We will continue on the topic of legendary jazz orchestras with Duke Ellington, whose style is entirely authentic and personal. There are contradicting views about the role Ellington played in the 20th century music. Cüneyt Sermet, a Turkish critic and author, summaries these contradictions in the Duke Ellington chapter in his book “Cazın İçinden”:
“English composer, conductor and music critic Constant Lambert describes, in his book “Music, Ho”, Duke Ellington as the most successful composer in the 20th century who has composed both the bess jazz and classical music within the frame and form of five minutes. Andre Previn is widely known as a conductor and pianist who has a deep admiration for Ellington. However, jazz musicians have different outlooks on this topic. Miles Davis has said that all jazz musicians owe to Ellington, yet Jack Teagarden has expressed his distaste for ‘that out of tune orchestra that doesn’t play jazz’. Joe Newman personally said to me that Ellington’s music has its own style, and that he would prefer Count Basie over that any day. Actually, these critiques were made during the first years of the orchestra. It is a better approach to not pay heed to these opinions, and instead look thoroughly into the history this inspirational orchestra.
Duke Ellington, whose real name is Edward Kennedy Ellington, was born in 1899 in Washington D.C. His father was a butler and Ellington was raised in a very comfortable household. Even as a child he was interested in stylish and chic clothing, so the neighbours ended up calling him with the name “Duke”. He loved and accepted this nickname and used it throughout his lifetime. He was interested in both music and painting. He started taking piano lessons. When he reached the age of 18, he picked music over painting. He used the creative force behind his interest in painting while composing and performing with his orchestra. This inclination was apparent from the artful names he picked for his tunes. “Sifewalks Of New York”, “The Flaming Sword”, “Beautiful Indians”, “Portrait Of Bert Williams”, “Sepia Panorama” and “Dusk In The Desert” are only a few of these tunes.
Duke Ellington’s style as a pianist should be mentioned before delving into the phases and periods of his orchestra. Ellington’s devotion to Ragtime style while playing upbeat songs has always been apparent. He would play a lot arpeggios, showing off his technical style, during mid-tempo pieces and ballads. He would start the performance with playing the piano and then continue on to conducting the orchestra just like Count Basie. He had no knowledge of orchestration. He would create the framework of the tune with his piano, and then he would get the assistance of the trusted members of the orchestra such as Barney Bigard, Bubber Miley and Johnny Hodges while doing the orchestration. Therefore, it could be seen that a collective approach was prevalent in the orchestra. The orchestra quickly became a family, especially after Billy Strayhorn joined it in 1930.
Ellington’s hometown and moving to New York at a young age made him focus more so on the song form than the blues. He was also an admirer of classical music. During later periods, he worked on the classical music form as well. He moved to New York in 1923 with Sonny Greer, Otto Hardwick and Arthur Whetsol. he formed his first orchestra when Joe Nanton, Bubber Miley, Harry Carney, Rudy Jackson and Fred Guy joined him. The jazz legend liked experimenting with different styles and used his orchestra almost like a laboratory. As a result, his orchestra went through different phases. Some critics and jazz authors split these period into four by styles, while the others split them by years:
The first one lasted between 1925-1939 and is called the “Jungle” style: He was influenced by Cotton Club’s work between 1927 and 1932. The founding father of the “Jungle” style was Bubber Miley. He would play his trumpet in a humming style called “Growl” and this sound would be similar to those in a jungle. Trombones would accompany him. Lead by Miley’s example, new members and trumpet players Cootie Williams and Rex Stewart as well as trombonists Joe “Tricky” Sam Nanton and Quentin Jackson would use this style as well. We see Adelaide Hall, Baby Cox, Ivie Anderson and Irving Mills as vocalists during this period. The popular tunes of this period were “Black And Ten Fantasy (1927)”, Caravan (1936)”, “Creole Love Call (1927)” and “It Don’t Mean A Thing, If Ain’t Got That Swing (1931)”. “Mood” style was incorporated into the last years of the “Jungle” period. This meant somber and pessimistic pieces. The blues sorrow could be felt even in pieces that were not blues.
