In Conversation with Maurice Peress



Maurice Peress
Photo by John Pole

An interview with the author of Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots

Molly Sheridan: In your introduction to the book, you point out that the title, Dvořák to Ellington, is not an arbitrary selection of names. Let’s start with why that is. Can you trace briefly the line that connects them?

Maurice Peress: Dvořák was brought here in 1892, and he stayed for three seasons as the director of the Conservatory for Music of the United States, I believe it was called, which was down on the East Side of Manhattan. It was run by an extraordinary woman named Jeanette Thurber. Her husband was a successful businessman, and she knew all the important people in New York, particularly people who were supportive of America as a country that could stand on its own culturally. She came up with the notion that she’d like to find someone who could help develop an American school of composing. At first she thought of Sibelius because he was a nationalist composer. Eventually Dvořák was enticed to come here. He was quite successful in Prague and quite comfortable, but I think he was a bit of a traveler. I think he was also intrigued with the notion of democracy because people in Slovakia and in the Bohemian part of the country felt oppressed by the German language and culture which had been imposed by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that controlled them. Dvořák was looked upon as a nationalist composer, ergo he could help to develop a nationalist school here in America, and in fact I think he did. Among his students down on 17th street—and I list them all in the back of the book—were two who went on to become teacher/mentors of Ellington, Gershwin, and Copland. So there is a direct line.

Will Marion Cook is the person that Ellington credited with being “my own personal conservatory.” Cook not only studied with Dvořák but before that he studied with Joachim in Berlin. He was a vernacular composer, which is interesting because at that time things Negroid were looked down upon even by black people, so he was very courageous in trying to create a music which reflected the ragtime and the other kinds of thing that were going on.

Goldmark was also a student of Dvořák’s at the school. Goldmark became an important composition teacher at the school that preceded the Juilliard and then went into the Juilliard as the director of the composition department. He worked with Copland for four years privately before Copland went to Boulanger, and Gershwin also came to Goldmark around the time he was writing his string quartet. It’s supposed to have been only for a short time, but in my view a relationship between two master musicians, even if it’s for a short time, can be quite deep and important. If you hear a great artist do something, we as musicians are sponges and we grab on to all the little things that can’t be spoken and they become part of our music-making from then on.

So these two particular students of Dvořák were instrumental in the school that he was supposed to create. The actual American school, and in my view, there’s only one, and it was not long-lasting, was the school that emerged in the late-’20s; the music of those three people created a school of music. You hear one bar of Copland or Gershwin or Ellington, and you know you’re listening to a unique voice and someone who uses vernacular music in a very rich and unique way. Their music actually became the signature of our country for a very long time. I’d say that the school lasted into the early ’40s and anything since then has been a kind of international school. The composers of the world are quite aware of one another; they aren’t trying to write a nationalistic music or stuff based upon folk music per se. But there was, at that time in America, this very rich resource, and it was exploited and developed in a natural and honest way by at least those three names.

MS: The book’s subtitle underlines the African American roots to this music and the text itself points out almost as much about race relations as it is does about music.

MP: In my book I really show interaction between the races beyond what anybody could have dreamed of. It’s extraordinary how these musicians know and work with each other, are friends of one another. It’s a story that has not been told, because we always think of things in terms of apartheid in our country—a white music-making and a black music-making. They really melded at the turn of the century.

MS: Is it naïve to think, though, that there was a lack of racism here that was rampant in the rest of American society?

MP: There must have been an element of it, but there’s nothing else that has a way of reaching across so-called boundaries in this way. Its appeal is so fundamental and so basic to the human spirit that it goes beyond race relations. When one is interacting in business and social activities there could be racism, but when there is a musical sharing, that crosses the boundary immediately in a way that is quite rich. For professional musicians, for people for whom music is their life’s work and the core of their being, we are curious about one another and understand one another on levels that we couldn’t in other languages. This sharing becomes easier and easier throughout the beginning of the 20th century, and we see it in the history of jazz. For example, the first people to use the word jazz in the name if their orchestra was the original Dixieland Jazz Band, white guys from New Orleans. It’s an ironic twist to the history of jazz. Paul Whiteman couldn’t bring Louis Armstrong into his orchestra; although Whiteman had two or three black arrangers working for him in the office, the band was all white and mixed bands didn’t happen till the mid-’30s. But there were clubs that Gershwin frequented in Chicago where musicians of every stripe could meet and work and play with one another.

I see it going back even further—James Reese Europe, 1912 at the Clef Club. It was David Mannes of the Mannes School of music who brought him to Carnegie Hall. David Mannes, the great educator and creator of the school, was a violinist in one of the New York orchestras, and his first teacher was a black man. All through his life he wanted to return that gift to him, the gift of music, by helping black students and he created a school in Harlem, believe it or not, and among the people he met there was James Reese Europe. He invited him to come to Carnegie Hall with his all black orchestra to raise money for the school. So there are these interactions. I mean, that’s 1912.

MS: So it seems that music really had a larger role in the national social debate?

MP: According to Gerald Early, a black social historian, he said it’s the only place where the races really mingled, in the jazz clubs and things like that. Music really does soothe.

MS: It was still a shock to me to read a New York Times review of a show that referred to “real live coons.” It made my stomach clench.

