Rockin' in Rhythm

Edited by Gary Giddins
Coordinated by Elora Alexander

Fifteen years ago, we ran a section called "Ellington at 85," combining a few longish essays with a survey of records. This time, we've asked more than 40 jazz critics and historians to write 200 words each on any Ellington selection, album, tune, musician, or notion that the centenary mood inspired. Most of us chose recorded examples of the master's art, and, fittingly and inevitably, the selections suggest a far different canvassing of his huge body of work than last time. We are still too close for consensus, yet I suspect Ellington will always inspire the kind of diversity you find here, because the labyrinth is so immense. Those who discovered him when he was alive often remain most smitten by the Ellington style that accompanied the moment of revelation. But all of us have gained entry at different points. There is no agreed-upon best-of starting gate, no defining Kind of Blue. One thing is certain: an unprecedented openness to all his music. Prejudices on behalf of prewar Ellington at the expense of postwar Ellington, or for Ellington the miniaturist versus Ellington the long-form composer, have withered on the vine.

One of the most intriguing results of the present conclave is the number of briefs on behalf of Ellington the pianist. Before 1970, every Ellington poll focused on the years 1940­43. Our 1984 poll made a strong case for the band of the '60s, especially The Far East Suite and And His Mother Called Him Bill. In 1999, nearly a fifth of the respondents have chosen piano records. Beyond that, the most fascinating result is the number of recordings mentioned, the number of periods discussed. Only five albums, for example, were mentioned more than once: The Far East Suite and Money Jungle (thrice each); and Hifi Ellington Uptown, Piano in the Foreground, and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (twice each). The original Black, Brown and Beige, unrecorded in its entirety by Ellington, was also mentioned twice. In terms of Ellington eras, a very loose breakdown— taking liberties with some of the more general pieces but counting each no more than once— looks like this: the late '20s (5), the early '30s (1), the middle '30s (1), the late '30s (3), the early '40s (8), the late '40s (1), the early '50s (3), the middle '50s (2), the late '50s (4), the early '60s (10), the middle '60s (5). Nothing from after 1967. The outsize number representing the early 1960s (mostly piano music) is unexpected, suggesting that at least one generation of Ellington lovers came to him through his encounters with postbop modernists. The overall variety, however, is characteristic and illuminating (for one, Larry Kart is absolutely right about the amazing and overlooked "The Sergeant Was Shy"). This birthday salute has no scientific value; it's an exercise in love, nostalgia, and respect. The Voice's bicentennial tribute to Ellington will be another story entirely. —Gary Giddins

With so many recordings of Duke Ellington's music— the dazzling new sounds he introduced in the 1920s, leading to the peak years of the '40s, and so on— it's easy to overlook the 1967 album, And His Mother Called Him Bill. Of the many celebrated relationships his vast catalogue documents, none could have mattered as much to Ellington as the bond he formed with Billy Strayhorn, whom he called, "my right arm, my left arm, and all the eyes in the back of my head." And His Mother Called Him Bill, recorded just months after Strayhorn succumbed to cancer, bears the earmarks of most of Ellington's work: tight section playing, thoroughly innovative harmonies, forward-leaning tone clusters by Duke on piano. In showcasing Strayhorn's compositions, Ellington achieved much more. Saxophonist Johnny Hodges gives one of the greatest performances of his career on "Blood Count," calling up anger, grief, pride, and doubt with a single sonorous line. And when Ellington sits down for a solo rendition of "Lotus Blossom," the architecture of his famous monuments is cast aside: All we hear is the generosity and passion that built it and a longing for a collaboration that could never be replicated. —Larry Blumenfeld

Thanks to free Shakespeare-in-the-park programs, I was already familiar with the Bard's plays when I attended the Town Hall premiere of Duke and Billy's Shakespearean suite on April 28, 1957. In the succeeding four years, as undergrad and grad student, Elizabethan drama and poetry were my main focus. Shakespeare being to that literature what Ellington is to jazz, Such Sweet Thunder uniquely resonated for me. As Ellingtonia, it's also tops, pushing the conventions of big band jazz as much as or more than any of the other Ellington-Strayhorn suites while stimulating the imaginations of all who are the least bit familiar with Shakespeare's plays. The title tune is grand, processional swing via Othello. "Madness in Great Ones" (Hamlet) foreshadows the wild, episodic juxtapositions (paranoia?) of Downtown music; "Up and Down" is a hilarious, skipping romp, "Lady Mac" a waltzing one. Then there are the sonnets, miniatures as unique in tonal colors as they are original in form. Sensual and exotic, "Star-Crossed Lovers" and "Half the Fun" are perfect soundtracks for Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra. —George Kanzler

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