Thursday, July 31, 2008

Duke Ellington: Our Greatest Composer - by Grover Sales

Grover Sales, Jazz: America's Classical Music [New York: Da Capo Press, 1992]. [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The editorial staff at Jazzprofiles has long admired Grover Sales and his writings about Jazz; so much so, that it also decided to feature Mr. Sales in this month’s “Notable Critic” portion of the blog.

As to the Jazzprofiles editorial staff’s admiration of Duke Ellington’s music, if the Duke will forgive the weak effort at a pun, it is “beyond category.” In his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare may have inadvertently best described it with his phrase – “Such Sweet Thunder” and the Duke may have agreed with this categorization of his music when he adopted the expression as the title of one of his [and Billy Strayhorn’s] musical suites.

Mr. Sales does an admirable job in his essay of identifying the salient features which placed Duke’s music ‘beyond category’ especially in the section of his piece he labels: “Duke’s Mixture: Ellington’s Fusion.”

Duke Ellington was one of the geniuses that are periodically placed amongst us to inspire the rest of us to great things. The richness of his musical legacy is such that it can be returned to time again in search of such inspiration with each visit making the listener long for the next one. His music never disappoints and is always satisfying. One would be very hard-pressed to say that about many things in life.

[As a note in passing, so as not to confuse the reader, occasionally, Mr. Sales annotates his essay with references to The Smithsonian Institute’s Collection of Classic Jazz using the abbreviation - “Smic.”]

“We look to the future for the American composer, not, indeed, to the Horatio Parkers and Edward MacDowell’s of the present, who are taking over a foreign act ready-made and are imitating it ... but to someone as yet unknown ... who will sing the songs of his own nation, his own time and his own character.” (London Times, 1913.)
Of the three seminal jazz artists to gain mass acclaim before World War II, Duke Ellington is the most difficult to explain. His veiled, princely psyche, more complex than Armstrong's or Waller's, was given to philosophical turns and levels of sophistication uncommon for jazz musicians of his time. Duke's canny coming to terms with commercial, racial, and internal pressures that collapsed less hardy peers from Fletcher Henderson to Charlie Parker has long been a source of fascination-and annoyance-to critic-spectators of the maddening clash between the Duke as artist and the Duke as crowd-pleasing showman.

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in 1899 to an educated, well-to-do Washington, D.C. family that enveloped him in the unstinting love and security worthy of an ideal Freudian upbringing. Marked as a special child, he was started on piano at seven and soon cultivated the poise, flair for leadership, and ducal charm that earned him his title. Smitten with ragtime, the teenaged Ellington gave up a painting career to gig around Washington as band pianist at parties and dances. I was getting so big," he told his Boswell, the British critic Stanley Dance, "that I had to study some music to protect my reputation. I had elementary lessons at school, and I used to slow down James P, Johnson piano rolls and copy them note for note. Now Doc Perry taught me about reading and I took harmony lessons from Henry Grant." (Dance, The World of Duke Ellington.)

Duke's move to New York brought him into after-hours contact with Harlem's piano kings, James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith, whose two-fisted styles left a lifelong mark on Ellington both as pianist and composer. Fronting a six-piece band at Broadway's Kentucky Club, a popular hangout for musicians and show-people, Ellington launched his half-century career as bandleader in the mid-1920s with scarcely a glimmer of the glories to follow within a matter of months. His first records sound pitifully dated beside the concurrent Henderson and Morton; compare Henderson's 1926 Stampede (Smic 3/6) to Ellington's Animal Crackers recorded the same year. But "Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians" bore seeds of greatness that soon germinated to push orchestral jazz beyond its strict function as dance music and into the hothouse of abstract art. Much of the credit for the origins of what critics were soon to call "the Ellington effect" belongs to "growl" trumpeter Bubber Miley, whose toilet-plunger mute evoked plaintive sobbing and terror-ridden screams. His ageless solos with the early Ellington Band stun the listener with all the force of Armstrong leaping out of the earth-bound Henderson band; they pointed in the direction Duke was to follow all his life.
Late in 1927, a year after Ellington waxed such cornball novelties as Animal Crackers, the band made an incredible leap forward with a series of blues that cast Miley in the role of co-composer and the dominant solo voice: The Black and Tan Fantasy, Creole Love Call, The Mooche, and the band's theme for many years, East St. Louis Toodle-oo (Smic 6/4, 6/5). For more than four decades these ominous mood pieces formed the keystone of Ellington's ever-growing repertoire, nourishing a forest of offshoots. With each new version the scoring was enriched, and Ellington's piano developed from its lame ragtime parlour style in the early 1920s into an essential part of the band, providing orchestral fills, backing soloists either as a "stride" accompaniment or in lush, romantic modes that set Duke apart as a distinctive piano voice. But his proud succession of trumpeters were instructed never to stray from the paths carved by Bubber Miley, dead at 29, one of jazz's endless victims of the Prohibition high life.

