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8.555017 - Remembering Duke Ellington
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Remembering Duke Ellington

‘He moved with all the influences of the time, from blues to bebop and the moderns, and transmuted them into his own…’

Alistair Cooke

Alistair Cooke

For most his long and illustrious career Duke Ellington was a major figure in jazz, and an active participant in an evolution which he helped graph in recordings spanning the years 1923 to 1973. In the history of jazz qua music, therefore, Duke remains an institution, a persona so monumental that he will never be forgotten. By the early 1930s he was already established as a top bandleader, and celebrated both as an arranger and a composer in his own right, and would in all probability have preferred the more creative route of ‘serious’ jazz (i.e. suites and the like). However, with the take-off of Swing inspired by Benny Goodman’s 1935 breakthrough, the Ellington Orchestra, notwithstanding its great ensemble, virtually overnight joined a growing legion of bands vying to cash in on the new big band craze. From 1936 a combination of factors, some personal, some economic, constrained Ellington to a more commercial idiom. Willing always to adapt, Duke mirrored and often anticipated new directions and it is to this that we owe the existence of many of the great standards on this CD.

Born in Washington DC on 29th April 1899, the son of a White House butler, Edward Kennedy Ellington enjoyed the benefits of a genteel, respectable upbringing and education. Given his first piano lessons at seven, he mastered harmony and by his teens was already honing tunes for his instrument, and was haunting the Howard Theatre on a regular basis where he feasted his ears and eyes on the keyboard ‘acrobatics’ of Luckey Roberts and other exemplars of post-ragtime stride.

Recognising his son’s extraordinary capacity for sketching, his father, James Edward, had hoped – vainly – that Duke would keep the piano as a hobby and devote himself to becoming a professional graphic artist instead. Duke left technical college in 1917 and briefly ran his own sign-painting business but later that year made his solo piano début and was soon gigging in Louis Thomas’s band at society venues. In 1918, he formed a trio, Duke’s Serenaders, which offered sophisticated jazz to Washington’s ‘select patrons’ and in 1922 moved to New York where he could observe at closer quarters the dextrous finger movements of James P. Johnson and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith.

By the close of 1923 Duke had formed the Washingtonians with trio colleague Elmer Snowden (1900-1973) and scored the revue Chocolate Kiddies. By the late 1920s the all-black Ellington outfit had become a society band par excellence, virtually exclusive to prestigious venues whose all-white clienteles were not inclined to fraternise with Negroes. However, through his residencies at New York’s Holiday Inn (and, briefly, the Kentucky on 49th Street and Broadway) and wider exposure on radio, he was able, without abandoning his ‘Jungle’-style hot jazz trademark, to exploit the public’s growing interest in dance music. Late in 1927 he began his first, five-year, sojourn at the Cotton Club and there his elegant twelvepiece largely satisfied a demand for both. A string of great jazz creations, beginning with East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (1926), Black And Tan Fantasy and Creole Love Call (both 1927), The Mooche (1928) and particularly the best-selling Mood Indigo (1930), secured his name.

By the time ‘Harlem’s Aristocrat of Jazz’ had quit the Cotton Club to tour the States in early 1931, he not only catered to the dance market but was also a top concert attraction. Salaried on a par ‘approximately equal to the best symphonic wages’ the Ellington Orchestra grossed almost $50,000 per week and, while breaking all previous box-office records, offered the more thoughtful listener instrumental essays through which, Duke hoped, jazz might finally acquire its merited dignity.

1931 brought the first flowering of Duke’s most creative phase and his compositions, including Rockin’ In Rhythm (1930), Creole Rhapsody (1931) and It Don’t Mean A Thing (1932), viewed in retrospect, were heralds of the Swing Era. By late 1933 he was once more (this time briefly) ensconced in the security of the Cotton Club, and with a band now augmented to six brass, four reeds plus a four-man rhythm section, had traversed the United States from coast to coast and taken Europe and London by storm. And by 1934, so many outstanding Ellington numbers of the threeminute pop-tune variety were triggering almost equal sales of certain non-dance items more accurately classified as mood-music. From 1934 Duke’s successes on shellac veered more significantly towards the commercial, with versions of Cocktails For Two and Moon Glow, as well as the first of several recorded versions of his own Sophisticated Lady (1932, in collaboration with Otto Hardwick) and Solitude (1934) proving top sellers. Additionally, a number of more esoteric Ellington jazz tone-paintings prompted John Hammond to remark (in Downbeat magazine) that his latest records on Brunswick ‘had hardly any of the oldtime Ellington sincerity and originality’ while urging his fans to rush out and ‘buy them all’ – regardless.

To make money while doing justice to jazz and to his own creative status within the genre, would soon become a dilemma which Ellington solved in part by more overt displays of showmanship, living proof that not only was his a fashionable Swing outfit, but that his crew were all virtuosos a notch above the average. In March 1937 he made a further return to the Cotton Club (in a Cotton Club Parade revue featuring Ethel Waters), by July sheet-music and disc sales of Caravan had made it a top American best-seller and in September his recordings of Diminuendo In Blue and Crescendo In Blue reassured the buffs that his penchant for innovative tone-painting remained untarnished.

During that year a wider audience sensed that Duke was au fait with Swing and could hold his own with dance bands, when he appeared in the promotional film The Hit Parade (a behind-the-scenes drama for Republic) and around that time he embarked on a further series of best-selling commercial recordings of his own compositions. Variously revived and rerecorded during the intervening decades in countless versions by bands and solo vocalists the world over, the greater part of these numbers, some originally ‘instrumentals’ with lyrics added later, subsequently attained the status of ‘standards’, beginning, in 1938, with I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart (a number which, despite its official credit as a collaboration with Irving Mills and Henry Nemo was, according to Rex Stewart, at least partly the creation of Johnny Hodges).

From 1940 onwards (when the US pop charts as we now know them became a yardstick for sales and overall currency) several Ellington compositions became known to the world through Ellington’s own US chart hit-versions, notably I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good (No. 13, in 1941), Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (written in 1942, No. 8 in 1943), Take The ‘A’ Train (composed in 1941, a No. 19 hit in 1943), Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me (No. 10, in 1944), I’m Beginning To See The Light (co-written with Harry James, in 1944, an Ellington No. 6 in 1945) and Satin Doll (No. 27, in 1953), while lesser-known pieces such as Alcibiades (from the incidental music he wrote on commission for the production by the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival, in July 1963) reflect Duke’s more symphonic jazz inclinations.

Today, more than thirty years since his death, in New York, on 24th May 1974, the stature and popularity of Duke’s musical bequest remains undiminished by time. Indeed, to paraphrase the late Alistair Cooke (ever an ardent Ellington fan): ‘Bands may come and bands may go, but the Duke goes on forever.’

Peter Dempsey

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