Duke Ellington

It stands to reason that if you’re blogging about Swing music, you should start with the big one. With more than 3000 songs to his name, Duke Ellington was truly the most important man in Swing history. Enjoy.

“I think that was the beginning of everything… I think The Cotton Club and Duke, I think that started everything going”- Adelaide Hall.

Edward Kennedy Ellington grew up in Washington DC. Both his parents were pianists and he began learning when he was 7. His childhood friend gave him the nickname “Duke” in reference to his noble bearing and dapper dress sense.

He moved to New York in the early 1920s and played house parties and various clubs. He was already writing music for publishers at the time, but his big break came when King Oliver passed up the offer of being the house band at the Cotton Club. Ellington was given the position and he selected eleven of Harlem’s best musicians to make up the band. They were given a weekly live radio broadcast which gave the band national recognition.

The Cotton Club
The Cotton Club was owned by bootlegger Owney Madden who was an inmate of Sing Sing prison at the time. The club was managed by its former owner: boxing champion Jack Johnson. It was essentially a vehicle for selling bootlegged liquor. The audience were exclusively white, and performers and staff were all black. Dancers at the time were required to be “tall, tan and terrific” ie: over 5’6”, tan complexion (not too dark) and under 21 years old. They were strictly not permitted to mix with the clientele.

Racism and Segregation
The Cotton Club depicted black people as the noble savages, often using themes such as plantation workers or wild jungles. Duke picked up on this and used it as inspiration for his music. He was asked to write “jungle music” and superficially this is what he did, playing on prejudice and ignorance. But beneath the surface, his music was commenting on the duplicity of segregation. In 1927, Ellington wrote Black and Tan Fantasy- a comment on segregation, although it contains some of the best solo performances from his band, it begins with a hymn “Holy City” and ends with the Funeral March (Schubert), suggesting that coloured people can only fantasise about being treated equally (they prey for equality, play their jungle music, then die). Later in his career, Ellington wrote the Jazz Symphony Black, Brown and Beige based on a similar theme. Each movement is subdivided and given a title representing moments in black history.

Black  – Work Song
– Come Sunday (a spiritual)
– Light
Brown – West Indian Dance
– Emancipation
– Celebration
Beige  – The Afro-American of the 20s, 30s and World War II

It was only performed a handful of times as a whole work, it was then performed only in smaller sections. Ellington was quoted at one concert as saying

“We thought we wouldn’t play it in its entirety tonight because it represents an awfully long and important story and that I don’t think too many people are familiar with the story”

The Whites only policy at the Cotton Club was eventually relaxed as a direct result of Duke’s stance on the issue and he paved the way towards racial equality in the future, an important achievement that is often overlooked.

The Band
Duke Ellington was a highly skilled pianist but his instrumental arrangements were what made his music truly memorable. The Cotton Club Orchestra consisted of the best musicians in Harlem, many of them famous soloists in their own rights. Ellington used their individual styles and abilities with skill to create a style of music that was unique and inspirational, influencing musicians across the country (via the radio broadcasts) and eventually the world.

Members included:
Bubber Miley- an expert at “growl” trumpet (jungle sounds!)
Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton- trombone, excelling at glissandi and the “horse whinny”
Johnny Hodges- alto saxophone, famous for his sensuous tone
Harry Carney- an agile baritone saxophonist
Barney Bigard- a fast and furious clarinettest

Listen out for:
The individual instruments and the personalities of the performers behind them.
The brass playing with mutes to create a “wah wah” sound

Brass players singing into their instruments
The subtlety of the drums and bass compared to the rest of the instruments (with some exceptions of course).
Conversations between instruments/ groups of instruments. Sometimes the parts are equal, and sometimes one will be the leader and others play fills between their lines.
Listen to the words and the setting of lyrics. Sometimes the music changes the meaning.

When you dance:
Improvise and put your own personality into the dance. The musicians are.
Dance the conversation, not just the beat.
Try to imitate characteristic fragments with your body. (a sweep of the foot for the trombone gliss, a quick shuffle variation for the clarinet flurry)
Dance the meaning of the song, not just the sound of it.
Snap your fingers off the beat!

Every Dancer Should Know:
It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
C Jam Blues
Cotton Club Stomp
Digga Digga Doo
Drop Me Off In Harlem
I’m Beginning to See the Light
Rockin In Rhythm
Take the A Train

Also Listen To:
Black and Tan Fantasy
Creole Love Call
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
The Mooche (those jungle drums!)
Mood Indigo
Satin Doll
Sophisticated Lady


3 thoughts on “Duke Ellington

  1. loving the new blog, keep it up. just wanted to give Duke’s talented arranger and (in some cases) composer Billy Strayhorn a mention. The orchestration is up there with Debussy in my opinion. Duke and Stayhorn weren’t just writing parts for instruments, they were writing for the particular character and tone of the individual players.

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