Jazz is no longer the fresh young thing it was. The revolutionaries of the ’40s (and precious few of them still survive) are now respected and venerated as “grandfathers” of today’s music. Indeed, some young musicians seem to assume that everything started with Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but there were, of course, Jazz giants long before them and even long before bebop (I am perhaps one of the few baby-boomer generation willing to assert in public that jazz actually lost something important with the advent of bebop, for all its rhythmic and harmonic innovations).
To prove this, all you have to do is listen to some of the pre-War players still active well into their eighties… the delicate trumpet of Doc Cheatham* , the rugged and often underestimated tenor of Benny Waters and, of course, the supreme mastery of Benny Carter, to name but three.
One name, however, stands apart. Edward Kennedy Ellington, “The Duke”, defies categorization. Generation after generation of jazz musicians have come to worship his music. His is the authentic 20th-century genius to put along such names of the past as Beethoven, Schubert and Tchaikovsky.
When asked to define genius in music, possibly the best answer is “the ability to excite, simultaneous1y, both the knowledgeable musician or musicologist and the man in the street”. Many talented musicians seem to be able to manage one or the other of these; only the very special manage both. And it is so often the man who sets out solely to entertain who emerges as the greatest of artists, rather than he who aspires to “Art”.
Ellington is perhaps the supreme example that proves this theory. He exemplified all the virtues of pre-War jazz while, through his natural vision, always seeking the musical innovations exploited later by the modernists. His innovations were a close parallel to, yet never really part of, the mainstream development of jazz, because everything he did was richly imbued with his own unique musical personality. His melodies, and even his use of a standard chord, were so modelled that you know immediately that they could only have been written by one person.
Born in 1899 in Washington, his musical education was limited. Apart from a few lessons from the wonderfully-named Mrs Clinkscales, the young Duke learned about playing the piano from listening to pianists passing through the town in which he grew up. Otherwise, it was a matter of placing his fingers on the keys automatically depressed by the old piano-rolls or, as the rest of his career seemed to develop, learning on the job.
By the time he got the chance, in the 1920s, to play at New York’s new Cotton Club, Ellington had already gathered a core of musicians around him and had only to expand the group to a 10-piece (which constituted a big band) to be up-and-running. He chose his musicians very carefully. The personalities of the sidemen, both as musicians and men, were more crucial to him than perhaps they would be to a young bandleader today.
In those days, jazz was simply a part of showbiz. Of course, it was expected that you were at least competent on your instrument, but many musicians made their mark as showmen on the stand – like Sonny Greer, a one-man show with his amazing drum kit, including tubular bells and goodness knows what – the equivalent of an entire modern percussion section – or the left-handed trumpeter Freddie Jenkins, forever twirling his horn in the air.
Just as important as visual personality, though, was your sound. This is one of the main ways in which pre-War jazz differed from that of today. Like singers and their voices, horn players prided themselves on their sound just as much as their technical ability. Throughout his career, for instance, Coleman Hawkins, in his private correspondence, always talked about his “big sound”. Only then would he talk about finding a new song and hoping it would be a hit.
This, of course, is the language of the pop star rather than the modern jazz musician – but in the ’20s and ’30s, that is exactly what jazz musicians were. After all, if Jazz (a four-letter word and originally a verb!) isn’t about sex, then I don’t know what is; so a warm, full, voluptuous sound was what everyone wanted.
Duke certainly sought out musicians who possessed this instantly recognizable sound: Johnny Hodges’ alto, which developed over the years a sensual richness, in blues or ballad, that can mislead the listener into thinking a tenor is being played; the slippery, woody-toned clarinet of Barney Bigard; Joe Nanton (on trombone), and “Bubber” Miley and later “Cootie” Williams (on trumpet), who developed the use of the plunger-mute into an art form all its own, so “dirty” that it had to be excused by referring to it as ‘Jungle Music’.
Underpinning the whole thing was a young man who stayed with the band even beyond Duke’s own demise. Harry Carney’s enormous sound on baritone replicates the bass saxophone of the great Adrian Rollini at the bottom, and Coleman Hawkins’ early tenor style at the top. It just about put the saxophone section into imbalance – but in so doing, made Duke’s band sound all the more recognizable.