MP: But the amazing thing is that was a show at a time when there was an absolute color line, and that’s what the Times critic was reacting to. It was a very revolutionary thing to do and this was directed by Will Marion Cook, student of Joachim and Dvořák. Cook had been to Europe and was a great success in London with his In Dahomey show. He was a worldly man of color who went to his grave quite conflicted about how to fit into America because he had this larger view of things. So there were these guys who were struggling out there.

Ellington himself—Black, Brown, and Beige, that’s a metaphor. The history of the Negro people is a musical story, so he really tried to tell it from the time of slave ships to Harlem in the 1940s. There was a poem that Ellington wrote before he wrote the music, also called “Black, Brown and Beige.” He was trying to make a very strong statement that we all fight for the same country, and yet the black man comes back from the army—whether it was the War of 1812 or World War Two—he comes back to a country which doesn’t give him his civil rights. Ellington felt this very deeply. He never said it out loud, but he really felt it in this poem which is unpublished and I believe should remain so.

MS: Why?

MP: Well, I quote a hell of a lot of it in the book. Maybe it should be published. It’s a decision his nephews will have to make. Maybe it’s time the poem be published. I’m Jewish and there’s one little remark in the poem that’s hard for me to read and so I’ve been a little reticent, but really in retrospect the whole poem is his take on the history of his people in America.

But back to this very un-PC language, listen, when Virgil Thomson, who was a friend of mine, called Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess “gefilte fish” orchestration, what are you going to do with that one? That chokes you, too. There are some tough things to take in, but it’s good to see what it was like. I’m 75, but as a young boy my parents would take me to Miami. I was shocked! I was a young, liberal kid with this very idealistic notion of the world, and black people could not be on the island of Miami [Beach] after dark; they had to leave by bus. There were the black and white [drinking] fountains. I begged my parents to let me go home I was so upset. This is 1942, probably. Lyndon Baines Johnson brought national civil rights, but as he signed the bill he said this is the end of Democratic party in the South, and he was right. We’re suffering for it to this day. We have the civil rights, thank God, but we have that son-of-a-bitch in the White House. It’s all because we can’t count on the South to vote Democrat anymore, so all these things have their ins and outs.

But I’m glad [the language used by the Times reviewer] turns your stomach because that shows how far we’ve come.

MS: Was showing that part of your motivation for writing this book?

MP: Very much so. There are political/musical/religious underpinnings to my interest in music of quality, as Duke used to say. There are only two kinds of music: good and bad. I’m a pretty good Mozart conductor, yet I can stand in front of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and I can speak their language. Part of what drove me to write the book was to document my own experiences in a wider world of music and to teach myself to understand how rich the tradition is, how much richer it is than most of us imagined.

MS: I’ve always thought it was strange, when we speak of “American” music, that even, or maybe especially in the academy, we usually mean a group of older white men. What measure of credit and scholarship has the impact of the African American community been given up to this point? Beyond your book, what else is happening to incorporate this history now?

MP: That’s a good question. Those few scholars who have been fascinated by this music and have done some serious, unrefutable work in these areas work very much on their own. There are now courses being given on hip-hop, and there will be more and more people from the ethnomusicological and world music view coming into scholarship. We need them. I think the academy will catch up. Historically, they don’t come to things until they’re almost gone. It’s been like that forever, but certainly there’s been an easing up of this snobbery. Among composers, as you know, a lot of them have searched their souls and asked themselves, “What does the 12-tone system communicate?” That’s the central core of what music is about and the notion that I compose a piece and I don’t care if it’s ever played; to me that’s sick. You don’t produce children that way. A lot of composers are coming out of rock music, a lot of them are guitar players, so we’ll see what happens if we haven’t completely lost the audience. I’m optimistic that there will come a generation of scholars and composers who will take over the academy and look back on America and this polymorphous music that we have had as a very rich and wonderful time.

I wanted to say one more thing. It’s in the book, but I didn’t spell it out as well as I’d like to—high art/low art, you know, hierarchical issues that represent that snobbery in the academy. The critical model for judging a work of musical art has been dominated by a Germanic model of the Romantic and pre-Romantic era. The Beethoven model of sonata allegro being the be-all/end-all notion that architectural form is necessary to create great art still hangs in the academy. Criticism of Gershwin can be very demeaning, because you can’t criticize his fertile imagination, but they get after him on the question of that dirty word “form”. I struggle with that—how to relate the two worlds. There is no critical model between “European” and “Non-European” music. I hate to make these distinctions, but I have to. In a work by Ellington, he never talked about “my” music, it was always “our” music. Every person in the band was capable of making creative contributions. Harnessing those people and finding a way to make art with them was an extraordinary thing. In a European sense, the players are anonymous, in an American sense they are individuals who are encouraged to bring something to the piece. Also, the line that divides the orchestra from the audience doesn’t exist in a jazz band situation. People can get up, they can clap—there is this connection between the music and the audience that is much looser and much tighter at the same time. So those two things: the waving of the line between composer and recreator and the waving of the line between audience and player. The critical model has not been resolved, and until people open up the restrictions as to what defines a work of musical art, there’s always going to be confusion. I think it helps scholars and non-scholars to understand that it’s apples and oranges on some level as much as it is a unified world.