Radical Rhythms: Ellington and his Centenary

Against the Current, No. 81, July/August 1999

Kim Hunter

“We should set aside a day. All the musicians should get together and get on their knees to Duke Ellington.”
—Miles Davis

WHERE WOULD THE 20th century be without Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington? Answering that question is just as difficult as assessing his legacy. Nonetheless, assessment is inherent in much of the celebration of Ellington and his legacy in this, the 100th anniversary year of his birth.

The folks who handed out the Pulitzer Prizes this year have tried to make up for the racist assessment of the 1965 Pulitzer Board. Even though members of the committee who hand out the prize wanted to give it to Ellington, the Pulitzer board denied him the music prize that year because jazz, the only art music spawned in the United States, was “unsuitable” for the Pulitzer.

With characteristic aplomb, Ellington attributed the board’s action to fate not wanting him to become “famous too young.” Ellington was 66 at the time. Throughout his career life, he exhibited the same sophistication, wit and dignity that characterized reaction to the Pulitzer snub.

Ellington was honored posthumously this year with a Pulitzer. He was in effect honored a few years ago when Wynton Marsalis won the Pulitzer for the monumental “Blood on the Fields,” a work with a heavy and obvious Ellington influence.

But there have been precious few jazz musicians of any stature who have escaped Ellington’s influence. Even those who don’t appear to be claim to be under his spell. No matter the style, from the cutting edge piano work of Cecil Taylor to the neo-conservative likes of Wynton Marsalis, all owe an incredible debt to the composing and arranging talents of Ellington.

It was that talent that certified, as much as anything could, that a swinging blues band could make art. Even George Gershwin, who had his own battles getting his art accepted, once said that if he could put his name to any piece of music that he’d choose Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss.”

It is difficult to get a good perspective on Duke Ellington because we are so close to him and he looms so large, and because of the sheer volume and diversity of his work.

His career began not long after the inception of jazz itself when Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and the like were in the process of inventing the solo. It ended in 1974, fifteen years after Ornette Coleman birthed the avant-garde. Miles Davis had integrated electronic tonalities into the music and jazz was being taught in many major universities across the country and around the world.

Sound of the Century

The piano may have been Ellington’s first instrument but the orchestra was his primary instrument. He had a unique and unusual way of deciding which instrument would be highlighted, often giving the main melody line to the lower register instruments (such as the baritone sax) but having them play in upper register.

This would leave the instruments usually heard playing the melody free to create all sorts of unusual harmonies. Such unusual “voicings,” combined with the band’s stellar musicianship and compositions that were often decades ahead of their time, created the Ellington sound.

All of this might have gone unnoticed in the early years if the band hadn’t been able to swing so hard. They had to. They, like all the early great jazz bands, made art music that was dance music.

Ellington composed thousands of works over six decades all the while maintaining working, touring bands of anywhere from twelve to twenty top notch players. Wynton Marsalis has said “It makes you want to cry when (you visit the Smithsonian) and see all the stuff he wrote knowing all the other things he had to do as well.”

Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra have been touring the country celebrating Ellington’s 100th with a series of magnificent all-Ellington concerts. I was fortunate enough to experience the ensemble in when they came through Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The band swings relentlessly and manages a marvelous replication of the early Ellington sound from the lush trombone section to fine imitations of the watershed stylings of trumpeter Cootie Williams and alto saxist Johnny Hodges.

Hodges, the most famous of all the great Ellington players, was unparalleled when it came to playing slow, erotic ballads. His sound was described as “a silk negligee laid across a chair in a candle lit room.”

Ellington often wrote music specifically to showcase the sound of a particular player. For Hodges, he wrote “Warm Valley” and “Jeep’s Blues,” among others. “Concerto for Cootie,” written for the aforementioned trumpeter, later became the “Do Nothing `Til You Hear From Me” when lyrics were added.

Cootie Williams replaced the great Bubber Miley, king of the growling muted trumpet. It was Williams who helped establish Ellington’s “jungle” sound in the early years and inspired Ellington to pen such masterpieces as “The Mooch” and “East St. Louis Toodle-oo.”

The list of great players who played and or stayed with Ellington is remarkable in and of itself. Clark Terry, Louis Bellson, Russell Procope, “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Pee Wee Russell, Ben Webster, Juan Tizol, and Paul Gonzalves are but a few names from the Who’s Who jazz list of players that worked with the band over the years.

Some of those years were lean indeed, but Ellington managed to hold things together. The band survived on royalties in the early fifties as big band dances declined. Television was beginning its grim ascent and rock and roll was being discovered by white youth all over the country.

Regardless of the waning popularity of big band jazz, great players came to Ellington because of his obvious genius and because he worked to establish a creative atmosphere that made great things possible.

It is, for instance, unimaginable that Billy Strayhorn, one of the best songwriters of the century, could have worked extensively with anyone other than Ellington. No other big band leader had the flexibility to include works as complex as Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” or “Passion Flower.”

Ellington considered himself to be a serious composer even in the early days. So he looked and listened for other serious musical composers such as Strayhorn. Ironically, it was Strayhorn and not Ellington himself who wrote “Take the A Train,” the work most heavily associated with the band.

Ellington also collaborated musically with his long time business manager Irving Mills. Trombonist Juan Tizol was inspired to write “Caravan,” which became one of the many standards birthed out of the Ellington organization.

Later, Ellington would inspire—and record with—the likes of Charles Mingus, Max Roach and John Coltrane. Not only did he willingly seek out these younger, more modern musicians who had come of age in the bebop 1940s, but held his own without drastically changing his style because he was so open and forward looking.

Ellington updated “Sentimental Mood” in a recording with the saxist Coltrane. Ellington managed to transform and utterly modernize the work with a simple five- or six-note piano introduction that haunts rest of the track.

He managed to create one of the best records of the century in a trio of sessions with drummer Roach and bassist Mingus. Throughout “Money Jungle” Ellington displayed the angular, dissonant energy that had inspired another pianist, the great Thelonious Monk to create some of the most innovative and distinctive music of the century.

There are plethora of books, reissued recordings and web sites where you can further research the work and life of Ellington, get the details of his life and his myriad influences. I suggests you begin with the records. That is also where you end up as well.

Asking where the 20th would be without Ellington is tantamount to asking where would the century be without jazz itself. Quite simply, it is unimaginable.

ATC 81, July-August 1999