Did Duke Ellington and George Gershwin Have a Secret Rivalry?
You won't find it discussed in the leading biographies, but these two visionary artists had a fraught behind-the-scenes relationship
One day in 1935, Duke Ellington got cornered by Edward Morrow, a Harlem journalist and recent Yale graduate. Morrow had been the only African-American student in his Ivy League class, and wasn’t interested in the glib banter most reporters pursue with musicians. Instead Morrow pressed Ellington for his aesthetic ideas, and especially his verdict on George Gershwin’s jazz opera Porgy and Bess, which had recently opened on Broadway.
Ellington may not have realized that this was an interview—certainly the comments he made were far more pointed than usual. And when his remarks appeared in print, he was upset. Even so, we will never know for certain whether Ellington had been misquoted or was merely talking off-the-record.
The key point is that he never explicitly retracted his comments—so I believe they are a fair reflection of Ellington’s actual views.
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I should point out that Ellington rarely made controversial statements of any sort when talking to journalists—or anyone else, for that matter. He was a master of high-flown phrases and graceful expressions, and when he wanted to make a more incisive point he usually clothed it in such elegant finery that you didn’t realize until later that you had been criticized.
Take, for example, the case of Charles Mingus, who was dismissed from the Ellington band after getting into an altercation with trombonist Juan Tizol that resulted in the latter pulling out a knife. Mingus was called into the boss’s presence, where he was mesmerized by the Duke’s gentlemanly response.
Here’s Mingus’s description of how Ellington handled the matter:
“‘Now, Charles,’ he says, looking amused, putting Cartier links into the cuffs of his beautiful hand-made shirt, “you could have forewarned me—you left me out of the act entirely! At least you could have let me cue in a few chords as you ran through that Nijinksy routine. I congratulate you on your performance, but why didn’t you and Juan inform me about the adagio you planned so that we could score it? I must say I never saw a large man so agile—I never saw anybody make such tremendous leaps! The gambado over the piano carrying your bass was colossal.’”
Ellington made a point of never firing a musician, but he really didn’t need to. As Mingus summed up the situation: “The charming way he says it, you feel like he’s paying you a compliment. Feeling honored, you shake hands and resign.”
Ellington was an expert at deflecting conflict, more skilled than the best managers I’ve known. So you can imagine how unusual it was for Duke to openly attack George Gershwin—this simply wasn’t his way of dealing with other people, whether famous or obscure.
In this instance, Ellington started out in typical form, admitting to Morrow that Gershwin’s work was “grand music and a swell play.” But he couldn’t leave it at that. “The music did not hitch with the mood and spirit of the story,” he added.
At this juncture, Ellington pulled back—perhaps realizing he had gone too far in criticizing one of the most beloved composers in America. So he tried to soften his previous statement: “I have noted this in other things lately too. So I’m not singling out Porgy and Bess.”
He probably should have left it at that. Yet Morrow wouldn’t let Ellington retreat. “But sticking to Porgy and Bess, Duke, just what ails it?”
I guess Ellington couldn’t resist—and who could blame him? He had a huge fan base and many hit records, but he coveted precisely the kind of crossover acceptance in concert halls and among the classical music establishment that Gershwin was now enjoying.
“The first thing that gives it away,” he explained to Morrow, “is that it does not use the Negro musical idiom.” He now felt obliged to point out how Gershwin borrowed his musical vocabulary, perhaps even stole it—and without even much discretion or taste. “Gershwin surely didn’t discriminate: he borrowed from everyone from Liszt to Dickie Wells’ kazoo band,” Ellington quipped.
At this point in the interview, Ellington sat down at a nearby piano, and played extracts from Gershwin’s famous Rhapsody in Blue—pointing out where the composer had “stolen or borrowed” material.
This is an extraordinary situation, unprecedented in Ellington’s biography. But the most revealing part of the interview came when Morrow asked Ellington whether he would ever compose an opera himself. “No,” Ellington lamented. “I have to make a living and so I have to have an audience.”
When these remarks were published, they caused an understandable clamor. Ellington’s manager Irving Mills got involved in damage control, making an attempt to distance Duke from the comments. But Ellington’s own follow-up commentary was restricted to a vague hope that “Gershwin didn’t take any stock in those things I was supposed to have said.”
