Loving Him Madly:
Duke Ellington at 100

by Phillip D. Atteberry

This material is copyrighted and was originally published in The Mississippi Rag.

I was born in 1953 and missed the Big Band Era. My father, however, was a product of that time, and during the 1960’s, he lugged my brother and me to far distant gymnasiums and concert halls to see the few great bandleaders still on the road—Count Basie, Harry James, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton—and Duke Ellington.

I saw Ellington in 1966 on a Sunday afternoon in February. I was thirteen. Times must have been hard for the renowned Ellington troops because they had ventured far into the sticks—Casey, Illinois, to be precise—to play in a small high school gymnasium to a few hundred people. All the great sidemen were still with him—Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Lawrence Brown, Cat Anderson and Cootie Williams—but their days were numbered.

Thirteen year olds, however, know nothing about time or musical history, so I didn’t understand the significance of what I was seeing and hearing. But I was impressed--fully, overwhelmingly and heart-stoppingly. I had heard the legendarily loud Kenton orchestra open to the strains of "Artistry in Rhythm," Harry James bring up the house lights with "Ciribiribin," Basie stomp off to "April in Paris," but I had never heard an opening like Ellington’s.

The curtain was closed and the lights down when the familiar, percussive piano hit the opening phrases to "Take the ‘A’ Train." The curtains quivered, then parted as the orchestra roared forth with all its fury. Perhaps it was the concrete walls of that gymnasium, but even now, thirty-three years later, I can still feel the bleachers vibrating beneath me. Even the Stan Kenton orchestra had not reached decibel levels like that.

After a few bars, Ellington rose from the piano, strode to the microphone in a glittering, light blue suit, spoke impressively (and multi-syllabically) about loving us madly, and the concert was on.

It was a day to remember, one of those rare days that burns brighter in memory as the years pass. As I grew older and became acquainted with more music, I found myself listening less exclusively to the Duke. But I never lost my fascination for him. I never passed up one of his albums in yard sales, never scoured record bins without looking through the Ellington section, and scarcely left a book about him unread.

Inevitably, my opinion of Ellington became complicated. The more we know about people—especially complex people like Duke Ellington—the more difficult it becomes to assess them fairly. Centennials complicate matters even more because they inspire eulogies—both mindful and mindless—but not objective analysis. In this, the centennial year of Ellington’s birth, Ellington's critics have been (metaphorically speaking) bound, gagged and locked in a dungeon. But Ellington has always been controversial. Innovators inevitably are. To ignore Ellington's critics is to lessen Ellington's legacy and, more importantly, our understanding of him. The truth about Duke Ellington is complex and elusive, but it is time to attempt a realistic assessment.

Ellington and Armstrong:
Jazz Giants of the Century

I will begin with a mildly controversial proposition: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are the two most important figures in the history of jazz--Armstrong because he revolutionized both instrumental and vocal jazz; Ellington because he was a seminal composer, bandleader, arranger and pianist.

Now for a wildly controversial proposition: Louis Armstrong’s greatest achievements had little to do with music; Duke Ellington’s had everything to do with it. Please don’t misunderstand me. Armstrong’s musical achievements and contributions are monumental. It would be foolish to suggest otherwise. But in the end, Louis Armstrong transcended music. He was even more important as a symbol of twentieth-century America than he was as a musician. Yes, I realize that he was criticized for his Uncle Tomisms and his at times dilatory public support of the Civil Rights movement, but in the end, he embodied the individuality, strong work ethic and egalitarian spirit that has always been the bone and marrow of the American character. And he carried those qualities all over the world. Everybody was "Daddy" or "Pops" to Louis, whether he found himself among European princes or African tribes. It is said that when Louis met the Pope in 1968, John Paul (not knowing what to say) asked Louis if he and his wife had any children. Louis answered: "No Daddy, but we’re still wailin’."

Ross Tompkins told me that story a long time ago. I don’t know whether it’s true, but I've seen it in print once since. Even if it isn’t true, however, it suggests how Louis has come to symbolize our democratic impulses, our humanity, and helps explain why hundreds of thousands of people across the globe flocked to see him even when his lip was gone and his health fading.

