different roles. Recently, in the periods when I need to rest from the fervid activity that is the construction of the Seaplanes Of The Axis Powers diorama, I’ve decided that all my old Ellington sheet music needs archiving, as the vast bulk of it is quite unique and exists only in hard copy. I’ve therefore taken time out in the shed to scan into the computer one Ellington arrangement from the stash per day.

It’s quite a thing, Ellington’s music, and it is an unusual experience passing it sheet by sheet through the scanner as I have on average 20 seconds to contemplate the scanned image forming on the screen, and I find the brain visualising the sound of the whole piece whilst hearing in close up the sound of the part in front of me. Making the link between the little squiggles on the paper in front of my eyes and the magical sounds inside my head brings it right home just how brilliant that music is – to see the various pellucid textures that make up Ellington’s tonal palette reduced to dots and dashes is to understand it all from yet another angle.

In a curious Jungian way, having racked up enough Ellington score karma after six weeks of scanning in the shed, I was called to explain exactly this to a load of A-level students on Monday. My chum Maxine has a daughter at Wanstead high school, and it transpired that the A-level music group was foundering badly on the Duke Ellington set work in the syllabus. Inconceivably, the group was finding Ellington… boring! Knowing that I would react to this cosmic wrongdoing with a mixture of fury and despair (the housemaid had to duck when I threw the kedgeree tray across the breakfast table, I can tell you), she suggested to the head of music there that I go in, and try and interest the pupils in the Duke. Quite frankly, I was cacking myself. It’s one thing to effuse brightly on the joys of Ellingtonia when preaching to the converted at a gig, but another thing entirely to try and galvanise bored teenagers who perceive the great treasure chest of sonic goodies that Ellington brings as yet more archaic tedium.

To be fair to them, part of the problem is the way in which the study notes are laid out. Ellington and his music have been two large causes of joy in my life, and it was with some surprise that while boning up for the lesson by reading through the official study notes that I found myself nodding off by paragraph 2. To get things in perspective, it’s brilliant that someone in the ministry of Education has made the music A-level course inclusive of all genres. It is also brilliant that the syllabus contains an Ellington piece when it gets to the jazz bit. What isn’t brilliant is the tragic fall at the final hurdle- the facts are presented in a style so dry and out of touch with any cultural references the students may have, that the glorious invention and vitality of the Music is subsumed in an oppressive duvet of academic droning. It’s a bit like preparing a pamphlet to interest people in sex by showing them images of fallopian tubes.

The piece in question for study was “Ko-Ko”, a miniature masterpiece from 1940. At this time, Ellington’s creative juices were flowing at an unparalleled rate. Ko-ko is one of a number of pieces from this time in which Ellington would compress the full emotional force of a symphony a two and a half minutes 78rpm track. Ko-Ko occupies an important place in the Ellington timeline, as it represents an early example of Ellington working towards his greatest masterwork, the opera Boola, in which he was seeking to portray the history of the American Negro. Although Boola was never completed, Ellington has gone on file saying that Ko-Ko was intended to be a depiction of a slave dance in Congo Square, New Orleans. It is therefore full of every molecule of elegant yet foreboding Cotton Club-esque fervid exotica as he could throw at it. In addition to all of this, the band was at the very top of its mighty form, and the pulsating, visceral beat underpinning the whole shebang was generated in a large part by Jimmie Blanton on bass, on his first ever record date. Blanton re-defined the role of the bass in modern music, and this is the first recorded example of his amazing work, driving the whole orchestra with a beat that is both steady and fierce, and with a sound which is still the envy of every jazz bass player on the planet to this day. Sitting here at the kitchen table doing the Plog, I find myself getting all hot and excited thinking about the music and tapping all this away into the Wallytron 2000, and I wonder what was speaking to the students at Wanstead High louder- the universal truth that is Ellington’s genius, or me in my brown corduroy suit winding myself up and frothing at the mouth as I was trying to get my point across. In the cold calm of the whopping traffic jam on the M25 on the way home, it began to occur to me that it would have be a very good thing if none of the people in that class had heard of the verb To Feague.

Ellington was present at two of the gigs this week. Wednesday, I was at the Boisdale Canary Wharf doing the background music set with the great Enrico Tomasso on trumpet. We live in such a tribute-band raddled age these days, that even background music needs to have a theme in order to sell it, and it so fell that we were to perform an Ellingtonian set. One of the great joys of playing jazz around London is Rico’s playing, taught as he was by Louis Armstrong himself! The band played great, with a right Rolls-Royce of a rhythm section in Ed Richardson, Jerome Davies and Matt Regan, at always the right volume and with a rock solid groove. Given this, it was no surprise that the Duke’s great tunes worked their magic on the diners and by the end of the gig not only was the diners listening, but applauding heartily. As this is in direct contravention of the all the known laws of dinner music, we can only marvel at the magic weapon Ellington has equipped us with to fight the good fight.

The next night, at the early set in Ronnie’s, we dedicated the whole thing to Ellington’s tunes. We were warming up for The James Taylor Quartet, who has incredibly loyal fans. So loyal, that they are known to really only like James’ stuff, which poses problems if you’re in the huge set of people in life’s great venn diagram entitled “Not James Taylor”. A good driving version of “I’m Beginning To See The Light” opened the set up, and once again the Duke’s elegant, truthful, perfectly constructed music had them all in thrall! James Pearson, artistic director of Ronnie’s was at the piano, and was able to deliver an astonishing impersonation of the Duke’s unique clanky but hip piano! Amazing stuff.

Later that night, over the inevitable curry,(at the Maharani Of Berwick Street, W1-make sure you have the tandoori lamb chops there at least once before you die. In fact, it’s worth it just for the home-made chutneys which come with the poppadoms) James and I were discussing how Ellington makes magic out of musical elements which would appear, at first sight, to be virtually nothing. He related a story which sums the whole thing up beautifully, in which he remembered playing a version of Mood Indigo arranged for treble and descant recorders with his sister when th ey were both about 7. Even at that stage, he told me that the Ellington piece stood head and shoulders over everything else in the book, as it was completely three-dimensional and magical. Two kids, on recorders,playing music that sounds like magic. Sums it all up really.

In the next thrill packed episode of the Plog, we will have the ongoing saga of the cold water, the exiting episode of the mystery of the hot water, Mr Mellish at the call centre, a Guys And Dolls medley in Lithuanian and the Seaplanes Of The Axis Powers diorama! Stay tuned!

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