e was "something of an African Stravinsky" to a Dallas News critic. A trumpeter said he was "the epitome of elegance" to the fashion-conscious musicians of Washington, "strolling up to the corner attired in a shimmy back herringbone suit." One Los Angeles reporter compared his hotel suite, crammed with sheet music, pencil stubs, cigarette butts, a piano and a record player, to a wartime factory. "The Duke works like a longshoreman loading tanks for the Red Army," he wrote, but the Duke also greeted him in a silk dressing gown and gave the interview while breakfasting on peaches and pears. Orson Welles put it very simply: Ellington, he said, was the only genius he'd ever met other than himself.
The highest praise Duke Ellington bestowed on people or music he loved (not least his own) was the phrase "beyond category." The handsome exhibition devoted to his life and music opening tomorrow at the Museum of the City of New York is titled just that.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in 1899, as a new century was about to begin, and he died in 1974, as it approached its final quarter. He was an innovator and an entertainer: a major composer, band leader and pianist. He lived and worked through the Jazz Age; the swing era, that odd meeting of classical opulence and folksy Americana that marked the 1940's; the 50's, with their overtone of cushioned ease and their undertone of rebellion, and the rock-dominated 60's. "Rock 'n' roll is the most raucous form of jazz . . .," he smoothly declared while his peers lamented its growing power, "and I believe that no other form of jazz has ever been accepted so enthusiastically by so many."
"Beyond Category: The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington" was organized by the Smithsonian Institution, which has the lion's share of Ellington manuscripts and memorabilia. It is meant to be the first in a 10-year series on "America's Jazz Heritage" mounted by the Smithsonian and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. The show will remain at the museum here for five months, then go on tour. And while it is in residence, Ellington's music -- the sleek songs like "Solitude" and "Take the 'A' Train," the sacred music, the big, plush suites -- will be performed all through New York City, from Lincoln Center to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Since this is an age of Ellington scholarship, such pleasures will be joined to pedagogy. John Edward Hasse, the exhibition's organizer and the Smithsonian's curator of American music, has just published a beautifully researched and cleanly written biography, "Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington" (Simon & Schuster): a necessary expansion of Barry Ulanov's 1946 book, and a much-needed corrective to James Lincoln Collier's 1987 one. Mark Tucker, an associate professor at Columbia University, has compiled the absolutely first-rate "Duke Ellington Reader" (Oxford University Press), an anthology of reviews, essays, interviews with, and articles about and by, Ellington and his musicians.
The reader includes the first New York City review of Ellington's band, published in 1923, which took up five short paragraphs and opened, "This colored band is plenty torrid and includes a trumpet player who never need doff his chapeau to any cornetist in the business." The last pieces are extended analyses and appreciations by such critics and musicologists as Ralph Ellison, Gunther Schuller, Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddins.
These books are good company for each other. Hasse's gives the history of an artist's life and time. Tucker's gives the history of an artist's audience and canonizers: what they made of the music we live by. That music is meditative, dance- ready, commercial, esoteric, serious and frivolous. It has been called jazz, Negro music, American popular music and African-American classical music. Ellington described it best when he called it a process by which the black, brown and beige encounters the red, white and blue. Music to Memorabilia
Pleasure and pedagogy are the bywords of this exhibition. The first insures that we move through the stages of Ellington's life in orderly fashion, beginning in Washington, where he was born, and ending in New York at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where his funeral was held. Murals and screens show his progress nicely. Our first view of a Manhattan skyline is taken from an early painting by Georgia O'Keeffe. The backdrop is usually blue: New York night life, he wrote, was "cut out of a very luxurious, royal-blue bolt of velvet." Here is the Kentucky Club with its fake log-cabin exterior: Uncle Tom's Cabin, went one pop song of the day, is now a cabaret. Here are fans and program cards from the famous Cotton Club, with its "tall, tan and terrific" dancers, its black, brown, beige and occasionally white musicians, and its white and occasionally black, brown and beige patrons.
Accompanied by the music of Ellington, we follow his ventures into radio and television, his trips abroad, the ceaseless touring, the Carnegie Hall concerts. We see a flashy photograph of the band at the London Palladium in 1933, and a tasteful program for the Hotel Waiters Union dance at New York's Savoy Ballroom in 1939. The photographs show how nattily he dressed: top hat, porkpie hat, black tie, white tie, tweeds and Italian loafers. But the instruments on display are even more gripping; they pull at you as if they were fetish objects. The Duke's electric keyboard (the one he traveled with). Bubber Miley's trumpet mutes. Sonny Greer's drum set, with stars, staff and notes painted on its surface in shades of red and black.
