Ellington's sound evokes the American spirit
It's the Duke Ellington centennial this year, and the music world is in a sentimental mood. Year-long tributes - from TV specials to symposiums - will honor the jazz legend, who has been dubbed the greatest American composer.
"He wrote some of the most amazing music of our century," says Rob Gibson, director of jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. "[He's] our Shakespeare, Goethe, and Czanne."
Edward Kennedy Ellington gained critical and popular acclaim, playing in the jazz idiom, though he disliked the label. He said there were just two kinds of music: good or bad.
In a career spanning six decades, he produced a lush and complexly harmonic repertoire - a prodigious output that ranges from more than 2,000 known works to perhaps as many as 6,000, if short instrumental pieces are included.
His sound ran the gamut. His first composition was "Soda Fountain Rag" in 1914. He moved on through decades of audience-pleasing favorites ("Mood Indigo," "In a Sentimental Mood," "Black and Tan Fantasy") to his monumental tone poem "Black, Brown, and Beige," which used symphonic devices, and to later liturgical music such as "In the Beginning God."
Ellington created many of his most famous works out of the living laboratory of The Duke Ellington Band.
In a 1968 article for The Christian Science Monitor, he wrote: "A lot of them have been "head" things, things we've done in rehearsal, or on a job, or in the recording studio. Someone thinks of a phrase, a lick, a theme, we work it around, change it, develop it. Pretty soon we have a new tune and a new arrangement."
"Duke was the driving force behind everything," says virtuoso trumpeter and bandleader Wynton Marsalis. Ellington collaborated with his players, especially with arranger Billy Strayhorn, on such signature tunes as "Take the A Train." Mr. Marsalis attributes Ellington's genius to his ability to collect individual talents who could work together to create "the Ellington sound."
Ellington was the son of a White House butler. His mother is often credited with instilling confidence in him. He would use that mettle to battle prejudice.
"The real thing that influenced him was the blues," Marsalis says. "Duke's harmonies come out of the blues," from the African-American musicians of New Orleans.
On many occasions, Ellington noted that his personal experience was the wellspring of his music. While he often wrote about big themes, especially in his spirituals, he told a critic that "everything had a picture or was descriptive of something."
But he never saw his music as parochial. When he was asked during the turbulent 1960s civil- rights era to speak about "his people," Ellington responded, "Well, there are many types of people, but the people are my people."
Racial issues often affected the direction of Ellington's career. During the decades his group spent touring, Ellington's band, even when it was the most sought-after in the country, often had to sleep in a private railroad car because of racially segregated hotels.
When he did not win a Pulitzer Prize in 1965 because of what many considered to be racial prejudice, he said, "Fate didn't want me to be famous too young."
His band continued playing well after his passing in 1974, led by his son Mercer. As for his music, and why it appeals to later generations, Marsalis says, "It codifies American feelings and aspirations and ideals. So, it couldn't be a strict, rigid type of music."
Describing the distinctive Ellington sound, Marsalis says, "It's improvisatory, but it allows you to put your feelings and your thoughts in a context. And it is classic in that it is something that represents the best we have to offer. "There's no other music that's ever been created in the United States of America that will put a kid more in touch with what it means to be American."
*A Duke Ellington TV special, 'Swingin' with Duke: Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis' airs Wednesday, May 12, on PBS at 9 p.m. (check local listings).