The 100 Year Reign of the Duke

By Brian L. Knight

Duke Ellington once said that once a musician reached a certain level, his/her musical style is beyond categorization. Ellington felt that some musicians could be classified as blues musicians or jazz musicians; vocalists or instrumentalists; studio players or live performers. As for Ellington, he possessed all of these attributes and transcended any simple label or stereotype. By doing so, he was the consummate musician who left no style, technique, or medium unturned. This fact was exemplified by his mastery of playing the piano, crooning a ballad, composing and arranging an original song, and leading a band through a tune either in the studio or on the stage. His range of styles further showed his diversity. From the roaring 20s in Harlem to the Post-War swing to his soundtrack work of the 1960s, Ellington defied being labeled as one type of musician. His career spanned over 50 years, and during that time, he always strove to be innovative in his playing. This was best displayed during the latter part of his career, when the Big Band was considered dead as a doorknob. Instead of withering away or relegating himself to nostalgia status, Ellington kept the concept of the big band but changed its style of playing. From 1926 to 1974, Duke Ellington was the preeminent big bandleader and even when the big band sound met its demise with the advent of be-bop, Ellington’s big bands persevered the radical musical changes.

Duke Ellington felt that jazz was much more than a musical form and that jazz was a "freedom of expression." This aversion to labeling came manifested itself in the many different forms that Ellington created music for ballets, movies, plays, small bands, big bands, and solo works. Just as he was a man of many musical styles and tastes, Ellington was an eclectic in his own right. He was a composer, bandleader, pianist, arranger, author, playwright, and painter.

What made Ellington’s band different from other big bands was his ability to combine all the components of the band. Instead of focussing one element of the band – the reeds, the brass or strings; Ellington successfully created a full robust sound through the simultaneous use of all the instruments. Even though he aimed to create a complete sound, Ellington also took a lot of time and effort to write individual pieces for each member of the orchestra. Every player had a specific role in the band. Once all the instruments made their music together, a sound was created that was distinctly "Ellingtonion." Ellington spoke about his views on music, "I like any and all of my associations with music – writing, playing, and listening. We write and play from our perspective, and the audience listens from its perspective. If and when we agree, I am lucky." Duke even liked to incorporate the audience into his music. He once said, "If I hear a sigh of pleasure from the dance floor, it becomes part of our music."

Born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington D.C on April 29, 1899, Duke first started playing piano at age 7. He initially emulated the ragtime and stride piano styles and he was particularly influenced by the works of James P. Johnson and William "The Lion" Smith. He wrote his first composition, "Soda Foundation Rag," in 1913 and he started his first group, Duke Ellington's Serenaders in 1919. Shortly after, he moved to Harlem where he was the bandleader for the famous Cotton Club. During this same time, he gave birth to his first son, Mercer Ellington. Throughout the years, Mercer would continue the Ellington legacy through his own vocal compositions. In his fifty-year career, Ellington participated in over 20,000 performances. It was during this endless seam of concerts that Ellington wrote the majority of his 1,500 –2,000 compositions. The man lived on the road and as a result, did most of his writing on trains, in dusty motel rooms and on backstage stoops.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Duke Ellington continuously strove to define his relationship with jazz music. The 1920s and 1930s were his first Golden Era as he ruled the Harlem nightlife. The 1940s saw the advent and success of swing, while the 1950s, Ellington faced the infringing problems associated with the advent of modern jazz and the exciting solos of Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillepsie. Since Ellington was a true lover of music and did not treat modern jazz’s rise as a sign of defeat, he simply redefined his role with music.

This redefinition is exemplified through four Columbia releases from the 1950s-1960s – Anatomy of A Murder(1959), Such Sweet Thunder(1957), Black, Brown and Beige(1958) and Meet Count Basie(1961). Each album possessed a distinctive characteristic that set the recording apart from each other. One was an interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays; one was six-part suite that was Ellington’s interpretation of black history; one was a soundtrack to a popular movie and the final was a meeting of the nation’s two most popular big bands.


Black Brown and Beige

Black, Brown and Beige, first recorded in 1943, is an ambitious suite as it consisted of six distinct parts that told the story of the black people from their roots in Africa through American slavery and then their ultimate emancipation. From African tribal rhythms to the swing of Harlem, Ellington relayed the story of his people in this piece that Ellington called a "tonal parallel to the history of the American Negro." The tales of Harlem arrived from personal experience as Ellington ran the house band at the famed Cotton Club from 1927-1932.

Although an amazing piece of work on album, Ellington had difficulty presenting Black, Brown and Beige in live format. In January of 1943, the Duke Ellington performed the suite at Carnegie Hall and the orchestra lumbered through the performance. As a result, the critics panned Ellington. The suite was simply too ambitious and complicated to translate into a live show.