There is a page of music written by Ellington's longtime co-composer, Billy Strayhorn, with a note that reads, "Oh I forgot to tell you, this is only the introduction to the Mambino -- the rest I leave to you. (DEEP BOW.)" Band members called the small, bespectacled Strayhorn "Swee' Pea." When asked if Swee' Pea were really his musical alter ego, Ellington, whom band members called the Governor, answered: "Let's not go overboard. Pea is only my right arm, left foot, eyes, stomach, ears and soul, not my ego."
Ellington was the master builder, but his musicians were his material and his collaborators. They gave him what the New York City Ballet's dancers gave George Balanchine, and what a great theater troupe gives a great director or playwright. "We write to and for the individuals in the band, not the instruments," he said; pieces often took shape in rehearsals through a kind of "unanimous inspiration." Once a journalist came upon Ellington in a bathtub, passing partly finished sheets of music to Strayhorn, who took them to the piano and began to play. Meanwhile, the valet kept the water hot, and as Strayhorn played and Ellington scribbled changes, Ben Webster, Ray Nance and Sonny Greer, who were down the hall, picked up their instruments and began to add lines and beats.
Genius for Improvising
You can hear the kind of music he wrote for them on record after record: "The Mooche," "Mood Indigo," "Ko-Ko," with their lustrous timbres and intimations of atonality. "Concerto for Cootie," which gave the trumpeter Cootie Williams the same kind of space for moody self-exploration that Fokine gave Nijinksy in "Petrushka." And what pleasure and invention the orchestra lavished on those citizens of Fargo, N.D., who came to the Crystal Ballroom the night of Nov. 7, 1940! The discretion of the dance band, the propulsion of the swing band; instrumental voicings that must have stopped them dead in their tracks, and rhythms that must have propelled them right back into motion. Count Basie's gorgeous riffs ground you. Ellington's make you feel as if you might take off at any moment.
In the end, Ellington's genius lay in his ability to take oppositions of form, style, mood or sound and turn them into collaborations. You can see that impulse in the titles of his first two pieces: the genteel "Soda Fountain Rag" versus the raunchy "What You Gonna Do When the Bed Breaks Down?" You can see it in his willingness to turn an accident into a theatrical device. When his trombonist turned up one night using a kitchen pot for a sliphorn, Ellington recalled: "It sounded good. We let him keep it until we could get him a handsome gadget that gave him the same effects."
Real artists know that simplicity and complexity are just strategies, and equally useful ones. That must be why Ellington's music can be played so well by so many. Thelonious Monk's piano brings out its eccentricity. The World Saxophone Quartet gives it the self-contained beauty of chamber music. Ella Fitzgerald is all sweetness and light when she sings Ellington. Sarah Vaughan swathes him in calculated voluptuousness.
It All Had 'That Swing'
The songs, the suites, the sacred music, the adaptations of "The Sheik of Araby," "The St. Louis Blues" and "The Nutcracker Suite" are all being touted and debated by scholars, fans and musicians. Was he a master of the short form who should never have ventured into extended symphonic territory? The "should" is silly. The songs are superb; the longer pieces are more uneven. They tend toward lovely sections and weak or programmatic transitions: the kind you resign yourself to, much as you resign yourself to passages of uninspired recitative in opera. Geniuses make plenty of mistakes, but eventually their mistakes lead us somewhere worth going.
In all his domains, Duke Ellington was a leader and a grand showman. We don't assume that musicians can be virtuosos of language, too. But Ellington liked his speech to sample as many styles as his music. He enjoyed being suavely didactic, as when rebutting a charge that swing music incited sex crimes among the young in 1937: "If music can be proved a neurotic influence, then I'm certain you will find Stravinsky's 'Le Sacre du Printemps' a great deal more exciting, emotionally, than a slow 'ride' arrangement of 'Body and Soul,' or even a fast rendition of 'Tiger Rag.' " He enjoyed being arch and worldly, telling his hard-working band members: "Let's not pout, gentlemen. It makes bad notes."
