Duke Ellington

 

Born April 29, 1899, in Washington, DC. Died May 24, 1974, in New York, NY. 

If you haven't heard of Duke Ellington, you were obviously placed in suspended animation in the 19th century and were unfrozen only yesterday. Even people who listen to Muzak all day long and never know the names of the composers who penned the pasteurized tunes know who Duke Ellington is. Ellington is quite possibly the greatest musician and composer of the 20th century--certainly one of the top five. As a composer, he wrote thousands of songs and arranged and rearranged those and others his whole life. He wrote his songs for the individual musicians in his orchestra and not for "sections." As a bandleader, he performed nearly constantly for most of his career. As a musician, he was a giant, considered one of the best pianists of his era. And unlike most of his contemporaries, he was able to update his work, modernizing it to blend into the sound of the decade in which he was creating. Ellington's orchestra was his main vehicle, and he worked with "his" orchestra--though it changed constantly--throughout his career, recording more than 200 albums, currently available, with more collections and newly reissued work coming out annually, as if he hadn't died in 1974. He started studying the piano at the age of seven, adopting the nickname "Duke" around the same time. Every one of his family friends knew he was destined to be great. Drawn by the ragtime music of the time, he became a musician. Ellington joined the music world in 1917 with the biggest ad in the telephone yellow pages and a desire to be a bandleader despite his then-limited repertoire. The ad worked, and he was soon heading up several Washington, D.C.-area bands. He worked on his technique by analyzing fingering from slowed-down piano rolls. In 1923, he ventured to New York and soon formed the Washingtonians with friends. He landed the band a job at the Hollywood Club, where they began to play regularly and where Bubber Miley helped Ellington create the "jungle sound" that made his group distinct. After some struggles to find the right sound or breakthrough music, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra was born around 1926 with hot numbers like "East St. Louis Toodleoo" and "Birmingham Breakdown." The very next year, the group scored its break, earning a permanent spot at the Cotton Club on the strength of numbers such as "Black and Tan Fantasy" and "Creole Love Call." From there, Ellington and crew began radio broadcasts and became famous throughout the country. By the time the Great Depression struck, Ellington had found the road to success so that hardship did not really affect him. He never again lacked work or suffered through hard times. He was a celebrity and one of the greatest performers in the world. During the 1930s, he built his band up with eight soloists--most bands didn't even have three--and left the Cotton Club in 1931 for greener pastures. The Ellington Orchestra hit the road and became a big act throughout the country and soon throughout the world, touring Europe and Sweden in 1933 and 1939. By 1940, Duke Ellington's Orchestra was the greatest in the world, featuring newly acquired musicians like Ben Webster on tenor sax, Jimmy Blanton on bass, and Billy Strayhorn as an arranger and composer--all of whom, like many of the musicians who worked with Ellington, would go on to become some of the greatest names in jazz music. His 1940-42 band was one of his best, and Ellington added many songs to his repertoire during those years that would become lifelong standards--"Take the 'A' Train," "Perdido," and "The 'C' Jam Blues," among others. Ellington gave his first performance at Carnegie Hall in 1943, debuting "Black, Brown and Beige." As the 1940s killed the big bands and bebop rose to prominence, Ellington continued to perform, tour, and record with his orchestra. The 1950s is considered his "slump" decade, even though his artistic output was never stronger, and it was simply the illusion of waning commercial success. In 1956, Duke soared back into the spotlight at the Newport Jazz Festival. During the 1960s, Duke dabbled in religious music and collaborated with jazz greats who had not started under his wing, including Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Count Basie, John Coltrane, and Louis Armstrong. Ellington continued to tour and record extensively throughout the 1960s despite his age and received the recognition he so richly deserved. He outlasted many of his closest working partners, including Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Hodges, and he continued making music despite the deaths of his associates and friends, updating the orchestra and persevering until 1974 when, stricken with cancer, he died a month after his 75th birthday. With Duke Ellington's passing, one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century was lost to the world. Ironically, though he is one of the most widely known artists, there is still much that is unknown about the man personally. He was reticent to speak about his life, and he is conspicuously absent as a character in his own autobiography, Music Is My Mistress. Ellington was an even-tempered man, some said almost saintly in demeanor. Even in the face of obvious prejudice--for example, when the Pulitzer Prize committee of 1965 denied him a special lifetime achievement award, overruling its own official judges--Ellington was unphased, saying, "Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young." He was 66 years old when he said that.

