The late Martin Williams, curator of the influential anthology Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz and one of America’s more perceptive and distinguished critics, wrote in an essay about the lack of scholarly work on jazz, “One can take Music Appreciation A–1 in any third–rate college, taught by the worst dolt on the music faculty, and learn something substantial about Bach, Mozart, and Chopin,” because the curatorial selection and musical analysis is so well established. “Ellington may well be the major figure in 20th American music,” Williams continued, “but unless Americans do the requisite scholarly and critical work on him, he will surely be forgotten.”1
The usually prescient Williams got this one wrong. While jazz scholarship is still gaining momentum, some four decades after that dire prediction Ellington is in no danger of obscurity, and the academy isn’t the force driving that “A” train. With the recent passing of his 120th birthday Edward Kennedy Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) looms larger than ever, occupying a singularly bright spot in the American cultural firmament. To use his own highest phrase of praise for a fellow musician, Ellington was “beyond category,” an artist who created a musical universe that continues to expand both through new interpretations of his music and as a model for countless composers, arrangers and bandleaders in jazz and beyond.
I was viscerally reminded again of Ellington’s gift for mining the wealth of postures, poses, and philosophical stances in African-American vernacular culture watching Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s performance of Night Creature in April as part of the company’s annual Cal Performances residency. An early champion of Ailey who attended one of the young choreographer’s first performances in New York City in 1958, Ellington made a point of dropping by his rehearsals at the Clark Center in the early ’60s, even catching some sessions at which he refined Revelations, according to Ailey biographer Jennifer Dunning.
They collaborated several times over the years, and upon the maestro’s death in 1974 Ailey created Night Creature as part of a televised special celebrating Ellington’s life and music. Ellington had premiered Night Creature, a 1955 commission from Don Gillis and the Symphony of the Air, in Carnegie Hall that year (though the three-movement suite wasn’t released on record until 1963’s The Symphonic Ellington on Reprise). It doesn’t rank among his best work, not even among his best work from the mid-’50s but, scored for jazz and symphonic orchestra, it’s a vivacious piece full of sass, playful eros, and strutting personality. The Ailey dancers embody the vivid menagerie of characters and their raucous nocturnal adventures, accentuating Ellington’s gift for framing the particular personality of an instrumentalist.
No other bandleader has written such effective settings for the individual instrumental voices in his ensemble. As a jazz composer, Ellington didn’t merely put notes on paper, he created an orchestral language, based on the distinctive instrumental personalities at his disposal, most memorably Tricky Sam Nanton’s trombone growls and smears, Johnny Hodges’s plush velvet alto saxophone, Lawrence Brown’s creamy trombone, Harry Carney’s suavely commanding baritone sax, and Sonny Greer’s majestic percussion.
While repurposing phrases and ideas generated by his players, Ellington specialized in compact but incident-filled three to seven-minute miniatures, though his frequent forays into extended forms were often misunderstood. Ellington wrote that Night Creature was one of his attempts “to try to make the symphony swing,” and he revisited the suite often at pops concerts pairing his orchestra with symphonies.
The piece became fodder for one of the persistent charges leveled against Ellington’s oeuvre by critics like James Lincoln Collier and, more recently, Terry Teachout, who believe that Ellington never mastered working with longer forms. All too often, Teachout, in his 2013 biography Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, takes Ellington to task for what he wasn’t, rather than recognizing the nature of his genius, which leads to ridiculous claims like that Ellington “was a major composer but not an influential one.” At the same time, Teachout writes that Ellington would “treat the sections of his compositions as if they were separate pieces in a mosaic that could be rearranged at will,” a compositional technique that has profoundly shaped celebrated composers such as alto saxophonist/flutist Henry Threadgill and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams.
In an interview with me several years ago, the great bassist Dave Holland said that he tries to write “compositions with interesting shapes, that use different rhythmic challenges, multilayered pieces that exist on a lot of different levels. See, music can be simple and complex at the same time. Duke Ellington did it brilliantly. People were dancing to the rhythms and went out singing his melodies because the rhythm and melody were always so strong and powerful, but they carried an amazing amount of complexity. That's what I've been looking for.”
