Always when writing about Duke Ellington there is the temptation to become a listmaker. Because once you get past the generalities and charge joyfully into the specifics, you find yourself in a Borgesian labyrinth no less alluring to an Ellingtonian than a cloister is to a medievalist. The inclination to get lost in Ellington and write about nothing else was never greater than in the middle and late 1970s, when posthumous works appeared almost weekly—many important, all encouraging revisionist wonder and, oh, maybe, hyperbole. Ellington copyrighted between 1500 and 2000 works (his Köchel will have a lot of cleaning up to do) and at least five times as many recordings, either intentionally or fortuitously, thanks to a legion of transcribers, recordists, tapers, and pirates, whom he blithely encouraged. Due to this plethora of versions and discrete interpretations, the labyrinth grows more intricate the deeper you wade.
Put aside the masterpieces and you find more masterpieces, or at least works of undeniable enchantment and satisfaction. One of my favorite records is a version of “In a Jam,” performed—according to discographers—in New York at an unknown location (presumably for a radio broadcast) sometime late in 1944. Ellington recorded the piece flawlessly in 1936, abandoned it for eight years, dug it out briefly, then shed it once and for all. The AABA tune is oddly ancillary to a dramatic eight-bar intro that recurs throughout—for example, extending the six-bar finish of the first chorus to 14 bars. That chorus is played, as on the original, by trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton, using two different mutes. But the G-spot of this particular performance is a chase chorus—actually two choruses—by Johnny Hodges and Ray Nance. In 1936, Hodges and Cootie Williams traded impeccable two-bar phrases. In 1944, Hodges and Nance roll out a riotous conversation in which phrases are two, three, and four measures, including a mimicked glissando that always makes me laugh. After that, tenor Al Sears plays a chorus, the sagacious Rex Stewart leaps in with a break and half-chorus, and the band goes out with that killer intro.
My point, beyond the one about God and details, is that this delightful find exists by accident; it’s more fun than the original; it radiates a charm wholly distinctive within the immense Ellington canon; and there are hundreds more where it came from. Ellington wrote so much music he even lost track of a few potential hits. The other night at the Firebird I heard Daryl Sherman sing an evocative melody—unknown to me—called “It’s Kinda Lonesome Out Tonight.” A little research shows that Ellington introduced it in 1947 on Armed Forces Radio with a vocal by one Chester Crumpley, and never recorded it or played it again—until 1973, when he recovered it for a Teresa Brewer album. Well, who listens to Teresa Brewer? After Daryl’s rendition gets around, it’s going to become a new Ellington standard—bet on it. Then there are the pieces he abandoned and reconfigured. The shapely “Black Butterfly” was a not particularly exciting 1938 vehicle for Lawrence Brown. Ellington jilted it for 30 years, only to revamp it for a 1969 European tour as an exquisitely dynamic concerto for Johnny Hodges.
Ellington was famous for renting studio time out of his own pocket and stockpiling music. The most astonishing example, because its existence was kept secret for so long, is The Queen’s Suite, a serenely impressionistic six-part work written as a gesture of gratitude for the “red-carpet treatment” he was accorded by Queen Elizabeth in 1958. Ellington recorded it at three sessions, pressed a single copy for her ears only, and never said a word about it until 1973, the year before his death, when he played excerpts and described the piece at length in his memoir, Music Is My Mistress. The public first heard it in 1976, a major work kept under wraps for 17 years; two sections, “Sunset and the Mocking Bird” and “The Single Petal of a Rose” have already (thanks largely to Tommy Flanagan) joined the list of Ellington standards, and “Northern Lights” is likely to follow.
