Ghost Notes: Re-Performing Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder

Darren Mueller (Duke University)

Some jazz performances are haunted. After Duke Ellington’s death in 1974, his orchestra continues to play under the direction of Ellington’s son and grandson. Musicians often refer to such legacy ensembles as “ghost” bands. Other internationally recognized ensembles such as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, The Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra have also attempted historically accurate performances of Ellington’s music. In these performances, Ellington’s original recordings hang like a phantom over the music making onstage. Jazz scholars to date have considered modern re-performances of Ellington music as a form of cultural negotiation. Such work generally critiques Jazz at Lincoln Center, and artistic director Wynton Marsalis in particular, for their attempts to canonize a narrow field of recordings and artists. This conversation, however, largely ignores working musicians who have used the Lincoln Center model to create work. Using ethnographic data gathered in 2011–2012, this paper focuses on the activities of a professional big band in Durham, North Carolina to reconstruct and re-perform Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder (1957). Through participant observation, I examine our attempts at performing Ellington “just like the record” as a cultural practice that brings history into the present through performance. Using performance theorist Diana Taylor’s notion of a performance hauntology—a theory of how historical remnants become audible in contemporary performance—I argue that the history of recording technologies and formats of reproduction are deeply embedded within the daily practices and onstage performances of current jazz musicians.  [Text Originally in the AAA 2013 Program]

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