Rude Interlude Ellington Biography

from The Duke Ellington Reader

For the centennial of Duke Ellington's birth, Oxford University Press has reissued The Duke Ellington Reader, edited by Mark Tucker, in trade paperback format. The following, detailed biographical notes are taken from Mr. Tucker's introductions to the main sections of this book. Most of the book's more than 500 pages are devoted to a hundred articles by other writers, including Ellington himself and many of his colleagues.

Duke Ellington Reader

I. Early Years (1899-1927)

Duke Ellington spent much of his professional career in motion-traveling with his orchestra from one performance to the next, composing aboard trains and planes and in automobiles, and living out of suitcases in an endless series of hotel rooms as he took his music to audiences across the globe. This nomadic existence differed remarkably from what he had known as a child. For his first twenty-four years, Edward Kennedy Ellington stayed in one place: Washington, D.C. There he was born on 29 April, 1899, delivered by a midwife named Eliza Jane Johnson at 2129 Ward Place, N.W., the home of his paternal grandparents. And there, surrounded by a tight-knit family and shaped by the strong individuals and institutions of the city's large African American community, his essential character took root.

Ellington's musical interests were slow to develop. As a teenager he first became serious about the piano and sought to emulate local ragtime pianists. Although poor music reading skills led to dismissal from at least two large ensembles, he was able to play with small groups and eventually started booking jobs, sending out units under the name of Duke Ellington's Serenaders. By 1920, at the age of twenty-one, he earned enough as a musician to support his wife Edna (whom he had married in 1918) and son Mercer (b. 1919), although he also painted signs on the side.

But Ellington was hardly an advanced musician, much less a promising composer, when he moved to New York in 1923. He would spend the next several years honing his skills as a bandleader, songwriter, and pianist, learning how to function within New York's competitive musical scene, and seeking professional opportunities with publishers and record companies. During much of this time he led a band, the Washingtonians, at a Times Square nightspot called the Kentucky Club (earlier the Hollywood), and in the summers toured a circuit of New England ballrooms and dance halls.

On their first recordings, Ellington's Washingtonians sounded like many other New York dance bands of the mid-twenties. By 1926 and 1927, though, distinctive qualities appeared in such pieces as East St. Louis Toodle-O, Immigration Blues, Black and Tan Fantasy, and Creole Love Call. After a decade of study and apprenticeship, Ellington emerged an original.

II. Cotton Club Bandleader (1927-1932)

A new phase of Ellington's career began late in 1927 when his orchestra landed a job at the Cotton Club, one of New York's premier nightspots, located in Harlem at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue. Operated by the gangster Owney Madden, patronized by wealthy whites, and staffed by blacks, the Cotton Club put on high-powered music revues featuring sultry chorus girls, sensual choreography, exotic production numbers, and plenty of hot jazz. Ellington's orchestra had played for revues at the Kentucky Club in Times Square, but there the scale had been smaller and the stakes lower. At the Cotton Club, some of New York's top black performers joined forces with such talented white songwriters as Jimmy McHugh, Dorothy Fields, Harold Arien, and Ted Koehler. While celebrities and socialites flocked there to soak up African-American entertainment and Prohibition liquor, listeners around the nation could tune into the sounds of Duke Ellington's orchestra via broadcasts on NBC. As composer and bandleader, Ellington flourished in this environment.

The Ellington orchestra remained at the Cotton Club, with periodic interruptions, until early February 1931. During this time it expanded to twelve pieces, three reeds, three trumpets, two trombones, and four in the rhythm section (piano, banjo or guitar, bass, drums). Trumpeter Arthur Whetsol, who had left the Washingtonians in 1923, returned in 1928, joining other newcomers who would figure prominently in the coming years: reed-players Johnny Hodges and Barney Bigard, trumpeter Freddie Jenkins, and in 1929, trumpeter Cootie Williams and valve trombonist Juan Tizol. Challenged by his job and stimulated by the vivid musical personalities in his band, Ellington began to compose and record prolifically, turning out over 180 sides between December 1927 and February 1931 (compared with the 31 his band had make in nearly four years at the Kentucky Club). Although principally under contract to Victor, the Ellington orchestra regularly recorded for other labels under various pseudonyms, among them The Jungle Band, The Whoopee Makers, and Mills Ten Blackberries.

