Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 566

The nonchalance of Zimmer’s entrance counterpoints the obvious professionalism with which Ellington conducts the gig, setting up the first of the tensions that pervade the poem. Naturally, Zimmer chooses the tenor sax as his instrument; after all, it has been called the sexiest of all instruments, not to mention that it is the instrument closest in sound and ability to the human voice and the one that most often serves for the competition with which the jazz singer “duels.” Here the duel, or battle of wills, is not between singer and saxophonist but is the age-old struggle between mentor and student, age and youth, made concrete in the conflict between bandleader and soloist, pianist and saxophonist, composer and musician, Ellington and Zimmer.

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In line with the defiant tone of one of Zimmer’s most frequently anthologized poems, “The Day Zimmer Lost Religion,” “The Duke Ellington Dream” carries the encounter further by having the authority figure—Ellington—actually approach Zimmer with indignation and anger, which the timorous Christ fails to do in “The Day Zimmer Lost Religion.” Rather than ending with separation and alienation from the authority figure, however, this poem ends with Ellington’s passionate approbation of Zimmer, faults included. His anger at Zimmer for his tardiness cannot match his love for his ability to make the music live.

Another major tension of the poem rests on the improvisatory nature of jazz. Here it should be noted that jazz is one of the enduring topics of Zimmer’s poetry. All music is a transient art form that can never be exactly reproduced, but jazz defines itself on the re-creation of tunes and chords through improvisation so that it not only cannot be exactly reproduced but also does not wish to be. Zimmer’s belief that he “blew” Ellington’s songs “so they would stay played” is counter to the belief that jazz should be ever-changing, ever-evolving. The image of a musical composition being caught in stasis is anathema to jazz, though the idea that a particular rendition might be unsurpassable is every jazz musician’s dream; therein lies the tension.

Ellington’s attitude similarly points up a tension in terms of his art form and his personal art. His obvious consternation at Zimmer’s tardiness is not the problem he confronts Zimmer with when he nabs him at the end of the gig. Although in Ellington’s name-calling, the “astonishing” in the phrase “most astonishing ofay” might refer to Zimmer’s cheekiness, the next line—“You have shat upon my charts”—gives it an optional reading or at least stretches Zimmer’s audacity to include his wholesale rejection of Ellington’s arrangements in favor of his own conception of the music. His anger at Zimmer’s improvisation is in direct contrast to the nature of jazz, but Ellington’s loyalty to his art form over his own personal expression of it and his recognition of genius even though it might run counter to his own vision is tantamount in his final avowal to Zimmer, “But I love you madly.”

Humorous as many of Zimmer’s poems are, often primarily because of his habit of referring to himself in the third person, this poem nonetheless addresses significant themes in a significant way. Vigorous, bold, third-person, Walter Mitty-ish, “The Duke Ellington Dream” vividly expresses the desire for excellence, a desire as intense and gratifying as any other.

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