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Jazz at Lincoln Center Kicks Off: The Ellington Centennial 1899-1999

The best recordings of Duke Ellington's music can be listened to again and again, because his works are not decorations of a familiar shape but a new arrangements of shapes.

Ellington, in fact, is an authentic composer, the first jazz composer of distinction and the first black composer of distinction.

His work apart from a few minor details is not left to caprice the ear of the instrumentalist; it is written out in full score. Though in the course of time variants may creep in, the first American recordings of his music may be taken as definitive and are among the only jazz records worth studying for their form as well as their texture. Ellington is the first composer in jazz to have created musical structures worthy of direct comparison with classical music.

Ellington's formative years in Washington, DC were typical; like most future pianist-bandleaders, such as Bennie Moten, Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson, he spent his adolescence absorbing the ragtime and stride styles, and developed a competent if not virtuosic keyboard technique. In 1919 he joined forces with the precocious drummer Sonny Greer (1895-1982), whom he visited in New York.

He made his mark in 1920, when he returned to the city and benefited from the patronage of three giants of the stride-piano school: Willie "The Lion" Smith, James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. By 1924, Ellington and Greer were playing in Harlem and on Broadway with Elmer Snowden's band, The Washingtonians, and were making their first recordings. Ellington replaced Snowden (1900-73) as a leader in the same year, and began to assemble a remarkable group of instrumentalists who were an important factor in the band's later success.

Ellington's entrepreneurial and artistic skills resulted in what has become universally known as "The Ellington Effect"-a musical phenomenon that almost defies verbal description. On the one hand, Ellington assembled a collection of fine performers, each of whose playing was marked by clearly recognizable idiosyncrasies that allow their solo passages to be distinctively characterized. Several also composed and contributed their ideas to the band's growing repertoire. On the other hand, Ellington's consummate abilities as an orchestrator allowed him to blend these individual sonorities (sound identities, as he himself termed them) in fluctuating ensemble colors of radical originality. The analogy between this compositional process and the manner in which a painter blends pigments on a palette to produce subtle shades may be cliched, but it is in this case perfectly accurate.

In 1927, the Ellington orchestra, now comprising ten performers, began a highly successful residency at the Cotton Club in Harlem. This venue, which opened in 1923, could seat an audience of approximately seven hundred. Ellington's four-year play at the Cotton Club furthered his career in two ways. First, a series of nightly radio broadcasts from the Club secured him an extensive popular following, Secondly and more importantly, the wide variety of stage routines for which he was required to provide music compelled him to explore a wider range of compositional styles than other bands. He also was required to produce a steady stream of music designed exclusively for public dancing.

Three categories of music that Ellington tackled at the Cotton club with great resourcefulness were "the Mood " pieces with a blues flavor, abstract instrumental compositions (which he like to call concerto) and the famous Jungle music.

Two Pieces from the early 1930s brought Ellington international fame, "Mood Indigo" (1930) and It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing," (1932). Now famous, Ellington and his band undertook their first tour of Europe in the summer of 1933, and appeared at the London Palladium.

The crucial factor in Ellington's evolution was his enormous receptivity to everything he ever heard (and saw and felt, hence his choice of evocative titles) as a result, while there was a consistent, and no doubt fairly egotistical, emotional core, his sources of inspiration were constantly expanding. Just as an improviser has to learn to think while on his feet, so Duke learned how to write his kind of jazz while doing it.

One of the problems in considering Ellington's achievement is that it exists on an astonishing variety of levels. Not only do the writing and playing offer a convenient contrast-for each extended work there are several straightahead ballads, simple in conception but immensely sophisticated in their execution. And the number of different uses Duke found for the twelve-bars blues is bewildering to behold. Then there is his success as a songwriter (which subsidized the continued existence of the Ellington band in its last 25 years or so). The quality or quantity of his song out put places Duke in the Gershwin and Porter category, However, his uniqueness lies not only in the breadth and universality of the music which reached the greatest number of listeners, but in those irreplaceable and inimitable icons such as "Harlem Air Shaft", "Concerto For Cootie" and "KO-KO" all recorded within a few months in 1940, which have been an inspiration to several generations of jazz musicians.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Duke Ellington
  • Subtitle: Happy Reunion
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