book reviews
Janna Tull Steed
Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography
New York, Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999

This is one in the Lives and Legacies series of biographies; the others are of Joan of Arc, Frida Kahlo, and Rumi, so Jazz is not the the primary focus of the series. I believe Crossroads is a religious publishing house, which would account for the spiritual emphasis. The author shows a firm understanding of Jazz, and that helps her provide a good context for the narrative of Duke's life. An excellent example of this is her account of how Duke learned from Bubber Miley "a way of translating sights into sound. The trumpet player would take his inspiration from an advertising sign, a name, an overheard phrase. He'd say the syllables slowly. He'd play around with pitch, inflection, and phrasing. Then Bubber would take up his horn and translate these sounds into riffs that imitated the rise and fall and cadence of the human voice."

Less successful, in my opinion, is the treatment of spirituality. This is a slippery concept to nail down. In the case of Duke Ellington, are we talking about overtly religious activities like the Sacred Concerts or about the inner life and beliefs of the man? If the latter, how are we to know what these were? Duke was, as the author herself is at pains to point out, a very private person, and he did not provide a lot of firsthand testimony about his personal beliefs. So she has to rely on the statements of friends and acquaintances, who could not know Duke's inner mind and could only make surmises about it from his behavior and whatever he chose to tell them. She says, for example, "It was his mother's approval and praise that Duke worked so hard for. It was her faith that had inspired his desires to be great; her ideal love that, once lost, could never be duplicated." These are unverifiable statements, pop psychology platitudes; they have no business in any serious book about spirituality.

The narrative of the Duke's life is straightforward and includes no new revelations. The portrayal of his personality seems rather two-dimensional to me, a litany of favorable traits that minimizes the failings or even makes them seem like the endearing foibles of a noble character. It seems to me that any spiritual biography worth writing requires focusing on the dark side of the personality to study the struggle against demons and temptations. It is only by overcoming these that a person can grow spiritually. Tull Steed has written a couple of hundred pages that tell the facts succinctly and reliably, provide little insight into "the real Duke," whoever he may have been, and add nothing to our understanding of human nature.

by Robert Tate



Jon Cohan
Zildjian: A History of the Legendary Cymbal Makers
Hal Leonard Corporation, 127 pages

Consider this: whether it's a twenty-inch ride with a Jazz group at Yoshi's, a gong in the Sydney Philharmonic, or a Sunday band concert in a park in Indianapolis, virtually every cymbal in the world is a Zildjian. These people must be doing something right, and they've been doing it for over three hundred years. Jon Cohan, with access to family notes, letters, photos, interviews, and visits shows us just how this famous cymbal family has dominated the market for thirteen generations.

Talking about round pieces of metal for 125 pages may not sound like a riveting read, but the family history is liberally sprinkled with anecdotes and quotes from a number of famous Jazz drummers, including, as Benny Barth points out, "more than he's ever seen from Max Roach."

The Zildjian story offers interesting insights, and even mystery and intrigue, which make it more than just a drummer's book. For example, the secret formula which results in that special Zildjian sounda process of heating and mixing metalshas been more closely guarded than the Colonel Sanders recipe of eleven herbs and spices. It was so secret that it wasn't written down until 1941. With his two sons overseas, Avedis Zildjian worried that a tragedy might cause the process to be lost forever. He documented the formula for the first time and kept a copy in a vault in Quincy, Massachusetts, and another at his home. There was attempted espionage, too. At one point someone cut a hole in the roof of the Constantinople foundry and spied on one of the Zildjians to uncover the magical process of fusing the secret alloy, but the attempt was unsuccessful. A cousin, believing he had unraveled the mystery, opened a factory in Mexico, but he miscalculated in the mixing process, a mistake that resulted in a fatal explosion which left his body encased in molten bronze.

Even with a hard copy of the formula, the process is a dangerous one. Despite years of experience, Avedis Zildjian admits to having an explosion once a week. One of the more serious ones sent him to the hospital with severe burns.

Cohan also offers a mini history of Jazz and the role drummers played in the development of cymbals. Armand developed the hi hat, or sock cymbals, which helped change the way the drummer kept time. Previously, it had been press rolls that had kept the beat going. He also credits Gene Krupa for suggesting he make a thinner cymbal, a development that led to the proliferation and acceptance of the cymbals.

The relationship with many famous drummers is well documented as the cymbal became the primary time-keeping part of the drum set. In addition to Max Roach, Buddy Rich, Shelly Manne, and Louie Bellson, Art Blakey, Tony Williams, and Elvin Jones talk about the darker, dirtier sounding K Zildians that became the heartbeat of bebop.

The factory in Massachusetts became a regular meeting place for impromptu jam sessions and visits by famous drummers. With the arrival of the Beatles and the rock explosion, the market expanded yet again. Zildjian found itself with a 93,000 back orders for cymbals, all because of Ringo Starr.

Peter Erskine, who was saddled with a twenty-seven-inch ride when he powered the Stan Kenton band, perhaps sums it up best. "Cymbals are everything to me. Cymbals state the time; cymbals provide the color, the point, and the wash to the music. They are the living breath of drumming in my opinion." Most drummers would agree with Erskine, and we all have the Zildjian family to thank for it.

by Bill Moody

Back to Contents Page
Jazz Now Interactive

Copyright Jazz Now, March 2000 issue, all rights reserved