The politics of African-American liberation and leadership link the weeping guitar of Prince with the jazz piano of Duke Ellington.
Andrew Scott, Associate Dean of School of Creative and Performing Arts at Humber College, said Prince’s performance of “Mutiny” on the Arsenio Hall Show in 2014, is as politically significant as Ellington leading his big band.
It was a comparison first mentioned by American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis who said in his autobiography that Prince could “be the Duke Ellington of our time if he just keeps at it.”
Scott explored the comparison at the 2018 Liberal Arts and Sciences Interdisciplinary Conference on Oct. 13, which invited faculty from various schools and departments to explore ideas.
Davis’ seminar compared the political impact of the two musicians.
“Unfortunately, Davis’ evaluation was not given truly serious consideration,” Scott said.
The comparison Davis made between Prince, who died in August 2016, and big band conductor Duke Ellington, who died in 1974, was not well received either, he said.
“The comparison here to a pixie-sized, seemingly sexually deviant rock guitar player, was seen as a slap in the face,” said Scott.
Scott said he wanted to look at what Davis saw in Prince’s music.
“I suggest we hold Davis’ pronouncement out there as a possibility, and explore what he may have heard in Prince’s music, and what he may have meant in drawing that comparison,” Scott said.
After showing the performance at the seminar, Scott spoke about Prince’s vocals and the audience.
“In a live performance of Mutiny, Prince consistently defers the privacy of his role as a lead vocalist to what we might call gang vocals. With everyone including the audience adding in various non-verbal’s and incantations to support,” he said.
Scott said there is a connection between Ellington and Prince’s performance of Mutiny.
With Ellington, “his decision I think to stand in front of the big band and conduct rather than to lead the band from behind the piano can really be read as an act of political defiance and representation,” Scott said.
Scott said having Ellington leading the band in front of racially mixed audiences between the 1930s and ‘70s offered the opportunity to see an African-American in a position of power and clear leadership.
That image is similar to Prince’s appearance on the Hall show.
“To see Prince use this hour-long network television broadcast to showcase the expansiveness of his musical offerings, culminating with him leading a nearly 30-member strong ensemble on one of the only African-American-hosted late night television shows, can most certainly be read as an act of political agency,” Scott said.
Paralegal student Jack Chan, 20, said he didn’t realize there were politics involved in Prince’s performance.
“I know a lot of music and performances have hidden meanings in them, but if it wasn’t explained [at the seminar] I wouldn’t have seen the political freedom expressed [in] Prince’s performance,” said Chan.