But what of Duke himself? He had been listening to and competing with the great ‘stride’ pianists of the day, such as the young Fats Waller, his early idol James P. Johnson and, perhaps most influential of all, the quirky yet romantic style of Willie “The Lion” Smith, who had taken the young Duke under his wing.
Duke’s early band arrangements were no more than adaptations of his own piano style, but before long he began to arrange and compose in a way that is almost unique in music, let alone Jazz. Virtually everything he wrote, be it a melody, a solo or even a little fill, was no longer written simply for an instrument, but for a particular musician playing that instrument. For instance, a clarinet figure at the beginning of “Black and Tan Fantasy” was always played by Harry Carney (all the reed-players doubled on clarinet regularly in the early days, providing an extra colour for the tonal palette). It was never to sound quite right played by anybody else. So, using one of the foundation stones of pre- War Jazz – the individual sound of an individual player – Ellington gradually developed a new and totally original way of writing.
The sound of Duke’s rhythm section was different to everyone else’s, too. Until the late ’40s, in common with all the big bands of the time, it was a four-piece section. The guitar, however, filled out the sound and gave the rhythmic “signpost” to a two-four or four-four feel, while it was the bass that Duke liked to push to the fore, rather than the drums, which Duke, exploiting the style and talent of Sonny Greer, preferred to employ as the jazz equivalent of a symphonic percussion section. In the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the drums were felt, heard even, but they never dominated.
No wonder, then, that over the years he featured some of the greatest and most innovative bass-players, from the dignified presence of Wellman Braud to the shooting-star brilliance of Jimmy Blanton and the genius of Oscar Pettiford. And as their contributions developed, so did Duke’s piano-playing, so that his duets with the bass were not only things of beauty in themselves, but formed yet another of the instantly recognizable Ellington ‘sounds’.
Duke’s resultant piano-style, though rhythmically founded on “stride”, became spare and angular. He became the accompanist supreme; a little stab here, a melodic caress there, or perhaps one of those quite unique Ellington runs that underlined the beauty of a solo. Duke was also a wonderful soloist in his own right. He may not have had the technical brilliance of Art Tatum (although he actually possessed a lot more technique than was often realised), but his solos are those of a composer, new melodies on an old chord-sequence rather than simple harmonic decoration. It can surely no longer be a secret that the once perplexing style of Thelonious Monk, and much of Jaki Byard’s playing come directly from the Duke. Unlike him, however, they lack the romanticism that was one of the Ellington trade-marks, often getting him compared to Ravel or Debussy.
Later in his life, perhaps, Duke got a little arty, though there were still some simply wonderful works in the ’50s and ’60s, such as “Such Sweet Thunder” or “The Queen’s Suite”. Duke smuggled the gifts of his youth into old age (perhaps another definition of genius). Even his last recordings, for instance – the duets with Ray Brown – find him constantly searching for something new, but always within the musical landscape that he himself had created.
But there is no doubt that his definitive work was done from 1927 to 1934, followed by an amazing period of creativity around 1940-47, when an influx of younger musicians to the band were a new inspiration to him.
While he was around, alongside the orthodox stream of jazz development (through bebop, Miles, Coltrane and so on), there was always beauty as well as joy in his music. And in any Ellington concert, there would always be a retrospective of the various decades of his career, often newly re-arranged and exciting all over again. The orchestra could shout, wail the blues like nobody else, or intimately seduce a beautiful woman in the front row of the audience with one of those breathy tenor-solos inspired by his 1940s star, Ben Webster. While the Duke was still there, you were reminded that the personality and showmanship, the charisma of the jazz musician was still an important facet of our enjoyment. Jazz could still be glamorous and ‘showbiz’ without losing one whit of musicianship.
So, go home and put on an Ellington record. The room will fill instantly with his personality and musical genius. Every note is important. The star soloists, great as they were, assume greater stature within the environment of that amazing orchestra.
That’s when you know you’re missing Duke Ellington. Unbelievably, it’s over 20 years since he died and the magic faded away, leaving trails of glory in the form of over 400 LPs-worth of recordings. Today, there seems to be nothing around that’s anything like it. But then, there probably never was.