Today’s Classic is Duke Ellington.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was an American composer, pianist, and jazz-orchestra leader. His career spanned more than 50 years: Ellington led his orchestra from 1923 until his death.
Though widely considered to have been a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, Ellington himself embraced the phrase “beyond category” as a “liberating principle,” and referred his music to the more much more general category of “American Music,” rather than to a musical genre such as “jazz.” Born in Washington DC, he was based in New York City from the mid-1920s onwards, and gained a national profile through his orchestra’s appearances at the Cotton Club. In the 1930s they toured in Europe.
Some of the musicians who were members of Ellington’s orchestra, such as saxophonist Johnny Hodges, are still, in their own right, considered to be among the best players in jazz, but it was Ellington who melded them into the best-known jazz orchestral unit in the history of jazz. Several members of the orchestra remained members for several decades. A master at writing miniatures for the 3 minute 78 rpm record format, Ellington often composed specifically for the style and skills of his individual musicians, such as “Jeep’s Blues” for Hodges, and “Concerto for Cootie” for trumpeter Cootie Williams, which later became “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me” with Bob Russell’s lyrics.
Ellington originated over 1,000 compositions, often in collaboration with others; his extensive oeuvre is also the largest recorded legacy in jazz, with much of his extant work having passed into standards. Ellington also recorded songs written by his bandsmen, such as Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” and “Perdido” which brought the “Spanish Tinge” to big-band jazz.
After 1941, Ellington collaborated with composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn, whom he called his “writing and arranging companion”. With Strayhorn, he composed many extended compositions, or ‘suites’, as well as further shorter pieces. Following an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1956, he enjoyed a major career revival and, with his orchestra, now embarked on world tours. Ellington recorded for most American record companies of his era at some point, and appeared in several films. scoring several, and composed stage musicals.
Due to his inventive use of the orchestra, or big band, and thanks to his eloquence and extraordinary charisma, he is generally considered to have elevated the perception of jazz to an art form on a par with other traditional genres of music. His reputation increased after his death and the Pulitzer Prize Board bestowed on him a special posthumous honor in 1999.
Gunther Schuller wrote in 1989: “Ellington composed incessantly to the very last days of his life. Music was indeed his mistress; it was his total life and his commitment to it was incomparable and unalterable. In jazz he was a giant among giants. And in twentieth century music, he may yet one day be recognized as one of the half-dozen greatest masters of our time.”
Cotton Club engagement
In October 1926, Ellington made a career advancing agreement with agent-publisher Irving Mills, giving Mills a 45% interest in Ellington’s future. Mills had an eye for new talent and early on published compositions by Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, and Harold Arlen. After recording a handful of acoustic titles during 1924-1926, Ellington’s signing with Mills allowed him to record prolifically, although sometimes he recorded different versions of the same tune. Mills often took a co-composer credit. From the beginning of their relationship, Mills arranged recording sessions on nearly every label including Brunswick, Victor, Columbia, OKeh, Pathê (and its Perfect label), the ARC/Plaza group of labels (Oriole, Domino, Jewel, Banner) and their dime-store labels (Cameo, Lincoln, Romeo), Hit of the Week, and Columbia’s cheaper labels (Harmony, Diva, Velvet Tone, Clarion) labels which gave Ellington popular recognition. On OKeh, his records were usually issued as “The Harlem Footwarmers”, while the Brunswick’s were usually issued as The Jungle Band. “Whoopee Makers” and the “Ten Black Berries” were other pseudonyms.