People often describe their first time with Duke Ellington in terms of losing their virginity, and for me it seemed like the next best thing. I began at 15, with Masterpieces by Ellington, which I selected from the bewildering bin because the title promised a logical entrance point for a musician about whom I knew nothing. The album was recorded midway through the remarkable and often neglected 1947–52 period that produced Liberian Suite, A Tone Parallel to Harlem, “The Clothed Woman,” the Betty Roche “Take the A Train,” “The Tattooed Bride,” and the so-called “concert” arrangements of Ellington songs that he conceived to exploit the new long-playing album. The first of four tracks, an eventfully languorous 15-minute “Mood Indigo,” struck me as so serenely erotic that I figured if I ever did have sex (which I was beginning to doubt) this was what it would be like. All those strange, weaving instrumental voices spoke like personalities; I could almost imagine them in specific raiment, and what they had to say seemed privileged, like the Varga Esquires stacked behind my father’s hatboxes or the adult conversations that dried up as soon as I appeared. Had there been ratings, this was surely an R, not least for the mysterious one-name singer, Yvonne, with her lazy phrasing and lax intonation. The most mysterious episode was the chorus I later learned was played by trombonist Tyree Glenn with a plunger mute. Every note sounds like someone saying “ya ya,” and back then I debated for months whether it was in fact a weird instrumentalist or another weird singer.
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?
But most of the shots were fired, unbelievably, from the jazz world. Ellington always insisted, “I don’t believe in categories of any kind.” In transcending boundaries, however, he alienated many listeners he initially attracted. He took critical lumps every decade from pundits who judged his latest work a decline from the masterpieces that were also once decried as failures. Furious with lexicological critics who kept trying to lash him to the latest definition of jazz and then thundered in condemnation when he wriggled free, he defined jazz loosely (“an American idiom with African roots”) or not at all: “Jazz is only a word and has no meaning…I don’t know how such great extremes as now exist can be contained under the one heading.”
Still, if Ellington’s music stands apart, it is inseparable from jazz principles and always exhibits some or all of jazz’s standard characteristics: an equation of composition and improvisation, robust swing rhythms, dance-band instrumentation, blues or pop-song frameworks, blues tonality. Jazz is a music of improvisation, and improvisers of genius—Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker—have been able to recast it in their own idioms. But no instrumentalist experimented so constantly and variously for so long as Ellington did with his orchestra. Calling him a bandleader is like calling Bach an organist—which is, of course, precisely how both were known to their contemporaries. Ellington was his orchestra’s composer, arranger, conductor, pianist, talent scout, entertainer, agent, nursemaid, and advocate. He bristled at condescension of any kind, particularly the sort that disguised racial sociology as music criticism. In responding to a patronizing article by Winthrop Sargeant, Ellington expressed dismay at the notion that “jazz doesn’t encompass such emotions as tragedy, romantic nostalgia, wonder, delicate shades of humor, et cetera,” and continued: “Most of all, I was struck by Mr. Sargeant’s concluding statement, that given a chance to study, the Negro will soon turn from boogie-woogie to Beethoven. Maybe so, but what a shame!”
A recent problem has been uneven documentation by the record companies. Ellington’s most acclaimed period is the early 1940s, the years Billy Strayhorn, Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton, and Ray Nance joined up. Given carte blanche at Victor, Ellington enjoyed enormous record sales in those years, and he produced one benchmark after another. A record consumer in the ’50s and ’60s could buy anthologies on the order of In a Mellow Tone, At His Very Best, or Things Ain’t What They Used To Be, and know that in each instance he or she was getting 16 superb tracks. In the age of completism, you are asked to invest in the triple-disc Blanton-Webster Band with the admittedly small amount of chaff restored (including the first cut!) and no creativity or logic in the sequencing of 66 tracks (we won’t discuss the sound). The consumer is now expected to do the work of the a&r person.
