Tara and I had a debate over bandleaders the other day.
We had just gotten back home after watching American Hustle. There’s a song in the movie by Duke Ellington called “Jeep’s Blues,” and a scene in which Christian Bales’ and Amy Adams’ characters commiserate over the great musician’s still recent (at that time) death. The song is exciting and powerful, with a blast of saxophone knocking down the door to kick things off. I’ve only ever had a passing interest in jazz, but man, hearing that tune might’ve just made me a convert. “Who starts a song like that?” Bales wonders aloud.
But the thing is, Duke Ellington didn’t start the song like that. The sax is being played by Johnny Hodges, one of the premier alto saxophonists of the Big Band era. (I really sound like I know what I’m talking about, huh? Thank you, internet!). The song was written to specifically showcase Johnny’s sax skills, and man, does he deliver. Check it out for yourself.
Pretty damn fantastic, huh? Makes me want to slide into a dark booth on a rainy night, sipping classic cocktails while listening to some cool jazz. Tara’s game. Portland has a club called Jimmy Mak’s. We’re totally doing that one of these nights.
Anyway. As good as that song is, the featured musician is Johnny Hodges, not Duke Ellington. So I wondered aloud why bandleaders get all the acclaim. What do they do, really? Stand in front of an orchestra and wave a stick in the air? Do those up-and-down movements even mean anything? It looks to me like they’re swatting at flies. I remember the first time I saw an orchestra play. It was during a field trip in junior high (note to Audrey: this is what we called middle school when we were your age). I watched the guy in the fancy suit gesturing wildly as the music swelled and ebbed, and thought, what a cushy job that bastard has. Like the guy on the tarmac who directs airplanes to their gates, only instead of having a 737 crash through the terminal glass if he makes a mistake, the worst that can happen is the trombone player hits a wrong note. It’s an attitude that has persisted to this day.
And yet, people like Duke Ellington are musical legends, revered to this day. And there are plenty of others. Glenn Miller. Tommy Dorsey. Benny Goodman. Count Basie. Surely, there must be more to their skills than meets the eye.
“There’s more to their skills than meets the eye,” Tara said. “They compose the music, sometimes play instruments themselves, and make sure everybody follows along correctly.”
Hmm. Could it be that I had underestimated the importance of bandleaders all these years? Deciding a bit of research was in order, I turned to Dan Fogelberg. Because when the answers to life’s most important questions are frustratingly out of reach, who else are you going to turn to? And also because one of his biggest hit songs was called “Leader Of The Band.” Would I find meaning in the lyrics to an early 80s pop song?
A quiet man of music
Denied a simpler fate
He tried to be a soldier once
But his music wouldn’t wait
He earned his love through discipline
A thundering, velvet hand
His gentle means of sculpting souls
Took me years to understand
The leader of the band is tired
And his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul
My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man
I’m just a living legacy
To the leader of the band
Hmm. There’s some powerful imagery here. The thundering velvet hand, the sculpting of souls and such. But the leader of the band, in this case, is the singer’s father. I wasn’t quite convinced this wasn’t merely a vocalized litany of daddy issues set to verse. So I turned to the one source that towers above all others. Even Dan Fogelberg.
And Wikipedia describes bandleaders as The leader of a band of musicians…most bandleaders are also performers with their own band. The bandleader role is dependent on a variety of skills, not just musicianship. A bandleader needs to be a music director and performer.
There it was then, in black and white. The mystery was solved. Bandleaders, it turns out, have a lot of balls to juggle at once. They are the ultimate multi-taskers. Talented professionals and natural-born leaders.
I can admit when I am wrong, and will officially go on record and declare this: Duke Ellington was great.
There. I said it.
Now, if I could only figure out why basketball coaches are so respected when all they do is stand on the sidelines in fancy suits while their players are the ones dribbling the ball up and down the court…