By Stanley Dance
Ninety years after his birth and 15 years after his death, Duke Ellington is still a dominant force in jazz. In fact, what has been called "the Ellington industry" seems to be proliferating in ways that would certainly have caused him wry amusement.
His old records are reissued and new ones from his huge "stockpile" continue to emerge (five more are due in April). Bootlegs and unauthorized recordings abound here and in Europe. Earnest scholars, of apparently great wealth, fly around the world to participate in "Ellington study groups," to deliver "papers," and to listen to bands specially assembled for their edification. Archivists are appointed to work on Ellington's memorabilia at the Smithsonian, where his library of scrapbooks has already reportedly been microfilmed.
At a California university, opportunities are advertised for both "experiencing" and "exploring" the Ellington "legacy" in the company of faculty members and musicians once briefly associated with the Maestro. Books about him and his music continue to appear.
The Institute of Jazz Studies and the Scarecrow Press have together published W. E. Timmer's useful discography, and Oxford University Press has made handsome amends for the controversial biography by James Lincoln Collier (James Washington Collier accordingly to Max Harrison in Jazz Forum) with over a hundred illuminating pages on Ellington's music by Gunther Schuller in his heroic achievement, The Swing Era .
On PBS, a two-hour special devoted to Ellington is already being repeated. Several different editions of the musical, Sophisticated Ladies, have been presented in this country, as well as one in Moscow, and plans are afoot for a Broadway production in the fall of Queenie Pie, with Patti LaBelle starring. Moreover, a project to erect a monument to the great man in Central Park has received much support, although photographs of the prototype (designed by a Hollywood sculptor) are dismaying, to say the least, and show that good intentions are not enough. As for the ninetieth birthday, there are big plans for celebrations in Ellington's hometown, Washington, D.C.
Musicians, of course, have not been slow to climb on the bandwagon, some with tributes that reflect genuine admiration, others with opportunistic motives that indicate the extent to which Ellington has become a meal ticket. All kinds of ensembles are put together in the furtherance of different schemes -- symphony orchestras, big bands, octets and quartets. BobWilber even led a British orchestra in the presentation of The Queen's Suite at a concert attended by the Princess Royal in London. Record reviews elsewhere in this issue relate to some of these enterprises, and readers of Time may have noted how that magazine acclaimed the M.J.Q.'s album, For Ellington: "The M.J.Q. pays the Duke the ultimate honor, it doesn't just respect him, it makes him swing." Thatmay quite possibly turn out to be the gaffe of the year!
Meanwhile, what of the Duke Ellington Orchestra as led by Duke Ellington's heir? So far as the media are concerned, it might sometimes seem not to exist. In fact, it often finds itself faced with considerable and harmful competition by band alumni, pretenders and imitators, whose activities even cost it bookings.
Yet, as is shown by the Grammy-winning GRP record and new Musicmasters CD, it remains a formidable band, one that was in particularly fine fettle after its return from a triumphant five-week tour of Japan in November. Ellington would certainly have appreciated the sight and sound of all five reeds wailing on clarinets in The Mooche!
Mercer Ellington understands what many others forget: that his father wrote for specific musicians, most of whom are no longer with us. The maestro himself spelled out what he thought of imitators in the first chapter of The World of Duke Ellington . Admittedly, he maintained traditions formed by early soloists like Bubber Miley, Tricky Sam and Barney Bigard. Cootie Williams and Ray Nance echoed Miley just as Barrie Lee Hall does today. Lawrence Brown, Tyree Glenn and Booty Wood similarly echoed Tricky Sam, just as Russell Procope did Bigard. But Ellington was not at all adverse to introducing new voices in new roles, as he did, for example, with Jimmy Hamilton's clarinet, Paul Gonsalves's tenor, Clark Terry's trumpet and Buster Cooper's trombone. Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and the piano player virtually made and maintained their own traditions all along.
Mercer well knows that these three are irreplaceable and that any attempt at slavish imitation can only result in basically lifeless music. For the same reason, he has permitted modification of old arrangements, just as his father would have done. You may remember the outcry about the faster tempo of the 1956 Koko. The feelings of musicians in the orchestra were, in that case, respected, for playing long-familiar material faster was one way of repulsing boredom!
Playing a number night after night, year after year, is a very different matter from the task of a repertory orchestra patiently recreating an arrangement patently transcribed from the "definitive" recording, when fidelity to the original is deemed essential. But in the living continuation of the Ellington orchestra, involving musicians of a new generation, the element of spontaneous creativity is permitted, not discouraged. And since 1974, many talented young players like Ricky Ford, J. J. Wiggins, Mulgrew Miller, Bill Easley and Will Miller have been introduced.
To the classically oriented mind of the formally schooled, a written masterpiece is sacrosanct. Ellington, on the other hand, liked to tinker with his. To some extent, his early experience as a painter may have had a bearing on this. In any case, the impromptu, improvisatory element in jazz is always in partial conflict with a fixed arrangement on a jazz composition. That is, perhaps, what some of those transcribing from Ellington records tend to forget -- that the performance has a priority of its own, that the great arrangement comes alive only in inspired performance. But academics, of course, are naturally happy with what they can pin down on paper with a measure of permanence.
Ellington accepted honorary degrees from universities with gratitude and composure, but he was always acutely aware of those occasions when he was being patronized. He was a "now" man who cared little about posterity. He would speak mockingly of those who thought he should be offered some campus sinecure, so that he could sit down and write music. For he liked the hard fast, independent life he led in world whose conditions he oftened likened to those of the jungle.
Although the maintenance of his instrument (the orchestra) was a paramount consideration, it was never succored by government grants. He was no snob, no poseur. While he enjoyed talking to the Queen of England, he also enjoyed talking to cab-drivers and old acquaintances he encountered in stores on Harlem's 125th Street. He knew the values and hazards of the "street" very well indeed, and he knew how to cope with its problems, often drawing strength and even inspiration from this knowledge.
His zest for life and his extraordinary, Solomon-like wisdom do not, of course, explain his genius. He was at once the greatest arranger, the greatest composer, the greatest "band" pianist, and the greatest bandleader in jazz. Too much is now probably being written about the so-called "extended" works (most of them suites of short dance movements), while too few of the huge number of brilliant, independent numbers for the band are actually being performed. So much needs to be "discovered" besides In a Mellotone, Satin Doll, "A" Train, Caravan, Perdido and Sophisticated Lady. How he led his band and controlled its disparate forces is one subject that has scarcely been touched upon. His magic was most truly at work in record studios, where he coaxed sounds from his men that are on records but will ever elude paper. "Way low," he would plead with the horns, crouching. The next minute, as he straightened up, he would be urging them to "Put it in the alley!"