Needless to say, I’m of mixed mind about all this. I want the complete works and, indeed, exultantly purchased them when, in the ’70s, French RCA issued 24 LPs covering 1927–1952 and French CBS released 16 LPs covering 1925–1937. But I don’t play them as much as I do the good anthologies and I suspect that the absence of those anthologies explains why so many are daunted by the Ellington labyrinth. Ellington has become received wisdom, like Shakespeare, certain to make you a better person if you take the trouble. Trouble? To listen to Duke? Go put on “Sepia Panorama” and see if the opening passage doesn’t make you glow, then go to “Conga Brava” and consider how he might have flourished in hip-hop America. This stuff is so alive you can scarcely believe the recording dates. “Rockin’ in Rhythm”: 1928! “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing”: 1932! The Far East Suite: 1966!
RCA Victor has just released a $400 limited edition 24-disc box, containing all of the label’s Ellington, 1927–1973, with acceptable fidelity—vivid if a bit trebly on the early material, more luxurious on the later work. Ellingtonians will gratefully gorge themselves. But it will be a poor birthday celebration if, when breaking the box into separate components, the separate volumes stick to chronology. Once again, the label messed with the incomparable And His Mother Called Him Bill, though not as badly as on the 1987 CD. This time it’s properly sequenced except for an inexplicable alternate take of “Raincheck,” but spread over two discs; with sensible sequencing, the entire original LP would have fit on the one disc, ending with the unforgettably lachrymose “Lotus Blossom,” as intended. Pray the labyrinth is rethought before it is opened to the general public. Columbia, which has more to answer for because it keeps more out of print, is about to issue several 1950s Ellington LPs. Rumor has it that Sony has mucked up the marvelous chimera created by Ellington and producer George Avakian in combining studio recordings with live material to recreate the excitement of the concert (advance not available); but it will include the Voice of America tape of the actual event, unearthed by Avakian years ago and never previously released. The Columbia advance discs I have heard are very solid, with the original LPs kept intact (including the mighty Such Sweet Thunder and the long undervalued Anatomy of a Murder), and numerous alternate takes and bonuses placed at the end.
The irony is that Ellington loved records and was always presciently quick to write for new technology. Just as early radio producers sought baritones rather than tenors, Ellington recognized the virtues and limits of early recording techniques and wrote accordingly. Thus his bottom-note voicings and ingenious figure-and-ground orchestrations of ensemble and soloist make his records sound more vibrant today than those of his contemporaries, especially those he made for Victor, which had the best engineers. He began chafing at the three-minute limit as early as 1931, with the two-sided “Creole Rhapsody” (Decca’s Jack Kapp was so aghast, he declined to renew his contract). A year later, at Victor, he was one of the first to make a true stereo recording, with two separate mike placements. In 1935, he recorded for Columbia the four-sided “Reminiscing in Tempo,” which was received so viciously he went into a brief seclusion. The 1940s concert works, beginning with Black, Brown and Beige, were recorded in excerpted form or not at all until the advent of the LP.
When tape was introduced here in 1947, followed a year later by the LP, Ellington was ready. Tastes in jazz and popular music were changing radically and many stars of the ’30s and ’40s were no longer climbing the charts. Victor’s doughnut-hole 45s sustained the jukebox trade, but the concomitant appearance of tape-
engendered high fidelity and discs that held 20 minutes and more a side were made to order for affluent grown-ups in postwar America. Performers like Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra could no longer compete on AM radio; the LP was ideal for them and their audiences. At the same time, Ellington began to revise his approach to swing, hiring virtuoso drummer Louis Bellson to help drive the increasingly daring propulsion of music that was less ornate and punchier. After the relatively brief period, 1943 to 1952, when he concentrated on extended forms, he realized that the LP and his own talent were best suited to the classic suite—a long form that consists of short forms, the miniatures at which he excelled. It liberated him.
Many artists failed to see the LP as anything more than a compilation of 78s—a dozen three-minute tracks instead of two, a symphony on one disc instead of six. Those with imagination instantly recognized two ways of using the LP that distinguished it from the 45: live recordings that retained the real-time ambience of a concert; and thematic recordings that saluted songwriters or explored eras and musical styles. Most jazz musicians availed themselves of extended playing time to record longer solos or longer versions of pieces that could be expanded or contracted at will. But few addressed the issue of form and function the way, for instance, Gil Evans and the Beatles did, creating a music that required the roominess of the LP and took advantage of high fidelity and tape trickery. No one understood this potential more fully than Duke Ellington.
