100 years of Duke Ellington

100 years of Duke Ellington:
Diminuendo, crescendo, resonance

By Owen Cordle
copyright © 1999 Owen Cordle
published Feburary 21, 1999 in the Raleigh, NC, The News & Observer

Reflect and analyze all you want: Nobody made music like Ellington.

Duke Ellington lived in a black and white world and wrote music in Technicolor. Indigo, azure, black and tan, black, brown and beige, sepia -- blues of all wavelengths. Blues to be there, Jeep's blues, blue goose, old man blues, misfit blues, bluebird of Delhi, I don't know what kind of blues I got, diminuendo and crescendo in blue.

Lew Keck from Durham -- you see him at every jazz concert in the Triangle with a bagful of record covers to be autographed -- was at Newport '56. That's when the Ellington Orchestra nearly caused a riot.

The excitement began during "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." The tension built during a long tenor saxophone solo by Paul Gonsalves. A platinum blonde in the box seats started dancing, and people stood on their chairs and more dancers erupted near the stage.

"George Avakian [the Columbia Records producer] pulled me up on stage and had me taking pictures," Keck recalled recently. "Gonsalves was on fire."

Ellington spurred the saxophonist on -- 27 straight choruses in all. And it was recorded. Ellington at Newport became one of the legendary albums in jazz. "I'm convinced I was there for a little piece of history," Keck said.

The performance -- it made headlines worldwide -- and the album re-established Ellington's supremacy in jazz. From then until his death in 1974, fans fantasized that the next Ellington performance could start a riot -- and they all had the blues to be there.

1999 marks the Ellington centennial. The bandleader, composer and pianist's work will be resurrected, analyzed, memorialized and commercialized throughout the year. RCA Victor is issuing The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition, a 24-CD set that spans 1927 to 1973. Other labels are following suit. The avid collector will need a forklift, one writer joked.

At home, the Carolina (nee: UNC) Jazz Festival, which begins Tuesday and runs through Feb. 28, includes a scholarly symposium titled "Beyond Category: The Life, Works and Orchestra of Duke Ellington" on Friday. The night before, the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra plays music of Billy Strayhorn, the composer and pianist from Hillsborough who joined the Ellington band in 1939 and stayed until his death in 1967. On April 10 and 11, at Duke Chapel, the NCJRO performs music from Ellington's three Sacred Concerts. (Who can forget the NCJRO's majestic concert of this music four years ago at the chapel?)

Ellington's sound was different from anyone else's, says Mark Tucker, author of Ellington: The Early Years and editor of The Duke Ellington Reader. His writing and his musicians created a sound that stood apart.

"Other groups didn't have trumpeter Cootie Williams, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, nor did they have access to the music Ellington wrote," says Tucker, who will appear at the Carolina symposium along with Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu, conductor and Ellington transcriber David Berger, and others.

"His chord voicings were not conventional for the kind of techniques other arrangers used. He treated the idea of sections more freely. He would voice a single instrument with a totally different section. For example, Juan Tizol's valve trombone in the middle of a group of saxes for a brass-and-reed sound. There was nothing predictable or textbook in the way he wrote for instruments. This extended to the way he put prominent parts where you weren't likely to hear them -- say, in the baritone sax."

Anchor of the band

Harry Carney's resonant, reedy baritone saxophone has been described as the anchor of the band. Carney joined Ellington in 1927 and stayed until the leader's death, then died a few months after the Maestro. On the road, while the rest of the musicians took the band bus, Carney and Ellington rode together in Carney's big Chrysler -- Carney driving, Duke writing or thinking about the next composition.

1927 was a key year for Ellington. The Harlem Renaissance was at its peak, and his ensemble was hired as the house band at the Cotton Club. He had to write music for its exotic floor shows. A radio hookup broadcast his music across the country.

"We don't know how much was written down in the early years," said Tucker, who teaches at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "At the Smithsonian, there are scores dating from the Cotton Club years, the late '20s and early '30s. But the score collection really starts to fill out from the late '30s on."

Over the years, journalists have described the Ellington Orchestra's rehearsals with a neophyte's amazement that the music could be cooked up on the spot, perhaps as a combination of a sketchy score, Ellington's dictation from the piano, and improvised solos and improvised harmony by the musicians. But this part of Ellington has probably been exaggerated, Tucker said. What is surprising is how often Ellington would write out individual solos. "What we often heard on record and thought were improvised solos were actually composed by Ellington himself," Tucker said.

"Ellington was continually recycling melodies and themes from his players and things he had written before. . . . Even if things got used in pieces of the time, they might turn up later."

Ellington loved dissonance, Tucker said. Muted brass and astringent reed voicings. Chromatic lines -- lines that move by half steps -- and tonal eccentricities that stick out. A growl trumpeter who scolds and a wah-wah trombonist who talks and cries. Forget the homogenous sound of other bands. This is the ultimate heterogeneous big band, at once the most primitive and the most sophisticated.

