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Ellington: a jazz improviser whose instrument was his orchestra

Duke Ellington, by James Lincoln Collier. New York. Oxford. 384 pp. $19.95. In 1974 the New York Times called Duke Ellington ``America's most important composer.'' In a new biography, ``Duke Ellington,'' James Lincoln Collier questions this, even challenging his reputation as a songwriter. Collier asserts that Ellington was ``essentially a jazz improviser'' whose instrument was his orchestra.

Collier provides a critical assessment of virtually every recording. His perceptive comments reveal how Ellington worked.

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Ellington extracted from his band exactly what he wanted. But his adventurous blending was the critical element.

He sought out musicians with a personal sound - the liquid chalumeau of clarinetist Barney Bigard, the amazing ``talking trombone'' of Tricky Sam Nanton, and the soaring glissandos and quintessential swing of saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Their distinctive and frequently eccentric approaches gave Ellington a palette of vibrant colors - which he mixed in every possible combination. Although many Ellington musicians later led their own groups or recorded on their own, they never duplicated the artistry they achieved under his leadership.

Collier says that ``the central melodic ideas of virtually all of Ellington's best-known songs originated in somebody else's head.'' ``Caravan'' and ``Perdido,'' for example, were written by trombonist Juan Tizol, and ``Satin Doll'' and ``Take the A Train'' by Billy Strayhorn. ``Only `Solitude' appears to have been entirely his work. For the rest he was at best a collaborator, at worst merely the arranger of a band version of the tune.''

If ``by `composer' we mean somebody who makes up more or less complete works that are written down,'' then Ellington does not qualify, Collier says. In ``most instances, the work existed on paper only in scraps and pieces, which have long since disappeared.'' How much of the voicings was contributed by the men in the sections, how much by arrangers who ``extracted'' the parts from sketchy piano versions?

Collier sees Ellington as a master chef who supervised everything and whose taste was the final arbiter. ``He, and nobody else, created the musical machine that produced the great compositions we know as `Ellington.'''

Dave Burns leads The Hot Mustard Jazz Band in Washington, D.C.

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