Duke Ellington’s second period falls between 1940-1944 and was the “Swing” style. He was inspired by Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford. This period also marks the second legendary and historic orchestra Ellington formed. Billy Strayhorn would join the orchestra in 1939 and would quickly become Ellington’s right hand man and be loved like his son Mercer. Ray Nance, who also played the violin, Taft Jordan and Cat Anderson (his nickname “Cat” probably comes from his high pitched playing style) joined the trombonists, Ben Webster and Al Sears joined the saxophonists as well as Jimmy Hamilton who played both the saxophone and the clarinet. Jimmy Blanton and Alvin Raglin joined the orchestra as bassists. Joya Sherrill, Betty Roche and Al Hibbler were the vocalists. Ray Nance would occasionally sing as well. The foundations of the modern jazz orchestra were laid with this formation. For the first time, the tune was becoming free and the instruments, such as bass clarinet and piston trombone, were experimented with. The first masterpiece of this period was “Ko-Ko”. Miley’s “Jungle” style could be felt in this 12 bar minor blues. Especially during the “Growl” solos of trumpet player Ray Nance and trombonist Joe Tricky Sam Nanton. Ellington’s effective piano playing was accompanied by the rhythmic provocation of bassist Jimmy Blanton and drummer Sonny Greer. The richness of the riffs were contributing to the tenseness of the swing. In 1939 Ellington wrote “In A Mellotone”, which is a rearrangement of 1917’s jazz standard “Rose Room”. Count Basie orchestra would play this piece, which would later be known as “In A Mellowtone”.
Ellington would also compose for his master soloists on top of his work for the orchestra. The most typical example would be “Concerto For Cootie”, which he composed for trumpet player Cootie Williams in 1940. However, Williams would soon join Benny Goodman’s orchestra due to economical reasons. The star of the “Swing” period was Billy Strayhorn’s famous “Take The A Train”. This tune became the opening and closing theme of the concerts and became a symbol. Juan Tizol’s “Period” another piece that became a classic. It was written in 1941, and alluded to both the Spanish word which meant ‘lost’ and the Period Street in New Orleans.
Duke Ellington wrote fantastic blues pieces, even though they were written in song form. 1940’s “Across The Track Blues” is one of the best. It was an exemplary blues, based on Jimmy Blanton’s walking bass. The piece is enriched by Barney Bigard and Rex Stewart’s solos.
The third period of the orchestra lasted between 1945 and 1954. This period marks Ellington’s frequent use of classical music forms. He started flirting with classical music with “Creole Rhapsody” which he wrote in 1931. He arranged 1935’s “Reminiscing In Tempo” in suite form. “Daybreak Express” was also written in 1935 and of an impressionist nature. “Concerto For Cootie” followed these in 1940. During the third period, starting from 1944, Ellington started composing longer and more imposing pieces. He used chromatic chords and low pitched tunes, just like impressionist composers. He loved Debussy, Delius and Ravel. However, Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge”, written in 1941, was the best example of impressionism.
In the meanwhile, new soloists joined the orchestra. The new members were trumpet players Harold Baker, Nelson and Francis Williams brothers, trombonists Claude Jones, Wilbur De Paris, Tyree Glenn, Quentin Jackson, sax players Russell Procope, Willie Smith, Paul Gonsalves, bassists Oscar Pettiford and Wendel Marshall who replaced Jimmy Blanton who died of tuberculosis in 1942, drummers Dave Black and Louis Bellson, as well as singers Kay Davies and Yvonne Lanauze.
One of the most important works of this period was “Black, Brown And Beige”, a jazz symphony which Ellington composed in 1943. This piece told about the African-American history with three movements in symphony form and jazz structure. Its first performance took place in NYE High School and it was like a rehearsal open to the public. Its actual first performance took place in Carnegie Hall on 23 January 1943, followed by another performance in Boston Symphony Hall on 28 January.