“Gershwin surely didn’t discriminate: he borrowed from everyone from Liszt to Dickie Wells’ kazoo band,” Ellington quipped.
That falls several steps below a disavowal.
And subsequent events give us even more evidence of a rivalry. In a Downbeat article the following year, a writer asserted that “Duke is living for the day when he can write an opera.”
I would argue that the standard Ellington biographies don’t give sufficient emphasis to this ambition. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Ellington never performed an opera in his entire career, so how much could he really care about the genre? Yet in his final years, he was clearly obsessed with his unfinished opera Queenie Pie.
He had been thinking about this project since the 1930s—the same time when he made these critical statements about Porgy and Bess. And the story line can even be read as a coded attack on Gershwin.
Just consider that the inspiration for Queenie Pie was Madame C.J. Walker, the first African-American female millionaire, who made a fortune selling beauty products. But in Ellington’s retelling, Queenie is a popular beautician whose lighter-skinned rival, Café O’Lay, makes a bundle of money selling cosmetics to Harlem residents who want to pass for white.
Of course, Ellington wasn’t really writing an opera about beauty products. This is obviously a story about blackness, authenticity, rivalry, and how deeply these are rooted in racial identity. Whatever else it was, Queenie Pie wasn’t the kind of opera that George Gershwin could ever envision writing.
Ellington never abandoned the project, but made little headway. After all, who was going to give him the money to stage an opera? This was the same challenge Scott Joplin had faced decades before, when he tried to convince investors to back his ambitious opera Treemonisha, but with no luck.
Ellington, for all his fame, had even less flexibility than Joplin. He always had a large payroll to make and too many demands on his time. Even more to the point, his compositions didn’t come to life in an ivory tower, with grants to cover the cost. He was expected to perform dance music, not write operas.
But Ellington never forgot Queenie Pie, and the project came back to life in 1962. New York’s WNET (a forerunner of NPR) agreed to feature an hour-long Ellington opera on TV. He resumed work on the shelved score, but WNET failed to find the money needed to support such an ambitious project. The TV production was cancelled, and it seemed as if Ellington’s opera would never get staged.
Yet he refused to give up. I’m sure he noticed when Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha, composed in 1911, finally made its debut in 1972—it would later win the Pulitzer Prize, that supreme distinction for an American composer that Ellington coveted but had always been denied. In fact, Ellington had come so close to winning the award in 1965 that it took a last minute veto by the Pulitzer board to prevent the music jury from giving it to him. Queenie Pie might be his last chance—the Pulitzer overlords only honored classical works, and this was, after all, an opera.
Yet time was running out, and Ellington now was ailing. In 1973 he was diagnosed with the lung cancer that would cause his death a few months later. But even in the hospital, he had an electric keyboard brought to his bedside, so he could continue composing.
And what music did he want to write in those final days? He continued to push ahead with Queenie Pie, that dream he had been pursuing for forty years. He failed to complete it, although left enough behind enough material for a posthumous reconstruction. But that wouldn’t happen until more than a decade after Ellington’s death in 1974.
I don’t think we can understand any of this without the larger context of Ellington’s reaction to Porgy and Bess, which became more popular and revered with each passing decade. It not only legitimized the concept of a jazz opera, but became part of the standard operatic repertoire. Don’t think for one second that Duke Ellington wasn’t paying attention to this.
But if, as I suspect, Ellington saw Gershwin as a rival through all this period, the obvious question is what did Gershwin think about Ellington.
There’s plenty of evidence that Gershwin paid very close attention to Ellington’s music. According to his close friend Oscar Levant, Gershwin not only listened to Ellington’s compositions carefully—and kept the recordings in a separate place from other jazz and classical works—but also would play them at the piano. Gershwin even allegedly told Levant he wished he had written the bridge to Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.”
And it may be possible to trace direct influences in specific works. Gershwin’s biographer Howard Pollack suggests that Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” a 1928 hit, might have contributed to Gershwin’s tonal palette for An American in Paris, which made its debut in December of that same year. And a few months later, Ellington’s band was hired to perform as part of the Broadway production of Gershwin’s musical Show Girl.
But the most revealing story comes to us secondhand. Clarinetist Barney Bigard, a longstanding member of Ellington’s band, claims that Gershwin tried to collaborate with Duke—but got turned down. The details are vague, and it’s hard to determine the scope of the intended partnership. But no matter what the desired endpoint, this has to rank among the most disappointing missed chances in American music history.