"Duke had a way of getting out of you almost anything he wanted," according to Clark Terry, who played trumpet with the orchestra from 1951 to '59. "When we did A Drum Is A Woman he said to me, 'Sweetie, you going to play the role of Buddy Bolden.'"

Terry protested that he didn't know anything about the early New Orleans trumpeter, who exists in legend but never recorded. And he wasn't sure Ellington knew anything about Bolden either, Terry told the bandleader.

"Oh, sure, we all know about Buddy Bolden," Ellington said. "He was dapper. He was suave, debonair. Always liked to have a nice lady on each arm. And his trumpet playing was just the utmost. He was fond of bent notes. He had a big fat sound and he loved to play diminishes. His sound was so powerful that when he tuned up in New Orleans, he would break glasses across the river in Algiers. Now just play some bent notes and diminishes."

Terry complied.

"That's it, that's it," Ellington said, "You are Buddy Bolden."

A life of charm

"Dapper, suave, debonair . . . a nice lady on each arm" -- Edward Kennedy Ellington could have been describing himself. In Washington, where he was born and lived for the first 24 years of his life, manners were de rigueur among middle-class blacks. Daisy, his mother (who had a high school education -- rare in those days), instilled in him a sense of being special and favored. James Edward, his father (who had been born in Lincolnton) worked as a butler and caterer, occupations that require courtesy, a sharp appearance and, at times, flattery.

In high school, Ellington wavered between music and art as a career. He had already acquired his nickname because of his fashionable clothes and aristocratic bearing. He gravitated toward the social aspects of music -- the parties, attention and girls -- and toward working pianists who could teach him by musical example. Ballroom dancing was becoming popular, and Ellington perfected a skill for promoting himself as a first-class entertainer.

The ability to charm musicians and audiences would serve him well throughout his life. But while it often provided an entree to the white world, it would not earn him full acceptance.

"There's a certain due [white society] gives him," Mercer, his late son, said in a 1991 interview. "But when they say he's the best, they in all probability say he's one of the best colored musicians that ever showed up, implying that if you're thinking white, it's a different category."

Despite the charming appearances, Duke Ellington had faults. He refused to rein in the band's bad boys, Mercer said. "Why does he tolerate Paul Gonsalves being completely drunk and falling on his face out on the stage? He might not have done a great performance on that show, but [Duke] Ellington knew that there was a great performance within him. He could see to it that Paul would rise to the occasion."

The entire saxophone section was capable of showing up drunk, Mercer added. And when it happened, Duke had to palm it off as comedy -- or play a lot of solo piano. "He was confident that no matter what was wrong with the band, he'd find some way to carry it on his shoulders and make it have some purpose of success," Mercer said.

Ellington could have managed his finances better and paid his sidemen better, Tucker said. There are stories of Johnny Hodges, the taciturn lead alto saxophonist with the most sensuous sound (his phrases were like a plunging neckline), pretending to count money when the Maestro looked his way on the bandstand. But those who left the band over money or grievances -- or in good graces -- could never divorce the Ellington band experience and identity. They remained Ellingtonians forever because he had made them more than they had ever been and, in most cases, would ever be again. Being an Ellingtonian was a context for life.

"Musicians also complained that he wrote pieces at the last minute before a record date," Tucker said. "You can hear ragged records of his."

Sometimes such raggedness can make Ellington sound intriguing and avant-garde rather than bad. But then you can hear masterpieces such as "Cottontail," "Main Stem," "All Too Soon" and "In a Mellotone" by the 1939-'42 contingent, known as the Blanton-Webster band (after powerhouse bassist Jimmy Blanton and the volatile tenor saxophonist Ben Webster). Many critics and fans consider this his best band.

In tune with the '60s

The '60s band was incredible, too. The reed section of Hodges, Russell Procope, Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton and Carney, intact since 1955, would last Ellington almost to the end of his life. (Hodges died in 1970, Gonsalves died within days of Ellington, and Carney died five months later.) This is the group that recorded And His Mother Called Him Bill, a tribute to "Sweet Pea" (Billy Strayhorn), whose collaborations with Duke seemed telepathic, and The Far East Suite.

This is the band I saw (from spyglass distance) at Carter-Barron Amphitheater in Washington in the summer of 1967 and at a rodeo arena in Lake Charles, La., two years later. From Lake Charles, I remember musicians wandering on and off stage, a resplendent Ellington, a bored-looking Hodges, several scissors- leaping Gonsalves solos. And intermission, when the famous tenor man reached into his horn case and took a long slug from a paper bag-enclosed bottle. I couldn't have been happier -- these were things I had read about and knew would happen.

Those were troubled times in the country: Vietnam War protests, civil rights demonstrations, street riots, students and political leaders gunned down, drugs and the loss of innocence in rock 'n' roll. And what were they doing to jazz? Granted, she was no sophisticated lady all the time, but neither should she become the bitches brew Miles Davis concocted in 1969.

