Ellington, Duke [Edward Kennedy] (Washington, 29 April 1899 - New York, 24 May 1974)
Composer, bandleader, and pianist, father of Mercer Ellington
He was for decades a leading figure in big-band jazz, and remains the most significant composer of the genre.
Ellington's father was a butler and intended him to become
an artist. He began to study piano when he was seven, and was much influenced
by the ragtime pianists; at the age of 17 he made his professional début. His
first visit to
During the following period (1927-31), at the Cotton Club in
In the mid-1940s the orchestra was enlarged again: by 1946
it included 18 players. But the previous stability of personnel declined and
Ellington's writing, based on his members' individual styles, began to suffer from the constant changes. Several excellent
soloists, however, were added: Ray Nance (trumpet and violin), Shorty Baker (trumpet), and Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet). In
January 1943 Ellington inaugurated a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall
with his monumental work Black, Brown and Beige, a "tone parallel"
originally conceived in five sections and intended to portray the history of
the black people in the
From 1950 Ellington continued to expand the scope of his
compositions and his activities as a bandleader. His foreign tours became
increasingly frequent and successful (including one of the
Style and musical language
Ellington taught himself harmony at the piano, and acquired the rudiments of orchestration by experimenting with his band; his orchestra was a workshop, in which he consulted his players and tried out alternative solutions. During the formative Cotton Club period, Ellington was obliged to work in a variety of musical categories: numbers for dancing, jungle-style and production numbers, popular songs, "blue" or "mood" pieces, as well as "pure" instrumental jazz compositions. During this period, too, Ellington developed an extraordinary symbiotic relationship with his orchestra - it was his "instrument" even more than the piano - enabling him to experiment with the timbral colorings, tonal effects, and unusual voicings that became the hallmark of his style; the "Ellington effect" (Strayhorn's term) was virtually inimitable because it depended in large part on the particular timbre and style of each player. Remarkably, though no two players in Ellington's orchestra sounded alike, they could, when called upon, produce the most ravishing blends and ensembles of sonority known to jazz.
An outstanding early example of the "Ellington effect" may be heard on Mood Indigo (1930), in which the traditional roles of the three front-line instruments in New Orleans collective improvisation - clarinet (high-register obbligato), trumpet (melody or theme), and trombone (bass or tenor counterthemes) - are inverted so that the muted trumpet plays on top; the plunger-muted trombone functions as a high-register second voice, and the clarinet sounds more than an octave below in its chalumeau register. Other innovations include Ellington's use of Harry Carney's special baritone saxophone timbre, not for root notes (a traditional role for the baritone) but for low-register sevenths or sixths of chords, which gives these harmonies a unique tone and feeling. Another is his use of Juan Tizol's valve trombone as a fourth voice added to an ensemble of three saxophones. A further Ellington innovation was the use, as early as 1927 (in Creole Love Call), of the voice (singing without text) as a jazz instrument.
In the early and mid-1920s orchestral jazz arrangements were rudimentary, serving only the simplest functions of dance music. But Ellington (along with Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, and John Nesbitt) developed an elaborate, diversified concept of arranging, which incorporated the essence of the current "hot" style of solo improvisation. In this he was greatly aided and influenced by the extraordinary expressive and technical capabilities of his two principal brass players, Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton, who were both experts of the so-called growl and plunger style. These often pungent sonorities, when blended or juxtaposed with the smoother sounds of the saxophone, provided Ellington with an orchestral palette more colorful and varied than that of any other orchestra of the time (with the possible exception of Paul Whiteman's). Faced with the formal problem posed by jazz arrangement - how best to integrate solo improvisation - Ellington learned to exploit expertly the contrast produced by the soloist's entry, so as to project him into the music's movement and entrust him with its development. This partly explains why even Ellington's finest soloists seemed lusterless after leaving his orchestra. He also had a singular gift for devising orchestral accompaniments for improvisation; no arrangers, except perhaps Sy Oliver and Gil Evans, have imagined instrumental combinations as beautiful as those of Mystery Song, Saddest Tale, Delta Serenade, Subtle Lament, Azure, Dusk, Ko-Ko, and Moon Mist.
Ellington's talents as a pianist are generally neglected or underrated. While he rarely featured himself as a soloist with his orchestra, he was nevertheless a remarkably individual contributor to the overall "Ellington effect." He saw himself primarily as a catalyst and accompanist, a feeder of ideas and rhythmic energy to the band as a whole or to its soloists. In this unobtrusive role, playing only when necessary, he was known for remaining silent during entire choruses or indeed pieces. His piano tone, produced deep in the keys, was the richest and most resonant imaginable; it had the ability to energize and inspire the entire orchestra. Although he was an erratic soloist in his early years, and sometimes relied on pianistic clichés - incessant downward-fluttering arpeggios, for instance - Ellington could on occasion vie with the best players. An outstanding example of his work as a pianist-composer is Clothed Woman (1947), remarkable for its virtually complete atonality. He also wrote a Piano Method for Blues (1943).
Ellington is generally recognized as the most important
composer in jazz history. Most of the enormous number of works he recorded are
his own; the exact number of his compositions is unknown, but is estimated at
about 2000, including hundreds of three-minute instrumental pieces (for 78 r.p.m. recordings), popular songs (many consisting of
instrumental pieces to which lyrics by Irving Mills and others were added),
large-scale suites, several musical comedies, many film scores, and an
incomplete and unperformed opera, Boola. Ellington
combined a flair for orchestration with extraordinary gifts as a bandleader;
while other jazz composers had comparable talent, they lacked the
organizational abilities necessary to create and maintain a permanent
orchestral vehicle. The expertise of Ellington's writing is shown in the
orchestration of certain ensemble passages from Ko-Ko.
Scores by him are in the George P. Vanier Library of Concordia University,
Ellington was one of the first musicians to concern himself with composition and musical form in jazz - as distinct from improvisation, tune writing, and arranging. In Concerto for Cootie, ten-bar phrases are combined into a complex ternary form which abandons the chorus structure common to most jazz. In Cotton Tail, from the same period, Ellington made use of a call-and-response technique of writing in order to heighten the drama of the last climactic chorus. Black, Brown and Beige uses symphonic devices (the fragmentation and development of motifs, thematic recall, and mottoes) as well as symphonic proportions in its several sections; it is thus perhaps unique among Ellington's earlier works, showing a preoccupation with form far in advance of his contemporaries. Only a few jazz musicians (among them Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Gil Evans) have followed Ellington in this respect.
Ellington's relentless productivity makes an overview of his work virtually impossible. But it is generally agreed that he attained the zenith of his creativity in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and that he worked best in the miniature forms dictated by the three-minute ten-inch disc. Ellington's creativity declined substantially after the mid-1940s many of the late-period extended compositions suffering from a diminished originality and hasty work, often occasioned by incessant touring. Serious study of Ellington's oeuvre has also been hampered by an almost total absence to date of his orchestral music in published form.
André Hodeir/Gunther Schuller
The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, © Macmillan Reference Ltd 1988