Celebrating Ellington the Pianist

Fingers: Celebrating Ellington the Pianist

By Reuben Jackson
Notes for a talk at Border's Books and Music, Washington D.C., April 22, 1999
copyright © 1999 Reuben Jackson

Because pianist/orchestra leader/composer Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was deceptively self-effacing about his formidable skills as a pianist -- as he was about nearly everything -- it is still far too easy even in this Centennial year of plaudits galore for listeners and critics alike to forget that as the late journalist Ralph J. Gleason opined in his 1974 collection Celebrating The Duke And Other Heroes, the Washington native was "one hell of a pianist. Anytime."

Having said that, let me add a disclaimer to this brief aural foray into Ellington's prowess with the 88's. It is not meant to prove anything more than the fact (and I suppose this is not a small fact) that Gleason (among others) was right about Duke, and that more attention needs to be paid to his gift of "making it new," as poet Ezra Pound said --"new" in Ellington's day comprising the joyous, deft innovations of internationally renown stride-based pianists like Willie "The Lion" Smith and Thomas "Fats" Waller, not to mention the keyboard wizardry he witnessed before moving to New York in the nighteries of black Washington, D.C., his hometown.

I also think these recorded examples (excerpted from a chat I am giving at a Border's Books here in Washington on April 22nd) illustrate yet another example of Ellington's harmonic, melodic and rhythmic variety. I, for one, can hear more than a few echoes of Cecil Taylor and Thelonious Monk in the terse yet rhythmically aggressive intro to "Loco-Madi," part of the 1972 "UWIS [University of Wisconsin] Suite". But like a bad lawyer, I am getting ahead of myself here. As John Mc Laughlin (the prognosticator, not the guitarist) would say, ISSUE!

  1. "Tonk" (Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, piano, recorded 1946)

    Rather than take this in strictly chronological fashion (remember, we're talking about a man who loved sticking the composition entitled "The Opener" anywhere but at the outset of performances), I thought it would be best to begin with something which demonstrates the seamless musical interplay these giants translated to the orchestral canvas, their individual and collective (undervalued) musical humor, and the aforementioned textural variety Ellington (and Strayhorn) brought to their (other?) instruments. Far from being a textbook imitation of the dextrous dance required of anyone daring to forge a voice from the books written by the likes of Waller, Johnson and Smith, the dynamic duo creates an impish miniature worthy of a Chaplin classic, and as is always the case with the best Ellington/Strayhorn titles, aural cinema whose provenance could only be theirs.

  2. "Lots O' Fingers (Duke Ellington, piano, recorded 1932)

    1932's "Lots O' Fingers," which serves as a cascading intro to the Orchestra's equally rollicking introduction, further illustrates Ellington's understanding of the part and parcel of stride piano's methodology, complete with deep, resounding, yet high stepping lower register bass) work, as well as the fleet melodicism required of the player's right hand. Though this is clearly a less developed, urbane Ellington than the one heard in 1946's "Tonk", this brief performance does indeed further demolish the enduring image of The Maestro as pianist capable of little more (!) than the haiku brief terseness associated with fellow Orchestra leader William "Count" Basie, and, oh, the Oriental poet Li Po.

  3. "Solitude" (Duke Ellington, piano, recorded 1941)

    It was, I believe, Cecil Taylor who said something to the effect that "when you play slowly, you are at your most vulnerable." Which isn't to say that this 1941 version of the Ellington classic is some musical equivalent of Anne Sexton's poetry or anything, but I do feel its reflective theme fits perfectly beneath Ellington's fingers, and provides the listener with an opportunity to hear a more measured approach to the otherwise rapid left hand witnessed in "Tonk" and "Fingers." What's also noteworthy here is the manner in which Ellington sublimely integrates space ( or breath) between the choruses. The end result resembles, not surprisingly, a "man thinking" -- Thoreau alone at the 88's. The three minute performance perfectly balances quiescence and the melodic gifts heard in the previous examples. In this setting, the tumbling glissando doesn't resemble the tough and tumble jazzer hellbent on scampering across the keys ala Carl Lewis. It's more like a pensive portrait-a wounded ( but noble) lover running his fingers across closed blinds.

  4. "The Second Portrait Of The Lion" (Duke Ellington, piano, recorded 1965)

    Allow me, if you will, to jump to that halcyon decade of all decades for this concert tribute to one of Ellington's most enduring influences, Willie "The Lion" Smith. By this point in his career, any near literal references to the stride influence had been either well integrated into his methodology -- like well stirred sugar in tea, though its also true that it would occasionally appear during brief stabs at his first composition "Soda Fountain Rag." "Portrait," however, is as much a glimpse of the unsung giant Ellington had become as it is a loving tribute to Smith. For it deftly shifts from aural references to (among other things)like '32's "Lots O' Fingers," this performance of the last movement from the Ellington-Strayhorn "Far East Suite" is no mere snippet, but one of the most intriguing "journeys" in the Ellington-Strayhorn canon. It begins, not surprisingly, with the gentleman Elllington wryly referred to as "the piano player" hammering out variations on the blues in G minor, clothing them more and more with each "mysterioso" chorus, before breaking into a stride-influenced chorus, which is soon echoed by the Orchestra. After the ensemble smokes its way through Ellington's groundwork, they, like mist over Japanese mountains, fade, allowing for Ellington's return; which is rife with both the thoughtful undulations heard in "Second Portrait" and the kind of spacious, thundering declartions one associates with Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. If this isn't heart stopping enough, Ellington then gives way to one of clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton's ( and the ensemble's ) most passionate and downright swinging efforts, leaving the listener enthralled, spent, and possibly somewhat baffled.

  5. "Loco-Madi" (Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, 1972)

    Shades of Myra Melford. Who knew an internationally celebrated bandleader (one who played "Satin Doll" nightly, for goodness sakes!) could "whup" a piano like Ali in his prime! But that is exactly what occurs in the intro (and throughout this infectious, shuffling blues) of this, the final movement of Duke's "UWIS" suite, as he (in boxing parlance) "sticks and moves," shifts in and out of the key (F major), and virtually shuts the keys down, like an angry schoolchild shutting the lid of his desk. But what one what senses from this late period performance is not anger, but exhilaration -- no mean feat when one considers that by this juncture, Ellington had buried two of his most important interpreters, saxophonist Johnny Hodges (who died in 1970) and arranging-composing partner Billy Strayhorn in 1967.

    The last chapter in Elllington's charateristically affable but cryptic autobiography "Music Is My Mistress" is entitled "Retire To What?" and it's clear that this performance, which adds to his countless titles celebrating trains (and of course, motion) is his funky but polite refusal to depend on his Social Security card. The cadenza features Ellington and electric (!) bassist Wulf Freedman ( providing delicious double stops) adding considerable fuel to this aural engine. Far hipper than AMTRAK, or even Japan's Bullet Train, Ellington's "Loco" like the Maestro in the midst of a concert-ending-fingersnapping routine, seems to damn near saunter down the line.

Reuben Jackson is an archivist with the Smithsonian Institution's Duke Ellington Collection, an erstwhile poet and music critic, and remains a stalwart Buffalo Bills fan.

E-mail: jackson-r@nmah.si.edu

C o m m e n t s

Fingers: Celebrating Duke the Pianist 1 of 1
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August 01, 08

Reuben has delivered a very valid excuse for me to run back to my shelves and listen to these tracks with "fresh ears".

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