The Ellington-Miley "jungle style" evolved from necessity at Harlem's Cotton Club where the band began a five-year tenure in 1927 that had germinal effects on Duke's music. An expensive mob-owned club offering lavishly costumed productions with large casts, the Cotton Club catered to white-tie and ermined slummers in naive quest of primitive tribal rites provided by the clever management in the guise of coffee-colored chorines in palm-leaf scanties, avidly pursued by nearly naked African chiefs to the lewd shrieks of Ellington's wa-wa brass and wailing reeds. Ellington had to write background scores for these constantly changing floor shows, pushing him into composing abstract tone poems and impressionist mood pieces, unlike other black bandleaders of that time who performed almost exclusively for dancers. Duke caught the eye of shrewd business agent Irving Mills who arranged for a regular radio broadcast from the Cotton Club that spread Duke's fame beyond the confines of Harlem and the jazz subculture.

With mounting success, Ellington swelled his band to full Henderson proportions with an unmatched wealth of distinctive soloists. Commanding the devotion and loyalty of his long-term crew, he imposed his benign will on this symbiotic group that turned rehearsals and performances into spontaneous arranging workshops. The ill-fated Miley was succeeded by Cootie Williams who mastered the "plunger's" art under the guidance of Joseph "Tricky Sam" Nanton, a sorcerer who used the plumber's friend to turn the trombone into a human voice crying in anguish, laughing obscenely, or growling in anger. The grand tradition of New Orleans clarinet virtuosity lived on in Barney Bigard, whose liquid, bluesy reed fluttered like a crazy flag above the stomping ensemble charged by the big-toned whump of Wellman Braud's bass. Johnny Hodges sang through his alto sax with a silky authority unchallenged until the advent of Charlie Parker. Hawkins disciple Harry Carney was the first to coax jazz from the cumbersome baritone sax and served as anchorman of the reed section for almost fifty years. Decades-long tenures in the Ellington band were not uncommon and account in large part for the steady evolution of the "Ellington effect" and the proficiency of difficult ensemble passages. Such constancy of personnel made a further testament to the leader's unmatched charisma and managerial aplomb in a business where performers were as touchy as opera divas and prone to change shop with breathtaking dispatch.

Writing with the individual timbres and styles of his stellar soloists in mind, Ellington created an inimitable body of music. He broke all the rules of music schools and harmony books, writing only what sounded good to him, neither knowing nor caring that music academies said it couldn't be done. In 1927 he scored the wordless vocal of Adelaide Hall as a coequal jazz soloist in Creole Love Call. He was the first to write true concerti for individual band members. He composed chamber jazz for odd combinations: bass clarinet, muted trombone, tenor sax, and baritone sax in the high register. Andre Previn said: "Stan Kenton stands before a hundred reeds and brass, makes a dramatic gesture, and every studio arranger in the audience knows just how it's done; Duke Ellington lifts his little finger, three horns make a sound-and nobody knows what it is." Straining at the three-minute limit imposed by the standard in the record industry, he became the first authentic jazz composer to write and record extended works, starting in 1931 with Creole Rhapsody (Smic 6/6). His briefer compositions numbered over two thousand. Ellington's gift for massing unique orchestra] sounds, plus his boundless iridescent charm, elegance of carriage, speech and dress, and unruffled dignity, were the admiration of all musicians from Armstrong to Coltrane. Dizzy Gillespie said, "I break out in gooseflesh every time Duke comes into a place."

