Take the A Train Downtown for Ellington Centennial

Thursday, April 29, marks Duke Ellington’s 100th birthday, and it’s not exactly going to be a surprise party. Spontaneity has a way of being drowned out by the larger institutional and corporate jazz interests who’ve been banging the drum for Duke unceasingly of late-witness Jazz at Lincoln Center’s all-Ellington, all-the-time 1999-2000 season and RCA Victor’s just-released 24-CD The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1927-1973 . (The only people who’d consider shelling out $400 for this worthy digital edifice already own most of this music, anyway, so I figure the target market is jazz obsessives who’ve recently lost their collections in a fire.) Yet even if we sometimes feel obliged to love Duke, it’s worth doing anyway.

Take it from downtown musical eminence Anthony Coleman. One recent night at Cafe Mogador, the hyperanimated pianist was greeting well-wishers like the mayor of the East Village and raving about Ellington. “All those different calibrations of funky and elegant, where did Duke get that?” he asked. “The balance is insane.” In honor of Ellington, the eternal avant-gardist, Mr. Coleman is putting together what might be called an alternative 100th-birthday party on April 29 at the Alterknit Theater at the Knitting Factory, featuring his Sephardic Tinge Trio, with bassist Ben Street and drummer Mike Sarin, and musical friends like clarinetist David Krakauer and Jazz Passengers reedman Roy Nathanson.

Dropping by the Mogador that evening, Mr. Nathanson declared: “Wynton Marsalis wants to see Ellington as the bulwark of the tradition. We want to see him as the bulwark of the nontradition.” Mr. Coleman happily compounds the heresy. “The Ellington band doesn’t swing like a regular jazz band,” he said. “It lopes, it drags, it feels like it’s in a time warp.” The pianist is nursing a private theory that what Duke really means by swing isn’t finger-snapping 4/4 time but a syncopated hemiola (the superimposition of one beat against another) that has its roots in ragtime. The clue-the musical Rosebud-is the “doo wah, doo wah” that follows the line, “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” “I’ve said too much,” Mr. Coleman muttered, looking momentarily dismayed, a future best-selling monograph gone up in smoke.

The finer points aside, it’s certainly true that Ellington, playing to the expectations of the white toffs and gangsters at the Cotton Club, patented a “jungle music” that had its own weird originality. Those early years set the tone. Ellington, the nominal king of jazz, played a music that was only part jazz, as everyone else understood the term, and part something of his own devising-a cocktail of African-American roots music, vaudeville and the European concert hall. Duke was the most unlikely of combinations: a bourgeois arriviste copping fancy Impressionist chords and a self-confident smoothie who knew that the old tricks-blues, gospel, rag, stride-were as good as anything the Old World could come up with.

Mr. Coleman has a downtown nose for kitsch, so at the Knit gig he plans to zero in on Ellington’s rock-influenced work from the 60’s, like “Acht O’Clock Rock” from the 1971 suite The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse . “Ellington was a very acquisitive person,” he said. “In the 20’s, he heard what was happening in New Orleans and Harlem. In the 60’s, he was watching a lot of TV and he heard rock on programs like Hawaii Five-O and The Ed Sullivan Show . Some of it’s pretty bad, but it’s touching.” (As that RCA box brings home, Ellington’s last decade was rather hit-or-miss, but I’d rather listen to Duke deal with rock than God. On tunes like “Ain’t Nobody Nowhere Nothin’ Without God,” you get the feeling he was trying to take out an insurance policy on his own immortality.)

Mr. Coleman also has the trained composer’s weakness for the structural challenge. At the Knit, he’ll be attempting small-ensemble interpretations of tunes like “Rumpus in Richmond” or “Birmingham Breakdown,” which verge on being melodyless and owe their existence to Duke’s genius for unlikely orchestral voicings and pounding rhythmic repetition. (In general, if you’re singing Ellington in the shower, it was probably written by Billy Strayhorn.) And Mr. Coleman has exactly one day of rehearsal time to pull all this together. “It’s all a fuckin’ mess,” he said. “But it’s a nice mess.”

While Mr. Coleman can make a theoretical case for Ellington’s importance to the current downtown scene (“he changed the border between improvisation and composition”), his connection to Duke is, at heart, personal. A precocious Brooklyn kid, he attached himself to the man and his band in the early 70’s “like a burr.” Forty years from now, he should have attained “Last Civil War Widow” status in all matters Ellingtonian.

Mr. Coleman recalled that once, at a band rehearsal in Milwaukee, he had the rare privilege of hearing Duke curse. “He called [wayward tenorist] Paul Gonsalves an asshole,” he recalled. “Gonsalves was just so drunk and lost. The room froze. The next day, at a lecture Duke was giving, Paul showed up looking bleary, like he’d taken 10 showers. He interrupted the lecture and said, ‘Duke, I want to play “Happy Reunion” with you.’ It was very intense, very beautiful.” In 1974, Mr. Coleman saw Ellington for the last time. Terminally ill with lung cancer, Duke gave him the customary smile and four pecks on the cheek. “Ah, you’ve been staying away from me, baby,” he said.

Duke’s death marked the end of Mr. Coleman’s hero-worshiping phase. Eschewing conventional jazz keyboard chops, he threw himself into classical compositional studies at the New England Conservatory of Music and at Yale University without ever losing sight of the Ellingtonian ideal of a composer and a sympathetic group of improvisers working out their own musical language. In the early 80’s, he found that-and a new punky esthetic-with saxophonist John Zorn in the ringmaster role. Mr. Coleman was the keyboard voice on a series of Zorn albums that helped define the downtown po-mo scene. But he was growing increasingly disturbed, in his cerebral fashion, with his status as an interpreter of other people’s interesting ideas. “I thought I was a mannerist,” he said. “I couldn’t make a ‘me’ thing out of it. I was reading a lot of Heidegger and that was a big thing.”

The rise of downtown’s Jewish-roots movement gave Mr. Coleman his opening to flourish as a contrarian in the Philip Roth mold. Let others rhapsodize about their grandparents’ accents or the clarinet-driven dance rhythms of klezmer; Mr. Coleman released a couple of dissonant, dissident albums under the moniker “Selfhaters” on Mr. Zorn’s Tzadik label, which, admirably, seems to have a place for “Radical Jewish Music” of all stripes. And Mr. Coleman has gotten on the folkloric bandwagon himself. Ignoring klezmer and the European Ashkenazic culture that produced it, he’s championed the music of the Sephardim of Spain and North Africa, producing two lovely, ruminative trio albums in the process, Sephardic Tinge and Morenica .

So what does this new Sephardic conception have to do with Duke Ellington? Mr. Coleman’s original idea for the Knitting Factory gig was to do Ellington tunes like “Caravan” and “Conga Brava,” a birthday card from one ersatz-Latinist to another. Too facile, he decided. He’s still working through the Sephardic-Ellington thing, but my guess is a future Tzadik album proclaiming Duke as a Radical Jew. Given Ellington’s multiplicity and universality, you could make a case for it.

Now Hear This …

For those who like their Ellington straight up, the Scottish tenor saxophonist Tommy Smith has a new album ( The Sound of Love , on Linn), a gig at Birdland (April 28) and a most voluptuous way with a Ducal ballad.