Here is a rerun of a piece I wrote for jazzinsideandout.com (now discontinued) some years ago. The Duke, by most accounts, was America’s “greatest jazz composer and bandleader of his time.” His impact on Western music has been immense, yet now nearly fifty years after his death we hear so little about him. What follows is a personal recollection about his music and its impact on me.
When I started pawing through the 78s in my parents’ library at around age twelve, there seemed to be a lot of Ellington sides, one or two going back to the early Cotton Club days of the late 1920s. But most were from the mid-1940s, that is, relatively contemporaneous music for me. I fell in love with those disks, a few Vocalions but mostly black-and-gold RCA Victors, because the Ellington sound was like no other.
I couldn’t then have put it this way, but what caught my ear was the voicing of the brasses and reeds. None of the swing bands sounded like that, and none offered the kind of rhythmic punctuation that characterized the Duke’s music. But it was the timbres his players achieved and their harmonic blends—the tone colors, if you will—that struck me.
Remade tunes like “Black Beauty” and new ones like “Esquire Swank” I played over and over. I got hooked on Joya Sherrill’s little-girl voice as she and the band made pop tunes like “Kissing Bug” and “Everything But You” into sterling three-minute compositions. I hadn’t yet heard the famous earlier stuff like “Cottontail” and “Ko-Ko.” But these tunes from the mid-1940s contained references to the war—whose events made a big impression on me—and to lovers and love affairs, to life, loss and leisure among adults. Then came Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” courtesy of Nat King Cole, the lyrics of which I didn’t understand. But music was a way to begin comprehending these things. Ellington’s music was a way to learn what sophistication meant.
The 1945-46 records were made by bands which developed out of the more famous Blanton-Webster unit of 1940, and in many ways they were almost as good. The basic personnel follows but changed often owing to the war’s toll and defections by some of the best players. Trumpets—Cootie Williams or Ray Nance, Wallace Jones and Rex Stewart (cornet); trombones—Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown; reeds—Barney Bigard, Otto Hardwick, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Ben Webster (later Al Sears); rhythm—Fred Guy, Oscar Pettiford, Sonny Greer, Duke Ellington (piano).
These became household names to me, familiar from their music and from photos and writeups. My firsthand knowledge of the band began in the early 1950s when some of my high school buddies and I would make regular trips to Chicago’s Blue Note where the Ellington band became a fixture for a time. We had fake IDs to get in and sought out members of the band to talk with during set breaks. Clark Terry and Russell Procope, who was kind of dour but sometimes willing to sit with us, were favorites. We liked Russell because of his cool, detached demeanor. Clark told great stories.
Duke’s music in the ‘50s has been subject to a lot of criticism, sometimes deserved. The band got brassy and repetitive; the maestro developed an addiction to certain formulas like the medley of famous old numbers, Cat Anderson’s high notes, and constant repetitions of “Satin Doll.” His key line, “We love you madly” became tiresome.
Terry Teachout’s book, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, is the new reference for Ellington’s history, his bands, his business dealings, the music, the life exposed in all its splendor and evasion. Forget the dozen full biographies; this will be the received source for many years. I learned an enormous amount I didn’t know.
It should be said that Duke, for all his greatness as composer, bandleader and musician, must have been impossible to deal with as a person. A spoiled child from his earliest years, he indulged every appetite every day—from steaks to superstitions to women—and procrastinated constantly, failing deadlines, commitments and friends. Withal, he was a kind of Beethoven whose genius would not be confined by accepted norms of behavior. The façade he maintained as a sophisticated Mr. Charm finally fooled no one though we all appreciated how well he played the role.
Duke was a consummate artist who was also an entertainer. His constant striving to create music was more than a passion; it was an economic necessity. Likewise with the brutal schedule of one-nighters and the nonstop travel. Likewise with the fluctuations in styles and personnels. To enable the band to survive as his instrument, Duke had to make many sacrifices, first among them his early partnership with Irving Mills, the manager who took most of the money and publishing credits in return for selling Ellington to the public.
Yet none of this really matters as we consider Ellington’s music.
Duke’s was originally a show band, a pit band, accompanying the dreadful jungle numbers at the Cotton Club. And to the end his music testified to that showbiz aspect. Throughout his career he was attracted to the stage, the opera, films and television. Early on, he was influenced by Paul Whiteman, “king of jazz” in the ‘20s—symphonic, highly arranged jazz, that is. We had Whiteman records in my house, and my parents used the names of Gershwin and Whiteman when they referred to jazz generically.
Contrary to received opinion, some of the band’s work in the ‘50s was fine stuff. It was the era of Ellington Uptown (1951), with Betty Roché’s version of “Take the A Train” and Louis Bellson’s drums on “The Mooche.” The Duke loved Bellson. “Skin Deep” here is part showbiz and part jazz. Maybe extended drum solos are always showbiz? My father and I often listened together to Uptown, one thing we could agree on liking.
Masterpieces by Ellington (1950), has gotten traction as one of Ellington’s most realized long-form recordings and “The Tattooed Bride” is one of the better examples of how he used longer forms. Like the “Tone Parallel to Harlem,” it’s really a kind of nonstop suite. The Duke forever had problems with truly symphonic long forms, and the critics were generally harsh.
Bethlehem has reissued the 1956 Duke Ellington Presents, on which you can find arresting performances of standards like “I Can’t Get Started,” with Ray Nance, “Deep Purple,” with Jimmy Hamilton (the band’s Mr. Clean), and an extended “Blues” featuring many of the others.
It was also the era of Ellington at Newport, a recording of the 1956 concert at which Paul Gonsalves took 27 choruses of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” which got the crowd on its feet, cheering and dancing. This album was the Duke’s best-selling LP ever and put him on the cover of Time. I still think Paul Gonsalves was an overrated player, and the 27 choruses are full of repetitious R&B fills.
Duke went on to produce other good things in the ‘50s, though many were mixed bags. The 1959 Jazz Party featured marimbas, tympani, xylophones and Latin percussion in two numbers, plus some of the same old same old. Still, he got Dizzy Gillespie to sit in on the album’s best cut, “UMMG” (Upper Manhattan Medical Group, Strayhorn’s tune); and Jimmy Rushing sang “Hello, Little Girl,” a rousing blues featuring Jimmy Jones on piano and Dizzy. One wishes the Duke had been able to explore such pathways more consistently.
Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s I sometimes had the feeling that Ellington was losing his way, that he was struggling to maintain his claim against the new music, or that the band was failing him. At the same time, I got to hear that band live on many occasions, and it was still a group of very extraordinary musicians playing an undying concept of jazz.
With someone whose music has endured like Ellington’s, at first the scope of the whole can overwhelm you since you jump into the stream where and when you can. Only later, when you have the chance to dip into the earlier music, do you come to understand how the later styles developed. Geoff Dyer put it this way: “As you move further back, so you are able to recognize the special traits of the predecessors; it is like seeing a photo of your great-grandfather and recognizing the origins of you grandchildren’s features in his face.”
The Duke in the ‘50s and ‘60s struggled to find a new audience through experiments like Jazz Party even as he kept playing the mainstream stuff—in the end pleasing nobody but the diehards like me. Which is another way of saying that, after all, the band and his muses didn’t desert him. If anything, the times finally did him in. But the great music he made will survive forever.