Ellington At 100: Reveling in Life’s Majesty

IN Duke Ellington’s world, people are smiling, they are dancing and they are making love. They’re having a good time because his music’s most basic concern is uplift of the human spirit. It’s a music that celebrates freedom of expression, freedom of choice. That’s why we love it. It wants us to love being ourselves and to revel in the majesty of life.

The arrival of 1999 marks the centennial of the birth of Edward Kennedy (Duke) Ellington, America’s most prolific composer of the 20th century in both number of pieces (almost 2,000) and variety of forms. Duke’s artistic development and sustained achievement were among the most spectacular in the history of music. His was a distinctly democratic vision of music in the service of the whole band’s sound and, more than any other composer, he codified the sound of America in the 20th century.

Duke Ellington’s genius manifested itself in his musicianship, his composition and his leadership. He taught himself how to use his ensemble and its individual members as a palette to paint tonal pictures. By 1930 he had already established an international following with several major recordings. Few other artists of the last 100 years have been more successful at capturing humanity’s triumphs and tribulations in their work than this composer, band leader and pianist, who died at age 75 in 1974. Now, as musicians, music lovers and musical organizations around the world embark on a yearlong commemoration of Duke’s legacy, it is fitting that we reflect on the characteristics that distinguish his artistry.

The roots of Duke’s music run deep in American society. His compositions are a synthesis of elemental forms of American music, including field hollers, Shaker hymns, fiddlers’ reels, minstrel songs, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley and, most important, the blues. He recognized that the blues was both a form and a feeling. He understood the blues was a mode through which you communicate, like a telephone wire. He also recognized that the blues attitude can accommodate many ways of hearing life, from the tragic to the triumphant.

Duke peeped W. C. Handy, the first published composer of the blues, and saw how he had come to terms with the contradictory nature of the music, despite having been reared in a high-minded, churchgoing family. (That’s right: Some people may sit in the first pew at church, be the most demonstrative voices in the Amen chorus but love the most secular and low-down music and still be God’s children.) Duke grasped how a most devout gospel singer like Mahalia Jackson could be influenced by the bawdy and profane blues singing of Bessie Smith. He saw how Louis Armstrong taught others to improvise with a blues feeling and how Armstrong took the blues sound and applied it to harmonic progressions from the classical tradition of Europe, making it possible to play the most non-American material with soul and feeling.

Ellington appropriated the moans, hollers, laughs and cries of the blues to form a harmonic concept that was completely original and homegrown. This system of harmony sometimes played the chromatic and semitone dissonances of the blues against the consonant triadic inversions of gospel music. His chord voicings were famous for swooping, scrunching and soaring.

Duke also recognized the possibilities for development in New Orleans jazz, its polyphony, call and response, riffs, breaks, grooves and improvisational attitudes. Such insight was a great achievement, because New Orleans music during Duke’s youth was still a novelty. To many listeners and musicians, it sounded like noise. Even to some who liked it, it seemed indecipherable. When Duke heard this music, he didn’t just hear an eccentric sound. He heard all the fundamental musical elements being reinterpreted; for him, this was the first music that had the ease and spontaneity of conversation. Since Duke was one of the world’s great conversationalists (with a Ph.D. in late-night conversation), he realized that this music could form the basis of his art.

Given his background, the choices he made to shape his esthetic sensibility were remarkable. Born on April 29, 1899, in Washington to a loving and musical middle-class family, he was playing piano by the time he was 8 years old. An athletic boy who was interested in baseball, football and track, Duke was also a talented painter. He received a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn after high school. But he decided to dedicate his life to music when he began to win acclaim playing piano in dance bands at parties and clubs around town. Early in his career, Duke was inspired by the Harlem stride pianists Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson and Willie (The Lion) Smith, and in 1922 he moved to New York City with some of his musical homeboys. They created a cooperative band called the Washingtonians, and their speciality was sweet society dance-band music.

Their first steady gig in New York was at the Kentucky Club. By 1927, Duke’s band was transformed. Expanded from 5 to 10 musicians, it had been renamed the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The hot gumbo of New Orleans jazz had replaced tea and crumpets. His ensemble began an extended engagement at the popular Cotton Club in Harlem — off limits to blacks folks up there in ‘‘jungle Harlem.’‘ There Duke worked out what became the hallmarks of the Ellington sound: talking brass instruments, wailing clarinets, ritualistic drumbeats, sensual balladry and precision orchestration.