By the early '70s, when Tucker first heard Ellington live, a young listener could easily miss Ellington's significance. Just another Swing Era band playing golden oldies, the reasoning might go. But the popular songs -- "Satin Doll," "Do Nothin' Til You Hear From Me," "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" -- were just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Ellington had written music for the movies, the concert hall and the cathedral. His long-form concert compositions often failed to please the critics. A great short story writer but a poor novelist, they charged.

He had written extended pieces about "his people" as early as 1942, when he premiered Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America at his first Carnegie Hall concert. In 1963 he had written and staged My People for the Century of Negro Progress Exhibition in Chicago. It contained the songs "King Fit the Battle of Alabam" and "What Color Is Virtue," among others.

"Ellington didn't speak out about civil rights too much in public," Tucker said. "But he addresses it in his music."

And the music is where we must always meet Duke Ellington -- and on his terms.

"Ellington had a thoroughly grounded picture of who he was," Lew Keck said. "There's nothing comparable to that opening salvo from the band. He's simply incomparable."

Listen up

Duke Ellington first recorded in 1924 with the Washingtonians, a group from his hometown, and last recorded in 1973 (Eastbourne Performance, an English concert album on RCA). For 49 years his output included albums with not only his orchestra but also with small groups of sidemen; stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane and Count Basie; and a symphony orchestra. There were also trio albums featuring his piano.

Each Ellington biographer, expositor and scholar lists key albums. Instead of giving you a textbook recap of their entries, I'll take a shot myself based on a small but treasured collection.

Early Ellington: The Complete Brunswick and Vocalion Recordings of Duke Ellington, 1926-193 (GRP). A three-CD set that introduces Ellington's "jungle band" sound and players such as trumpeter Bubber Miley, trombonist Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, New Orleans clarinetist Barney Bigard, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney and drummer Sonny Greer. "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," "Black and Tan Fantasy," "Mood Indigo" and "The Mooche" appear.

In a Mellotone (RCA). A single-album compilation of 1940-42 performances by Ellington's "Blanton-Webster" band (after bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster). Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" (the band's theme song), Duke's "Main Stem" and "All Too Soon," and valve trombonist Juan Tizol's "Perdido" are here along with "Cottontail," my all-time favorite Ellington band performance.

"Ellington at Newport (Columbia). Tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves' 27 choruses of the blues on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" nearly caused a riot at Newport '56.

First Time! -- The Count Meets the Duke (Columbia). A royal encounter between the Count Basie band and the Ellington band in 1961. Double the usual big band fun with the leaders swapping solos and the bands swapping soloists.

Money Jungle (Blue Note). Recorded in 1962, this all-star trio album sometimes seems like a fierce tug-of-war among Ellington's percussive piano, Charles Mingus' snarling bass and Max Roach's not-to-be-outdone drums. But it's an example of how Ellington could fit with modern musicians (or anyone) and not lose his cool. It also reminds us of the Ellington influence on Thelonious Monk.

. . . And His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA). Ellington's tribute to his fallen collaborator Billy Strayhorn. The orchestra, in one of its most inspired studio sessions, plays Strayhorn tunes such as "U.M.M.G.," "Blood Count," "Lotus Blossom" and "Rain Check."

New Orleans Suite (Atlantic). Longtime lead alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges died between sessions for this 1970 album. The band carried on -- as it had for 46 years -- by investing its emotions in the work at hand. Hodges was supposed to have resurrected his soprano saxophone for "Portrait of Sidney Bechet." Paul Gonsalves' tenor took over in its own diaphanous, lyrical way.

Read up

For books about Ellington, I'll go with four I know and three that come highly recommended.

The World of Duke Ellington by Stanley Dance (1970). Interviews with past and then-present orchestra members. For years, Dance was Ellington's chief liner-note scribe. He was present at many of the band's performances and recording sessions.

Music Is My Mistress by Duke Ellington (1973). A warm remembrance, with people, places and performances coming into play in typical upbeat Ellington fashion.

Duke Ellington in Person: An Intimate Memoir by Mercer Ellington (1978). As close as we'll get to the Duke's personality. The son knows best.

Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington by John Edward Hasse (1993). A straight-ahead portrait of the Maestro and the band from beginning to end based liberally on hundreds of documents Mercer Ellington gave to the Smithsonian Institution in 1988. Analyzes key recordings from each period.

Ellington: The Early Years by Mark Tucker (1991). A definitive study of Ellington's pre-Cotton Club period, Hasse says.

The Duke Ellington Reader edited by Mark Tucker (1993). Includes many of the most important writings about and by Ellington, Hasse says.

Lush Life by David Hajdu (1996). The acclaimed biography of Billy Strayhorn, who grew up in Hillsborough and became a member of the Ellington organization (as a composer) in 1939 and stayed until his death in 1967.


C o m m e n t s

ming chong 1 of 3
toby May 17, 03

hey, do you know that duke is my cousin? I know he was a crack head

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