He said he decided to become a musician when, in his youth, he realized that "when you were playing piano there was always a pretty girl standing down at the bass clef end of the piano."
By the end of his life, he would declare, "Music is my mistress." And so it was. No lover was ever better kept, or in higher style. Duke Ellington knew how to treat his Muse. And the favor was mutual.
He was called "Duke" because he was something of a dandy, with a love of fancy clothes and an elegant style. He retained those traits throughout his life, but he wore his sophistication without a hint of sham or prissiness. So it is in his music, as well: delicacy goes hand in hand with daring, introspection swings. The secret of the Ellington style was that it was no mere style at all, but simply the outermost manifestation of the substance within.
The power of his presence was as strong off the stage as on. Ellington's nephew, Stephen James, says, "When you were in his presence, you felt it. If no one knew him and he were in... [a] room, everybody would be drawn to him. It was just the nature of his aura, his magnetism."
Long before James Brown christened himself "the hardest working man in show business," Duke Ellington earned the title for all time. "Nobody else does what we do for fifty- two weeks of the year, every day of the week," he said. The gritty details of his life might not appear so glamorous: constantly on the road, composing his masterpieces in stolen moments in cars or at odd hours in hotel rooms. But that was the environment in which Ellington's genius thrived. And according to those who knew him, his graciousness and elegance -- so obvious in the image of the suave, eloquent piano player in tails -- were no less obvious when he was encountered at work, sitting naked at his portable piano in the waning moments before dawn.
Granddaughter Mercedes Ellington remembers complaining to Duke of homesickness, after a six-month stint on the road in the touring company of a musical comedy. Her grandfather was incredulous. "Home," he admonished her, "is where the work is."
Ellington's career as a bandleader lasted more than fifty years; during at least forty-five of which he was a public figure of some prominence. It is often said that there were three high-water marks in that span. The first occurred in the late 1920s, when he attained the security and prestige of a residency at the Cotton Club, where the best black entertainers of the day worked for gangsters and performed for all-white audiences. Duke survived those years with his dignity intact -- no small achievement -- and he learned from his musicians, some of whom were then more skilled than he. By the end of the twenties, he had begun to experiment and develop as a composer and arranger, and he had several hits under his belt. Among those popular successes were some of his earliest masterpieces, engaging bits of exotica that reveal their subtlety and solidity only after careful listening.
In the early thirties, he sharpened his skills, and made his first attempts at composing longer works. Reworkings of his earliest successes, recorded in the middle of the decade, show the progress he had made. Gone is the chugging sound of early jazz bands, replaced by a panorama of musical textures bound together by a subtler but no less incisive pulse.
He still learned from his musicians. He studied their strengths and weaknesses, and wrote to emphasize the former. Like Haydn, he had a consistent group of musicians to work with day after day, and in many cases, year after year. They grew and matured together, Duke and his orchestra.
By the late thirties, he had assembled the best collection of players he ever had under his command at one time. And he was ready. The second flowering of Duke Ellington dates roughly from 1938 to 1942. This span covers the brief tenure in the band of Jimmy Blanton, the doomed young virtuoso of the string bass, as well as the residency of Ben Webster, Duke's first tenor sax wizard, who completed a reed section that already boasted Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Barney Bigard. The trumpet section had Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams (replaced by Ray Nance in 1940). The trombones were Joe Nanton, Juan Tizol, and Lawrence Brown. Sonny Greer on drums. And the piano player, as Duke often referred to himself.
(It's worth noting here that all these musicians are among the major players in the history of jazz, renowned as masters of their instruments. Many of them left the Ellington fold, and some eventually returned. But without exception, their reputation, their legacy, their memory rests entirely on the time they spent with Duke. Perhaps there was something in his nurturing that left them less capable of expressing themselves away from his influence. But I think it is simply that he was better able to judge what they did best than they were.)
Duke showed off his players in miniature masterpieces, three- minute concertos that displayed a single soloist against the backdrop of a tightly-knit ensemble. Some of these pieces are among his most enduring. Others from this time, equally memorable, explore a dizzyingly shifting labyrinth of textures, as different instruments take the lead and the accompaniment moves from one section of the band to another.
War, a recording ban by the musicians' union, the radio networks' boycott of ASCAP, changing tastes in popular music, and the loss of a few key musicians all conspired to bring Ellington down from this peak. The later forties and early fifties would be relatively lean years, but not without their rewards. By 1943, Duke had begun a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall, as well as the regular production of extended, concert-length works, beginning with Black, Brown and Beige. Billy Strayhorn, a brilliant young arranger who had joined the band in 1939, became increasingly important as Duke's principle collaborator in composition. By most accounts, Strayhorn was a musical genius of Mozartean proportions for whom composing music was as natural as breathing. Capable of doing almost anything musically, he chose to spend most of his adult life as an adjunct to Ellington, matching his compositional style to the maestro's, but also introducing some new musical concepts that would become part of Duke's palette. Ellington always learned from his musicians, but Strayhorn was his postdoc fellowship.
1951 saw the defection of Johnny Hodges, Sonny Greer, and Lawrence Brown, signaling the most serious slump in Ellington's career. Yet some of the recordings from that time reveal a band brimming with vitality, exploring new ideas and recasting old ones in sometimes surprising forms. At the same time he was building his reputation as a composer of serious music for the concert hall, he was also reinventing himself in a manner intended to appeal to appeal to the crew-cut hipsters of the fifties.