Ellington's intense creative activity, together with the exposure afforded by the Cotton Club, brought him important notices in a variety of national publications. And the achievements of this period inspired the young Boston critic R.D. Darrell to write "Black Beauty" (1932), the first serious essay on Ellington's music to be published.

III. First Trip Abroad (1933)

Although Ellington eventually toured Europe many times, His first visit in the summer of 1933 stands out as exceptional. Brought over in early June by the English bandleader Jack Hylton, the Ellington orchestra performed for nearly six weeks in Britain before traveling to the continent for appearances in Holland and France. Its reception in England was especially warm, with large audiences turning out for concerts and critics providing extensive coverage in newspapers and trade press.

In 1932 the return of saxophonist Otto Hardwick and the addition of trombonist Lawrence Brown had brought the orchestra to a total of fourteen players. Joining these musicians on the trip abroad were the singer Ivie Anderson and the dancers Bessie Dudley, Bill Bailey, and Derby Wilson. Performances took place in movie houses, concert halls, and variety theaters, beginning with two weeks at London's famous Palladium. At one private party the Duke of Kent asked Ellington to play Swampy River, and the Prince of Wales briefly took Sonny Greer's place at the drums. While in London, the orchestra recorded for Decca and broadcast over the BBC.

For Europeans this was their first glimpse of Ellington after first encountering his work through recordings and the 1930 film Check and Double Check. Many were impressed, even overwhelmed by the impact of hearing the orchestra live. Others remained untouched: "Duke Ellington I suffered for 15 min. and then switched off," wrote a reporter for the Yorkshire Observer. Still others, like the Melody Maker correspondent Patrick "Spike" Hughes, changed their minds as a result of this visit. Initially a rabid fan, Hughes became disillusioned after a 25 June concert (sponsored by Melody Maker) when Ellington programmed such numbers as Trees (featuring Lawrence Brown), Some of These Days, and In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree: "Is Duke Ellington losing faith in his own music and turning commercial through lack of appreciation, or does he honestly underestimate the English musical public to such an extent that a concert for musicians does not include The Mooche, Mood Indigo, Lazy Rhapsody, Blue Ramble, Rockin' in Rhyme, Creole Love Call, Old Man Blues, Baby, When You Ain't There, or Black Beauty?"

While some of the criticism may have stung Ellington, overall the trip seems to have proven invigorating. As he wrote later in his memoirs, "The atmosphere in Europe, the friendship, and the serious interest in our music shown by critics and musicians alike put new spirit into us."

IV. Into the Swing Era (1933-1942)

Bolstered by their successes abroad, Ellington and his musicians resumed the strenuous schedule of a big band in the thirties: traveling to one-nighters across the United States, appearing in hotels, theaters, dance halls, and nightclubs, making radio broadcasts, and recording in studios from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. Following appearances in two Hollywood Films, Murder at the Vanities and Belle of the Nineties (both 1934), the Ellington orchestra made a Paramount short on their own, Symphony in Black (1934, released in 1935), featuring the young Billie Holiday. It also returned to the Cotton Club in 1937 and 1938, now located downtown on 48th Street after closing in Harlem.

Throughout this period Ellington kept composing steadily, producing instrumentals and songs tailored to the three-minute length of a 78-rpm record, also extending these boundaries with the four part Reminiscing in Tempo (1935) and the two-part Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue (1937). Although he kept telling interviewers about other large-scale projects, it was not until the early forties with the musical Jump for Joy (1941) and the "tone parallel" Black, Brown and Beige (1943) that works of greater dimensions emerged. Yet Ellington hardly needed a broader canvas to prove himself as a composer. In the late thirties and early forties he wrote dozens of short works that brilliantly exploited the resources of his orchestra, among them Echoes of Harlem ((1936), Azure (1937), Braggin' in Brass (1938), Battle of Swing, Blue Light, and The Sergeant Was Shy (1939), Jack the Bear, Harlem Air Shaft, Concerto for Cootie, Ko-Ko, and Cotton Tail (1940), and Main Stem (1942). He also recorded in pared-down musical settings, small groups, duets for piano and bass, occasionally as solo pianist.

