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Meet New Duke: Brian Q. Torff on Everything Ellington

Brian Q.Torff, Jazz bassist and New Duke director spoke to TGNR about their project: introducing Duke Ellington’s sound to a new generation.



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TGNR: Regarding a Jesuit university, and I am obviously very biased as an alumni of Loyola Chicago, it was a very special experience specifically for the undergraduates. We experienced the product of what Ignatius of Loyola initiated; essentially the beginning of the Western model of education. What about Fairfield University and the Jesuit Order did you find so appealing, as opposed to anywhere else you could have possibly taught?

BT: Well, I am an educational back-door man.

TGNR: How would you define that?

BT: Do you know what a back-door man is? It’s not the nicest term. The husband would leave, and the other guy would enter through the back door.

TGNR: I got it.

BT: In a way, I kind of came in the backdoor. I went to Fairfield at a time where they were teaching virtually no courses in American popular music. So they gave me the keys to the car and said you take off, and I did. I began with a Jazz ensemble curriculum and basically said we have to tell the whole story. Not just the European side. One thing lead to another, and here I am teaching Jazz, and Rock, and all this kind of stuff.

I really respect the emphasis on education and on the mind. I am half Jewish, and that background is also one I feel is very much inside me. Even though I am not terribly religious or spiritual.

TGNR: In my experience, I found the modern Jesuits to be very inclusive.

BT: Yes, yes. The idea of being in the physical body, but also having the mind being consistently developed. So I found that attractive when I started to teach at Fairfield. Social justice is extremely important. Sometimes it can be misused and misguided I think depending on how its being used. Though I think ultimately we ask the bigger questions, and that’s in my teaching. My father was a pro bono civil rights lawyer in the 1950’s in Illinois. Illinois has a history of being one of the most racist places the country has ever known.

So I think that is part of who I am.

When students get me as a teacher, they’re not just getting a course in music. They’re getting a course in American history, race, and politics. I have to bring it all in, because if you don’t you’re missing the picture. You really are. I am passionate about teaching in a holistic way. You can talk about Hendricks, or Dylan, or Miles, or Duke. Though if you don’t examine the context of their lives, you’re missing the picture.

“New Duke is Brian Torff’s vision. His excellent arrangements are challenging, hip, creative, and meaningful. I am really proud to be part of this musical family. I like to think Duke himself would be pleased.” – Darryl Tookes of New Duke, and albums such as “Travels Of An Ordinary Man”, “Red Bird”, and countless other master works.

TGNR: Though the greater aspect of his world view and work is not terribly important to our conversation as a whole, are you familiar with the military historian, political commentator, philosopher, and master of Classical studies, Victor Davis Hanson?

BT: No.

TGNR: Long story short, he is THE master in Classics study. Greek and Roman literature, politics, warfare, the whole deal. He is an authority on that period of human history.

Some time ago he co-authored a book called, “Who Killed Homer: The Demise Of Classical Education And The Recovery Of Greek Wisdom” It was about the lack of teaching the Classics in primary and secondary education. I know this to be true, because I did not encounter Classics studies until I arrived at university.

In my personal experience, music and the curriculum in music prior to the university level I felt it was limited. We learned a lot of holiday related music as it pertained to many religions, and we also experienced a lot of Broadway. These are of true value, no doubt. Yet it is hardly the whole picture.

How do you feel the standard K-12 curriculum can be enhanced beyond the otherwise limited purview of music education today?

BT: Wonderful question. Well, I am 61 years old, so I come from an education background, and I feel that whether it’s back then in my time, or your time, or a younger time, we have totally let down and failed at American culture and its music in terms of K-12. Yes its great to have a marching band, a jazz band, and an orchestra. That’s all wonderful, but we still fail to teach our culture and our heritage. You will play a piece by Duke Ellington in your Jazz band, and no one will say two words about who Duke Ellington was. It was no different in my time.

Muddy Waters lived right in the town right next to us. I grew up in Hinsdale, and Muddy Waters eventually moved out to Westmont. Did we ever talk about Muddy Waters in school? No. Did we ever bring him in to talk to the students? No. So we are a wonderful country that is always creative, but it always devalues culture, devalued our own American voice, and we suffer from social amnesia. It’s never changed. It’s never changed.

So what can I say? Education is very cyclically oriented, so we intensely teach to the test. Math and science! Math and science! You have seen it. Occasionally we hear that music is really good. You have heard it all.

We have created this array of wonderful American art of all kinds. It should be part and parcel of every curriculum in the United States, in addition to every subject we teach. They do it in others counties. You never have to lecture the French about their food, their music, their wine, their art.

TGNR: They lecture you!

BT: Yes! They’re going into the Louvre at the age of two or three years old. I am not exaggerating. So I think we have a lot of re-evaluating of who we are, and what we have done. Because what you just said is important. It’s not until college that you encounter these things. It’s not until college that most of my students realize American music is pretty much black music. You know that, you have a father who is a master student of music.

TGNR: I would say it was part of the mandatory curriculum growing up in that household, among other things…

BT: Exactly, but you have an unusual background.

TGNR: I have unusual parents!


BT: You do!

So we need to provide that service to our students in this country. So when they come into the world they’re a better audience, more aware individuals of who we are, and what we have done. They shouldn’t have to get it from me in their senior year of college. It shouldn’t take that long. I am sure there are schools that do this to a certain extent, though overall we have done a very poor job of teaching this.