Duke Ellington is quite possibly the greatest musician and composer of the 20th century--certainly one of the top five. As a composer, he wrote thousands of songs and arranged and rearranged those and others during his lifetime. He wrote his songs for the individual musicians in his orchestra and not for "sections." As a band leader, he performed nearly constantly for most of his career. As a musician, he was a giant, considered one of the best pianists of his era. And unlike most of his contemporaries, he was able to update his work, modernizing it to blend into the sound of the decade in which he was creating. Ellington's orchestra was his main vehicle, and he worked with his orchestra--though it changed constantly--throughout his career, recording more than 200 albums. New collections and reissues of his work continue to appear, making it seem as if he didn't die in 1974. Ellington started studying the piano at the age of seven, adopting the nickname "Duke" around the same time. Drawn by the ragtime music of the time, he joined the music world in 1917 with the biggest ad in the telephone yellow pages and a desire to be a band leader despite his then-limited repertoire. The ad worked, and he was soon heading up several Washington, D.C.-area bands. He worked on his technique by analyzing fingering from slowed-down piano rolls. In 1923 he ventured to New York City and formed the Washingtonians with friends. He landed the band a job at the Hollywood Club, where they began to play regularly and where Bubber Miley helped Ellington create the "jungle sound" that made his group distinct. After some struggles to find the right sound or breakthrough music, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra was born around 1926 with hot numbers like "East St. Louis Toodleoo" and "Birmingham Breakdown." The very next year, the group scored its break, earning a permanent spot at the Cotton Club on the strength of numbers such as "Black and Tan Fantasy" and "Creole Love Call." From there, Ellington and crew began radio broadcasts and became famous throughout the country. Fortunately for the band leader, he had found success by the time the Great Depression struck, and never lacked work or suffered through hard times. During the 1930s he built his band up with eight soloists--most bands didn't even have three. Leaving the Cotton Club in 1931, the Ellington Orchestra hit the road and became a big act throughout the country and soon throughout the world, touring Europe and Sweden in 1933 and 1939. By 1940 Duke Ellington's Orchestra was the greatest in the world, featuring newly acquired musicians like Ben Webster on tenor sax, Jimmy Blanton on bass, and Billy Strayhorn as an arranger and composer--all of whom, like many of the musicians who worked with Ellington, would go on to become some of the greatest names in jazz music. His 1940-42 band was one of his best, and Ellington added many songs to his repertoire during those years that would become lifelong standards--"Take the `A' Train," "Perdido," and "The `C' Jam Blues," among others. Ellington gave his first performance at Carnegie Hall in 1943, debuting "Black, Brown, and Beige." As the 1940s killed the big bands and bebop rose to prominence, Ellington continued to perform, tour, and record with his orchestra. The 1950s was his "slump" decade, even though his artistic output was never stronger. In 1956 Duke soared back into the spotlight at the Newport Jazz Festival. During the 1960s, he dabbled in religious music and collaborated with jazz greats who had not started under his wing, including Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Count Basie, John Coltrane, and Louis Armstrong. Ellington continued to tour and record extensively throughout the 1960s despite his age and received the recognition he so richly deserved. He outlasted many of his closest working partners, including Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Hodges, and continued making music despite the deaths of his associates and friends, updating the orchestra, and persevering until 1974 when, stricken with cancer, he died a month after his 75th birthday. Ironically, though Ellington was a widely known artist, much about the man remains unknown. Reticent to speak about his life, he is conspicuously absent as a character in his own autobiography, Music Is My Mistress. Ellington was an even-tempered man, some said almost saintly in demeanor. Even in the face of obvious prejudice--for example, when the Pulitzer Prize committee of 1965 denied him a special lifetime achievement award, overruling its own official judges--Ellington took it in stride, saying, "Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young." He was 66 years old at the time. each performance couldn't be the greatest ever, there were nights when the crew reached a unique level of inspiration and craft. All Star Road Band Vol. II [Rating: 5.0] (Signature, 1957/CBS Special Products, 1990) is one such occasion. At a dance one evening in Chicago in 1964, Ellington and his orchestra rocked the hall and tried out some new arrangements of the standards. He got superb solo work from trumpeters Cootie Williams and Cat Anderson, trombonists Lawrence Brown and Buster Cooper, and the entire saxophone section. This is a great one. Ellington revitalized his career with Ellington at Newport [Rating: 5.0] (Columbia, 1956/1987, prod. George Avakian), a big commercial comeback for the musician. "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" was one of the concert's most intense tunes, and the 27-chorus blues marathon solo by Paul Gonslaves drove the audience wild, so much so that there was nearly a riot. Ellington made worldwide news as a result and was back on top of the music world.