Many writers have described the years around 1940 as a creative peak for Ellington and his orchestra. This judgment stems partly from the consistent excellence of Ellington's compositions at this time, partly from the superior performances of his orchestra. For Ellington, of course, composing and performing were interrelated parts of the same process. Clearly the general stability of personnel in the thirties helped him as a writer, just as the arrival of such new members as cornetist Rex Stewart (in 1934), bassist Jimmy Blanton (1939), and the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster (1940) fired his imagination.

Another crucial player took the stage at this time: Billy Strayhorn, the young composer, arranger, and pianist who joined the organization in 1939 and would remain until his death in 1967. Strayhorn not only relieved Ellington of routine arranging chores providing fresh orchestrations of popular songs and dance tunes but made substantial original contributions with such works as Chelsea Bridge, Raincheck and a new theme for the orchestra, Take the "A" Train (all from 1941).

Personally this was a difficult time. Ellington's parents both died in close succession, Daisy in 1935 and J. E. in 1937. The loss of his mother was especially traumatic, resulting in a periods of mourning during which few new works appeared. Since the late twenties Ellington had been separated from his wife Edna and living with Mildred Dixon, a dancer he had met at the Cotton Club. In 1938 he left her for another dancer, Beatrice "Evie" Ellis, who would become his lifetime companion. A different kind of parting occurred in 1939 when, following a second trip to Europe, Ellington broke with manager Irving Mills, who had played a major role in promoting his career since 1926. Ellington signed with the William Morris Agency and moved to the publisher Jack Robbins.

While America's entry into World War II on 1941 affected all aspects of society, the Ellington orchestra by and large continued to function as before. A recording like A Slip of the Lip (May Sink a Ship) (1942) reflected wartime conditions, of course, and the draft would eventually claim clarinetist Chauncey Haughton and trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker (in 1943 and 1944, respectively). But two lesser conflicts may have made a greater impact on Ellington: the dispute between radio broadcasters and the American Society of Composers and Publishers in 1941, which stimulated the composition of new pieces since much of Ellington's previous ASCAP-licensed repertory was banned from the airwaves; and the musicians' union strike of 1942-44, which led to a recording hiatus of nearly a year and a half.

V. Black, Brown and Beige (1943)

Since the early thirties Ellington had spoken of plans to write a large piece depicting the story of blacks in America. The work was described variously as a suite or an opera Down Beat, in fact, announced in 1938 that he had completed an opera after working on it for the past six years, one that dealt with "the history of the American Negro, starting with the Negro back in the jungles of Africa, and following through to the modern Harlemite."

The announcement was premature. With the premier of Black, Brown and Beige, however, on 23 January 1943, Ellington finally realized his long-stated goal. The work marked an auspicious occasion, Ellington's debut at Carnegie Hall, which in turn culminated New York's celebration of "Ellington Week", from 17-23 January. Proceeds from the concert went to the Russian War Relief. The event was highly publicized, with celebrities and jazz fans filling the hall and many of New York's music critics reviewing the concert afterward, devoting special attention to Ellington's ambitious new piece.

Other jazz and popular musicians, of course, had already performed in Carnegie Hall; the black bandleader James Reese Europe and his Clef Club Orchestra in 1912 1914, Benny Goodman's orchestra in 1938, and various jazz, blues, and gospel artists in the two "Spirituals to Swing" concerts produced by John Hammond in 1938 and 1939. But Ellington's debut marked the first time a major black composer would present an evening of original music in New York's most prestigious concert hall. Moreover, this was a black composer who worked in the jazz idiom and whose works usually were heard in nightclubs, ballrooms, and theaters rather in temples of high art.