Shortly before his death, Ellington offered some words of praise about Gershwin, but even these were vague, and might have been another example of Duke using coded language. He started with the admission that many people viewed Gershwin as “a man and artist of temperament who was somewhat rude at times.” But Ellington then goes on to refute these allegations, calling attention to Gershwin’s humility. “If you didn’t know him, you would never guess that he was the great George Gershwin.”
This gives me some idea of how Gershwin and Ellington dealt with each other behind the scenes. If you study Gershwin’s biography, you will find that he always approached the leading composers of his day with deference and respect—and consistently tried to learn from them. He was always asking for advice and guidance on composing. This was perhaps the key to Gershwin’s amazing successes, namely his constant desire to improve and expand his horizons as a composer. So I envision Gershwin approaching Ellington with the same attitude, offering up compliments and praise—adorned with the humility that Duke later noted—but with the absolute intention of learning some new compositional tricks of the trade.
Alas, Ellington came up in another world—where jazz musicians were fiercely competitive and viewed their peers as rivals who would steal their stuff. That ethos permeated the world of the Harlem stride pianists, who were Ellington’s chief role models. Harlem pianists such as Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith or James P. Johnson taught Ellington to defend his turf at all costs.
It’s worth noting that Ellington called ‘The Lion’ a “gladiator at heart,” and shared this unsettling description of Smith responding to another pianist trying to show off at the keyboard:
“Before he got through too many stanzas the Lion was standing over him, cigar blazing. Like if the cat was weak with the left hand, the Lion would say, ‘What’s the matter, are you a cripple?’ Or, ‘When did you break your left arm?’ Or, ‘Get up, I will show you how it’s supposed to go.’”
These were the settings where Ellington learned his vocation. In that environment, you didn’t cooperate or take lessons from a rival. Your aim was to beat him into submission. So I can’t be surprised when I learn that Ellington had no interest in collaborating with the “great George Gershwin.”
If, in fact, Gershwin was rebuffed, he couldn’t have been pleased by the implications—especially if he thought Ellington considered the proposal as some kind of predatory plan. Gershwin, like Ellington, was a polite, dignified man, but he also took enormous pride in who he was, where he had come from, and what he had achieved. So it’s perhaps no coincidence that these two composers, who had crossed paths at several junctures in the 1920s, seemed to have little to do with each other in the 1930s.
Am I reading too much into these facts?
After Gershwin’s death in 1937, Ellington had no legitimate reason to carry on with a grudge. But I find it revealing that Ellington rarely recorded any of Gershwin’s songs over the next four decades, although he frequently adapted their chord changes to his own purposes—taking the harmonic building blocks of “I Got Rhythm,” for example, and turning them into his own signature works, such as “Cotton Tail” and “Love You Madly.”
Yes, there are exceptions. If you scrutinize Ellington’s massive discography, you can find an occasional performance of “Summertime” or “The Man I Love” or some other Gershwin classic. But these are almost always vocal numbers on a radio transcription, probably chosen to please the singer or perhaps fulfill a request. So you will find exactly one Ellington performance of “A Foggy Day” (featuring Della Reese on vocals), and precisely one recording of “Embraceable You” (with Kay Davis singing). But as far as I can tell, Ellington completely ignored such famous jazz standards as “But Not for Me,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and many other timeless hits from the Gershwin songbook.
Are these just meaningless omissions, or signs of a genuine rivalry that never really ended? The evidence strongly points in one direction.
My belief is that the fraught relationship between Ellington and Gershwin was a classic example of the positive influence of rivalries on musical culture. I’ve written about this elsewhere—where I’ve focused on the creative potential of having a nemesis in your life.
The nemesis is not an enemy. In fact, your nemesis often is someone very much like you. That’s what makes this relationship both so charged and productive. Your encounter with a nemesis is like an image in a distorting mirror, teaching you things about yourself you could never discover otherwise.
That’s my view of Gershwin and Ellington, two masters of American music who were born just a few months apart—both seeking a pathway to link the energy of jazz with the prestige of the concert hall. They could never genuinely be partners or friends, but in a way they fed off the achievements of each other.
Because it’s a rivalry you’re hoping I will tell you which of these masters won the competition. My short answer is both of them. And even more, all of us.