Duke also knew — and understood — people of all classes, and tried to reach them on many levels. He coined the term total jazz, and though I have never seen or heard his explanation of it, I think he meant jazz that appeals to all stratums of people, just as Shakespeare’s plays appealed to all people. At the old Globe Theater, people on the lowest level, not necessarily of class, mainly enjoyed the nasty jokes and putdowns. At the same time, others in the audience relished some of the greatest poetry since the Bible. All of Western history was Shakespeare’s province. Through his poetic powers, he made Greek and Roman mythology compelling to Elizabethan audiences. He covered a lot of ground. So did Duke. Duke even made Shakespeare compelling to jazz fans when he recorded ‘‘Such Sweet Thunder’‘ (1957), a suite inspired by Shakespearean themes and commissioned by the Shakespeare Festival of Stratford, Ontario. Duke once responded to a question about how he related to his people, saying ‘‘the people are my people.’‘

Duke’s artistic mantra was integrate, integrate, integrate. He blended diverse cultural and musical ideas because he understood not only what the country was, but also what it could become.

While Ellington was making music for and about the people, many composers of European concert music were beginning to distance themselves from the vibrancy of 20th-century life in their work. A good deal of their music is somewhat gloomy. I guess the horrors of the modern age were too much for them.

This is not true of Duke Ellington, who learned an important lesson from the blues: the greatest joy is earned in the hardest times. Duke knew that truly great art, for all its virtuosity and complexity, also had to be simple and direct. He rose above a basic misunderstanding common to much of modern art: that abstraction is the only way to achieve an up-to-date statement. Duke’s art, like Picasso’, teaches us that abstraction is only one way, not the way. Duke was more interested in your liking his music than in your understanding it.

In his work, Duke smoothly melded musical concepts that were thought to be irreconcilable. Take an extended piece like ‘‘The Tatooted Bride’‘ from 1948. It marries the romance of Tin Pan Alley chord progressions, the introspecion of static modal harmonies and the complex joy of New Orleans polyphony — three harmonic conceptions that represent different schools of jazz. The 1950 suite ‘’(A Tone Parallet to) Harlem’‘ is a treatise on the musical third. He uses the interval of the minor third as the main melodic theme. This interval becomes the basis for modulations into keys a minor third from each other. The orchestra modulates up a third in tempo. I could go on and on about the intensity of the thematic relationships in this piece. But Duke always disdained public theoretical discussions about music. He said such talk ‘‘stinks up the place.’‘

DUKE understood that music could be called upon to evoke diverse aspects of our national character, and he drew on the musical personalities of his band members to create a particular American tapestry of mood and style. So the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, with his urbane nonchalance, could be a city slicker or a crooner. The big-toned trumpeter Cootie Williams from Alabama could be a country boy or a preacher or even Paul Bunyan. And the gruff but sensitive tenor saxophonist Ben Webster could be a boisterous brawler or a lyrical poet. Duke felt that such characters were variations on figures from a mythic past, which came mainly from two places: the long suffering of slavery and the so-what-if-it-hurts jubilation of New Orleans.

His band was always made up of musicians who possessed startlingly individual sounds but whose playing could also reanimate the sounds of the early New Orleans jazzmen: the deep, slapping style of Pops Foster’s bass, the clarion majesty of Buddy Bolden’s trumpet, the swooping and acerbic sweetness of Sidney Bechet’s saxophone, and the intricate coarseness of Kid Ory’s grouchy trombone. When Duke wrote for Johnny Hodges, for example, Johnny’s playing represented Duke’s own inimitable sound but was also an invocation of Sidney Bechet’s. He applied this dual conception to all the voices in his orchestra, and the success of this method made Duke the music’s greatest conservator at the same timethat he was its greatest innovator.

As a band leader, Duke was extremely laid back; he knew how to leave people alone. Duke could hire the most hell-raising musicians and never be disturbed by antics that would drive anyone else crazy. His stated philosophy was: why should I let you aggravate me when I could be composing a great tune with that same energy.

In the big stew that is American music, there is no precedent for the many distinct voices of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the variety of ways in which its members could harmonize, undercut, outshout, argue and ultimately swing with each other. Miles Davis once said that all musicians should get down on their knees once a year and thank the Lord for Duke Ellington. After his initial fame, he could easily have escaped into the art world of the ‘‘serious composer’‘ and created some very interesting and tongue-twisting theories about harmony and what-not. He could have retreated to the university to rail bitterly against the establishment while creating a distinguished body of work that ran people out of the concert hall. Or he could have become a tired imitator of pop trends, which have proved to be the creative graveyard for so many jazz musicians. He didn’t.

I’ve always regarded the Duke Ellington Orchestra as one of the great achievements in the history of art. He hired the best musicians, and they stayed on the road playing this enormous body of original music. For five decades, through wars, Prohibition, the Depression and the Civil Rights movement, they were separated from the friends and lovers. But a love for the music and the people they played for kept them out there, year after year. The longevity, intimacy and power of their music remain unparalleled. There will never be another sound like it, ever. And Duke at 100 is still swinging us home.

by Wynton Marsalis
Source: New York Times

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