The story of Black, Brown and Beige its musical content, critical reception, and subsequent revisions over the years forms one of the most fascinating chapters in the Ellington saga. Some of the issues it raised and controversies it sparked emerge in the following articles, which span three decades, ranging from previews and reviews in 1943 to later evaluations by Robert Crowley in 1959 and by Brian Priestly and Alan Cohen in the mid-seventies.

The orchestra that had performed Black, Brown and Beige had undergone several recent personnel changes. Veteran clarinetist Barney Bigard left in July 1942, his chair taken by Chauncey Haughton (who would be replaced by Jimmy Hamilton in May 1943). Harold "Shorty" Baker joined in October 1942, expanding Ellington's trumpet section to four. New vocalists included Betty Roché (featured in the "Blues" section of Black, Brown and Beige) and Jimmy Britton. An important new figure working behind the scenes was Tom Whaley, who in 1941 took over the demanding copying chores from trombonist Juan Tizol.

VI. The Hot Bach (1943-1949)

After making his debut at Carnegie Hall on 23 January 1943, Ellington performed there at regular, near-annual intervals over the next five years. These appearances inspired him to write a series of large works for the concert hall, among them New World A-Coming (premiered 11 December 1943), Perfume Suite (19 December 1944), Deep South Suite (23 November 1946), Liberian Suite (27 December 1947), and The Tattooed Bride (13 November 1948). In the aftermath of Black, Brown and Beige, the Carnegie events kept alive the debate about such issues as the merits of jazz versus, "serious" music, the place of jazz in the concert hall, and Ellington's ability (or lack thereof) to compose extended works. Increasingly, Ellington found himself in the position of discussing his music in the context of the "classical" European tradition (see his "Defense of Jazz" (§47) and "Certainly It's Music!" (§50)). His growing reputation as a serious composer who happened to write for jazz orchestra led the writer Richard O. Boyer, in an extensive 1944 profile in the New Yorker, to dub Ellington "The Hot Bach".

Throughout this period the Ellington orchestra continued to perform in a variety of venues across the country, including the Casa Mañana in Culver City, California, Denver's El Patio Ballroom, Chicago's Civic Opera House, and the Percy Jones Hospital Center in Battle Creek, Michigan. Longer engagements were at New York's Hurricane Club (in 1943 and 1944) and the Club Zanzibar (1945), both featuring regular broadcasts. Radio became especially important in 1948 when a second recording ban went into effect (no commercial recordings were made between December 1947 and September 1949).

In contrast to the relative stability of personnel during the thirties, Ellington's orchestra experienced a great deal of flux in the mid-to-late forties. Among the major defections were Ben Webster (in 1943), Juan Tizol (1944), Rex Stewart (1945), and Otto Hardwick (1946); Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton died on 20 July 1946 while on tour in California. Key additions to the band included vocalist Kay Davis (1944), High-note trumpeter William "Cat" Anderson (1945), saxophonist and clarinetist Russell Procope (1945), and trombonist Tyree Glenn (1947) and Quentin "Butter" Jackson (1948).

Another notable change took place in 1946 when Ellington left the Victor record company after his contract expired. After a brief association with the Musicraft label he signed with Columbia the following year.

VII. The Fifties

By the fifties the heyday of the big bands was over. Economic pressure had caused many established groups to break up in the late forties. Younger audiences now preferred to dance to rhythm and blues rock 'n' roll, and individual singers like Frank Sinatra and Doris Day became more popular than the ensembles that had launched their careers. While Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman, and a few other bandleaders still found steady work, they faced new problems during this period.

The less favorable economic climate for big-band musicians may have contributed to personnel changes Ellington experienced early in the decade. In 1951 three key figures departed Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, and Sonny Greer as did the trombonist Tyree Glenn, who had taken over Joe Nanton's plunger role in 1947. The arrival of such newcomers as tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves (1950), trombonist Britt Woodman (1951), trumpeter Clark Terry (1951) and drummers, Louie Bellson (1951) and Sam Woodyard (1955) offset three losses somewhat. Also, Juan Tizol came back in the fold in 1951, as did both Hodges (1955) and Brown (1960). But the steadily shifting membership changed the orchestra's sound and style and left its mark on Ellington's composing, which was tailored to specific instrumental voices in the ensemble. (The reed section proved an area of stability, however, as the trio of Harry Carney, Russell Procope, and Jimmy Hamilton stayed intact well into the sixties.)

