process quotations

Duke Ellington, Deadlines and Attribution

I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.

—Duke Ellington

Here’s a deadline: publish something inspired by Duke Ellington’s quote above by the end of the day today.

Each morning for the past month or so, I have been picking a quote as my parting thought for the end of a thirty-minute session of free writing via Zoom with the D.C. Writers’ Salon. This “morning poppins” ritual started with the pandemic — 560 days ago — but I only recently took over facilitation and quote curation from the Salon’s founder, Ali Cherry, when her schedule changed in August.

This routine gives me an opportunity to mine the collection of quotes, writing prompts, and odd fragments of language and inspiration I’ve been collecting over the years. Sharing these fragments with other people reawakens the language and I find that I have more questions, more desire to explore the concept and author than there is time for in the closing moments of our Zoom sessions. Today’s quote from Ellington inspired me to set a deadline for this blog post. Perhaps I’ll keep writing on the daily quote in the days ahead.

Ellington’s name and face are all over my neighborhood, the U Street corridor in D.C. He was one of the major figures of the jazz age that thrived here on “Black Broadway.” I pass the apartments he lived in and the remnants of clubs, hotels, and theaters he performed at a century ago.

I don’t know what deadlines Ellington faced, or what kind of creative blocks and distractions he confronted when he didn’t have a deadline, but I imagine a big concert or recording session coming up in a day or two would help anyone’s creativity flow out of necessity. I know I’ve found academic deadlines and filing deadlines for arts opportunities to be highly motivating.

In recent years, Ellington’s legacy has been complicated by questions of authorship. Many elements of his most famous works can be traced to his collaborators and bandmates. Sometimes he “bought” these songs for an insignificant sum, other times he transcribed the way a player in his orbit improvised a solo, giving the public the impression that the sound was Ellington’s alone. The charitable view is that this was the birth of “remix culture,” or was a continuation of eons of artistic collage and borrowing that predates the advent of the modern record industry.

Certainly some of what Ellington was doing when he was not on deadline was listening to and absorbing what his peers were doing; jamming with friends; assembling ideas in his mind, if not on paper. When the deadline came, perhaps all that was left to do was to spill everything out on paper.

But a deadline is no excuse to cut corners, and it is never cool to present your colleagues’ ideas as your own. Those less-famous, less-compensated players and arrangers who walked these same D.C. sidewalks do not have statues, murals, plazas, bridges and schools named for them today: Billy Strayhorn, Jimmy Rowles, Lawrence Brown and many, many others.

And here, I must cite my own sources by giving credit to write-ups of Terry Teachout’s book Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington from Maria Popova, Alex Belth, and Adam Gopnik. All three are worth a read, and I am curious to pick up the book itself soon.


Welcome to the Conversation

Last week I posed a question without answering it: “What is the conversation you want to be having?” (or, “What conversation do you want to be a part of?”).

I drafted an answer as part of that post before realizing that (a) the question part was plenty long and deserved to stand on its own, and (b) my answer would be a long and rambling one. The answer wasn’t the second half of one blog post, and it isn’t this blog post. The answer would be all the blog posts to follow, all of the work to follow. 

But I do have ideas about this conversation I want to be a part of. It is sure to evolve — as all sustained conversations do — but for starters it will be a conversation about art and commerce, surviving vs. thriving as an artist, collaboration, creativity, politics and friendship. It’s about everything we wrestle with when we struggle to express ourselves: honesty, misunderstanding, anxiety, silence, noise, attention. These ideas are coming together now as I work to build out this website as an intentional coming-together of commercial work and artistic collaborations in to dialogue on this website in order to strengthen both.

But this conversation will also be about history, books, film, and music. It will be a conversation that jumps from storytelling to practical advice, and from cultural criticism to poetry.  

How we talk about ourselves and what we talk about lead to different relationships, different outcomes. Where we talk is just as important. Picture the different modes of conversation in each of these places: 

  • a loud restaurant
  • the back row of a hushed movie screening
  • in bed
  • walking the city
  • on a stage with two chairs before a large audience 
  • in a Facebook thread, or on Twitter
  • from a high window to the sidewalk below
  • in essays published months or years apart

I arrange my apartment to be a welcoming place for conversation. There are books, art and plants surrounding comfy places to sit. When I host a group of friends, I make coffee and set out snacks. These are choices that allow the conversation I want to be having to take place. This website is also an intentional space. It takes a bit of effort to get here from your usual hangouts, the din on Twitter, the hurly-burly of Facebook, so thanks for making your way over. Hang up your coat. Join the conversation.


What is the Conversation You Want To Be Having?

This was my friend Danny’s question to me years ago when I was struggling to balance my identity as both an artist and a consultant. To find clients, it seemed necessary to put my most commercially valuable experience out there front and center. Coding, project management, Photoshop and digital marketing were far more likely to pay the rent than experiments in situationist-inspired speculative fiction. If I could only get enough attention for the work I was not excited about, then I could start doing the work I was excited about. Or so went my faulty reasoning.

A few years later, I was having one of the kinds of conversations I want to be having. I was talking to a new friend, Garnette, at a writers’ residency. He was pressing me on certain things that I felt were holding me back as a writer. The constant need to sell my more commercial skills came up again. But I also spoke of the tiny market for creative writing and how this scarcity crept in to the writing process, even when my instinct was to be more experimental. Though almost no one is making a living off writing, it is hard not to keep in mind conventions about acceptable styles, word counts and book formats. Garnette’s advice was twofold. One: write the book you want to write. And two: writers succeed as part of a conversation. The conversation is the goal. Publishing, relationships, opportunities all flow out from the conversations you engage with. The most important question to answer is, “what conversation do you want to be a part of?”