In some ways, we’re better placed today to appreciate Ellington’s music than at any time since his death. The advent of the compact disc sparked massive reissue proejcts. Literally hundreds of Ellington’s recordings are readily available, from his seminal 1920s sessions for Brunswick, Okeh, and Vocalition to his late extended works recorded for Reprise and RCA, such as his classic collaboration with Billy Strayhorn The Far East Suite.
As a sidenote, the question of Ellington and Strayhorn’s partnership is a subject for an entire book, but it’s become clear over the years, as scholars have examined their original scores, that the two men threw a web of mystification over the nature of their working relationship. For decades, the common wisdom held that it was difficult if nigh impossible to tell where one man’s work ended and the other’s began, but Strayhorn’s extraordinary body of compositions has become a much more distinct realm in the land of Ellingtonia. It’s a mark of Ellington’s genius that the rightful elevation of Strayhorn as a first-rank composer hasn’t detracted from his reputation.
Young musicians today are delving into Ellington’s music in ways that weren’t possible before. Through the efforts and funding of Jazz at Lincoln Center, transcriptions of Ellington’s score are now widely available to high school and college jazz programs. And the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, has done excellent work interpreting such obscure extended Ellington works as The Deep South Suite (where you can hear an early iteration of rhythm and blues in “Happy-Go-Lucky Local,” which became “Night Train” when it was recorded years later by former Ellington saxophonist Jimmy Forrest).
Raised in a very proper Washington, D.C., house when that city was the undisputed center of African-American culture, Ellington early on displayed an artistic side. At 17, he won a scholarship to study art at the Pratt Institute but decided to pursue music instead. By the mid-’20s, he had made the move to New York and gradually started gathering around him the singular musicians upon whom he built his orchestra.
Trumpeter Bubber Miley, with his audacious growl, was one of the first key players, quickly followed by New Orleans clarinetist Barney Bigard, trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. In 1927, Ellington landed a job at the Cotton Club and recorded his first signature pieces, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” “Creole Love Call,” and “Black and Tan Fantasy,” a powerfully evocative soundscape unbeholden to the dance floor. Employing growling plunger mute smears and vocalized effects, Ellington’s orchestra created these “jungle sound” pieces as accompaniment for often racist stage shows in a Harlem nightclub that banned black people from attending, a cauldron that burnished Ellington’s urbane and ironical sensibility to a dazzling sheen.
For the next half-century, he produced an unprecedented flow of music. Without particularly concentrating on it, Ellington penned a couple dozen popular songs that stand up with the best of Berlin, Gershwin, and Arlen. He maintained his band, which he thought of as his instrument, with the royalties from his songwriting so that he could continue to write his suites, “tone parallels” (Ellington’s equivalent to a tone poem), sacred music, and whatever else moved him. It’s a body of work without parallel in the 20th century, an accomplishment that went largely unheralded by the high art establishment.
In 1965 the Pulitzer Prize music jury voted unanimously to present Ellington with a “special citation for long-term achievement,” a proposal immediately shot down by the Pulitzer board. In public, the 66-year-old composer dismissed the snub with characteristic cool, famously remarking “Fate’s being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.” In private, he told critic Nat Hentoff, “In this country, jazz has always been the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.” The Pulitzer committee did finally come around, awarding him a posthumans Special Citation in 1999 on the occasion of his centennial. Rather than being forgotten, Ellington was lending a little luster to the fighting-for-relevance Pulitzer.
Ellington: The Early Years, Mark Tucker (University of Illinois Press)
The World of Duke Ellington, Stanley Dance (Da Capo)
Music Is My Mistress, Duke Ellington (Da Capo)
The Duke Ellington Reader, edited by Mark Tucker (Oxford University Press)
Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, David Hajdu (North Point Press)
The Okeh Ellington (Sony Legacy)
The Webster-Blanton Band (RCA)
The Carnegie Hall Concerts: January 1943 (Prestige)
Fargo, ND November 7, 1940 (Vintage Jazz)
Piano Reflections (Blue Note)
Back to Back (Verve)
Ellington at Newport (Columbia)
Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (Impulse!)
Money Jungle (United Artists)
And His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA)
1Martin Williams, “Recognition, Prestige, and Respect: They're Academic Questions,” in Jazz Changes, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 299.