As in the forties, Ellington continued to turn out longer works, though now for occasions other than his orchestra's appearances at Carnegie Hall. These included Harlem (1951), Such Sweet Thunder (1957), Tool Suite (1959), and Idiom '59 (1959). Ellington also explored other outlets for his compositions, writing Night Creature (1955) for combined symphony and jazz orchestras, A Drum is a Woman (1956) for a television production, and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) for a Hollywood film directed by Otto Preminger.

While critics gave mixed marks to the new band members and works some citing a decline in previous standards, others defending the changes they generally agreed that Ellington's triumphant appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival provided a much-needed boost of morale. Soon after, Ellington appeared as the subject of a Time magazine cover story which pronounced the concert a "turning point in a career" demonstrating that "Ellington himself had emerged from a long period of quiescence and was once again bursting with ideas and inspiration".

Ellington's recording alliances shifted during the fifties. He began the decade with Columbia, moved to Capitol in 1953 (the first session produced Satin Doll) then went back to Columbia in 1956. He also recorded two albums for Bethlehem and a handful of small-group sessions for the Mercer label, run by his son and Leonard Feather.

As in previous years, the orchestra traveled constantly, criss-crossing North America and making trips to Europe in 1950 (for the first time since 1939) and in 1958 and 1959.

VIII. The Late Years (1960-1974)

When he reached his sixties, an age at which many contemplate retirement, Ellington kept up the relentless schedule of composing, performing, recording, and traveling he had followed for over thirty years. During this time he was showered with awards, prizes, and honorary degrees and celebrated both at home and abroad for his musical achievements. He also embarked on more international tours than at an earlier period in his career, traveling often to Europe, also to the Middle East and India in 1963, Japan in 1964, Latin America and Mexico in 1968, and the Soviet Union in 1971. These journeys sometimes inspired new compositions, as with the Far East Suite (1964), the Latin America Suite (1968), the Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1970), and the Goutelas Suite (1971).

The most dramatic musical change of these last years was Ellington's turn toward liturgical music, notably a series of three Sacred Concerts between 1965 and 1973. Performances took place in various churches and cathedrals and featured his orchestra, vocal soloists, choirs, and dancers. Anticipating the development was the show My People, written in 1963 for the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in Chicago. It included such religious numbers as Ain't But the One, Will You Be There?, and David Danced Before the Lord. Up until this time Ellington's faith had been a private matter. With these late sacred works he found a public forum for expressing long-held personal beliefs.

In addition to the suites and sacred music, Ellington produced new songs and instrumentals, arranged popular material from the Beatles and Walt Disney's Mary Poppins to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, and collaborated with choreographer Alvin Ailey on the ballet The River (1970). He also recorded with various other musicians, among them Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, and such younger luminaries as John Coletrain, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. As of this writing, however, few of Ellington's later recording projects, compositions and arrangements have received extensive critical attention beyond the initial reviews.

Ellington's orchestra in this period included a mixture of veterans and newcomers. Trumpeter Cootie Williams, absent since 1940, returned in 1962, and the great reed section of the fifties Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope, Jimmy Hamilton, Paul Gonsalves, and Harry Carney lasted until 1968 (when Hamilton left). Among the notable new voices were the Swedish singer Alice Babs, featured in the second and third Sacred Concerts, and tenor saxophonist Harold Ashby.

During Ellington's last decade three of his closest associates died: his personal physician Dr. Arthur Logan in 1973, Johnny Hodges in 1970, and, perhaps the hardest loss of all, Billy Strayhorn in 1967. Ellington paid tribute to these individuals, and to many he had known and worked with throughout his career, in his memoirs, Music is My Mistress. These were published in 1973, a year before his own death from cancer on 24 May 1974.



From The Duke Ellington Reader, Edited by Mark Tucker, copyright 1993 by Oxford University Press. Published here by arrangement with Oxford University Press, New York.


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