And he cultivated the cool, hip idiom of the 30's, which turned manifestoes into throwaway lines. Take his signature song,"It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing." What was swing? "Harlem for rhythm," he said. Were swing, classical and folk music as different from each other as fish, fowl and meat? Possibly, but he saw little difference between fish, fowl and meat.
Why not? According to Ellington, "They're all prey."
Jazz Age All Over Town
"Beyond Category: The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington," an exhibition on the life of the composer and band leader, will be on view tomorrow through March 20 at the Museum of the City of New York, Fifth Avenue and 103d Street. The display includes printed materials, like musical manuscripts, posters and photographs, as well as instruments, theatrical environments evoking scenes from Ellington's youth in Washington, and video clips featuring interviews with, and performances by, noted jazz musicians influenced by Ellington.
A variety of events are planned in conjunction with the exhibition. Included are two Sunday walking tours of areas associated with Ellington. A tour of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, where Ellington is buried, will be led on Sunday at 2 P.M. by Jeanne Capodilupo, director of public relations at the cemetery. On Oct. 24, also at 2 P.M., a tour of musical landmarks in Harlem, including the former Cotton Club, where Ellington and his orchestra appeared, will be led by Karen Taborn, a historian and singer. The fee for each tour is $15 ($10 for museum members); both leave from the museum. Reservations are necessary and can be made through the education department, extension 206.
Tomorrow at 2 P.M. at the museum, members of the Rod Rodgers Dance Company will present selections from the work "Echoes of Ellington." A three-part film and lecture series highlighting women in jazz will begin at the museum tomorrow at 10 A.M. Rosetta Reitz, an historian, producer and owner of Rosetta Records, a record company featuring female jazz musicians, will conduct the series, which is a one-credit mini-course offered under the auspices of the New School for Social Research; the remaining sessions will take place on Oct. 23 and 30, also at 10 A.M. at the museum. Information and registration: (212) 229-5690.
Additional events in conjunction with the exhibition are planned for next month through March at the museum, and will include screenings, lectures, concerts and puppet shows. In addition, other city organizations, including Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights are planning special Ellington events later this year and in early 1994 as part of a New York salute to the musician.
The Museum of the City of New York hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 10 A.M. to 5 P.M., and Sunday from 1 to 5 P.M. Suggested admission: $5 for adults; $3 for students, children and the elderly; $8 for families with more than two members. Information on Ellington events: (212) 534-1672.
Each generation has their geniuses, individuals whose talents are beyond any explanation. Such was the case with Duke Ellington, a man determined to share his music without concern for the societal restrictions at the time. One particular piece has had, and continues to have, strong implications for composers of any genre. Black, Brown, and Beige was truly Ellington’s magnum opus, a piece that integrated genres of all sorts and was used to tell the story of African-Americans in America. In this paper I intend to explore the macro and micro elements of Black, Brown, and Beige, such as form, rhythm, melodic and harmonic structures, with hopes of contributing to the already rich examples of analysis of this work. In doing so, I intend to show the compositional significance this piece has on composers of any genre.
The first movement, Black, is divided into three sections; “Work Song,” “Come Sunday,” and “Light.” “Work Song” utilizes an altered rondo form (ABACAD, with a coda substituting for another play through of the “A” section). This form leads to the first significant aspect of this piece for composers, namely that the rondo form is shown outside the constraints of classical and baroque music. Ellington is by and large a jazz composer, and utilizing rondo form in an unusual context allows for new possibilities in extended form composition. The main melodic theme indirectly mimics antiphonal singing (a trait present in numerous cultures from the African continent) through octave transposition. Since this movement is a story of African arrival in the United States by force, it is necessary to touch on not only the field hollars of slaves, but also the cultural ancestry of said slaves. The influence that this antiphonal technique has on composition is the idea of syncretism. While syncretism is quite common in 21st Century music, it was not so commonplace in Ellington’s time. The musical purism of the day required that composers write music that was only in the scope of the genre. Having specific musical styles present other than that of jazz is rather unique for the time period, as it showed Ellington’s willingness to attempt a progression of musical form. The second section, “Come Sunday” utilizes the form of AABA, which is commonplace in the Tin-Pan Alley music that Ellington often wrote, as well as jazz, pop, and rock. Ellington’s usage of a different form in the second section of Black shows the willingness to allow for dramatic contrast in his work. The third section in Black, “Light,” features not only the main melody, but also a reprisal in various sections of the main themes from “Work Song” and “Come Sunday.” This reprisal technique in melody writing goes back centuries, from the works of Ludwig van Beethoven to Johannes Brahms. This leads to a significant point with regards to Black, Brown, and Beige, in that, Ellington is attempting to draw the worlds of western classical and jazz together through this movement. These two musical genres are being show to have the ability to exist in harmony with one another, and composers ought to take note of this.
