Making Sense of The Ellington Madness

illustration by Jim Blanchard ©

No one has ever said that Duke Ellington sucked. People may not dig the Duke’s brand of musical mastery, but everyone gives the Duke his due. Never more so than in 1999—Ellington’s 100th birthday. RCA released a gargantuan 24-CD boxed set spanning Ellington’s 45 years with the label. Wynton Marsalis, proving to everyone to be the museum piece he is, dedicated a full year of his Jazz At Lincoln Center repertoire to Ellington. Record stores bulked up on the endless reissues and tributes. Books were published and documentaries cropped up on nearly every radio show, station and network.

So why an Ellington article? Hasn’t the cat gotten enough press? Isn’t it time to move on? Yes and no.

My own first encounter with Ellington’s music happened back in sometime around 1987. Being the music aficionado that I was, I had AM radio in my orange Ford Fiesta. Radio in Minneapolis was worthless back then, as it still is now, so I tuned to National Public Radio to listen to the news. On Saturday nights at 10 p.m. Leigh Kammen’s The Jazz Image would come on. It was a state-syndicated show by a true old school radio person and jazz authority. Kammen would recall shows he’d seen in the 30s and 40s, talk with musicians and play music. What continued to haunt me was the show’s theme music, which featured this soprano’s wordlessly vocalizing over some songs that were vaguely familiar. Emotional, austere and haunting, this voice was used often and its raw emotion smote me. I finally called the station and left a message for Kammen. A week later the familiar voice of Kammen left a message on my answering machine: the name of the artist is Alice Babs & Duke Ellington. The album is a French import called Serenade To Sweden. I tracked it down and subjected everyone who walked into the house to sit down and listen. Babs, Ellington, a rhythm section and a few horns played “Satin Doll” “C-Jam Blues” and some other Ellington standards. I’ve never seen another copy of the record and Babs, as it turns out, is more known for her work on Ellington’s sacred concerts. But it was through the voice that got my start and over the next few years I accumulated some Ellington reissues that started popping up amidst the rush to remaster everything for the CD format.

Everyone always says that what set Ellington apart from the others was his ability to write and arrange for his band. But that is overly simplistic, what set him apart was that he was Duke Ellington. He was lucky to get the kind of support he needed at a young age, which meant music lessons and supportive parents. He was also lucky that his own interests jived with that of what was happening around him. My father always says that its better to be lucky than good. Good people are a dime a dozen. Luck is what puts a person in the right position to succeed. Because Ellington got some breaks he was allowed to grow and his music flourished. Imagine if he tried to become a classical composer in 1917 instead of playing dances. Chances are pretty good that things would have turned out differently.

Ellington attracted talented musicians to him from an early age because he got good gigs that paid well. That meant that he got great people and he was able to hold on to them, and often did until he died in 1974. The accumulated time of the senior members of reed section is staggering. Baritone saxophonist Harry Carney was with him from 1927 to 1974. Alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges was with him from 1928 til his death in 1970 with a four-year sabbatical in the early 50s. Tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves was there from 1950 til 1974. Alto saxophonist/clarinetist Russell Procope was there from there 1946 to 1974. Not to mention Billy Strayhorn, who contributed and collaborated on arrangements and compositions from 1940 till his death in 1967. Trombonists Tricky Sam Nanton, Juan Tizol and Laurence Brown played together for more than a decade in the band, helping to define the brass section’s signatory warmth and sophistication while the band was at the height of its powers.

Some of the talent that fed Ellington’s music spent less time in the band, but helped push jazz music as never before. Bubber Miley’s growling trumpet helped define the Ellington sound in the 20s. A young Jimmy Blanton spent about 18 months in the band before he died of tuberculosis. During that time Blanton and Ellington redefined the jazz bass, making it a solo instrument. Around the same time Blanton joined, Ben Webster came on to add fire to the saxophone section. Add Strayhorn to the equation and this happy convergence in the early 40s, nearly 20 years on as a band, is why Blanton/Webster era is considered by many as the pinnacle of the Ellington band. Anyone looking for a good place to start digging into the Ellington legacy, this is era.

With this talented cast surrounding him, Ellington wrote somewhere over 2000 compositions and released hundreds of records. There were countless pop hits and standards written by Ellington and members of his band. Film scores such as Anatomy of a Murder were done. There were long pieces such as Black, Brown And Beige and the three sacred concerts. Suffice to say, the man was busy with his hands in many different pots.

He also wasn’t afraid to change. The modern day Ellintonia sound didn’t really happen till the 40s. Before that there was the small-band jungle music of the 20s and early 30s. There was the swing music of the 30s. There was the Blanton/Webster era that integrated bebop into to the Ellington sound. The 50s, 60s, and 70s saw new arrangements of old songs, new songs, and new sounds. He started to occasionally use an electric keyboard and played in small groups, solo concerts or with orchestras. It almost didn’t seem didn’t seem to matter. Sit down and play in a trio with Max Roach and Charles Mingus, as they did on The Money Jungle, not a problem. Ellington the pianist could play in a trio. He didn’t need his band. He understood music in its many different forms. An album with John Coltrane was no problem. Modern day players you wouldn’t normally associate with Ellington cite him as an influence. Mingus stole a lot from Ellington and his arrangements. Thelonious Monk’s first album for Riverside was an album of Ellington tunes. Cecil Taylor has cited Ellington as an influence and you can hear it, especially in his early work. Sun Ra was obviously influenced by the Ellington sound and his ability to run a band. Even younger figures like Matthew Shipp have covered Ellington’s songs.