A key transitional work was 1947’s Liberian Suite, commissioned for the nation’s centenary and made up of a heraldic opening and five diverse dances. Ellington used the new technology to overdub Al Hibbler’s vocal in the first movement, and Columbia released it as an early 10-inch LP. Two years later, Ellington began documenting his extended tone poems. In late 1950, he recorded Masterpieces by Ellington, which, eros aside, was one of the first genuinely significant 12-inch LPs, combining the “concert” arrangements of three of his ’30s hits and a radiantly genial slice of postwar modernism, “The Tattooed Bride.” One year later came the best of his long-form tone poems, Harlem, a triple-theme rhapsody that begins with the plaintive wail of cornetist Ray Nance, continues with the entwined romance of Harry Carney’s baritone and Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet, pulses with Louis Bellson’s rumbling drums, and attains resolution in the sublime eight-bar hymn introduced by trombonist Britt Woodman and developed in variations through the last third of the piece. Harlem exists in several recordings, but Ellington got it right the first time.
The next year, Ellington, like Sinatra, left Columbia for Capitol, which for him was a mistake. He began his new association with a bang, “Satin Doll”—his last hit single and, for many, the quintessential hi-fi big-band track. But this was not a happy period for him. With Hodges and Lawrence Brown gone and Bellson compelled to leave to accompany his wife, Pearl Bailey, he appeared to have doubts about his direction and even his past. The best of the Capitols are his deeply moving piano trios; his attempts at revision or modernization occasionally border on parody, if not blasphemy. All that changed with the shot heard round the world: his electrifying set at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Hodges and Brown were back and so was his confidence. One consequence of that evening was Time‘s belated decision to grant Ellington a cover, which if nothing else symbolized a renaissance in his creative powers that he sustained without letup over the next 28 years.
So let me yield to temptation and offer a short list after all—a 10-step survey of that last, long-belittled labyrinth within the labyrinth: the mature Ellington, the wise Ellington, the all-encompassing Ellington. 1. Ellington at Newport (Columbia), with “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” and Paul Gonsalves’s marathon tenor solo. 2. Such Sweet Thunder (Columbia), the Shakespearean suite, festooned with musical and numerical analogies to the plays and sonnets. 3. Ellington Jazz Party (get the version on Mobile Fidelity), with guest spots by Jimmy Rushing and Dizzy Gillespie and a melody written for percussion, “Maletoba Spank,” that will rattle in your brain until you die. 4. The Ellington Suites (Pablo), including The Queen’s Suite. 5. The Great Paris Concert (Atlantic), an exceptional performance that begins with a definitive “Rockin in Rhythm” and ends with Harlem. 6. The Popular Duke Ellington (RCA), exemplary chestnuts (excepting a throwaway “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me”), expertly recorded. 7. The Far East Suite (RCA), the pinnacle of his last decade, a riot of melody, rhythm, and racy dissonance, and a triumph of assimilation. 8. And His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA), perhaps the most sumptuous and moving of all Ellington LPs. 9. Latin American Suite (Fantasy), with scant suggestions of ’40s south of the border melodies, Ellington and Gonsalves have a field day. 10. The Afro Eurasian Eclipse (Fantasy), focused on reeds and rhythm (no brass solos), accessing chants, modes, rock rhythms, and one-world conceits that were just coming into play.
Ellington is the whole world at play. Wander in those corridors and you never come out. Fervently original, his music echoes its own echoes, world without end, amen, and is especially good at conveying “such emotions as tragedy, romantic nostalgia, wonder, delicate shades of humor” and a whole lot of et cetera. Plus, you can dance to it. And you will, one way or another.
A passage in this article was adapted from Gary Giddins’s Visions of Jazz: The First Century (Oxford), winner of the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism.