The Duke Ellington Orchestra performs Take the A Train with singer Bette Roche in the film Reveille with Beverly, released January 1943.
The Duke and I
Friday, May 24, 1974. As usual, while making dinner in the small kitchen of our grad school housing apartment at the University of Cincinnati, we turned on National Public Radio at 5:00 pm for the news. That evening the broadcast began not with words, but with some Ellington music. I remembered hearing some time ago that Ellington was seriously ill. I broke down weeping. I knew the Duke had died.
Music for me has been a lifelong series of amazing discoveries, almost really what I would call life events. I can often remember exactly when and where I was when I heard, with great excitement, a particular artist or album or song. But for whatever reason, I don’t have that memory association with Ellington. When I fell in love with her at the end of high school, I think jazz for me initially meant mostly combos. I remember exactly where I was when I discovered the E.S.P. and Miles Smiles albums by the second Miles Davis Quintet, Sonny Rollins’s yellow-bannered Now’s The Time! album on RCA, Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Dream on Columbia. I had discovered Johnny Hodges, but that was hearing his sides with Wild Bill Davis on Daddy-O Daylie’s radio show in Chicago. I remember my musically voracious friend Donny bringing over Jimmy Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I remember driving around weekends after midnight with Joey and Ron listening to the svelte sound of Sid (McCoy) and Yvonne (Daniels), which is where I first heard Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’, though for some reason I didn’t think of Oliver Nelson’s and Don Sebesky’s orchestrations on those albums as “Big Band” music.
My first memory of what I consciously identified as Big Band music was listening to a Count Basie collection the night before my departure to college in 1965. I was desperately gulping down as much music as possible, because my father, knowing me and knowing it would be a distraction from my freshman studies, wouldn’t allow me to bring my record collection to Champaign-Urbana. Somewhere along the way, though, I had to have learned something about Ellington, because when my best friend and fellow jazz enthusiast Charlie and I learned that whatever committee planned these things had hired The Duke Ellington Orchestra to play at one of the University’s annual dances, we eagerly bought tickets, not for dates, but to sit in the balcony to watch and listen. We tested ourselves trying to identify the soloists. Johnny Hodges! What should be a fond memory though is tinged with sadness, at least in retrospect. Though somebody on the entertainment committee had good taste, jazz was just not a popular thing on campus, and the Orchestra played to an almost empty ballroom.
Decades later, in the mid-90s, I made a more thorough study of Ellington. I bought dozens of CDs spanning his fifty-year career. In the late 80s Duke’s son Mercer Ellington and his sister Ruth had turned over to the Smithsonian Institution a treasure trove of materials. These led to a traveling exhibition, a fine representative collection of recordings spanning 1926 (East St. Louis Toodle-Oo) to 1967 (Billy Strayhorn’s Lotus Blossom), and an excellent biography by the Smithsonian curator John Edward Hasse, all under the very appropriate rubric, Beyond Category.
This Ellington research was entangled with a new love affair of mine. In mid-life I realized I was in love with America. With her democracy, her Walt Whitmanesque spirit and energy. With her vastness and diversity and history — from sea to shining sea, from Maybelle Carter and Hank Williams to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker, from Amazing Grace to Martin Luther King, Jr. In this context I have tried to understand the origins of jazz in general and Ellington in particular. I am intrigued by origins. As a student of ancient history, I am still mystified by the sudden blossoming of Greek civilization … from what? … and by the rise of Rome … why?. And I am hard put to capture the outsized achievements of these ancient civilizations with a label or a phrase. Similarly, despite the fact that I am contemporary with it, and though I have listened to it and studied it and contemplated it, I find myself incapable of truly comprehending the sudden emergence of jazz and of articulating its essence. No more so than with Duke Ellington.
Jungle + Elegance
The best I can do is to assert, with some hesitation, that Ellington’s music is a remarkable and uniquely American combination of jungle and elegance.
