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That Time Elvis Presley Dissed Lennie Tristano (Who Surely Had It Coming)

Elvis Presley in 'Jailhouse Rock'

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, at 42. There are countless ways to commemorate the occasion, and you should go with the one that speaks to you.

For my part, I thought about an indelible scene from Jailhouse Rock, his phenomenal MGM film vehicle from 1957.

I’m not talking about the iconic “Jailhouse Rock” set piece, which you can probably conjure in your mind’s eye. I’m referring to a scene in which Presley, as newly rehabilitated ex-con Vince Everett, endures some insufferable parlor talk about the state of modern jazz.

He’s there trying to make a good impression on some record-industry types, who represent the establishment. One look at his body language – slumped on the couch, his face a mask of incomprehensive boredom – tells you most of what you need to know about the interaction. But you should watch the whole clip for the dialogue, which is pitch-perfect.


Here’s a rough transcript of the exchange, as conceived by screenwriter Guy Trosper:

Van Alden party guest #1: “I think Stuffy’s gone overboard with those altered chords, don’t you?

Van Alden party guest #2: “I agree, I think Brubeck and Desmond have gone just as far with dissonance as I care to go.”

Van Alden party guest #3: “Oh, nonsense, have you heard Lennie Tristano’s latest recording? He reached outer space!”

Mrs. Van Alden: “Someday they’ll break the cycle and get back to pure old Dixieland. I say atonality is just a passing phase in jazz music. What do you think, Mr. Everett?”

At this point, Elvis, playing Vince, offers his memorable response. I won’t spoil it here.

And in the interest of an equal say, here is a jazz-trained musician covering an Elvis song, for another hit film, the 2004 rom-com The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. The singer is Norah Jones, accompanied on acoustic guitar by Adam Levy. You know the song. No danger of atonality here.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.