I never suspected that my first letter to the Reader would be about jazz music–something relatively unimportant to me–but I must correct people who are flagrantly wrong, because that is how one makes the world a better place.
In his June 20 review of the 1945 version of The Big Sleep, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “Hawks didn’t even bother to direct the musical numbers in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But that no more diminishes his stature (or the movie’s) than the recent revelation that Billy Strayhorn actually wrote a lot of Ellington’s best tunes reduces the composer’s greatness (or that of ‘Take the “A” Train’).”
The first point to note here is that the above parallelism is clearly meant to imply that there has been a recent revelation that Billy Strayhorn wrote a lot of Ellington’s best tunes, including “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Only a Philip Queeg, unwilling to admit to the smallest mistake, would try to defend himself by saying something ridiculous like, “Hey, I never said that the recent revelations were about ‘Take the “A” Train’–all I said was that the recent revelations didn’t diminish the status of ‘Take the “A” Train.'”
Having noted this, the obvious question to ask is, “What meaning does Rosenbaum attach to the word recent?”–or, perhaps, “How long ago did Rosenbaum write this article?” Like all culturally literate gentlemen, I own the Verve label reissue (a two LP set) of Ella Fitzgerald singing the Duke Ellington songbook. The notes are by Bob Blumenthal (“a contributing editor to the Boston Phoenix and a regular contributor to Rolling Stone”) and are copyrighted 1980. The album table of contents clearly credits “Take the ‘A’ Train” to Strayhorn, and the Blumenthal notes state equally clearly, “Strayhorn’s ‘Take the “A” Train’ became the Ellington theme shortly after its appearance in 1941 and gained a second life when Ellington recorded a boppish vocal version.”
The year 1980, let us note, was 17 years ago, and in the context of Rosenbaum’s article does not qualify as “recent.” If it were “recent,” the notes would have been to a CD, not to a two LP set. Moreover, although I am only 38 years old, I do not recall any time in my life when people who cared didn’t know that Strayhorn had written the Ellington signature theme.
Jay F. Shachter