In September 1927, King Oliver turned down a regular booking for his group as the house band at Harlem’s Cotton Club; the offer passed to Ellington after Jimmy McHugh suggested him and Mills arranged an audition. Ellington had to increase from a six to eleven-piece group to meet the requirements of the Cotton Club’s management for the audition, and the engagement finally began on December 4. With a weekly radio broadcast, the Cotton Club’s exclusively white and wealthy clientele poured in nightly to see them. At the Cotton Club, Ellington’s group performed all the music for the revues, which mixed comedy, dance numbers, vaudeville, burlesque, music, and illegal alcohol. The musical numbers were composed by Jimmy McHugh and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields (later Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler), with some Ellington originals mixed in. Weekly radio broadcasts from the club gave Ellington national exposure, while Ellington also recorded Fields-JMcHugh and Fats Waller-Andy Razaf songs.
Although trumpeter Bubber Miley was a member of the orchestra for only a short period, he had a major influence on Ellington’s sound. An early exponent of growl trumpet, his style changed the “sweet” dance band sound of the group to one that was hotter, which contemporaries termed “jungle” style. In October 1927, Ellington and his Orchestra recorded several compositions with Adelaide Hall. One side in particular, “Creole Love Call” became a worldwide sensation and gave both Ellington and Hall their first hit record. Miley had composed most of “Creole Love Call” and “Black and Tan Fantasy”. An alcoholic, Miley had to leave the band before they gained wider fame. He died in 1932 at the age of 29, but he was an important influence on Cootie Williams, who replaced him.
In 1929, the Cotton Club Orchestra appeared on stage for several months in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Show Girl, along with vaudeville stars Jimmy Durante, Eddie Foy, Jr., Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, and with music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Gus Kahn. That year, when Ellington conducted the orchestra for Show Girl, he met Will Vodery, Ziegfeld’s musical supervisor. In his 1946 biography, Duke Ellington, Barry Ulanov wrote:
From Vodery, as he (Ellington) says himself, he drew his chromatic convictions, his uses of the tones ordinarily extraneous to the diatonic scale, with the consequent alteration of the harmonic character of his music, its broadening, The deepening of his resources. It has become customary to ascribe the classical influences upon Duke – Delius, Debussy and Ravel – to direct contact with their music. Actually his serious appreciation of those and other modern composers, came after his meeting with Vodery.
Ellington’s film work began with Black and Tan (1929), a nineteen-minute all-African-American RKO short in which he played the hero “Duke”. He also appeared in the Amos ‘n’ Andy film Check and Double Check released in 1930. That year, Ellington and his Orchestra connected with a whole different audience in a concert with Maurice Chevalier and they also performed at the Roseland Ballroom, “America’s foremost ballroom”. Australian-born composer Percy Grainger was an early admirer and supporter. He wrote “The three greatest composers who ever lived are Bach, Delius and Duke Ellington. Unfortunately Bach is dead, Delius is very ill but we are happy to have with us today The Duke”. Ellington’s first period at the Cotton Club concluded in 1931.
The later 1930s
From 1936, Ellington began to make recordings of smaller groups (sextets, octets, and nonets) drawn from his then-15-man orchestra and he composed pieces intended to feature specific instrumentalist, as with “Jeep’s Blues” for Johnny Hodges, “Yearning for Love” for Lawrence Brown, “Trumpet in Spades” for Rex Stewart, “Echoes of Harlem” for Cootie Williams and “Clarinet Lament” for Barney Bigard. These small groups within Ellington’s band recorded on Mills’ Variety label. In 1937, Ellington returned to the Cotton Club which had relocated to the mid-town Theater District. In the summer of that year, his father died, and due to many expenses, Ellington’s finances were tight, although his situation improved the following year.
After leaving agent Irving Mills, he signed on with the William Morris Agency. Mills though continued to record Ellington. After his Master and Variety labels collapsed in late 1937, Mills placed Ellington back on Brunswick and those small group units on Vocalion through to 1940. Well known sides continued to be recorded, “Caravan” in 1937, and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” the following year.