The second movement, Brown, consists of three segments; “West Indian Dance,” “Emancipation Celebration,” and “Mauve.” The compositional significance of the first movement is the overall feeling of a Caribbean influence (possibly countries such as Cuba, Jamaica, or Haiti). The reason for this is that this particular section is centered around the movement of slaves from the Caribbean, so Ellington wanted to draw on music that derived from African roots. The syncretism mentioned earlier is yet again at work here. This time, the Caribbean groove adds a certain force to the piece. The exigency with which slaves were forced from the Caribbean is the backdrop for the rhythm in the drums and the melody in the orchestra. This leads to the significance of this section for composers, in that the piece is utilizing syncretic music to evoke a certain aesthetic significance. The idea that two or more styles can be used to convey specific emotions is a revolutionary concept for composers. Usually composers have, in a syncretic piece, one type of aesthetic idea that they wish to convey. The truth is, syncretic music has the unique privilege of being able to bring to life the aesthetic, the philosophical, the metaphysical, and any other significant components to the human experience. The second segment to Brown, “Emancipation Celebration,” contains a theme that is critical to the progression of music composition. The topical content of “Emancipation Celebration” is the immediate emotions felt by slaves who had been freed under the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The theme is jubilant, and ultimately a personification of the positivity felt by the people who were “free at last.” There is specific value in this section for composers, namely in the area of melodic writing. Composers draw on many real life occurrences for inspiration, including historical events. The concept of drawing on historical events in modern instrumental music probably would not have been possible without Black, Brown, and Beige. Such ideas of historical pieces, sans libretto, are truly a unique concept. Consider the data, any major historically based work is either an embellished account (such as Julius Caesar in Egypt, HWV 17 by Handel), or is not solely instrumental. Granted in other sections of Black, Brown, and Beige contain spoken word elements, but the fact remains that the “Emancipation Celebration” section is an instrumentally based historical account of the emotions of slaves felt post-Emancipation. The final section, “Muave,” is a direct counterpoint to the previous section. Still a historical account, “Muave” utilizes a combination of spoken word and orchestral scoring to highlight the bleak future many freed slaves felt they would have post-Slavery. The realization that the racism was still ingrained in the minds of Americans caused many slaves to feel disheartened at their future prospects. Musically this section utilizes spoken word and instrumental music, a concept unheard of at the time. Many composers since this point have utilized this combination, most notably the composer Philip Glass in his landmark opera Einstein on the Beach. The idea that music and speech could be combined opened completely new avenues of inspiration for writers of songs. To think that poetry and music could be combined to further show emotions was unseen until Duke Ellington utilized the technique. As it stands in present day, artists from jazz such as Jason Moran with his song “Artists Ought to Be Writing” to punk rock bands like Pennywise in their song “Land of the Free?,” all have used the spoken word and music combination. Without Black, Brown, and Beige, I highly doubt this would be possible.