They called it “jungle music,” the music from Harlem’s Cotton Club in the Roaring Twenties that vaulted Ellington to national prominence. National prominence, because he played, not just to the Cotton Club’s whites-only live audience, but, over the newly erected radio networks, to the entire nation. “Jungle” referred to the growling sounds of Bubber Miley (the pioneer of wah-wah), Tricky Sam Nanton, and Barney Bigard; to the “somewhat exotic” chord progressions of, for example, the opening of The Mooche; to compositions to which Ellington himself gave names like Hottentot, Jungle Blues, Jungle Jamboree, and Jungle Nights in Harlem (Hasse). Ellington composed tone poems, mood pieces, and musical pictures of faraway places and distant pasts, a genre or style called “exotica.” “Jungle” evoked Africa just as Creole Love Call (with Adelaide Hall’s growling vocalization) and Creole Rhapsody evoked the Caribbean and, later and probably most famously, Juan Tizol’s Caravan evoked the sands of Arabia. “Jungle” in my formula Jungle + Elegance refers broadly to this type of music and its unique blend of Afro and American roots, sprouting from the people rather than from the salon or the academy.
But of course, unavoidably and unfortunately, “jungle” is also a racist term. I am well aware of the racial aspect of the history, of white hypocrisy, of the difficult psychological question of how Armstrong and Ellington and the other pioneering jazz artists processed and dealt with this racism. It is not my purpose to do so, but a lot could be said for example about Jig Walk , which Ellington wrote in 1925 for the revue Chocolate Kiddies. Interestingly, Chocolate Kiddies had a successful two-year run in Europe, an early example of America’s — Afro-Americans’ — gift to the world. (Regarding the history of the term, I read that “Jungle” is a sub-genre in the contemporary scene, related to stuff like Techno hip-hop and Hardcore Dance.)
To be clear then, I am not referring to the racist aspect of the term, unavoidable though the association is. Racy, though. In many people’s minds, and not incorrectly, the origins of jazz are associated not only with sexy Prohibition Era, Jazz Age establishments like the Cotton Club, but with the more rough-and-tumble variety of vaudeville (William James Basie before he was the Count), bordellos (the young Louis Armstrong), gutbucket cabarets, juke joints, and the like. And of course with Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl blues. Ellington knew the New York City version of this scene intimately, hustling with The Washingtonians between 1923 and his first Cotton Club engagement in late 1927.
Jungle, but the elements of Ellingtonian elegance are also already there in the Cotton Club. Stylistically, culturally, compositionally. Stylistically, Edward Kennedy Ellington was born a Duke. The product of a loving and stable family living in the black middle class neighborhood of Northwest Washington, he was taught the proper selection of knife, spoon, and fork by his father, who worked among other things as a butler. Edward, says Hasse, was a natural aristocrat from a very young age, in bearing, manners, taste, dress and self-confidence. As part of this, he was famously suave with the ladies — Sophisticated Ladies, of course. He was also religious.
Ellington moved to the jazz and northern black Mecca of Harlem in 1923. Culturally, the elegance of the Harlem Renaissance was already unfolding. 381 Edgecombe Avenue on Sugar Hill is a landmark.
Ellington’s compositional sophistication, and in that sense elegance — well, let’s just say, and few would deny it, he was a musical genius. The sophistication is already quite manifest in East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (covered many years later by Steely Dan!), Black and Tan Fantasy, and Creole Love Call, all recorded in 1927 just prior to the Cotton Club engagement, and Cotton Club-era classics like The Mooche, Black Beauty, Moon Indigo, and Rockin’ in Rhythm.
“I have two careers, and they must not be confused, though they almost always are. I am a bandleader and I am a composer.”Duke Ellington to Barry Ulanov, cited by Hasse, p. 17
In fact they are confused, because Ellington notwithstanding, they are inextricable. Over the course of his thirty-eight month engagement at the Cotton Club, Ellington added to the distinct voices of trumpeter Bubber Miley, trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton, and baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, to name the most widely known from his original ten-member Cotton Club orchestra, Ellington added the equally highly individualistic voices of clarinetist Barney Bigard (who replaced Rudy Jackson), alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, a third trumpeter, Freddie Jenkins, Cootie Williams (who replaced Miley), and a second (valve) trombonist, Juan Tizol. This Orchestra with these unbelievably individualistic voices was famously Ellington’s compositional laboratory. His compositions envisioned their performance by the highly distinctive sounds of his musicians, and this remained a hallmark of his compositional approach throughout his career.
Some of the orchestra members also composed. Cootie Williams wrote Echoes of the Jungle, probably in 1930. It features the distinctive instrumental voices of himself (open horn, then mute), Bigard, Hodges, Nanton, and the entire orchestra.
