Duke Ellington

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  • Biography
  • Back Stories
  • The Great Songs

What made Ellington so great? His musicianship was unsurpassed, yes. He hired the finest musicians and encouraged them to express themselves through their instruments. His art never appeared phony or premeditated or facile. But Ellington’s success had other components as well.

Other bands might be easier to dance to, or evoke an easy emotion, or create a romantic mood, but Ellington and his band created a dialogue with the audience; the musicians spoke through their instruments, the audience listened, felt, and responded.

When Glenn Miller went looking for replacements the candidates had to be great musicians able to play charts perfectly—their own personalities and talents had to remain secondary. Miller wanted his band to sound exactly the same no matter who was playing in it. Benny Goodman put himself out front-and-center, always the focal point of the music. Sweet bandleader Sammy Kaye went after a sound that was unsurprising and unemotional—mood was everything.

Ellington, to a greater extent than any other bandleader of his day, revered the individuality of his players. When replacing a member of the band, he found himself facing a problem. Should he force the newcomer to play the arrangements as written—arrangements that had been concocted to capitalize on the the special talents of a previous player?  Or should the arrangements be changed to take advantage of the skills of the new band member? Ultimately, Ellington always chose to nurture the individual personalities and talents of his members. He also revered his singers, and the queen of them all was Ivie Anderson, his first permanent band singer. She joined him in Chicago in 1931, and Ellington considered Anderson to be a good luck symbol for the band. She was equally adept at singing ballads and swinging. Ellington felt that when she sang “Stormy Weather” she outperformed the great Ethel Waters, for whom the song had been written. (Ellington had accompanied Waters at the Cotton Club when she sang the song so he knew whereof he spoke.) According to Ellington, when Anderson sang the song, “the audience and all the management brass broke down crying and applauding….Tears streaming down her cheeks, Ivie did the most believable performance ever.” She could also outswing most other singers. Her recording debut with the band in 1932 was on “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing)” and her renditions of “Rose of the Rio Grande,” “Swingtime in Honolulu,” “Rocks in My Bed,” “Solitude,” and “Raisin’ the Rent” were brilliant even when the songs were not.

Anderson had sung with a variety of bands in Los Angeles and with Earl Hines, but with Ellington she found her true match. She was more than the “girl singer,”—she became an integral member of the ensemble, as important as any of the musicians. Because Ellington valued lyrics so much, she became, literally, the voice of the band. Anderson can be seen in the Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races singing and swinging “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm.” Perhaps the greatest band singer of all time, she became the standard to which all future Ellington singers aspired.

Joya Sherrill was another Ellington favorite, discovered by the leader when she came to sing him a lyric she had written for “Take the ‘A’ Train.” What Ellington thought of the lyric is unknown, but he called up Sherrill a few weeks later and asked her to join the band. She was in school at the time and couldn’t join him until June of 1942, at the end of the school year. Ellington loved her diction and credited the success of “I’m Beginning to See the Light” to her presentation of the song.

Ellington also employed Kay Davis, a well-trained musician who could sight read and had perfect pitch. Because of this, Ellington decided that, in addition to asking her to sing lyrics, he would use her voice as an instrument. In January 1946 at Carnegie Hall, she sang the brand new (really, really new) tune “Transbluency” in front of the band with the music on a stand. She was joined by the featured musicians, Jimmy Hamilton and Lawrence Brown, who also required music stands. The performance was a huge hit. In the late 1920s, Adelaide Hall had made a career out of growling vocalese on such numbers as “Creole Love Call” with Ellington’s band, and Davis was a kind of soprano version of Hall.

Ellington also employed male singers from time to time, chief among them  Al Hibbler. As Ellington himself wrote, “He had so many sounds that even without words he could tell of fantasy beyond fantasy. Hib’s great dramatic devices and the variety of his tonal changes give him almost unlimited range.” As he did with all his singers, Ellington greatly valued Hibbler’s enunciation. The ability to create something in the minds of audiences, whether a mood, an emotion, or a story, was key to Ellington’s philosophy of music.

As a performer, Ellington put communication with the audience foremost. Other bands might be easier to dance to, or evoke an easy emotion, or create a romantic mood, but Ellington and his band created a dialogue with the audience; the musicians spoke through their instruments, the audience listened, felt, and responded. It was this great communion that made the Ellington band absolutely unique.

At the end of 1936 Ellington remarked that the British bands had a certain resonance when they recorded. He and his engineers experimented and finally found the sound they were looking for—in the men’s room. Ellington credits this as the first echo chamber. (KB)

Fifteen minutes

Ellington was sitting at his mother’s house while she was cooking dinner, thinking about a recording session that evening. In fifteen minutes he wrote “Mood Indigo,” then went out and recorded it and performed it that night at the Cotton Club.Mood Indigo

What's the title?

Ellington was at a recording session in Chicago with three tunes ready but still needing a fourth to round out the side of a 78. As he waited for another recording session to finish and free up the studio, he leaned against the studio’s glass wall and wrote out a new tune in about twenty minutes. When the band recorded it everyone in the band and in the booth got choked up. When someone asked what the title was, musician Artie Whetsol answered, “Solitude.” The name stuck.Solitude

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Mood Indigo
Blue Rose
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