The final section, Beige, consists of the following sections; “Interlude,” “Creamy Brown,” “Beige,” “Sugar Hill Penthouse,” and “The Black, Brown, and Beige are Red, White, and Blue.” The section “Interlude” consists of two main rhythmic ideas. The first of these is a marching rhythm that is found most significantly in the part of the brass and woodwinds. The marching rhythm is not an abstract concept in music by any measure; however, it had yet to be seen in a major piece rooted in jazz until Ellington. The lesson for composers is one of intuition, of attempting to integrate rhythmic ideas that are alien to their style. Such is the case with most of modern music, as musicians such as Steve Vai, bands such as Tool, and composers such as Arnold Schoenberg have all utilized rhythms that are not normally seen in their genre (such as assymetrical meter in classical, or Indian taals in rock music). Arguably Ellington had an influence in such ideas, maybe not directly for the artists mentioned, but certainly the concept that alien rhythms have a place in all different music genres. The “Creamy Brown” section of Beige is of particular interest due to three elements, 1) A waltz prelude to the main theme, 2) a form in the main theme that is AABA, and 3) a modulation in the main theme. The waltz introduction attests to the previous ideas stated in this paper, in that, Ellington shows frequently in Black, Brown, and Beige his willingness to combine styles. In this case, Ellington is returning to western classical music, namely the music of Johann Strauss II (who is considered to be the most popular composer of waltz music). The form of the section shows Ellington’s push to reintegrate the jazz element to the extended composition. Ellington wishes to remind the audience that, despite the other components to this piece, Black, Brown, and Beige is first and foremost a jazz piece. The ability to transition fluidly is an invaluable skill for any composer to know, and one should take note as to how Ellington transitions from waltz to jazz in “Creamy Brown.” The final point of interest in this section is the modulation of the main theme to a new key. Modulation is not unique to Ellington, as composers of all genres have a history of placing motivic cells in new key signatures. The composer should still take note, however, as the modulation to a new key is an effortless one. Ellington moves the melody of “Creamy Brown” to an entirely new tonal center effortlessly, without a jarring chromatic succession of notes. Although the “Beige” section in Beige utilizes certain techniques found in the previous “Creamy Brown” section (such as waltz and modulation), there is one specific composition technique that is worth examining. As the section develops, there is a shifting ostinato pattern. The significance of this is that Ellington may very well be drawing yet again on syncretic music structure. The influence in this case is most likely West African (such as Nigerian Juju) or East African (such as Chopi Mbila music of Mozambique). Since this piece draws on the influences and cultural history African-Americans have in various regions of the African continent, it is only logical for Ellington to draw on the music as well. The lesson for the composer is one of a complex nature. When writing a piece, one must consider the multifaceted nature of the subject matter, and respond accordingly. By Ellington drawing on the background musically of the black community, he is giving a map to composers as to how they must think about every single note they write, and the significance of their melody, harmony, and rhythm. The second-to-last section of Black, Brown, and Beige “, Sugar Hill Penthouse,”is important due to its pace. The section begins in a very relaxed groove in the woodwinds, and continuously remains in a relaxed groove (in all instruments) throughout the piece. The lesson to composers in this section is simple. Dynamics make or break a piece, and ultimately it is up to the composer to determine which dynamics are to be in a song. Namely in “Sugar Hill Penthouse” the composer is shown to need soft dynamics in any given moment. The tendency for composers is to overwrite, to write the piece in such forceful dynamics that the meaning of the song is lost. “Sugar Hill Penthouse” gives the composer insight into the idea that sometimes the softest dynamics and articulations are best. The final section in Beige, and in the composition Black, Brown, and Beige is “The Black, Brown, and Beige are Red, White, and Blue.” This section is a triumphant ending to an epic, a fitting conclusion to one of the landmark jazz works in all of history. The lesson to the composer in this section is to always make a memorable finale. The audience must walk away from a piece knowing that they had a transcendental connection with the music. Such is the case with the ending to Black, Brown, and Beige, as the orchestra navigates through recapitulations of prior themes, and eventually climaxes in the high notes of the trumpets. When the piece is finished, it is clear that this piece was Ellington’s crowning achievement, evidenced by its continued evidence today.
Hundreds of thousands of pages can be written about Duke Ellington the man, the composer, and the bandleader. While these pages will never truly encapsulate the man who changed everything in music, one can try, through his music, to understand him. For composers, it is essential that Duke Ellington is studied at his deepest levels, for his music can change their whole philosophy. Composers must be apt to progression, and Ellington’s music is a perfect place to begin such progression, for he changed music forever.
Howland, John. Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. Print.
Tucker, Mark. The Duke Ellington Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.
West, Michael J. “Jazz Workshop: Listening Guide to Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige – Part 1, “Black.” blogcritics. Blogcritics, 7 Nov. 2007. Web. 1 Mar. 2013.
West, Michael J. “Jazz Workshop: Listening Guide to Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige – Part 2, “Brown.” blogcritics. Blogcritics, 25 Nov. 2007. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.
West, Michael J. “Jazz Workshop: Listening Guide to Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige – Part 3, “Beige.” blogcritics. Blogcritics, 3 Dec. 2007. Web. 1 Mar. 2013