Duke Ellington. ‘Nuff said! The most difficult aspect of writing this post is the wealth of innovative, quality music Duke Ellington produced throughout his career. Rightly so, there exists miles of shelving dedicated to the study and analysis of his music. But, hey-ho, wasn’t this the purpose behind my Reasons To Be Cheerful series? To cut through the academia (not completely, I hasten to add) and just briefly riff on the meat which cheers me up? It seems to me that the majority of what makes Ellington’s music so great is all to do with the company he kept…
1. The Great Originator
Ellington saw the light when he first heard Sidney Bechet play in 1921. “The great originator,” as Ellington called him, would later go on to join him on the bandstand in the mid 20s, albeit briefly, performing nightly duals with the growling plunger trumpet of Bubber Miley.
However it was Ellington, and the musicians in his orchestra, who would go on to have the greatest influence over jazz as a whole. Here are some examples of the pioneering Ellington…
In 1927 he was the first to use the human voice “as an instrument” – with the gorgeous, sighing, growling tones of Adelaide Hall on Creole Love Call. Later he would create similar effects with Kay Davis’ coloratura soprano.
Ellington was the first to use echo chambers when recording his orchestra. Today such a technique is taken for granted with big band recordings. In 1938 Johnny Hodges’ solo on Empty Ballroom Blues was recorded in this fashion.
Ellington and his orchestra, way before be-bop, were making extensive use of the flatted 5th. Listen to Bubber Miley’s solo on the Victor recording of Black And Tan Fantasy and hear for yourself a delicate use of this blues note. This is from 1927!
With Harry Carney Ellington created a space for the baritone sax.
The history of jazz bass is part of the history of Ellington’s orchestra. There is a straight line of development from the first recording with amplified bass – Hot And Bothered with bassist Wellman Braud in 1928 – to Jimmy Blanton who, around 1940, made the bass into the instrument it is today.
Most significantly Ellington anticipated by decades the paradoxical profession of the jazz composer. He was the only one, between 1925 and 1945, composing on the level jazz compositions are written today.
2. He Introduced Me To Ben Webster
In 1928 Johnny Hodges joined Ellington’s band and with him he brought that sound, that alto sax lusciousness: warm, expressive vibrato, a viscous flow of blended, glissando-fashion melody.
7 years later Ben Webster joined, and he would later praise Hodges as a key influence on his playing. Citing Alyn Shipton’s superb A New History Of Jazz (what I love about this encyclopaedic volume is that it does read like a British take on the History of jazz. I can’t quite put my finger on why this is. Maybe it’s because of the substantial pages dedicated to the strictly Euro musicians/styles, but I suspect it’s more to do with Shipton’s reluctance to fall foul of the excessively floral language which diminishes many American writers’ work) Webster learnt from Hodges…
“…How to hold a single note for several beats – sometimes several measures – adding passion to it with a shake, a terminal vibrato, or by edging up to it in a miniscule glissando, and he alternated such lengthy notes with choppy up-tempo passages, in which he particularly favoured brief chromatic downward runs, or repeating a phrase while simultaneously moving it up or down a half tone.”
Whitney Balliett wrote in 1958 that Webster played with “a subtle poignancy.” I personally don’t think there was anything particularly subtle about Webster’s poignant playing style. Even when performing up-tempo swinging numbers his sound smacks of melancholy – hopeful at times, tense with a bubbling, creeping intensity, but always with an air of sorrow. A whole era of the Ellington band is dedicated to Webster and bassist Jimmy Blanton (just listen to Jack The Bear from 1940 to hear the tremendous impact of Blanton’s bass on the Ellington ensemble) – the Blanton-Webster band of 1940 to 1942 – regarded by many to be the golden period of the Ellington orchestras. Whilst I disagree with this, I have Ellington’s orchestra to thank for introducing me to the world of Ben Webster.
We have trains to thank, those rectangular, metal cases for humans on wheels, for a huge portion of Ellington’s work. Aside from the drivers very few people would have spent as much time as Ellington on trains. The long haul journey became a refuge for him, a monastery for his musical mind…
“When I board a train peace descends on me, the trains metallic rhythm soothes me. The fireman plays blues on the engine whistle – big, smeary things like a goddam women singing in the night.”
