Source: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (1 ed. 2007; but 2008 Reprint ed. exists). p. 151 Bottom.

There's a wonderful scene in a 1944 New Yorker profile in which Ellington is shown deflating the expectations of an Icelandic music student who tries to nudge him toward the "classical," "genius" category.
The student keeps peppering the master with questions about Bach, and, before answering, Ellington makes an elaborate show of unwrapping a pork chop that he has stowed in his pocket. "Bach and myself [Bold mine]," he says, taking a bite from the chop, "both write with individual performers in mind." With that pork chop maneuver, Ellington put distance between himself and the European conception of genius, though without rejecting it entirely.
Another time he addressed the issue head-on: "To attempt to elevate the status of the jazz musician by forcing the level of his best work into comparisons with classical music is to deny him his rightful share of originality."

  1. What does 'Bach and myself' mean?

  2. What's the significance of the pork chop? Keeping pork chops in one's pockets appear strange to me; it'd dirty, oil, and stain Ellington's clothing.


My own personal interpretation:

  1. He compares himself to Johann Sebastian Bach saying that both wrote music knowing in advance who should play it.

  2. Note that the pork chop is wrapped, so it probably won't let oil and stains on the pants, but the fact that he does this gesture in an explicit way shows that he wants to show a distance with the "European conception of genius". I think that what it is called "European conception of genius" is the idea that a genius should have a clean body and a clean spirit, elegant with good and polite manners, certainly not taking a pork chop right out of his pocket and eating it in front of people and talking and chewing at the same time, with his mouth full.


Bebs answer is right in all essentials, but I wanted to highlight the larger racial context

It's a subtle cultural and political statement. Ellington is insisting on the parity of African-American culture with that of Europe. His admirer thinks he is praising Ellington by comparing him to Bach, and while Ellington doesn't reject the comparison, he makes it clear that he feels jazz is an important idiom in its own right, it is not merely "black classical," a lesser or imitative form of music. When he says "Bach and myself," he is treating the two as equals, engaged in some ways in the same work, but not in a way that requires comparisons between them.

The showy consumption of the pork chop is likewise a demonstration of Ellington's identification with African-American culture, as a pointed refusal to meet the admirer's white, middle-class expectations of a musical genius as a rarefied and removed figure. This is particularly significant, because members of a minority culture experience continual pressure to conform to majority cultural expectations; and this pressure grows as greater success is achieved. Ellington isn't going to wait and eat his pork chop in private in fear that some kid from Iceland might find it gauche.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.