Big band jazz of New York
Ragtime Harlem "stride" piano
Broadway and Follies show music
Popular songs of the day
New Orleans jam
New Orleans clarinet tradition-Barney Bigard
Kansas City tenor sax tradition-Ben Webster
Bubber Miley's "jungle style"
The blues in endless variations
Impressionist European harmony-Debussy, Ravel, Delius
Latin influence-Juan Tizol, Caravan, The Flaming Sword
Black gospel music-Come Sunday
Modern string bass-Jimmy Blanton
Mood and "jungle" pieces as backgrounds for dance productions
Original ballads-Sophisticated Lady, Solitude, Mood Indigo
First use of human voice as an instrument in jazz-Creole Love Call
First extended jazz compositions-Creole Rhapsody, Reminiscing in Tempo
First authentic jazz concerti- Clarinet Lament, Concerto for Cootie
"Ellington units"-chamber jazz
Portraits of black artists-Florence Mills, Willie "The Lion" Smith
Avant-garde bebop-Cottontail
Billy Strayhorn's composing-arranging
Impressionist tone poems - Perfume Suite, Tone Parallel to Harlem "Train" pieces-Daybreak Express, Happy-Go-Lucky Local
Sacred Concerts

His uncanny way of coming up with the right word at the right time was legendary. When his tenor sax star Ben Webster told him, "Governor you've got to pay me more money! You're workin' me to death!" Ellington replied softly, "But Ben, I can't afford to pay you what you're worth - nobody can." (Time-Life Giants of Jazz, Album notes.)

Ellington's reputation as a hit tune writer was launched in 1930 with the haunting blues-tinged Mood Indigo, followed by Sophisticated Lady, Solitude, In a Sentimental Mood, It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got that Swing, I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart, Satin Doll, Caravan and Perdido (both written with his trombonist, Juan Tizol), and dozens more that survive today in the repertoire of all musicians and vocalists, pop as well as jazz.

In 1933 his aggressive manager organized the first of many band tours to England and the Continent where Ellington was stunned to find himself lionized by fanatical record collectors, classical music critics, composers, famous intellectuals, and royalty who did not dance to his music but listened, convincing him of its durability and worth. This first encounter with British and French devotees prompted him to compose more ambitious and extended works.

When the Ellington band seemed to have reached its peak in the late 1930s, three additions thrust it to even greater heights-that have yet to be scaled in the history of big band jazz. In 1938 Billy Strayhorn joined as staff arranger-composer and Ellington alter ego. Submerging himself in the Ellington idiom, the shy, diminutive Strayhorn made an incalculable contribution to the Ellington book. From the time he pooled his talent with Ellington's until his death thirty years later, few scores in which Strayhorn did not have a hand found their way into the band's library. Take the A Train, which succeeded East St. Louis Toodle-oo as the band's theme song, was entirely his doing. Few songwriters ever matched the melodic invention of Passion Flower, DayDream, Chelsea Bridge, or Lush Life, whose exquisite melody was perfectly matched by Strayhorn's own lyrics. Guitarist Mundell Lowe said Lush Life is one of the few songs he knows that requires no improvisation because the line as written cannot be improved. Strayhorn's ballads are not as well known as Ellington's, possibly because they are rather difficult to sing.
The bursting-at-the-seams tenor sax of Ben Webster, battle-tested in marathon Kansas City cutting sessions, was employed in 1939 to augment the long-tenured reed section. Whether on up-tempo stomps like Cottontail, dirty blues like Sepia Panorama, dreamy ballads like All Too Soon, or he moody introspection of Blue Serge (Smic 7/3), Ben fired up a band lusting for a new voice. Since no book was written for Ben he had to "find my own note," imparting an indefinable dissonant wail to the reeds that sent critics back to the thesaurus for new adjectives of celebration.