One might initially imagine the extra brilliance of Ellington’s work had he been able to fly by private jet, always returning with ease to a quiet personal study back home. Then you realise that it was the ever-present chugging of the train, the screaming of the engine and the general presence of noisy humanity that contributed to the warmth and personal character of Ellington’s music. It’s why we love it. It’s not sanitised.
4. And His Mother Called Him Bill
Duke already had classical influences and ambitious musical aims. You only have to admire the polish and finesse that he’d developed in his 1930s compositions compare to the music his bands played in the 1920s. Whilst there were seedlings in his 1920s compositions (e.g. Black and Tan Fantasy, probably my favourite Ellington number, with that dark blues theme and explicit Chopin Funeral March quote) the 1930s saw Ellington develop his use of harmonic texture and tone-colours, evident in such pieces as Mood Indigo and Lazy Rhapsody.
Yet Billy Strayhorn brought something more to the table, an advanced classical influence to the music of Ellington whilst still taking in to account the 4 elements which define jazz – 4/4 swing (fast, medium and slow), the blues, the romantic ballad, and Afro-Hispanic rhythms. These are the fundamental elements to jazz (an obsession with complete re-invention, having classical influences outweigh the direct line of jazz and unadulterated improvisation do not equate to jazz I’m afraid) and both Ellington and Strayhorn understood this.
Here are a couple of examples of Strayhorn’s classical touch within the Ellingtonia tradition…
5. F*@K Dance, Let’s Art
This was written in 1946…
‘Legendary’ British jazz critic, Charles Fox, wrote this. Lazy nonsense with a hidden agenda attached. Fox obviously has a touch of the Philip Larkin’s about him – and unfortunately you get the impression he prefers black musicians to be smiling down from the stage. Stanley Crouch summed up Ellington’s career perfectly when he said, “Ellingtonia is a mountain range,” as opposed to one singular ascending and descending peak.
It’s the line “travesty of earlier triumphs” that really gets my goat. Was Fox trying to say that Ellington should have evolved more by 1946? (MORE?!) Or was he trying to say Ellington relied far too much on signature effects? Such sounds produced by plungers, growling, wah wahing, train imitations etc. Techniques mastered under his watch by musicians paid out of his pocket. He was the greatest American artist of the 20th Century, and by 1946 that should have been obvious to any jazz writer worth his salt. Such a statement just doesn’t have any substance, and I suppose I fear such words in the wrong hands, simply because of their age, might be given weight.
Great soloists were never absent from Ellington’s bands and in Hy’a Sue of 1947 (one year after the above quote) the band recorded one of its best blues. With the tragic loss of Tricky Sam, Tyree Glenn took over the trombone chair and his plunger trombone conjures the image of a great blues singer, such as the great Big Bill Broonzy. Hodges is also on fire, both in his obbligato to Glenn and in his solo passages, which sound like the very essence of the blues.
Ellington loved his adopted home of New York (a point often noted in the titles of his work), and it was a passionate love affair that culminated with Harlem in 1950. The opening plunger-muted trumpet recalls Bubber Miley with its minimalistic, alternating two-note opening phrase. Such musical loyalty is to be respected, not slighted.
One characteristic of the Blanton-Webster era that draws plaudits is its explorations of Afro-Hispanic rhythms – pieces such as Conga Brava and The Flaming Sword. Such musical venturing was further developed and perfected in the 60s and 70s, with albums and suites such as Afro-Bossa, the Far East Suite and Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.
I agree with Crouch when he writes that Ellington’s strongest band was between 1956 and 1968. The life experiences of Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Ray Nance to name but 3 brought an increased depth to the emotive musical assignments they performed. Just listen to the Newport record of 56. Such carefree ensemble brilliance could only have been performed by men passed middle age, men who had played every note in every register in every key for decades. I won’t go on about Newport, just watch this. Paul Gonsalves!!!!
Extra: My Tribute
Here is my solo arrangement of Mood Indigo. Enjoy…