The lengthy format of Black, Brown and Beige reflected Ellington’s desire to create pieces that were designed for live performance rather than for the album. Like a precursor to the Grateful Dead, Ellington felt that the 3 minute pieces that were the norm for the time were not an accurate portrayal of the band’s sounds. Ellington yearned to record long, complicated pieces. Similarly, the Grateful Dead felt that the demands for shorter tunes forced the band to record songs that did not reflect the band’s true artistry. Through the development of 33 rpm records, Ellington was able to record complex suite pieces like Black, Brown and Beige.

Although 1943 was the birth year for Black, Brown and Beige, Ellington would revisit the suite three more times during his career. In 1958, he went into the studio one more time. This time he recruited the help of Mahalia Jackson. Along with Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and Jimmy Rushing, American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is another great vocalist to share a recording with Ellington and his orchestra. Mahalia Jackson shows up over half way through the album on "Come Sunday". Written by Ellington, the song was a passionate depiction of the Afro-American laborer. Here is a sampling of the lyrics from "Come Sunday":


"The blues ain't somethin' that you can sing in rhyme,
The blues ain't nothin' but a dark cloud markin' time.
The blues is a one-way ticket from your love to nowhere,
The blues ain't nothin' but a black crepe veil, ready-to-wear."


"Come Sunday" provides a passionate yet simple respite from the complicated compositions that preceded the vocal number. Jackson also provides vocals for the suite’s closing section, 23rd Psalm. With Jackson’s presence on this recording, Ellington successfully combines the elements of the traditional work song (which finds its roots in Africa and mutated itself into a slave song and then eventually into the blues) and American gospel work. The combination of Ellington’s thematic approach to the suite, the inherent story line and Jackson’s gospel singing, a truly remarkable and moving recording was captured.


Such Sweet Thunder

Like Black, Brown and Beige, Such Sweet Thunder made its public debut at a live concert at New York City’s Town Hall in 1957. Unlike Black, Brown and Beige, the live performance of Such Sweet Thunder received the critics’ praise. Just like Black, Brown and Beige, Such Sweet Thunder possessed a narrative quality. The album was Ellington’s tribute to the works of William Shakespeare. Through its twelve original tracks and ten bonus cuts, this recording provides musical interpretations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. The album’s title arrives from Act IV Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the lines "I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder." This phrase that can be used to describe one’s impression of any style of music. From the blazing glam metal of Guns and Roses to the blistering free jazz solos of Ornette Coleman, the thunderous sounds of music can often be the most appealing. Ellington’s fascination with the classic continues with a plethora of sonnets, which mean "little song". The album consists of "Sonnet for Caesar". ‘Sonnet for Hank Cinq", "Sonnet in search of Moor’ and "Sonnet for Sister Kate."


Anatomy of a Murder

For Anatomy of a Murder, Ellington took the same narrative qualities from the previous two albums to assist in adding drama and passion to Otto Preminger’s 1959 movie classic. What sets Anatomy of a Murder apart from Black, Brown and Beige and Such Sweet Thunder is that the listener actually had an opportunity to set the musical narration against a visual tale. In the prior recordings, Ellington composed in a manner where his music was the foundation for interpretation. For Anatomy of a Murder, Ellington’ music is used to accentuate rather than create a tale.


Meets Count Basie

During the 1960s, Ellington teamed up with notables such as saxophonist John Coltrane and crooner Frank Sinatra. This 1961 recording has Ellington teaming up with his ‘prestigious’ counterpart. Count Basie and Duke Ellington were the royalty of American jazz. Besides their honorific monikers, their prominent stature transcended through their playing, arranging and composing. This date features the collaboration of the two biggest names in big band. The meeting was considered rather ambitious as the right channel featured the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the left channel featured the Count Basie Orchestra. The two bands joined together for classic tunes such as "Take The A Train", "Battle Royal" and "Jumpin’ At the Woodside" and in total, over thirty musicians shared the studio that day

With the exception of the Count Basie session, the Ellington band lineup remained static throughout these recordings: Ellington on piano, Cat Anderson (trumpet), Shorty Baker (trumpet), Ray Nance (trumpet), Clark Terry (trumpet, Quentin Jackson (trombone), Britt Woodman (trombone), John Sanders (vibraphone), Harry Carney (sax), Paul Gonsalves (sax), J8immy Hamilton (sax), Johnny Hodges (sax) Russell Procope (sax), Jimmy Woods (bass) and Jimmy Johnson (drums). Saxophonist Harry Carney joined Ellington at age seventeen while Ellington was at the Cotton Club and he remained with the orchestra for 47 years. Carney outlived Ellington by five months.

