Duke Ellington - Jazz Composer

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Duke Ellington was a composer in the classical music sense of composition, thus rates a place in this brief history. In 1934, the English composer Constant Lambert (1905—51) included in his provocative book Music Ho!: A Study of Music in Decline a section devoted to the work of Edward Kennedy 'Duke' Ellington (1899-1974). Ellington, in fact, is a real composer, the first jazz composer of distinction, and the first Negro composer of distinction. the first American records of his music may be taken definitively...and are the only jazz records worth studying for their form as well as their texture...

Although Lambert was inevitably influenced by his training as a classi­cal composer, so that he placed a greater value on pre-composition than on improvisation, he succinctly expounds Ellington's stature as the first composer in jazz to have created musical structures worthy of direct comparison with classical music. 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's entrepreneurial and artistic skills resulted in what has become universally known as 'the Ellington effect' — a musical phenomenon that almost defies verbal description. The first notable addition to Ellington's band was trumpeter Bubber Miley (1903-32), who joined in 1923 and whose blues-based manner of playing had a strong influence on the group during the six years he spent with it. Miley's major innovation in jazz trumpet playing was the so-called 'growl' technique, which became a hallmark of the Ellington style. Ellington's four-year stay at the Cotton Club furthered his career in two ways. Three categories of music that Ellington tackled at the Cotton Club with great resourcefulness were 'mood' pieces with a blues flavour, abstract instrumental compositions (which he liked to call 'concertos'), and the famous 'jungle' style.

Miley's 'growl' technique was central to the success of Ellington's jungle music. The trumpeter's influence is evident in the early master­piece East St Louis Toodle-oo, which was the band's signature tune between 1926 and 1941. Two pieces from the early 1930s brought Ellington international fame. Mood Indigo (1930), an example of the wistful mood pieces that formed part of the Cotton Club repertoire, was Ellington's first popular success. The original 1932 recording also featured a showcase solo from Johnny Hodges, with his expressive glissandi and refined tone;

Now famous, Ellington and his band undertook their first tour of Europe in the summer of 1933, during which they appeared at the London Palladium. The glowing reception he received in England, from which Lambert's positive critical assessment sprang, stimulated Ellington to explore more adventurous musical territory. Ellington's best works are written in what may be called ten-inch record form, and he is perhaps the only composer to raise this insignificant disc to the dignity of a definite genre. Together with these ambitious experiments, Ellington continued to produce a prolific stream of popular 'ten-inch' pieces. Ellington's supreme command of three-minute structures culmin­ated in several masterpieces composed between 1939 and 1941. Ko-Ko, another essay in the Cotton Club jungle style, shows Ellington's preference for the minor-key twelve-bar blues but avoids cliched drumming patterns in favour of Greer's pounding tom-toms and timpani. (Blanton was recording a series of compelling duets with Ellington at this time that reveal him to be the most innovative bass player of his day.) By 1940, the Ellington band had taken on two new members of lasting significance: tenor saxophonist Ben Webster (1909—73) and the remarkable pianist and arranger Billy 'Sweetpea' Strayhorn (1915—67). Strayhorn created many new pieces, mostly indistinguishable in style from Ellington's, that would form the backbone of the orchestra's later repertoire.

As Ellington was a member of ASCAP, his band concentrated on works written by other (non-ASCAP) composers during this period, and the unfortunate situation helped Strayhorn to establish his reputation. Instead of taking criticisms of Black, Brown and Beige to heart, Ellington only recorded extracts from the score in 1944. The work was nevertheless one of the richest he ever conceived, containing all the hallmarks of his style, including Greer's jungle-style drumming and Nanton's 'yah-yah' solo in 'Work Song', and one of Johnny Hodges's most sensuous solos in the impressionistic 'Come Sunday' - a track that, perhaps more than any other passage in an Ellington work, sounds closer to a classical orchestral score than a jazz composition. From this point on, Ellington avoided the difficulties of creating jazz pieces on an extended scale by continuing to channel his energies into the suite, a form borrowed from classical music that consists of a set of individual movements linked by common subject matter. He thus created the illusion of composing pieces of extended length (his later suites could occupy an  entire long-playing disc), even though the works comprised self-contained shorter sections presenting fewer compositional challenges.

Ellington's appearances at Carnegie Hall became an annual event, and invariably featured the premiere of a major composition: the Perfume Suite (1945), Deep South Suite (1946), Liberian Suite (1947) and The Tattooed Bride (1948) were all performed at the venue. Two later suites arranged by Ellington and Strayhorn were based on famous classical pieces, including Grieg's incidental music to Ibsen's play Peer Gynt (1876) and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite (1892). Jazzing-up classical music is as old as jazz itself: Jelly Roll Morton delighted in creating ragtime versions of Verdi's operatic arias in the 19105, and Chopin's Funeral March was a staple for elaboration by early New Orleans musicians. In recognition of his immense contribution to jazz, Ellington was awarded the President's Gold Medal of Honor from Lyndon Johnson (1966), an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Yale University (1967) and the Medal of Freedom from President Richard Nixon (1969) at a White House party to celebrate Ellington's seventieth birthday.