The Duke of Elegance

The Duke of Elegance

by Michael J. Renner
Published April 25, 1999, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
copyright © 1999 Michael J. Renner

One hundred years after his birth, Edward Kennedy Ellington still dominates the jazz world. Even though he died a quarter of a century ago, it's hard to imagine what jazz -- or modern music in general -- would be without the man known as Duke.

In a career spanning five decades, Ellington transcended many phases and influenced generations of musicians. He was elegant, articulate and at ease in public but an enigma to most, prompting one close friend to comment that "Duke Ellington was seldom alone. Yet he was the most solitary and secretive man I ever knew." His most famous quote -- taken from his autobiography -- provides insight into his solitary obsession "I live a life with . . . an unquenchable thirst for sharps and flats. Living in a cave, I am almost a hermit, but there is a difference, for I have a mistress. Lovers have come and gone, but only my mistress stays . . . Music is my mistress, and she plays second fiddle to no one." He was a composer, bandleader and pianist consumed with sound and sonic textures, producing over 2,000 compositions ranging from three-minute popular gems to majestic, rarely heard scores.

Because of his popularity, longevity and massive body of recordings (ever try to sort through his section at the record store without really knowing what you want?), Ellington is often taken for granted. Most people can recite his most popular tunes like "In A Sentimental Mood," "Satin Doll" and "Take The A-Train" (a Billy Strayhorn tune). But Ellington was much more than your typical big band commodity. He was a master composer and arranger of serious suites and extended works so beautiful and emotional that they take your breath away. Anyone who caught this month's PBS broadcast of "Live From Lincoln Center" featuring Ellington and Strayhorn's arrangements of Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suites" got a taste of Duke at his best.

He was a musical and literary historian. His 1943 Black, Brown and Beige depicted the struggles of African-Americans and drew on European symphonic devices. "Such Sweet Thunder," a.k.a. the "Shakespearean Suite," from 1957, was Ellington's personal interpretation of the Bard. As he became more spiritual in his later years, he wrote "Sacred Concerts," works he considered his most important, despite poor critical reviews.

Born on April 29, 1899 into a middle-class Washington, D.C., family, Ellington enjoyed a normal and healthy childhood. His nickname "Duke" was given to him by a high school friend who thought the dapper and well-spoken young Ellington needed a title. Like musicians before and after him, he moved to New York, and in 1923, his band slowly started making their name with a style of music dubbed "jungle music" -- an amalgam of pounding tom-toms, growling instrumental vocalizations, American blues and popular music motifs.

In venues like the Kentucky Club and Harlem's Cotton Club, Ellington honed this novelty sound into a true art form, composing sections specifically for his instrumentalists -- an approach he continued throughout his career.

Before turning to music as a career, Ellington studied the visual arts, something that forever influenced the way he used his orchestra. Like a painter handling a palette, Ellington composed tonal colors, mixing and matching the different instruments' timbres and combining them in unusual configurations. The most quoted example of the distinctive "Ellington sound" is the original arrangement of "Mood Indigo," where the trumpet plays middle register, the trombone in a higher register and the clarinet its lowest register. He loved the extreme voicings of each instrument and his players responded with verve.

In a recent Down Beat article, trumpeter Clark Terry (who played in Ellington's band from 1951-1959) stated "Duke taught us who we were." His band spawned some of the biggest names in jazz: Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, "Shorty" Baker (from St. Louis), Johnny Hodges, Sonny Greer, Ray Nance, "Tricky Sam" Nanton and Juan Tizol, just to name a few.

The years from 1932 to 1942 were his most fertile. He toured Europe several times and created outstanding short compositions. The biggest burst began in 1939 with the addition of bassist Jimmy Blanton, (who died young but forever changed the role of the bass), tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and most importantly Billy Strayhorn, Ellington's composing and arranging soulmate.

With Strayhorn's extensive background in classical and modern music, Ellington pursued some of his biggest orchestral projects. Of Strayhorn, Ellington said, "He was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine." When Strayhorn died in 1967, Ellington recorded And His Mother Called Him Bill, one his finest and most emotional recordings.

As his orchestra grew and members came and went, Ellington's writing sometimes suffered, depending on the strength of individual players. His last hit single was in 1953 with "Satin Doll." But unlike Louis Armstrong in his later years, Ellington didn't become a caricature of himself. He toured relentlessly, serving as a musical good will ambassador worldwide and still composing. When his long-time physician and friend Arthur Logan died in late 1973, Ellington was so distraught that he is quoted as telling Logan's widow, "I won't last six months." Earlier in 1973, Webster had died. Almost to the day of his death prediction, Ellington succumbed to cancer on May 24, 1974. That was just days after the deaths of Gonsalves and trombonist Tyree Gleen.

With the Ellington celebration, be prepared for an onslaught of tribute performances, reissues and memorials over the next year-a timeframe that will only scratch the surface of his immense oeuvre.

Here in St. Louis:

April 18 and April 25: KWMU, 90.7 FM, host Dennis Owsley mined his extensive record collection and devoted three hours of Ellington. He continues the celebration on the fourth Sunday of each month until March 2000. Sundays, 9 p.m.-12 p.m.

Ongoing: WSIE, 88.7 FM, Jazz from Lincoln Center radio program, devoting its 1999 season to Ellington, is broadcast Sundays from 11 a.m.-noon.

April 20: The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis presented "America in Rhythm and Tune: The Ellington Centennial." Powell Symphony Hall. Truly an all-star production featuring top trumpeters Ryan Kisor and Marcus Printup, and saxophonists Wess Anderson and Walter Blanding, Jr.

April 24: The gallery at The Sheldon unveiled an Ellington exhibit featuring the collection of local jazz radio personality Don Wolfe. Pieces include rare album covers and memorabilia from Mr. Wolf's extensive collection. The exhibit runs through the summer.

April 25: KDHX 88.1 FM, The Swinger's, 10 p.m.-midnight, focused on the female vocalists of the Ellington band, including Betty Roche, Ivie Anderson and Joya Sherrill.

April 29: KZJZ, 1380 AM, devotes the entire day to Ellington's many musical phases. Special features and interviews with Ellington, his alumni (including Clark Terry), and commentary on his works will be presented.

April 29 and May 6: KDHX 88.1 FM, 9 a.m.-10 a.m. Two, one-hour specials produced by KDHX with narration and music. Also on April 29, the Daybreak Express show, 4 a.m.-6 a.m. will feature all Ellington music.

May 1: KMOX, 1120 AM, Don Wolfe devotes his Saturday 8 p.m.-2 a.m. jazz show to Ellington. He already features two hours of Ellington on every show for 1999.

Local jazz announcers's selections of Essential Ellington:

Maria Keena, KZJZ, 1380 AM:

  1. The Far East Suite (RCA/Bluebird)
  2. Ella Fitzgerald Sings: The Duke Ellington Songbook (Verve)
  3. Live at the Blue Note (Roulette)

Dennis Owsley, KWMU, 90.7 FM:

  1. Duke at Fargo, 1940 (Vintage Jazz Classics)
  2. Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Band (RCA/Bluebird)
  3. The New Orleans Suite (Atlantic)

Don Wolfe, KMOX, 1120 AM:

  1. A Drum Is A Woman (Columbia)
  2. Black, Brown and Beige (RCA/Bluebird)
  3. The Second Sacred Concert (Prestige)

C o m m e n t s

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