Another strong presence on these recordings is Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn and Ellington met after one of Ellington’s performances in 1938. Born in Dayton Ohio in 1915, Strayhorn arrived back stage, played Ellington’s "Sophisticated Lady" and he was hired immediately. One of the Strayhorn’s biggest songs for Ellington was "Take The A Train" which was loosely based on the directions that Ellington gave to Strayhorn to get to his Harlem home. Known affectionately as Swee’ Pea, Strayhorn was similar to Ellington for he was gifted as a instrumentalist, composer and arranger. Ellington spoke of Strayhorn: "Billy was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head and his in mine."

In these three recordings, Ellington displays his innovation as a musician. On Anatomy of a Murder, Black, Brown and Beige and Such Sweet Thunder exemplified Ellington’s ability to narrate stories through instrumental and vocal compositions. These two recordings showed Ellington’s love of stage productions and that his versatility and vision ranged far beyond playing the piano and band leading. In addition, these two recordings showed that the role of the big band extended beyond simply playing ‘Swing". The three recordings range from slow ballads to complicated "soundtrack" pieces. It is this experimentation that would have an impact on musicians for many generations.

While Such Sweet Thunder, Anatomy of a Murder and Black, Brown and Beige were forays into story narration through instrumentation, Meets Count Basie was an experiment in musical collaboration and sound recording. By putting two big bands in the same studio, with each band receiving its own channel, Ellington exhibited technical prowess. Beyond the technical side of things, the recording also symbolized the meeting of the two most famous big bands of the era. As a result, there was a full, robust sound created by America’s finest jazz musicians.


The Duke: The Essential Recordings (1927-1961)

While all four of these re-releases herald the later works of Duke Ellington, in which he became more experimental, there is a big release scheduled for this fall. Titled The Duke: The Essential Recordings (1927-1961), this three disc Columbia-Legacy compilation will cover the entire career of Ellington. The set will consist of Volume 1, 1927-1940; Volume 2 1947-1952; and Volume 3, 1956-1962 and provide over 45 songs from the three distinctive phases. From his earliest East St. Louis Toodle-Do (1927) to his soundtrack theme to Asphalt Jungle, this disc will truly be the definitive collection. The compilation also provides some never heard before spoken word from the Duke himself. Check it out in stores this October.



Ellington’s royal moniker did not arrive as a marketing ploy to sell records, but rather through a childhood friend who felt that Ellington had an air of royalty to him. Years later, the nickname would have new connotations as Ellington’s music reached a level of sophistication to it. Coupled with the fact that Ellington received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, played in front of Queen Elizabeth and received numerous honorary degrees (most notably Howard and Yale Universities), the prestige image carries even further.

In addition to these medals and honoree degrees, Ellington received many accolades that rose him above simply being a jazz musician. In 1956 Ellington appeared on the cover Time Magazine which celebrated Ellington’s legendary performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. During the 1970s, Ellington entertained President Richard Nixon who spoke of Ellington: "In the royalty of American music, no man swings more or stands higher than the Duke." The president continued, "The wit, taste, intelligence, and elegance that Duke Ellington brought to his music have made him, in the eyes of millions of people both here and abroad, America’s foremost composer." In 1993, the life of Duke Ellington was memorialized in a Smithsonion travelling exhibit called Beyond Category. The following is a description of the exhibit: "The principal focus of the exhibition is Ellington's music, a unique blend of innovative composition and improvisation that has never been successfully imitated. Rare photographs, manuscripts, artifacts, and special lighting evoke scenes from Ellington's youth in Washington, his years in New York, travels with his orchestra, and some of his most exciting performances around the world."

Over the years, countless numbers of fellow musicians has covered the Duke’s music. During the 1950s and 1960s, bassist/composer Charles Mingus paid tribute to Ellington the original "Open Letter To Duke" which appeared on Mingus Ah Um as well as a cover of the classic "Mood Indigo" which is from Mingus Dynasty. The legacy of Duke Ellington continue with 1999’s Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis released Live In Swing City-Swingin’ With Duke (Columbia Records).

In addition to musical continuation, the spirit of the Duke also lives on through The Duke Ellington Society, which was founded in 1959 when the Duke was 60 years old. The society holds meetings, lectures and publishes a newsletter. For its lectures, the society hosts many of Duke Ellington’s old orchestra members as well as scholars of Ellington’s life and works.

In the theatrical world, the Duke lives on through Play On!, a San Diego play that takes place in Harlem during the 1940s and features 20 Ellington tunes. Ellington’s granddaughter Mercedes Ellington choreographs the play. The play is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and is about a girl who poses as guy in order to become a songwriter.

The legacy of Duke Ellington will live on well into the 21st Century. Ellington’s music was truly timeless. He is a prime example of how quality music is not necessarily the result of technical wizardry or the best schooling; just the vision to innovate and create. As the world prepares for the 22nd Century, I have little doubt that the work of Duke Ellington will continue to be celebrated and his 200-year birthday will be just as regaled as his 100th.