Truly the essence of the gentleman genius, the impact that Duke Ellington had on music--all music, not just jazz--could hardly be overstated. As probably the most important composer of the 20th century, it was Ellington who, during the crucial formative stages of the genre, pushed jazz beyond being mere "colored entertainment" and transformed it into a genuinely complex and artful musical form. He informed his compositions with thoughtful, grandiose statements and simultaneously kept his band swinging hard. And, rather than simply being content as a crack bandleader from "the early days," Ellington refused to be sentimental and kept growing and changing, always aware of and involved with the mutating beast known as jazz. Ellington first started playing the piano at age seven and, by the age of 18, had formed his first band, the Duke's Serenaders, and written his first composition, "The Soda Fountain Rag" (were it not for Ellington's job at the Poodle Dog Cafe, a D.C. soda counter, no telling what would have happened, for it was there that he got both his nickname and the inspiration for his first tune). Although the Serenaders were moderately successful and Ellington had just married and had a son, Mercer, it was decided in 1923 to attempt success in New York after being offered a gig with Wilbur Sweatman's band. Although it didn't pan out, Ellington was smitten with Harlem and, after a brief return to D.C., Duke and his "Washingtonians" (as the band was now called) headed back to the city. For good. The next four years (1923-27) laid the foundation for Ellington's future. The band had a steady gig at Club Hollywood (which became Club Kentucky after a fire), as well as weekly radio broadcasts. It was during this time that Ellington hired trumpeter Bubber Miley, who, for his brief period in the orchestra, would be a guiding light until his drinking forced his "early retirement" in 1929. However, it was in 1927, after the group's last season at Club Kentucky, that Ellington's star began to arc irreversibly skyward, since this was the year that the Duke Ellington Orchestra found itself hired at the renowned Cotton Club. Their "jungle nights" shows became the stuff of legend, with Ellington arranging and overseeing the outrageous floor show that brought in the huge crowds--black and white--every night. It was during this Cotton Club period that Ellington began composing in earnest, producing "Mood Indigo," "Tiger Rag," "The Mooche," "Black and Tan Fantasy," and many others. Also while at the Cotton Club, he hired an alto player who would inform most of the music he would make over the next 40 years: Johnny Hodges. In 1931 Ellington left the Cotton Club and headed out on the road, where he would stay for much of the next four decades. This was the era of the swingin' big band and Ellington did not disappoint, not only by making his band one of the top concert attractions, but also by composing dozens of hits, most of which would become standards over the years: "Sophisticated Lady," "Solitude," "Prelude to a Kiss," "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," and others. When tenor player Ben Webster, bassist Jimmy Blanton, and trumpeter Ray Nance joined in the early 1940s, Ellington had under his wing some of the best soloists in the business and the Orchestra's work blossomed accordingly. More importantly however was the arrival of Billy Strayhorn, who not only aided Duke by creating masterful arrangements and compositions of his own, but also by becoming one of Ellington's closest friends. During this period, the band was at one of its strongest peaks, and Ellington also debuted (at Carnegie Hall, no less) his first major, extended piece, "Black, Brown, and Beige." With the end of the war and the close of the big-band era, however, Ellington found the Orchestra struggling a bit, but with the royalty money from his compositions, he managed to stay on the road. Nonetheless, the replacement rate in the band was pretty high (even Hodges split for a while) and it wasn't until the early 1950s, with the return of Hodges and the arrival of masterful tenor player Paul Gonsalves (as well as the Duke's subtle assimilation of bebop forms) that the Ellington band was ready for action. Arriving at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival fully intent on unveiling a new work--the aptly titled "Newport Jazz Festival Suite"--Ellington was ready for action again. However, what he was not ready for was a riot. In one of the few real "historic moments" in jazz, the 7,000-strong crowd at the festival exploded in joyous rapture in the midst of Gonsalves's 27-chorus solo during "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." Headlines were made and Ellington was back on top. The period that immediately followed yielded few new major compositions (except, of course, "Satin Doll"), however the band, featuring Clark Terry, Cat Anderson, Buster Cooper, as well as Hodges, Nance, and Gonsalves, was certainly one to contend with. It wasn't until the 1960s (especially after a State Department-sponsored tour through the Middle and Far East) that Ellington again began