The most revolutionary change came with the addition of Jimmy Blanton, the first "modern" bassist to use the instrument melodically as well as rhythmically. Plucking or bowing with violin-like agility, Blanton imparted a new drive to the band and upset all previous notions of bass playing, heretofore rooted in the whump-whump concept carried over from the tuba. "Blanton was the first bass player I heard who had this carryover from note to note," said his disciple Ray Brown, "and those notes just rang! I used to play along with his records with Ellington when I got home from high school, and he made a large impact on me." (Chevron School Broadcast, "Music Makers.") Ray Brown was not alone; during his two brief years with Ellington before his death from tuberculosis at the age of 21, the shy unassuming Blanton convinced all future bassists from Oscar Pettiford to Mingus and Richard Davis that there was no other way to play this once-clumsy instrument. The dramatic difference between Blanton and all bassists who came before him can be plotted by hearing his work on Ko-Ko (Smic 7/2), Harlem Air Shaft (Smic 6/7), and Blue Serge (Smic 7/3) and comparing it with the bass on Ellington's earlier records like Creole Rhapsody (Smic 6/6), with Count Basie's bassist on Taxi War Dance (Smic 5/8), or with Fletcher Henderson's Wrappin' It Up (Smic 3/7).

The triumvirate of Strayhorn, Webster, and Blanton signaled the golden age of Ellington-1940 to 1942. Of the many Victor recordings from this period, few are anything less than consummate masterpieces, and none give the listener anything more than an approximation of what this miracle of a band sounded like in person. Meanwhile, individual soloists with the band-Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams-fronted their own recording sessions of "Ellington units," cadres of seven or eight band members, usually with Duke on piano, who left a legacy of distinctive chamber jazz.

The war years of the 1940s cost Ellington many of his key men, and he began to lean on Strayhorn when the going got rough in an era that wiped out most of the big bands. Wholesale changes in 1950 brought in a crew of modernists-trumpeter Clark Terry and drummer Louis Bellson. Aside from brief flashes of glory the band rarely caught the inspirational fire of the youthful 1920s and the mature 1940s. As the band grew more dispirited, Ellington's piano, once fashionably dismissed as technically limited, took on added luster and magnificence to become the dominant voice in the ensemble, suggesting that his more obvious gifts as composer-arranger had long overshadowed his keyboard prowess. "Nobody realizes how much piano Duke can play," said Johnny Hodges. His twilight years became a triumph of honorary degrees, White House invitations, and sacred concerts in American cathedrals. When he was denied the Pulitzer prize at the age of 66, prompting indignant resignations from that Committee, he responded with his customary put-on suavity: "Fate is being kind to me; Fate does not want me to become too famous, too young." His death in 1974 was mourned in headlines, not consigned to the back-page oblivion usual for jazz obituaries in the American press.
In more subtle and unsettling ways than Armstrong or Waller, Ellington's obsession for mass adulation colored the public performances of his declining years. Carried to quirkish extremes as though to spite critics, his compulsive pandering to a total audience was long the despair of purists, especially abroad where devotees had little knowledge of the racial, economic, or cultural pressures that shaped the music they embraced with messianic fervor, largely through the social vacuum of the phonograph. His first London concert of 1933, an outrage to most of the 4,500 fans and critics who had committed his records to memory, followed a pattern Ellington was to repeat throughout his career. British critic Derek Jewell reported: "When Ellington heard some people laughing during the ‘growl' solos of 'Tricky Sam' Nanton and Cootie Williams, and perceived a certain restlessness when the band played slower numbers, he switched to items from his vaudeville routines." This shocked the faithful who came from all over Europe to bathe in the evocative mysteries of Black and Tan Fantasy and The Mooche. To Duke's boundless amusement, Irish critic Spike Hughes issued bulletins to the audience warning them not to laugh at "Tricky Sam's" plunger trombone, "which is not humor but a great work of art," and enjoined spectators not to applaud solos but to wait until the end of a number, just as they would at any concert recital. (Fifty years later, jazz audiences still ignore Hughes's injunction.) In the 1960s Jewell wrote: "Ellington's European concerts consisted entirely of old favorites, although Duke later claimed that this was because audiences demanded the numbers and wouldn't let the band get on to newer stuff like the Liberian Suite." (Jewell, Duke.)