Skin Deep, a 1952 album track featuring extended drum solos by Louis Bellson, became a favorite demonstration record of early Hi- Fi aficionados. Certain older numbers, notably Rockin' in Rhythm, were accelerated to breakneck tempos, barely recognizable. Audiences squealed their approval for the "stratospheric trumpet" squeals of high-note specialist Cat Anderson. And then there was the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, signaling Johnny Hodges's triumphant (mutually so, for Duke and Hodges) return, and Paul Gonsalves's 28-chorus solo on Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. Along with Duke's on the cover of Time magazine, later that year, Newport '56 signaled the return of Duke Ellington as a musical force to be reckoned with.
Martin Williams, a jazz critic who wrote at length, knowledgeably and appreciatively of Ellington, once described these crowd- pleasers of the early and mid-fifties as simply "bullshit." He had a point, insofar as Duke was making music that wasn't necessarily the best he could make. And yet, it was very good bullshit. It brought genuine pleasure to listeners, and it still does, forty years later. If Duke compromised himself with a few musical cheap shots, he didn't compromise much. He still had his dignity, he still had his music, and he had gained a larger audience for the music he wanted to make.
The 1956 Newport Jazz Festival began Duke's third and final peak period, one that lasted through most of the sixties. If this peak never reached as high as the earlier ones, it is still remarkable as a sustained period of creative output. Duke concentrated increasingly on his suites, the concert-length works that appeared regularly during these years, and later, his sacred concerts. The band toured constantly, playing concerts and dances, traveling to most of the inhabited parts of the earth, it seems, playing the old hits along with the newest thing. A big band could no longer support itself, but Ellington subsidized his band from his composer's royalties, so he could hear his music played the way he wanted it played. "I pay the cats," he said, "and I get to have all the fun!"
Johnny Hodges's sudden and unexpected death in 1970 marked the beginning of the band's decline, and Ellington's. He continued to record and tour at a ferocious pace, and still produced satisfying new music. On those last recordings, the band no longer sparkles as brilliantly as it once did, and occasionally Duke's fatigue is apparent. But even at the end, there are moments when the sound is as magnificent and breathtaking as anything he had ever done.
"Music is my mistress," he had said, "and she plays second fiddle to no one." And she stood by him to the end.
Ellington had his imperfections, both personally and musically. It has been noted by others that his vocalists rarely lived up to the high standards of his instrumentalists. Many writers have wondered at this, but Duke explained it, perhaps unwittingly, in his memoirs.
When he discusses singers, Duke repeatedly picks one aspect for praise: "a tribute to her diction and articulation" (Joya Sherrill)... "every word was understandable" (Betty Roche)... "I should mention first his clear, understandable enunciation" (Al Hibbler)... "his perfect enunciation of the words gave the blues a new dimension" (Joe Williams).
Diction was all-important to Ellington. In his memoirs, he recounts how Miss Boston, the principal of his elementary school, "would explain the importance of proper speech.... When we went out into the world, we would have the grave responsibility of being practically always on stage.... She taught us that proper speech and good manners were our first obligations, because as representatives of the Negro race we were to command respect for our people." He learned his lesson well, and he applied it to his singers.
Duke never insisted that when Johnny Hodges blew a note, the listener had to be able to tell immediately whether it was an E- flat or a D. It has been said that one of his most important innovations was in deploying his instruments as though they were voices, but he seems to have been unable to treat his voices as instruments. He chose his singers at least partly on the basis of a non-musical consideration, and it showed. Apparently, Billie Holiday did not pass the test. (She recorded with Duke once, at the age of sixteen.)
Perhaps Ellington's attitude toward singers represents a lapse in his usually impeccable taste, but even so, it was an integral part of his personal value system, which drove him to rise ever higher, becoming a sophisticated citizen of the world and a composer of the first rank. And for all that his method of choosing singers may have been flawed, he did not choose so badly. Ellington's vocalists suffer in comparison with his instrumental voices, but they can be compared favorably to most band singers of the era. Ivie Anderson, Betty Roche, Herb Jeffries, Al Hibbler... each had his or her strengths, and each produced some memorable performances.
Even so, it is worth noting that Duke's most memorable vocal recordings are those in which diction is irrelevant: the wordless vocals, from Adelaide Hall's plaintive wail on Creole Love Call in 1927, to Kay Davis's 1947 solo on Transbluecency, to Mahalia Jackson's hummed final chorus on Come Sunday in 1958.
Whatever his shortcomings, Duke Ellington created a body of music that endures and always rewards further investigation. His place in the sweep of American music is unique, and his stature is the equal of that of any of the acknowledged European masters.
In 1993, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History opened an exhibition entitled Beyond Category: the Musical Genius of Duke Ellington. Perhaps someday this stunning depiction of Ellington's life, his work, and his world will be accessible online or on CD-ROM. John Edward Hasse, curator of that exhibition (and author of a biography, Beyond Category: the Life and Genius of Duke Ellington) summed up Ellington's uniqueness:
"No one had a band like Duke Ellington. No one made music like Duke Ellington. And no one led a life like Duke Ellington. He was truly one of a kind, beyond category."
Hasse added, "The more I've studied him, the more in awe I am of his genius, his perseverance, his charm, his wit, his intelligence, his ability to create beauty and give great pleasure to people."
The final words here may be Hasse's as well; they come from a display in the Beyond Category exhibition:
"In a world of sameness, blandness, and predictability, his life and music celebrate individuality. By stressing the strengths and unique contributions of each band member, he fashioned those special qualities into something greater.
"Ellington gave us grand style and first-class music that will never grow old."
Text sources: All Ellington quotes are taken from his memoirs, Music is my Mistress. (I was unable to locate the "I pay the cats..." quote while preparing this page, but I am confident it is there.) Quotes from other sources are taken from public speeches (Hasse), interviews (James, Hasse), and conversation (Williams).
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