From early in his career, Ellington was noticed and admired by European composers and conductors like Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski, and Fritz Reiner. Some amusing things have been written about Ellington and classical music. Listening to Ellington’s arrangement of The Nutcracker Suite is one of my family’s Christmas rituals.
In fact Ellington’s music is so inextricably tied up with his distinctive musicians that Ellington in repertory has never grabbed me. Covering Ellington is something else, though. Some particular favorites: Ella Fitzgerald sings the Duke Ellington song book — the Norman Granz-Ella Fitzgerald songbooks do not take chances and are sometimes underwhelming, but they function great as collections, in this case of most of the Ellington and Strayhorn numbers for which lyrics have been written; Andy Bey’s Prelude to a Kiss, Caravan, Lush Life, and Satin Doll (from Andy Bey American Song) — Andy does take chances, and I’m all in with him; Mingus’s Moon Indigo (from Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus); Thelonius Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington, Monk’s debut album with Riverside, with Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke, and one of the rare occasions Monk played someone else’s music; and a brilliant album, World Saxophone Quartet Plays Duke Ellington, Hamiet Bluiett’s arrangement of and David Murray’s solo on Come Sunday being one of the great musical moments of my life.
America’s Gift to the World
For unknown reasons, Ellington left the Cotton Club in early 1931. As arranged by his manager Irving Mills, he took the Orchestra on the road, by bus and train across America from coast to coast and, reluctantly but bravely (elegantly), from north to viciously segregated south. And by ocean liner to a spectacular reception in Europe. For forty more years, this was to be Ellington and the Orchestra’s life. Two of my favorite Ellingtonians came on board during this period, trombonist Lawrence Brown in 1932 — Tricky Sam Nanton, Juan Tizol, and Brown became known as “God’s trombones” — and in 1934 versatile cornetist Rex Stewart (replacing Freddie Jenkins, who was hospitalized with tuberculosis). Besides memorializing themselves on wax and radio, Mills and Ellington actively pursued film roles for both Ellington and the Orchestra, and Ellington’s composing ambitions continued to grow.
This 1935 nine-minute film features Ellington’s four-part Symphony in Black (“a symphony of Negro Moods”) and is a precursor to Ellington’s groundbreaking 1943 appearance at Carnegie Hall and to his most ambitious composition, Black, Brown, and Beige (“a tone parallel to the history of the American Negro”). One of Symphony in Black‘s four dramatic scenarios (a love triangle) features the not-yet-famous Billie Holiday.
Reminiscing in Tempo, the Small Group sessions, the Blanton-Webster years, Billy Strayhorn, Come Sunday, the astonishing events at Newport 1956 (the opening scene in American Hustle playing Jeep’s Blues knocks my socks off), the film score to Anatomy of a Murder (love Clark Terry!), two astonishing albums recorded in the fall of 1962 that show just how hip the Duke was after so many years, Money Jungle with Charles Mingus and Max Roach and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane — it’s not my purpose in this blog to write the history of Duke Ellington, and these are just some of my favorite things. I will fast forward to two albums from Ellington’s final season. Billy Strayhorn died on May 31, 1967. If someone were to ask me to suggest one album that epitomizes the Elegance of Ellington and the Orchestra, it would probably be their Strayhorn tribute later that year, … And His Mother Called Him Bill. A few years prior to that, on September 6, 1963, the Orchestra left New York and embarked on a State Department tour that took them to Amman, Kabul, New Delhi, Ceylon, Tehran, Madras, Bombay, Baghdad and Ankara. Scheduled stops in Istanbul, Nicosia, Cairo, Alexandria, Athens and Thessalonica were cancelled because of President Kennedy’s assassination in November. The Orchestra went to Japan in 1964. From the Cotton Club and American jungle to America’s elegant ambassador to the world. Musically, The Far East Suite, the masterpiece Ellington, Strayhorn, and the Orchestra recorded over three days in December 1966, was “exotica” all over again, but with forty years worth of seasoning. America’s gift to the world.
And yet on Saturday, October 14, 1967 (the date as best as I can determine), I saw the Duke Ellington Orchestra playing a one-night stand for a fall college dance in the corn fields of central Illinois to an almost empty ballroom.