The Duke Ellington Dream

by Paul Zimmer

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

A twenty-three-line poem, Paul Zimmer’s “The Duke Ellington Dream” consists of four stanzas of varying lengths. In free verse that organically echoes the modulating rhythms and tempos of the very jazz it describes, the poem relates a “dream” of the persona, here—as in many of Zimmer’s poems—Zimmer, a daydream in which he plays with Duke Ellington’s band. As in any dream of heroism or excellence, in this fantasy Zimmer is not only a part of the band, he is in the spotlight. To effect this feat, he must also be the one who walks his own way to his own beat, although it both dismays and delights (albeit grudgingly) his idol, mentor, and leader; he must be the perfect but intractable student who learns the lesson so well he outstrips and outshines his teacher and does it with an illimitable supply of “cool.”

The dream begins when Zimmer saunters into a club where arguably the most famous jazz composer and musician of the twentieth century, Duke Ellington, is playing with his band. In his dream, Zimmer is a member of Ellington’s band or perhaps a guest soloist, although that option might be less probable because of Ellington’s obvious disapproval of the way Zimmer casually strolls in late to join in the gig. As Zimmer puts it, “Duke was pissed.” Despite Ellington’s continuing annoyance with him and in clear and unabashed defiance of the bandleader’s huff, Zimmer takes his place with his tenor sax as the other band members quietly but surely move to make room for him. Though the band has evidently been playing for some time, the whole place suddenly comes alive when Zimmer begins to wail Ellington’s tunes from his saxophone while Ellington himself remains stoic and visibly unappeased. Nonetheless, Zimmer’s performance of each song is definitive; he “blew them so they would stay played.”

When he is finished, he calmly packs up his horn to leave only to have Ellington abruptly stop him—the word Zimmer uses is “collar” him—and growl, “‘ZimmerYou most astonishing ofay!/ You have shat upon my charts,/ But I love you madly.’” The dream, which threatened momentarily to become a nightmare, thus ends in the hippest, coolest (to use the jargon of jazz) fashion possible—not with a saccharine approval by Ellington, but with his physical, semiviolent, and almost obscene explosion of appreciation and approbation. The dream is completely satisfactory, psychologically honest, and vividly evocative of the hot and cool ranges traversed by both fantasy and jazz.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

From the first line of “The Duke Ellington Dream,” Zimmer mimics the tone, mood, and rhythms of jazz. “Of course Zimmer was late for the gig,” with its sinuous meter and liquid sounds, provides a jaded and irreverent counterpoint to the guttural notes and sibilance of the second line, with its hard-hammered meter: “Duke was pissed and growling at the piano.” The continual shifting of meter throughout the poem mirrors the ever-changing rhythms of jazz, virtually imitating the various solos of the jazz musicians, from the slamming downbeat of Ellington’s piano to the staccato riffs of the drummers to the curving, circuitous rhythms of Zimmer’s tenor sax. Even the recital of the names of the bandmembers—“Jeep, Brute, Rex, Cat and Cootie”—helps to evoke the sounds and rhythms of the band as they reinforce the aspect of “coolness,” epitomized by Zimmer’s late arrival and the affirmation at the end of the stanza that “the boss had arrived.” Each of these rhythms, sound devices, and tones are present within the first stanza alone, though its overall effect is more laidback than succeeding ones, taking its note from Zimmer’s unhurried, and apparently deliberate, entrance.

The tempo steps up in the second stanza as the focus moves from Zimmer himself to his playing and the impact it has on the “whole joint,” which immediately begins “jiving.” Word choice is important in terms of evocation of atmosphere as well as sound: for instance, the choice of “chicks” for women and “lovelies” for breasts. Significantly, in this stanza the emphasis also moves from softer consonants (s, t, g, p, w, m, b), which dominate the first stanza, to harsher ones (k, st, j, ch), indicative of the increased activity. Only when the focus reverts to Ellington does the beat in this stanza slow down.

By the third stanza, made up almost entirely of the titles of some of Duke Ellington’s most famous songs, “Satin Doll,” “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” “Warm Valley,” and “In A Sentimental Mood,” the rhythm mellows out, sliding easily and effortlessly like the notes from Zimmer’s sax, which “blew them so they would stay played.” Similarly, the vowels and consonants in this stanza are soft and smooth; the only fricatives are softened by close proximity to sibilant or liquid consonants.

The final stanza presents a contrast in its short, businesslike “packing up” at the end of the gig. Once again, the appearance of Ellington alters the rhythm, reintroducing passion with the harsh k sound of “came” and “collared,” the fricative of “ofay,” (a derogatory term for whites), and the hilariously formal past-tense “shat,” which spits out not one but two harsh consonant sounds, the sh and the emphatic final t sound. The final line of the poem, “But I love you madly,” visually the briefest line in the entire poem, which zigzags its way across the page like musical notes on a score, is composed of six syllables, the first five of which must be stressed almost equally to re-create Ellington’s tone and emotion accurately. The poem thus masterfully conjoins meter and sound to sense.

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