Duke Ellington: “The most representative American Composer”, A pivotal figure in the history of jazz

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Duke Ellington’s influence: as seminal orchestral band leader; compositional genius; and his depth of musical contribution to jazz, modernizing without precedent, and his extensive legacy of recordings. In his own words, Ellington expressed that jazz was “beyond category” and renowned music critic, novelist, and literary scholar Albert Murray spoke of him as “the most representative American composer.” With a career that ranged through the earliest jazz periods of the 1920s to his famous 1954 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival that revitalized his popularity and acquired new listenership, Ellington’s recordings and performances span over 50 years. Forming his first band in 1917, “The Duke’s Serenaders,” as he would call them, to 1932, establishing and conducting the many reformations of The Duke Ellington Orchestra, leading an international touring life until his last performance in ‘74 in the U.S., just 3 months before his passing, at the age of 75, from lung cancer. 

Although a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, in the opinion of jazz musician, composer, historian and educator, Gunther Schuller and jazz historian and musicologist Barry Kernfeld, Ellington was “the most significant composer of the genre,” in the category of American music.

(Schuller, Gunther; Kernfeld, Barry (2002). “Ellington, Duke (jazz) [Edward Kennedy]”. Grove Music Online (8th ed.). Oxford University Press.).

Having composed over 2,000 pieces, Ellington is esteemed as the most prolific creator in jazz. In particular, from 1930-39, he set a high bar for other Swing-era big band leaders to follow, compositionally. The American songbook is filled with his sophisticated, adventurous, and fully integrated orchestral arrangements from this period alone. Although there was a lot more competition from big bands with the rise of the swing era in 1935, Ellington remained a major name. Such compositions as Mood Indigo, Rockin’ in Rhythm, It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing, Sophisticated Lady, Drop Me Off at Harlem, In a Sentimental Mood, Caravan (written by valve trombonist Juan Tizol), I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart, Prelude to a Kiss, Solitude and Boy Meets Horn have all become standards.

Historically, from an innovative point of view, he fully utilized his orchestra – more so than any other bandleader during this period and throughout his career. He was a pioneer, not interested in following an arrangement template. “A genius for instrumental combinations, improvisation, and jazz arranging brought the world the unique “Ellington” sound that found consummate expression in works like Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady, and the symphonic suites Black, Brown, and Beige and Harlem (Wise Music Classical).

Ellington would experiment with arranging techniques throughout his career, never satisfied until he examined the variety of options available to him from his evolving fifteen ensemble musicians. He was constantly pushing the musical limits his creative mind could find and thereby discovering new voicings. As a bandleader and composer, Ellington was unique in his approach as to what was possible or untried.  

“Always looking for new sounds, he would try different instrumental combinations, combining a clarinet with a muted trumpet, or baritone saxophone and trombone. He became known for cross sectional writing, combining instruments from the brass section with the reed section. This was an important development in jazz arranging, as most arrangers of the period were only writing in a sectional style.”

His arrangements were also recognized as a brilliant departure from the contemporary standard of the time, as he fully developed the concept of writing solo pieces for specific musicians, particularly his horn section. Instead of an instrument section standing up in unison and delivering a set melody passage, his soloists would often have the limelight. This feature was expanded, offering a variety of superbly talented artists the chance to improvise, including trumpeters Cootie Williams, Clark Terry, Ray Nance, Cat Anderson, and Willie Cook; trombonists Lawrence Brown, Buster Cooper, and Britt Woodman; and saxophonists Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, and Paul Gonsalves; and clarinetist Barney Bigard. The Jazz Blog at the Jazz at Lincoln Center summarizes Ellington’s conceptual framework:

“Ellington ultimately proved that his true instrument was the American Orchestra itself. Leading and anchoring his ever-evolving band for half a century, Ellington showed how the American Orchestra could achieve a perfect balance of music that was both shaped by the composer while also birthed on the spot by the musician.”

The period that began in 1939 is identified by jazz critics as Ellington’s most prodigious output, destined to become part of the canon of standards he would produce for the RCA Victor’s recording label. During this time, he also became the beneficiary of an extraordinary partnership and musical relationship with Billy Strayhorn, a gifted young composer, lyricist, arranger, and pianist. This quiet genius and cerebral composer became the right arm of Ellington, most famously writing and arranging Take the ‘A’ Train, a swing-era standard in the summer of ‘41, later to be recognized as a milestone of modern jazz composition.