As Ellington's career progressed his public facade grew ever more whimsical. Concert and night club appearances grew almost as predictable as Armstrong's, with dreary repeats of limp routines: Harry Carney holding the interminable note on Sophisticated Lady; Tenor saxist Paul Gonsalves cranked up in the vain hope of recapturing the frenzy of his 27 blues choruses of Crescendo in Blue that electrified the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival; marathon drum solos of dubious taste, and Duke's perennial bid for a piece of the rock 'n roll action: One More Time bellowed by the most degraded singer Duke could find. Prime soloists like Cootie Williams and Lawrence Brown were limited to one brief solo per show, and strangest of all, Duke coached his men to repeat note-for-note the solos they had created on records, as though he felt the public wanted to hear nothing they had not heard before. To dissuade Ellington from the jaded programming critics had come to expect, Monterey Jazz Festival founder Jimmy Lyons commissioned him to compose a special suite for the 1960 Festival. Knowing well that if Duke was asked not to program threadbare routines he would be certain to include them out of perversity, Lyons hit upon the devious ploy of billing the concert "Ellington Carte Blanche," with frequent reminders to the maestro that the evening was his to do as he wished. At a rehearsal the night before the debut of his new work, Suite Thursday, Ellington spent most of an hour on a tricky eight-bar passage for tenor sax and two muted trombones. As he told a successful bandleader who advised him to cut his weekly payroll of $4,500 when the grosses failed to cover it, "The band you run has got to please the audience. The band I run has got to please me. If it were not for my band, how could I hear my music?" But when "Ellington Carte Blanche" was offered to 7200 fans, aside from the marvelous Suite Thursday the program was identical to what all had heard before, down to the detestable finale of One More Time. When a brash critic admonished him publicly for repeating such clichés Ellington, in a rare display of temper, waved his arm toward his orchestra and shouted: "Look! What you see on that stage are fifteen men making a living!" These paradoxes were an eternal part of the Ellington mystique.
Ellington seemed to hunger for the massive audience his nation always denied him. Despite his prestige abroad he never rivaled Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, or Dave Brubeck in their heyday. His records sold well though never in the league with Shaw's Begin the Beguine, Miller's In the Mood, or Brubeck's Take Five, let alone the Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit. He had cause to be cynical of what critics advised him to play. Brutal attacks on his 1935 experimental four-part Reminiscing in Tempo left ugly scars; "I only wrote it for them!" was his wounded cry on reading the scornful reviews from Britain and Europe. His most ambitious extended work, Black, Brown and Beige, was poorly received when premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1943, and it took 35 years for a recording of the fifty-minute work to be issued in its entirety (Fantasy-Prestige). Ironically, his best music was played in the early 1940s to acres of dancers crowding a few listeners huddled near the bandstand. In his final years, when no one danced and everyone listened, his concert performances could verge on embarrassment. Like some cold sober John Barrymore, Ellington lived out his days in a perverse parody of his enormous talent with dogged reruns of popular hits and flippant baubles like Pretty and the Wolf. Once-charged-up bandsmen sat night after night like bored mandarins, victims of Byron's "awful yawn which sleep cannot abate." Their leader always lusted after that monster record hit, the all-time bestseller he felt was his due. Audiences in the United States were never large enough. In every major foreign city he would hold court backstage for the great and near-great, but in his own country he never lured the round-the-block crowds that the Kingston Trio or Tijuana Brass did. Toward the end he sensed the public might not hold still for his best work, like the orchestral suites and Sacred Concerts into which he poured his final energies.

Yet for all his crochets, quirks, and put-ons, Ellington could still astound, even to the last. Though his bands grew indifferent and time-serving in later years, he remained a prolific, often inspired composer and his piano an ever-increasing source of wonder. This magic, or the hope of it, kept us coming back to Ellington to the end.”

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