The Long-Playing Duke

I soon learned that the private, gossipy, moaning, declaratory, seductive, angry, dreamy, exultant, and sexy expressions of the individual characters assembled in the greatest of all bands were the essence of Ellington's music. "I regard my entire orchestra as one large instrument, and I try to play on that instrument to the fullest of its capabilities," he wrote in the halcyon year 1942. "My aim is and always has been to mold the music around the man. I've found out that it doesn't matter so much what you have available, but rather what you make of what you do have." In the same period, he told an interviewer, "You can't write music right unless you know how the man who'll play it plays poker." Ellington crafted a score as though casting roles in a drama—he wrote a "Concerto for Cootie," never a concerto for trumpet.

He could not have assessed the poker-playing habits of his musicians so completely had he not been able to maintain their loyalties for so long. No other composer in history had his own orchestra for half a century or commanded comparable dedication from as many celebrated musicians. I emphasize composer to distinguish Ellington from other bandleaders whose long-running organizations were fueled by staffs of arrangers and the unlimited supply of published music. Almost all of Ellington's best-known work was composed and arranged by himself or in collaboration with members of the organization, most especially Billy Strayhorn. Because of his great success as a songwriter, he could play both artist and patron. He was court composer and prince of the court, subsidizing the band with his royalties. His reward was a magnificent if occasionally unruly ensemble at his beck and call, comprising extraordinary musicians who devoted years and, in some instances, lifetimes to his music.

He paid his musicians well and permitted some laxity; but when precision was required, precision was delivered. If someone faltered, he had his own methods of discipline. Cootie Williams, the great trumpet stylist, used to put his dentures in right before the the band opened—invariably with his trademark solo on "Take the A Train." If he appeared onstage late, Ellington would follow his theme with the announcement, "Cootie Williams wants you to know that he, too, loves you madly, and now Cootie Williams in..." and he'd call a cruncher that would have Cootie's choppers rattling like dice.

What the musicians got from Ellington was the chance to play great music fashioned specifically for them. Consider all the Ellington stars whose work outside the band was largely negligible. Even Hodges, a member for 37 years, who scored a major r&b hit in 1951, accomplished little else outside the fold—when he ended his five-year leave, he reached new heights. What Ellington got from them was the chance to hear everything he wrote. Whether he was battling the deadline for a suite or amusing himself with a bauble, he was able to audition and revise it immediately. And the unequaled bond between Ellington and his men encouraged him to try everything.

Because he wrote intuitively and pragmatically, he happened upon many of his sui generis sounds with the impetuous creativity often associated with improvisation. His cryptic orchestrations, exemplified by the first chorus of "Mood Indigo," as voiced for straight-muted trumpet, plunger-muted trombone, and clarinet—prompted André Previn's observation: "Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, , yes, that's done like this.' But Duke merely lifts a finger, three horns make a sound, and I don't know what it is."

Imagine the scene at one of Ellington's recording sessions: The musicians are assembled, and the parts of a new score have been distributed. The band plays it through, and the maestro begins to call out alterations: in bar six, third trumpet should flat the A-natural; in the second release, the bass trombone will play in tandem with the reeds; in the last chorus, the violin solo will continue another eight bars. By the time he has honed the piece to his satisfaction, and completed the recording, the result is significantly different from the original manuscript.

In those instances where Ellington and his copyists failed to incorporate alterations in a master score, the records are the finished work. I once asked Mercer Ellington why he used a slide whistle in a performance of "Daybreak Success," one of Duke's many train songs, and he admitted he couldn't figure out how his father got the reeds to simulate that sound. Today, 100 years after his birth and a quarter-century after his death, Ellington's originality, scope, and abundance are more widely recognized than ever. Though he had passionate admirers in and out of the academy as early as 1927, the verdict was mixed for a long, long time. When I was an undergraduate, a member of the music faculty said he would concede Ellington's importance if his music were still being played in the next century. The clock is ticking, pal. And when were you last requested to play your Concerto for Dental Drill?

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