unveiling compositional masterworks. All magnificent and of varying complexity (but consistent beauty), pieces like "The Far East Suite" (1966), "Money Jungle" (1962), "La Plus Belle Africaine" (1966), and "The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse" (1971), show that, even near the end, Ellington never lost his genius. After outliving nearly everyone in his earlier bands, Sir Duke died of cancer four weeks after his 75th birthday, leaving a legacy that will be felt for many, many years to come. issued on record in the past, it would be unreasonable to try to list and grade them all. Rather, what follows is an informative entree into this legend's prodigious output. Keep in mind, there is no such thing as a bad Ellington record, only ones that suffer from substandard sound (as is the case with many of the more historical documents) or less-than-perfect--though still better-than-average--performances. Of all the many documents of Club Kentucky/Cotton Club-era Ellington, the triple-disc set Early Ellington: The Complete Brunswick and Vocalion Recordings, 1926-31 [Rating: 5.0] (Decca, 1926-31/1994) is certainly the best. Due both to its scope (77 cuts, with a good dozen alternate takes) and the surprisingly good sound quality, this compiles all the sides that Ellington cut for Brunswick and Vocalion before 1931. Illustrative of the band's formative stylings, as well as Ellington's early compositional proficiency ("Tiger Rag," "East St. Louis," "Toodle-Oo," and "Black and Tan Fantasy" can all be found here), this is definitely the place to start to get a handle on the genesis of a genius. The Blanton-Webster Band [Rating: 5.0] (RCA, 1940-42/1987, reissue prod. Bob Porter) covers what is unquestionably one of the Ellington band's finest (if not the finest) eras. These three discs cover, logically enough, the strong and swinging combination of Jimmy Blanton's individualistic bass playing, the deadly tenor-alto combination of Hodges and Ben Webster, and the first collaborations with Strayhorn. Between 1940 and 1942 the Orchestra was unstoppable and this necessary set shows why. Carnegie Hall Concerts, January 1943 [Rating: 5.0] (Prestige, 1943/1991) contains Duke's first (of many) appearance at Carnegie Hall and, for the illustrious occasion, he debuted "Black, Brown, and Beige" in its entirety. Unfortunately, this two-disc set isn't entirely historically correct (some parts are spliced in from a Boston concert a few days later, due to the loss/damage of the original acetates). And, furthermore, the premiering suite winds up split between the last part of the first disc and the first part of the second. Regardless, between the mind-melting power of Hodges and Webster and the overall impact of the orchestra, this is valuable as both a document and a portrait of a genius moving from strength to strength. Although Hodges and Webster weren't present on Uptown [Rating: 5.0] (Columbia, 1952/1987, prod. George Avakian) (Hodges having temporarily struck out on his own; Webster permanently), new kids on the block Gonsalves, trumpeter Clark Terry, and powerhouse drummer Louie Bellson were on hand for this comeback of sorts. Alternating between pieces old and new ("The Mooche" and "Perdido" rest nicely next to more modern numbers like "Harlem" and "The Controversial Suite"), this studio set doesn't exactly break any ground, but, due to its undeniable strengths, it did help re-invigorate Ellington at a time when the least likely thing in the world was a successful big band. Ah, the show! . . . if you own only one live jazz album, let it be Ellington at Newport [Rating: 5.0] (Columbia, 1956/1987, prod. George Avakian). In an era of bebop, post-bop and hard bop, only Ellington's band could make a crowd lose its mind by having a tenor player wrench out a 27-chorus blues solo. "The Newport Jazz Suite" is here too, and it's certainly quite nice, but you've gotta hear that solo to understand why improvisation is the key to this music. Often overlooked, The Great Paris Concert [Rating: 5.0] (Atlantic, 1963/1989, prod. Ilhan Mimaroglu) is a stunning set (actually culled from four different concerts) which is exuberant and full of power. With Hodges now well back in the fold (with the inimitable Gonsalves as his tenor foil), and mainstays like trumpeters Cootie Williams and Cat Anderson, trombonist Buster Cooper, and baritone saxman Harry Carney, Ellington blazes through mostly newer material (the recorded debut of "Suite Thursday," his odd theme for TV's The Asphalt Jungle) with typical enthusiasm. And His Mother Called Him Bill [Rating: 5.0] (Bluebird, 1967/1988, prod. Brad McCuen) is a touching, but not moribund, tribute to the then-recently deceased Strayhorn (who died just three months previous to the recordings). The session finds Ellington and a 15-member group lovingly moving through 16 wonderful, yet less-known Strayhorn compositions (there's no "Lush Life" here). The playing here is tasteful, yet remarkably unrestrained, with Hodges letting loose some his most blistering solos to date. Source: MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide (Visible Ink Press