Another famous piece that Ellington composed during his “Concertos” or “Symphony” period was a thematic composition, a symphonic poem called “Night Creature”. This incredible composition, written in 1955 for the jazz and symphonic orchestra, was extended and published in “Symphonic Ellington” compilation in 1963. Alvin Alley later on adapted this piece for New York dance theater. Following this, the Australian composer and pianist Percy Granger, declared Ellington one of the three best composers in the world, the other two being the baron genius Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick Delius, who shaped the 20th century music. This might be an exaggerated opinion, but when we look at Gunther Schuller, George Russell and John Lewis’s “Third Movement” works in 1950s, we see that they are heavily influenced by Ellington. Returning to “Night Creature” symphonic poem, it consists of three parts; “Blind Bug”, “Stalking Monster” and “Dazzling Creature”. For most people, night symbolises the serenity of nature going to sleep. It is the exact opposite for Ellington. He tells of a mysterious world that we do not know of or have noticed in his work, the world of the creatures of the night…
Ellington wrote pieces like “Satin Doll” that influenced and impacted jazz history while composing bigger symphonic pieces during this period. It is claimed that Billy Strayhorn wrote this piece in 1953 and Ellington later on made some revisions on it. Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics for it.
The other important works of this period are “A New World Is Coming” (1945), “Deep South Suite” (1946), “Trumpet No End” (1946), “Liberian Suite” (1947), “Lady Of The Lavender Mist” (1947), “Transbluecency” (1947) and “A Tone Parallel To Harlem” (1951).
The final and third period started in 1954 and lasted until Ellington’s death on 25 May 1974. This period shows some similarities to the “Concertos” or “Symphonies” period, but the main difference was that Ellington rearranged some favourite parts or themes of popular classical music pieces. For example, he worked on the famous Russian composer Tchaikovski’s “Nutcracker” ballet and the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s “Per Gynt” suite, which tells of Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name. Duke Ellington started working on film music after the 1950s. The soundtrack he composed for Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy Of A Murder” in 1959 was an expressionist work that enriched the story of this film. The music he composed for Martın Ritt’s 1961 movie “Paris Blues” was a perfect reflection of the approach to jazz during that period.
There were rumours circulating in the beginning of the 1950s, stating that Duke Ellington’s orchestra was on the downfall. However, they gave an incredible concert during 1956 Newport Jazz Festival which was immediately recorded and sold in huge numbers. The highlight of the concert was the extended version of “Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue”, a piece that Ellington wrote in 1937, and the amazing solo of the tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves.
Ellington accompanied Ella Fitzgerald with his orchestra in 1956 and 1965 and recorded with Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, John Coltrane and European symphonic orchestras. Ellington was fundamentally shaken and affected by the death of Billy Strayhdorn in 1967 and Johnny Hodges’s in 1970. He had lost close friends who were incredible musicians. Strayhdorn did all the arrangements for the orchestra until 1960s. After his passing Ellington took on this responsibility. He persevered despite everything and was able to create several successful works during even this period, as well as performing. For example, “Money Jungle” which he created with bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach in 1963, “Sacred Concert” and “Second Sacred Concert” albums, “70th Birthday Concert” which was named the album of the year in 1969, and “Far East Suite” which was named the 1970’s album of the year…
“Far East Suite” was actually one of the last collaborations between Ellington and Billy Strayhdorn. The suite was a result of the observations the orchestra members made during their world tour in 1963 (which included Istanbul), and it was recorded in 1966. They wrote a piece for almost every single city they travelled through.
Concerts, festivals, awards, compositions that play very important roles in jazz history, talented soloists he gifted to the jazz world. Duke Ellington left such a big legacy and an accomplished life filled with music when he passed away at the age of 74 in New York due to a lung infection.
He was nominated for 12 Grammy Awards between 1959 and 1999, he was conducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame and was given honorary awards for the pieces he wrote between 1931 and 1967 and also nominated for the Pulitzer Awards in 1965. He looked at the movie and theater industries through Ellingtonia: He started working for these industries in 1929 when he wrote the music for the short movie called “Black And Tan”, he then composed A Rhapsody Of Negro Life” for “Symphony In Black” in 1935. He wrote the theme which sets that wonderful atmosphere for “Paris Blues” in 1961. He composed for “Check And Double Check”, “Murder At The Vanities”, “Belle Of The Nineties” and “Cabin In The Sky” films. He wrote pieces for musicals such as “Beggars Holiday”, “Jump For Joy”, “Play On” and “Sophisticated Ladies”. He wrote the original music for Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens” directed by Michael Langham, which was performed in Stratford Festival in Toronto. His son Mercer Ellington took over the orchestra after his passing. Mercer died in 1996 and his son Paul Ellington tried to keep the orchestra alive with new members. And this marked the end of an era, but the impact Ellington and his orchestra left will not be forgotten.