Duke Ellington: Jazz Pioneer for 25 Years
The 'man of musical surprises' is not finished yet, says 'MM' New York Correspondent, Leonard Feather
It was Duke Ellington himself who gave me the idea for this article.
When a man has been as well established in the musical scene as the Duke has this past quarter century, and when so many words of praise have been written about him that every permutation of superlatives seems to have been exhausted, a problem arises.
You know that Duke is still a vitally important figure, yet you find that there is less being written and said about him than about many younger and perhaps less newsworthy entrants into the field.
It was while we were reflecting along these lines that Duke started to muse about some of the advances that have been made in jazz through the years-advances by artists in instrumental and orchestral innovations, as well as by whole bands building new ideas from the production and promotion standpoint.
The public in general is still inclined to regard Duke mainly as the writer of a string of popular song hits: "Solitude," "Mood Indigo," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "I'm Beginning To See The Light," and all the other big factors in his Tin Pan Alley revenue.
However, a survey of his achievements as leader of the world's greatest popular orchestra for more than two decades reveals a remarkable number of "firsts" attributable to the Duke.
Remember when the so-called "growl" trumpet style was a novelty? "Bubber Miley started doing that with us in 1924," reminisces Ellington. "Then later on we had Tricky Sam Nanton doing his trombone solos with a rubber plunger in the bell of his horn."
Those were weird and wonderful sounds back in the '20s, as were the "hot chimes" played by Sonny Greer in Duke's famous "Ring Dem Bells"; the baritone saxophone, seldom previously used, but brought to the forefront by Ellington's Harry Carney; and the small hand drums, now being wildly overworked by the so-called rhumbop and Afro-Cuban groups, first played by Duke himself in 1938 on his own recording of "Pyramid."
"Then," says Duke, "I think you can put us down for a first in the wordless vocal department, You hear so much talk nowadays about using the human voice like a musical instrument. I though that was a pretty good idea in 1927 when Adelaide Hall did in on our original record of 'Creole Love Call.' In fact, I still think it is a good idea, and we use Kay Davis in that style on almost everything she sings with the band nowadays, including the new arrangement of 'Creole Love Call.' Remember 'Transbluency'?"
We certainly do. It is one of the loveliest Ellington products of recent years, and no words were required to enable Kay to express the beauty of its melodic line.
In this day and age, of course, the human voice is used as a jazz instrument to an unconscionable degree and the prevalence of bop vocals has given many outsiders the completely distorted idea that bebop consists largely of exuberantly incoherent singing.
Having played the role of musical pioneer in building so many cornerstones of present-day popular music, Duke might well be expected to have become embittered or cynical about the youngsters who have come up and seized or altered some of his original ideas. Not so. Nearing fifty-one, Ellington is as enthusiastic as ever about young music and musicians, and about incorporating new ideas into his own performances.
The only concessions he makes, in our view, are made in the interests of the somewhat inconsistent demands of commercial expediency. But Duke, like every great bandleader has always had to contend with the battle of art versus commercialism, and has fought it more successfully than many.
"You know," he says, "it's almost twenty years now since we started trying to get away from the limitations of the three-minute form. We were tired of thinking of everything in terms of popular dance music to be made on one side of a record. So in January, 1931, we recorded 'Creole Rhapsody,' which ran on two sides."
Duke invariable uses the regal first person plural when referring to himself, as if the whole band were jointly responsible for everything he has written.
"We did 'Reminiscing In Tempo' in four parts in 1935, 'Crescendo' and Diminuendo In Blue' in 1937, and then the series of long concert pieces."
The concert works marked Duke Ellington's most memorable achievements, though to be fully aware of this it would be necessary for you to have attended every one of the annual Ellington concerts since January, 1943.
"Black, Brown, And Beige," described as Duke's tone parallel to the history of the American Negro, was only recorded in truncated form; the "Perfume Suite" was recorded but never released; "New World A-Coming" was never recorded at all by the band; and the "Liberian Suite" finally came out very recently on a Columbia long playing record.
It was through works like these that Ellington helped to give jazz true stature as concert music, and set the pace for such people as Stan Kenton, who now tries to combine modern classical and jazz influences with an orchestra of almost symphonic dimensions.
The building of a special jazz number around an instrumental soloist, a device used so frequently by Kenton and others today, also owed a great deal of its impetus to Duke, who in 1936 started a series patterned on these lines with "Cootie's Concerto (Echoes of Harlem)," and "Barney's Concerto (Clarinet Lament)."
"Talking about soloists," said Duke, "I think it was our band that popularised the use of the string bass as a rhythm instrument. Around 1927 we helped to establish it in place of the tuba, and then in 1925, when we hired Hayes Alvis and Billy Taylor, we became the first band to use two bass players simultaneously. And, of course, in 1939, there was Blanton. I don't have to tell you about that."
The late Jimmy Blanton was the brilliant young bassist now credited as the originator of an entirely new style and technique, and who made the bass fiddle into a successful medium for melodic solos.
Duke has never been reluctant to extend his instrumental horizon. If you are one of those who recall the dismay which greeted Cootie Williams's decision to end his long tenure with Duke and join Benny Goodman in 1940, perhaps you also recall how this predicament was turned into an advantage when Duke hired Ray Nance. In addition to his brilliant trumpet work, Nance became the first violinist ever to be featured with the orchestra, and earned himself the nickname of "Floor Show" because of his work as singer, dancer and comedian.
In addition to playing a vital part in determining how jazz was to be played, Duke also lent a helping hand in determining where it could be played. In the early 1930s he pioneered with a tour of de luxe movie theatres, an avenue of expression previously unknown for the jazz orchestra. Starting in 1925 he broke down a long series of racial barriers that had prevented Negro orchestras from playing any important white locations. In 1933 and again in 1939 he blazed the international concert tour trail, the latter visit including a concert in a bomb-proof Paris shelter. Finally, he established firmly in America that Carnegie Hall and similar auditoriums could be successfully used as a regular outlet for jazz concerts.
It would be hard to compile a complete list of the Ellington "first." In 1931 he was the first to popularise the word "swing" with "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," thus paving the way for the swing era. To the throne of which Benny Goodman officially ascended in 1925.
Duke's was the first and only band ever to be voted into the number one position both as the best sweet and the best hot orchestra in the country in the 1946 "Down Beat" poll.
And in case you care, though to use it could hardly seem less important. Duke Ellington used the technique of standing at the piano during his stage shows many years before Maurice Rocco and other vertical keyboard technicians thus identified themselves.
This is the record of Ellington's past. Where does he go from here?
Last year, the same "Down Beat" that had accorded him so may poll victories came out with a sensational attack, declaring that Ellington was washed up, that his band was a shambles, and he might as well disband it before it fell apart beneath him.
That it was a sensational attack and that it hurt Duke personally as well as damaging his prestige and bookings, is indisputable; and there have been many times when even the most rabid Ellington fans have felt this way about the Duke.