Their collaboration would include classics like Lush Life, Lotus Blossom, Satin Doll, Day Dream, Something to Live For, and C Jam Blues. Though Strayhorn often did not receive the primary credit for many of his song compositions, (which were arranged by both artists for Ellington’s orchestra), today his authorship of many Ellington tunes is recognized. AllMusic critic Richard S. Ginell speaks to current archival research of Strayhorn’s songbook, “diligent searching of the Strayhorn archives (mainly by David Hajdu, author of the excellent Strayhorn bio Lush Life) revealed that Strayhorn’s contribution to the Ellington legacy was far more extensive and complex than once thought.” Nonetheless, their partnership in musical collaboration for over 30 years remains one of the most productive and a high-water mark in the foundation of the American jazz songbook. In Ellington’s own words, “Strayhorn 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.”

Intersecting with this same groundbreaking and pioneering musical period, personnel changes in the Duke Ellington Orchestra added several extraordinary jazz musicians to the lineup. Stand-up bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster were to contribute an historical innovative element, each with their own instrument, articulating solos that broke the mold of current convention in a jazz orchestra.

Considered on a short list of the finest jazz bassists, Blanton “transformed the rhythm section” of Ellington’s orchestra. Jazz critics refer to the 1940 recording of Jack the Bear and Ko Ko as Blanton’s moment of “shattering” the traditional role of his instrument, “with his virtuoso pizzicato (plucking notes with his finger) technique, he showed how the bass could contribute exciting solo lines and interact with the ensemble without surrendering its basic timekeeping role.”

Ben Webster would add equally innovative techniques on the tenor saxophone. Considered one of the three most important “swing tenors” along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, he became Duke’s first major tenor soloist, and particularly featured on Concert for Cotti, Cotton Tail, and All to Soon. Webster delivered a range of emotions on his instrument, “a tough, raspy, and brutal tone on stomps (with growls) yet on ballads he played with warmth and sentiment.” Both musicians became so integral to the expanding innovations produced by Ellington’s arrangements during this period, that this 1940’s personnel formation became known as the Blanton-Webster Band.

Another broadening dimension of his musical undertakings began in ‘43 through to ‘52, seeing the potential for the American orchestra to develop longer-form compositions. He would produce a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall that spoke to a larger musical palette of emotion and imagination, “with his ‘tone parallel’ Black, Brown, and Beige, the Deep South Suite; the New Orleans Suite; the Sacred Concerts and more, he (Ellington) offered up a vision of expressive potential in the music and a clarion call to artists to explore further possibilities. In doing so, he rose to become America’s greatest composer.

Black, Brown, and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the American Negro was an intimately personal piece, speaking to his African heritage and a reckoning about race and racism in America and the world. As early as 1931, Ellington had talked about developing this suite, which would be 45 minutes in length, “it will be in five parts, starting in Africa and ending with the history of the American Negro.” In 1933 Hannen Swaffer, an English columnist, published an interview in which Ellington spoke of the unwritten work “so evocatively that you could all but hear it playing in the background”:

“I am expressing in sound the old days in the jungle, the cruel journey across the sea and the despair of the landing, and then the days of slavery. I trace the growth of a new spiritual quality and then the days in Harlem and the cities of the [United] States. Then I try to go forward a thousand years. I seek to express the future when, emancipated and transformed, the Negro takes his place, a free being, among the peoples of the world.”

(Excerpt From Duke by Terry Teachout https://books.apple.com/us/book/duke/id626999223)

The multi-movement jazz suite originally debuted at Carnegie Hall on January 23rd, 1943, and per critics at large, the composition received mixed, if not critical, feedback. It is now seen as a complex American masterpiece of originality in statement and in his personal musical expression of the Black experience in the United States that sets out to “broaden a people’s and a country’s sense of its history.”

As Ellington would tour relentlessly throughout his life, he became an early international star with his Duke Ellington Orchestra, playing throughout Europe and other continents when not performing in the U.S. On the promotional fruits of his early days at Harlem’s Cotton Club and its weekly broadcasts on radio, the Duke Ellington Orchestra started travelling overseas in 1932, first to Britain, then across Europe. Throughout his professional career he received enormous loyalty from around the world, playing to live audiences. He remained a respected and celebrated bandleader without peer on stage, actively arranging and composing until the final year of his life.

Ellington’s list of awards and recognition speak more to the character of the man himself, including:

·  1966: Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

·  1969: Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the US

·  1971: an Honorary PhD from the Berklee College of Music

·  1973: the Legion of Honour by France, its highest civilian honor

·  1999: posthumous Special Pulitzer Prize for his lifetime contributions to music and culture

He was the consummate dedicated genius at his craft with undiminished motivation, as reflected on by Gunther Schuller in his 1989 publication, The Swing Era: “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.” (Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).