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Duke Ellington: Master of the American Musical Idiom

Wikimedia Commons

Duke Ellington’s death, just a little over a month ago, deprives American music of one of its great personalities and a great jazzman—some might say the greatest of them all. While none would seriously question his eminence, his position in music was always something of a paradox. For jazz has always been the field for the improvisor, the brilliant soloist, the individual who proclaimed his identity in odd juxtapositions of phrases strung into startling chorus after chorus: in Whitney Balliett’s brilliant phrase, the sound of surprise. But Ellington, for his part, seldom soloed as a pianist and never did so with much distinction. His real interest in music simply did not lie in that direction.

He was a composer, an arranger, the leader of a musical organization. He was far more interested in textures and tone, in the total sound of his music than in whatever incidental glitter he could add to it as a soloist. As has been said often, Ellington’s true instrument was not the piano but the band he led and wrote for. He played on it with the assurance of Louis Armstrong, the delicacy of Art Tatum and the inventiveness of Charlie Parker.

If Duke Ellington’s instrument was his band, this was so in large part because the man had a genius for attracting and holding the finest musicians, including some of the greatest soloists, in all of jazz. It was not only remarkable that men like alto saxist Johnny Hodges, tenor Ben Webster, clarinetist Barney Bigard, trumpeters Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart and Clark Terry worked for him, but also that they stayed on and on, some of them for 10, 20 and 30 years.

It was the permanence of the Ellington organization that made the Ellington sound possible. As he remarked once to the English critic Stanley Dance, “a certain sound comes out of a big band. It may be the character given it by a large brass section, or by a particularly skillful group of saxophones. The minute you change the men in the section, it doesn’t sound the same, although you may have the same arranger.” In the Ellington band the men in the section didn’t change very often, sometimes not for a decade at a time. He could write with a particular sound in mind — or variations of that sound—in full expectation that the men who had created it would be around to recreate it several years after that.

Then, too, because he was writing for a specific group of musicians, which included many fine soloists, he quite naturally began to write pieces that would display their individual talents to best advantage. As far back as the ‘20s he began featuring the now famous growl trumpet of Bubber Miley on a series of weird and angry-sounding pieces that included “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” and “The Mooche.” When Bubber Miley died and Cootie Williams was brought in to replace him. Cootie learned growl trumpet so well that he played all of Miley’s old solos and was rewarded eventually by Ellington with solo pieces of his own, such as “Concerto for Cootie” and “Echoes of Harlem,” that set off his own more sophisticated style perfectly. So it was with just about every member of the band—with baritone saxist Harry Carney (“Prelude to a Kiss”), clarinetist Barney Bigard (“Mood Indigo,” “Never No Lament”), and so on. Each had his solo talents and a number or two to show them off.

Duke Ellington was a jazz composer, one of the very few who could really write jazz and not just a setting for it. They say he produced more than 900 musical works of various lengths during his career—and it must be so, for he began as a bandleader back in 1923, leaving his native Washington, DC for New York where he led a band in Harlem that was known, inevitably, as the Washingtonians. This brought him eventually to the long Cotton Club engagement that established him as a bandleader. It amounts to a career of over 50 years in front of a band.

He wrote some lengthy and quite serious concert pieces especially for his band. The most successful of these were his Black, Brown and Beige Suite and a suite written to Shakespeare, Such Sweet Thunder. They were different from most such ambitious works by composers who worked in the jazz idiom in that they were neither ponderous nor pretentious. Ellington’s concert pieces were not in classical style, nor were they in some bastardized form of classical jazz, à la George Gershwin. They were jazz.

Toward the end of his career Duke Ellington began to fight shy of the jazz label, not because he was ashamed of it and aspired to something “higher,” but because he felt a pinch from labels of any sort. He preferred to speak of “the American idiom.” He felt the true artist’s fear of being understood too quickly.

Most people, however, knew Ellington best through the many popular songs that he wrote—and perhaps, after all, that was the truest way. The songs are well remembered from that long period from the 1920s through the war years when he was most active. To name a few—”Sophisticated Lady,” “Mood Indigo,” “I Got It Bad,” “Solitude,” and “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” — is to give a brief catalogue of some of the liveliest and most musically interesting popular songs of that period. They tell us something, too, about the nature of the man and his talent for, like all his best work, they are lyrical and fundamentally romantic in quality. His preference for impressionistic titles, his little arpeggios on piano, his fondness for literary sources — all these were the outward signs of the inward romantic (sentimentalist?) who dwelt very close to that famous sophisticated surface.

Well, romantic or sophisticate, jazzman or specialist in the American musical idiom, there will be no real replacement for Edward Kennedy Ellington, known universally as Duke. The sort of sustained career-long brilliance he offered comes along about once in 100 years or so. And he occupied 75 of them.