With the approach of Louis Armstrong’s 100th I cringe at the idea for another year so focused on one person, but the Ellington centennial has certainly had its fringe benefits. RCA released The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1927-1973). For $300 or $400 you can enter the majestic Ellington universe and never leave or get bored. Of course the scope is maddening, but the highlights make something akin to the Holy Grail of jazz. There’s seven discs from the early Cotton Club days. There’s another seven from Blanton/Webster era. Then there are the three sacred masses that were included in the box. Each is a masterful longform composition and featuring some of the most spiritual and elegiac music ever written. Like Black, Brown and Beige, which broached the topic of race in America back 1943, these pieces give an insight into a man many have dismissed as a smooth talking, tuxedo wearing jazzbo. These pieces prove that there was always a motive in his music, whether it’s racial unity or spiritual reverence. It begs the point that Ellington’s music always had something to say. As when Ellington goes on a tour of the Middle East and Asia and comes back with The Far East Suite, which is also included in the set. A shockingly great piece from 1966, the master was inspired by his travels to create some distinctly different jazz music. Here you could hear him reaching even though had long list of triumphs behind him.

Surprisingly, Columbia didn’t do anything too special for the centennial. They have as much material in the vaults as RCA did but choose not to do it. Perhaps because the label was working on its own Century box, they had other gems to bring back to the light of day. Nevertheless, it leaves one to wonder if or when it’s ever going to happen if it didn’t happen in 1999. Ellington fans can take solace that there are dozens of hours of material out of print or unreleased, but the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a rush by the label he spent even more time on than RCA.

A lot of the hard facts here aren’t things I knew before the Ellington centennial. So I can certainly appreciate the good that comes from marking anniversaries or birthdays. It gives us a chance to revisit things that are certainly worth going back to. I discovered some musical moments within the Ellington canon that literally blew my mind.

First off was Jimmy Blanton. The kid was 21 when he joined the band yet it seemed as if he’d come out of the womb playing the biggest, baddest bass ever heard. When I got the Ellington box (I got a deal on it), the voice of that bass was shocking. According to band members, Blanton played a mess of bass—perfect toned and loud. Imagine going up against all those horns and still being able to be heard. Bass from that era was more often felt than actually heard. Knowing that he had something in the bass player, Ellington was in the studio recording a series of duets with the bassist a month after the young musician joined the band. Listening to the bassist tearing shit apart as Ellington accompanied and soloed must have been depressing for any other bassist. His fluid lines were played with rhythm and melody and he had a sense of dynamics that seemed to be untethered by what became before it.

I’d always heard that the Ellington Band’s Newport appearance in 1956 was the beginning of Ellington’s re-emergence from the funk of the early 50s. He’d taken a hit when Hodges left to form his own band taking Lawrence Brown and Sonny Greer (the last of the original Ellington band members). Jazz had also changed and people percieved Ellington to be hopelessly out of step after being jazz’s guiding light for 25 years. But that Newport show, released on Columbia, has a moment on it that is one of the most crystallizing moments in jazz. The crowd was polite for most of the set and the band ran through its material. Then something happened. Ellington announced “Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue,” with an interlude by Paul Gonsalves. The first part of the song was an intense blues vamp at the end of which Ellington took a solo. Then Gonsalves stepped up the microphone and all hell broke loose. The saxophonist started out strong and by around the seventh chorus people started to stir. Soon it sounded like there was a riot going on. Some kid is banging on the side of the stage with a magazine and cheering. Ellington is up there saying, “Keep going. Keep going.” The solo went on for 27 choruses or about eight minutes before the band rocks it home. The recording is a revelation perfectly captured and spine chilling. The passion in Ellington’s music came out in that Gonsalves’ saxophone, proving there was still plenty of life left in Ellington and his band.

While I have been running off in the mouth, so to speak, there are problems with the Ellington legacy and peoples’ fixation with it. With jazz sales being about 2% of what’s being sold in stores things are pretty slim. When you add in the fact that all these reissues are competing with living musicians, things look pretty dire for anyone trying to make living in jazz. How can you compete with a dead genius. Many have figured out a way: tributes. It seemed like there were two or three new Ellington tributes appearing every week. I can live with the reissues, they serve a purpose, but I’m sick of the tributes and they reek of opportunism. Tony Bennett’s Bennett Sings Hot And Cool was the only tribute that didn’t seem to be a thinly veiled attempt to cash in on the master’s name. Bennett was a friend and he doesn’t need the money. The cat probably makes more money on one of his paintings these days than he would off this one album.

Happy birthday Duke, I’m glad to see it go. There is still plenty to learn from the master. His music is some of the most enchanting ever written, performed or recorded. As listeners and music fans, we have a wealth of material Ellington canon to draw upon. Undoubtedly one reason for Ellington’s longevity was that he was an artist who kept tinkering with ideas, trying to make them even better. Many of today’s jazz musicians should spend more time thinking about their music and less time playing Ellington’s. The man was a genius and his orchestra an extension of his mastery. There is nothing anyone can do today that is going to improve upon it. Thus these recorded tributes become a pale shadow and a diluted reminder of Ellington’s talent. With all the material that has been reissued this year, that is one thing that is abundantly clear: The man can’t be touched, and that alone is tribute enough.


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