Billy Strayhorn, originally hired as a lyricist, began his association with Ellington in 1939. Nicknamed “Swee’ Pea” for his mild manner, Strayhorn soon became a vital member of the Ellington organization. Ellington showed great fondness for Strayhorn and never failed to speak glowingly of the man and their collaborative working relationship, “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine”. Strayhorn, with his training in classical music, not only contributed his original lyrics and music, but also arranged and polished many of Ellington’s works, becoming a second Ellington or “Duke’s doppelganger”. It was not uncommon for Strayhorn to fill in for Duke, whether in conducting or rehearsing the band, playing the piano, on stage, and in the recording studio. The 1930s ended with a very successful European tour just as World War II loomed in Europe.
Ellington in the early to mid-1940s
Some of the musicians who joined Ellington at this at time created a sensation in their own right. The short-lived Jimmy Blanton transformed the use of double bass in jazz, allowing it to function as a solo rather than a rhythm instrument alone. Terminal illness forced him to leave by late 1941 after only about two years. Ben Webster, the Orchestra’s first regular tenor saxophonist, whose main tenure with Ellington spanned 1939 to 1943, started a rivalry with Johnny Hodges as the Orchestra’s foremost voice in the sax section.
Trumpeter Ray Nance joined, replacing Cootie Williams who had “defected”, contemporary wags claimed, to Benny Goodman. Additionally, Nance added violin to the instrumental colors Ellington had at his disposal. Recordings exist of Nance’s first concert date on November 7, 1940, at Fargo, North Dakota. Privately made by Jack Towers and Dick Burris, these recordings were first legitimately issued in 1978 as Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940 Live; they are among the earliest of innumerable live performances which survive. Nance was also an occasional vocalist, although Herb Jeffries was the main male vocalist in this era (until 1943) while Al Hibbler (who replaced Jeffries in 1943) continued until 1951. Ivie Anderson left in 1942 after eleven years: the longest term of any of Ellington’s vocalists.
Once again recording for Victor (from 1940), with the small groups recording for their Bluebird label, three-minute masterpieces on 78 rpm record sides continued to flow from Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s son Mercer Ellington, and members of the Orchestra. “Cotton Tail”, “Main Stem”, “Harlem Airshaft”, “Jack the Bear”, and dozens of others date from this period. Strayhorn’s “Take the “A” Train” a hit in 1941, became the band’s theme, replacing “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”. Ellington and his associates wrote for an orchestra of distinctive voices who displayed tremendous creativity. Mary Lou Williams, working as a staff arranger, would briefly join Ellington a few years later.
Ellington’s long-term aim though was to extend the jazz form from that three-minute limit, of which he was an acknowledged master. While he had composed and recorded some extended pieces before, such works now became a regular feature of Ellington’s output. In this, he was helped by Strayhorn, who had enjoyed a more thorough training in the forms associated with classical music than Ellington. The first of these, “Black, Brown, and Beige” (1943), was dedicated to telling the story of African-Americans, and the place of slavery and the church in their history. Ellington debuted Black, Brown and Beige in Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943, beginning an annual series of concerts there over the next four years. While some jazz musicians had played at Carnegie Hall before, none had performed anything as elaborate as Ellington’s work. Unfortunately, starting a regular pattern, Ellington’s longer works were generally not well received.
A partial exception was Jump for Joy, a full-length musical based on themes of African-American identity, debuted on July 10, 1941 at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles. Hollywood luminaries like actors John Garfield and Mickey Rooney invested in the production, and Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles offered to direct. At one performance though, Garfield insisted Herb Jeffries, who is light skinned, should wear make-up. Ellington objected in the interval, and compared Jeffries to Al Jolson. The change was reverted, and the singer later commented that the audience must have thought he was an entirely different character in the second half of the show.
Although it had sold-out performances, and received positive reviews, it ran for only 122 performances until September 29, 1941, with a brief revival in November of that year. Its subject matter did not make it appealing to Broadway; Ellington had unfulfilled plans to take it there. Despite this disappointment, a Broadway production of Ellington’s Beggar’s Holiday, his sole book musical, premiered on December 23, 1946 under the direction of Nicholas Ray.