by Maurice Peress
Paradigm Publishers (2015)
Dvořák to Duke Ellington:
A Conductor Explores America’s Music and its African American Roots
by Maurice Peress
Oxford University Press (2004)
In preparing a remembrance of Maurice Peress for the Final Chorus column published this February I was intrigued by a description of his 2004 book, Dvořák to Duke Ellington, which traces a direct teacher-to-student line from Antonín Dvořák, during his visit to America, to Gershwin, Copland, and Ellington. I sought it out and found it so enjoyable that I also quickly read his more recent memoir, Maverick Maestro. In addition to being an accomplished conductor, Peress was also a gifted storyteller.
Dvořák to Duke Ellington does much more than trace the educational path of its catchy premise. Peress uses that arc to relay to us all of the history he excitedly discovered while doing research for the several re-creation concerts that marked his late career.
He lays out the importance of African-American notables such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Will Marion Cook, and especially James Reese Europe whose work he grew to know intimately while preparing a recreation of Europe’s 1912 Clef Club Concert at Carnegie Hall. That concert came less than twenty years after Antonín Dvořák’s famous statement that America’s musical contribution to the world would come from its black citizens. The Clef Club concert was a moment of artistic achievement for the intelligentsia that would go on to create the Harlem Renaissance. The music performed proudly incorporated ragtime and held the promise of jazz to come.
Many jazz histories give us New Orleans and Storyville in lurid detail while giving only passing mention to those, primarily in the North, who were struggling to blend artistic respectability with their own cultural heritage. This book presents this hard to find history in an engagingly nonacademic way and is worth seeking out just for this section.
Peress also conducted 60th and 90th anniversary concerts to commemorate Paul Whiteman’s famous 1924 Aeolian Hall debut of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. In his effort to recreate the actual sound of the original he had to strip away the symphonic orchestration of the piece that has been lodged in the communal public mind since the ’40s and even train his musicians away from instrumental techniques that only developed with the swing period. The discussion of the importance of this event is fascinating.
Mixed in with this history lesson is a memoir of the people and places of his own professional life. His mentor, Leonard Bernstein, features predominantly, as does Duke Ellington for whom he arranged and conducted an orchestral version of Black, Brown, and Beige. His is a unique and important first person perspective on the late 20th century history of jazz respectability and it’s acceptance as high American culture. This is an important—yet at 200 pages, approachable—reference work for the jazz historian.
In 2015, and already with some knowledge of his mortality, Peress published Maverick Maestro which can be more squarely considered a memoir. It is a delightful read and I had finished it within 24 hours. He offers a fascinating account of his childhood and his awakening to music. Knowing that he has told the jazz-related portion of his story already in Dvořák to Duke Ellington he minimizes that part of his professional life and instead gives us a conductor’s memoir focused on classical music and his time with Leonard Bernstein. The re-creation concerts appear only in the final 25 pages.
This is a good thing for the reader of both books. Because he has essentially produced two memoirs, many key moments of his life must be repeated in each. I didn’t double-check but these portions have the feeling of being the word-for-word retelling of stories from one book to the other. Most people will of course not read both. If you have a special interest in the world of symphonies and classical music, or a love of peculiarly American biographies, Maverick Maestro will satisfy. If your interest is in cultural history Dvořák to Duke Ellington is a perfect addition to your shelf.
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