TGNR: There is something from history that I believe you will appreciate as such an accomplished Jazz historian, and one who appreciates that immense menagerie American culture has generated in the 20th century specially.

Historically in totalitarian governments, and for this case we will use an example most people are familiar with; The Third Reich. Nazi Germany strictly outlawed the playing of American Jazz. What was so powerful about it that they found the need to completely outlaw it? Completely forbidding citizens to listen to it, and brutally enforcing that policy.

BT: Firstly they termed it, “Judeo-Negroid Music.” They saw it as a threat because it encourages the individual to think for themselves, to improvise, and to encourage the concept of freedom as an ideal in their own lives. That is precisely what a totalitarian regime does not want.

So lets circle back to Ellington. Someone asked Ellington, “can you define American music?” He said, “Freedom in sound.”

TGNR: Yes!

BT: That is what we do. Freedom in sound. It’s no wonder that the Nazi regime had Gestapo officers standing there in the dance hall making sure you didn’t break out into music that encouraged free thinking.

TGNR: In the end, would it be fair to say that based on the nature of Jazz as you described it; a destructive element in a totalitarian society, the encouragement of free thinking, that those elements were ultimate what attracted you to Jazz?

BT: Yes. I think underneath all of that which I couldn’t perceive because I was too young. Though I think I was attracted to it because I like living the life of the improviser. I like not having a set score. I respect classical music, and I admire greatly classic composers. Though I think I need to put my own line on the score. Call it evil, or stubbornness, or rebellion, or whatever it happens to be. I was attracted to Rock, Blues, and Jazz for that reason because I felt like the American experience is one of the improviser.

We imagine the destiny. You’re imagining your destiny as a writer with your website. You’re imagining and realizing your own destiny. That is to me what the American experience is all about. It’s possible if you’re willing to work for it.

TGNR: The way I am going to round this up has to with Ellington, it has to do with you, it has to do with everything. I believe his last credited words were to the effect, “Music was my life, and that’s always what I’ll be remembered for.”

It’s clear that a man like Duke Ellington is one that you have immense reverence for, given your profession and the life that you live. Does Brian Torff retire? Or does he just move on to the next word?

BT: I will never retire! When you love passionately something like music, its your life. Its not a job. Ellington was asked many times, “Are you going to retire?” To which he responded, “Retire to what? I’m sure stagnation ain’t gonna look good on me.”

TGNR: Neither you nor Ellington could tolerate stagnation.

BT: Oh no! So I have this conversation with other people, and they can’t wait to retire. They’re just waiting until 65 comes along, and they can retire. I don’t feel that way at all. I love teaching passionately, I love playing passionately, I love writing. Hearing it played back, or performing it. I may redirect things as I get older, but to me retirement is just not an option when your job is your life.

TGNR: I can certainly understand that.

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TGNR: For the benefit of the reader who may not be familiar with you personally; I want to share an anecdote that my father remembers with great fondness in the countless conversations you had together over many years. If he didn’t ask you 5,000 questions in that time, he did not ask you one.

With great respect and admiration he asked you, “If you were in charge of a major recording label in 1964, and the Beatles had crossed your desk, would you have signed them?”

You sat back and gave it deep thought, and you gave a very honest answer. You said, “No.” I feel with great conviction that answer embodies the sincerity and integrity of the man sitting across the table from me right now. I would like to believe it gives deeper gravity to the reader regarding the wonderful conversation and immense insight you have shared this afternoon.

TGNR: As a rule – because you have been so generous with your time today – and of course promotion, promotion, promotion. Always show the product. Why should the reader come see you perform? Why should they explore your discography of work? Why should they buy your previous published autobiography, as well as your upcoming work? I always like to give the plug.

BT: I think what a composer does and what a writer does is add responsibility. Their responsibility is telling the reader what they should know. That is our job, and this is my job. So I think if someone goes to a New Duke concert, they will not only be entertained and enjoy the night, they will become more informed by the end of it. They might walk away curious and say, ‘Hmmm… I didn’t realize that!’ I’ll go! Its all about the start. Its all about the start, Paul.

When I write, there are better writers than I am, I try to do my best. If I feel that if I have a talent for something, I must shine that light. I must say, ‘look at that!’ ‘Let’s do something about that,’ ‘let’s think about that.’ That is what I have to offer. It isn’t about popularity, or being in vogue,  or anything like that. It is my vision.

TGNR: Duke Ellington’s legacy in one sentence? If that’s possible…

BT: He inspired us to do better, and to keep going forward.

TGNR: Awesome. Thank you for your time Brian. It has been a wonderful hour speaking with you.

BT: Absolutely to you Paul. Thank you.

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Paul K. DiCostanzo is the Managing Editor for TGNR. He is a noted public speaker, an emerging historian of the Second World War, a vocal advocate for Crohn’s Disease/Ulcerative Colitis, and highly regarded interviewer. Paul K. DiCostanzo is Co-Host for the A.D. History Podcast. The A.D. History Podcast explores world history of the last 2000 years in an unprecedented fashion; with each episode covering a 10 year period beginning in 1AD, until reaching the present day. Ultimately finding the forgotten, as well as overlooked threads of history, and weaving a tapestry of true world history. Paul is author of the reader submitted Q&A column: WW2 Brain Bucket. The Brain Bucket answers readers submitted questions on all things regarding the Second World War. Paul has served as Managing Editor for TGNR since March 2015. Prior to TGNR, Paul has a background in American National Security and American Foreign Policy.