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 New York, in early 1923, ended in financial failure, but on Fats Waller's advice he moved there later that year with Elmer Snowden's Washington band, the Washingtonians: Sonny Greer (drums), Otto Hardwick (saxophones), Snowden (banjo), and Artie Whetsol (trumpet). Between 1923 and 1927 this small group, which played at the Hollywood and Kentucky clubs on Broadway, was gradually enlarged to a ten-piece orchestra by the addition of Bubber Miley (trumpet), as well as another trumpeter, Tricky Sam Nanton (trombone), Harry Carney (baritone saxophone), Rudy Jackson (clarinet and tenor saxophone), and Wellman Braud (double bass); Fred Guy replaced Snowden on banjo. The band's early recordings (East St. Louis Toodle-oo and Black and Tan Fantasy) reveal growing originality.


During the following period (1927-31), at the Cotton Club in Harlem, Ellington began to share with Louis Armstrong the leading position in the jazz world. The orchestra grew to 12 musicians, with Barney Bigard (clarinet) replacing Jackson, Johnny Hodges (saxophone), Freddie Jenkins (trumpet), and Cootie Williams (trumpet), the last replacing Miley. The group went to Hollywood to appear in the film Check and Double Check (1930), and in New York made about 200 recordings, many in the "jungle style" that was one of Ellington's and Miley's most individual creations (see Jungle music). The success of Mood Indigo (1930) brought Ellington worldwide fame, and in 1931 he began experiments in extended composition with Creole Rhapsody (see Forms, Swing), later to be followed by Reminiscing in Tempo and Diminuendo in Blue/Crescendo in Blue. The decade from 1932 to 1942 was Ellington's most creative. His band, consisting now of six brass instruments, four reeds, and a four-man rhythm section, performed in many American cities and made highly successful concert tours to Europe in 1933 and 1939. In 1939 there were several important additions to the band: Jimmy Blanton (double bass), Ben Webster (tenor saxophone), and most notably Billy Strayhorn, as arranger, composer, and second pianist. At this time Ellington created several outstanding short works, notably Concerto for Cootie, Ko-Ko, and Cotton Tail.


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 USA through their music. Other ambitious works followed (Liberian Suite, Harlem, Night Creature, Such Sweet Thunder, Suite Thursday). After Ellington abandoned these concerts in 1952, the development of the long-playing record allowed him to create other multimovement suites.


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 USSR, in 1971); many of these stimulated him to write large-scale suites. He composed his first full-length film score, for Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and his first incidental music, for Alain René Le Sage's Turcaret (1960). He also made recordings with younger jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach (Money Jungle, 1962). In his last decade Ellington wrote mostly liturgical music: In the Beginning God (for orchestra, chorus, two soloists, and dancer) was performed in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco (1965). Other "sacred services" followed. Among his numerous awards and honors were doctorates from Howard University (1963) and Yale University (1967) and the Presidential Medal of Honor (1969); in 1970 he was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1971 he became the first jazz musician to be named a member of the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. A documentary film of Ellington and his orchestra, On the Road with Duke Ellington, was made in 1974. Ellington directed his band until his death, when it was taken over by his son Mercer Ellington.

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, Montreal, and a large collection of recordings and other materials relating to his life and work is in the library of North Texas State University at Denton; see Libraries and archives.


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