Duke Ellington is in a class by himself. His contributrions to the history of jazz are undeniable and well documented. He was an excellent pianist which many people overlook because of his accomplishments in other areas of the music. As a composer/arranger he had no equal. He raised the craft of orchestration to the highest level and his compositions alone would guarantee his place in the pantheon of jazz greats. Add to this one of the most individual, unique, creative and long lived aggregations: his orchestra and then add to that, his manner, his dedication to the music, his elevation of the black artist and you have a legacy that will probably never be equalled. There are many excellent books on Mr. Ellington, including his own,"Music Is My Mistress" There are also some wonderful videos that allow we mere mortals to glimpse into the world of Duke Ellington.
Where to start? His composing and arranging output numbers in the thousands. Many of his tunes have become a permanent part of our culture .His compositions fall into several different categories.
1. Many of his songs that originally were instrumentals, became popular tunes with the addition of lyrics. Mood Indigo, Iím Beginning To See The Light, and Donít Get Around Much Anymore to mention just a few.
2. He wrote many 3 minute instrumentals (due to the available recording technology at the time, basically the amount of time on one side of a 78 rpm record). Concerto for Cootie and In a Mellotone fall in this category.
3. He also wrote many extended works, of which Black, Brown and Beige is the crowning achievement.
4. Portrait of the Lion and Bojangles were written to portray actual people. Also his Harlem Air Shaft was a musical portrayal of the sights and sounds in a Harlem air shaft. That space formed in the center of four tenements in Harlem.
5. He also wrote several movie scores which his band performed. Anatomy of a Murder, Asphalt Jungle and Paris Blues are all excellent.
6. With his engagement at the famed Cotton Club,(a club in Harlem catering to whites only) he wrote in what has been described as his "jungle styleí. The patrons wanting to be exposed to "primitive" behavior, Ellington had to come up with musical sounds that could be classified as "jungle sounds". This led to the "growl" style of playing in the brass section. An excellent example of this is East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.
An integral part of composing is in the orchestration. Ellington was a master. While many composer/arrangers write in a way that allows any number of musicians to play the music, Ellington wrote specifically for individual players and built entire songs around one individual. Many of his players stayer with him for 30, 40 and 50 years. The normal arranging style, developed by Fletcher Henderson and put to good use with his arrangements by the Benny Goodman Orchestra, was to pit one section against another. Musically, of course. The saxes against the brass, the trumpets against the trombones, etc. 95% of all big band arrangements fall into this category. Can anybody guess what this technique of pitting one section against another might be called? Thatís right. CALL AND RESPONSE. Anyway Ellington arranged /voiced across the sections which was a totally new approach. He would take one instrument from each section and have them play together. The absolutel;y most famous example is Mood Indigo. Upon close listening you will hear that he also uses the instruments in a novel way. The clarinet, normally played in the upper register is playing the lowest part.
As I said earlier, many of his players displayed a fierce loyalty and were with him for many, many years. The list of sidemen that played in the Ellington band reads like a Whoís Who of influential jazzmen. The creativity of these players coupled with Ellingtonís arrangements and compositions produced a unique result that can not be put in any specific style or period.
Saxophone: Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Barney Bigard and Jimmy Hamilton
Trumpet: "Cat" Anderson, "Bubber" Miley, "Cootie" Williams, Clark Terry, Rex Stewart and Ray Nance
Trombone: Juan Tizol, "Tricky Sam" Nanton and Lawrence Brown
Rhythm Section: Bassist Jimmy Blanton, drummers, Sam Woodyard, Sonny Greer, Louis Bellson and "Speedy" Rufus Jones
There is one other individual that we must mention in our discussion of Ellington and that was his right hand man and co-composer on many, many, many tunes: Billy "Sweet Pea" Strayhorn. The two men worked together in such a fashion that it was hard to tell who had written what in a particular piece or arrangement. Strayhorn excelled at writing ballads (slow pieces). Two that are a part of the standard repetoire are "Chelsea Bridge" and "Lush Life".
Duke Ellington stands alone in his contributions to our musical culture. His music will always be played, sung, listened to, and be forever in our consciousness.