Rockin' in Rhythm

Edited by Gary Giddins
Coordinated by Elora Alexander

It's too bad some ruthless Hollywood editor cut to ribbons the score Ellington and Strayhorn wrote for Anatomy of a Murder (1959). But sew the snippets together again— with your imagination or tape recorder— and you have one of their most haunting extended works, a 35-minute sonic drama that features gorgeous playing by the band and memorable cameos by many of its leading soloists. Like Otto Preminger's film, the music explores tangled emotions, unanswered questions, and moral ambiguity. The theme Johnny Hodges plays in "Flirtibird" suggests the dangerous eroticism of Laura Manion (Lee Remick's character), while in "Almost Cried," Harold Shorty Baker recasts the same melody to expose her loneliness and vulnerability. "Hero to Zero" tells the story of murder victim Barney Quill by moving abruptly from an exuberant up-tempo section to a dirge for tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves that ends with richly dissonant chords dangling in the air. "Sunswept Sunday" is another study in contrasts, showing small-town America to be a place of communal solidarity (i.e., the consoling, hymnlike tune) and individual isolation (the plaintive duet for clarinet and trombone). Anatomy of a Murder shows Ellington and Strayhorn probing the tensions and anomalies of everyday life, searching for clues, like Jimmy Stewart in the movie, to the insolvable mystery of human behavior. —Mark Tucker

Beneath Duke Ellington's onstage persona, the most luxuriant (in fact the only) demonstration of elegance as sustained irony ever witnessed in American entertainment, lay a far deeper, tougher, more essential kind of elegance that spoke with absolute originality and a majestic inclusiveness over a vast range of human experience. This was the elegance that emerged whenever he addressed a piano keyboard. If Ellington had been born without the particular gifts and desires necessary to put together and maintain an "orchestra," but otherwise unchanged; if he had spent his life leading small groups and playing solo, his reputation would not be significantly less than it is now. Along with James P. Johnson, Waller, Tatum, and a handful of others, he would be recognized as a commanding figure in the history of jazz piano, therefore in jazz itself. All of Ellington's piano-centered recordings are glorious, especially Duke Ellington the Pianist and Solos, Duets and Trios, which contains the groundbreaking duets with Jimmy Blanton. But Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington puts Ellington's genius as both accompanist and soloist in particularly sharp focus. You can hear exactly where Thelonious Monk and Jimmy Rowles found inspiration, and Duke's earthy, sublime, percussive playing offers surprise after surprise. —Peter Straub

Believing as I do that the three greatest minutes in all of American music are contained within the bar lines of Ellington's 1940 "Ko-Ko," it has to be my choice for Duke's greatest piece. (Except, perhaps, for "Concerto for Cootie." Or "Harlem Air Shaft." Or maybe "Warm Valley." Or . . . ) "Ko-Ko" 's perfect crescendo-diminuendo architecture, its rocketing intensity, Jimmy Blanton's leaping bass breaks, the Harry Carney foundation the whole piece is built upon— at no point does it sound like any other Duke tune, and yet no one else could possibly have written it. And, in nearly 60 years, no other band has been remotely able to play it so well. —Daniel Okrent

"Black and Tan Fantasy" (1927) is musically superb and historically important as one of the first jazz compositions that qualifies as modernism— akin to School of Paris primitivism and advanced writing. The various growling brass sounds of Ellington's Jungle Band (as it was billed) are as calculated an artistic construct as Brancusi's carved African-esque sculptures or Picasso's tribal-influenced paintings. Allusion projects meaning, as in Joyce and Eliot. The dirgelike number concludes with trumpeter and co-composer Bubber Miley quoting Chopin's Funeral March, as befits the racial connotations of the title. "Tan" refers to light complexions, long deemed an advantage to African Americans, starting with candidates for the chorus line at the Cotton Club. A funeral march is apt if Ellington is grieving that the race issue— crippling color-consciousness and self-hatred among blacks, simple bigotry almost everywhere else— could prove the death of America. His fantasy proffers music as a healing, multicultural balm, comic relief included. Trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton's raucous horse whinny at the end of his plaintive plunger solo points to the nag pulling the coffin and the fun in funeral, the wit and ebullience that's invariably around the bend in Duke's jungle. —Alfred Appel, Jr

Hidden in an often overlooked trio recording from 1961, Piano in the Foreground, is a moment— but only a moment— in which Ellington seems to be ruminating over his past and scanning the horizon of the music of the future. "Summertime" is the Ellington that Cecil Taylor heard, a pianist who could set sail over a threatening and indefinite pulse, and reprogram a beloved pop tune by expanding and diminishing melodic rhythm, letting intervals ring (like Monk) for their own sake, rattling the keys with deep tremolos, and ending with dense clusters and a fist in the bass. Like all the signal figures of jazz— especially Armstrong, Morton, Hawkins, and Parker— Ellington could unsettle fans' and critics' expectations by simultaneously embracing all existing styles and presaging those yet to come. And here, for those who were listening, he was redefining swing. —John F. Szwed

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