Ellington is a different matter altogether. Wynton Marsalis, in a recent New York Times article, said that Ellington's music is comprehensively democratic. I don't think so. Armstrong's music was democratic; Ellington's was tinged with elitism. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Ellington's elitism was inseparable from his quest for excellence, from wearing the best clothes to having the best side men. Ellington did not want to be "of" the people but "beyond" the people, "beyond category," as he would say, something rare and special. Forgive my literary analogy (I’m an English teacher and can’t help it), but Ellington was like Shakespeare’s Henry IV, carrying himself high, majestically, controlling every detail of his public image. Armstrong was like Prince Hal, rubbing shoulders with the peasants, sharing drinks and jokes with them. Both men were great in their own ways, both men served the public in their own ways, but in very different ways.

It is partly for this reason that Ellington came under attack after his death in ways that Armstrong didn't. Because Armstrong did not quest for greatness in the same way that Ellington did, because he did not promote himself and use others as Ellington did, he did not inspire as much jealousy and ill-will.

Ellington's Detractors

Put simply, Ellington’s detractors fall into three camps: those who criticize his character, those who question his career choices, and those who revise downward his accomplishments.

Perhaps Mercer Ellington’s 1978 biography of his father, Duke Ellington in Person (written with Stanley Dance) best represents the critics of character. This intriguing and interesting book is a complex mixture of bitterness and admiration. Among other things, it demonstrates that the title of Ellington's autobiography, Music is My Mistress, is misleading. Music was Ellington's business. Women were his mistresses. He was not a very good husband or father, didn’t take criticism well and didn’t give credit to others readily or easily.

And yet even though I find Mercer Ellington’s book fascinating and intelligent, his character assessments (however true) are largely irrelevant to musical judgements. Such details enhance our understanding of the human psyche, but they do little to enhance our understanding of Ellington's achievements or importance. In the end, artists must be evaluated on their art. Irving Berlin was a jealous, miserly man. Would we therefore say that his songs were less good? Sinatra carried with him deep vendettas. Would we therefore say he sang less well? Ellington had numerous character flaws. Great artists often do, partly because overwhelming talent is often accompanied by strong self-absorption, and partly because extremely talented people often follow life paths that are more stressful and risk-laden than the rest of us.

The second camp of detractors are to be taken more seriously. They question Ellington’s career decisions. In recent months, Ellington has been praised for his incessant, creative energy, writing new songs, exploring new musical forms year after year as he criss-crossed the world with his orchestra. A 1968 television documentary, On the Road with Duke Ellington, (which is still available and well worth watching) dramatizes the point by showing us Ellington hunched over pianos in deserted concert halls at ungodly hours scribbling away on scorepaper after the rest of the world has gone to bed.

It's an attractive legend, but the facts don't support it. Like all artists, Ellington suffered long dry spells. For years he kept his band on road playing his medley of hits, tinkering with his collection of standards and composing little of substance. In 1956, a few weeks prior to his celebrated appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, promoter George Wein was positively frightened that Ellington would embarrass himself. "He had nothing to play except the medley and some time-worn charts out of the band book," Wein said. "This was 1956. The jazz world was spiraling off in new directions, and Ellington was being left behind."

We all know what happened, of course. Ellington took the festival by storm when he turned Paul Gonsalves loose for twenty odd choruses of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." Ellington was "reborn," to use his own word, because he called the right tune at the right time in the right way for the right people. But beneath all the hoopla and attention remained an indisputable fact. "Crescendo" wasn’t new. It was a 1937 chart that Ellington had pulled out of the band book. The newness was Paul Gonsalves’ high energy, tenor rampage.

In short, the second group of Ellington critics say that if he had not exhausted himself traveling around the world playing essentially the same thing year after year, he could have concentrated more on his greatest and most unique talent—composition--and likely composed more and better material.

There is a surface logic to that criticism, but I can’t buy it. It is unlikely that a well-rested Ellington, tucked away in a study with a piano, would have been inspired to write much of anything. Nearly all the great bandleaders were creatures of the road. They often complained of the horrors of one-night stands, but they stayed on the band buses as long as they could—because the road was home. I’m convinced that when I saw Ellington in 1966, he would rather have been in a gymnasium in Casey, Illinois than at an address the post office regarded as his "home." The road was full of challenges, adventure—life in all of its variety. I don’t know where Ellington’s inspiration came from, but I suspect removing him from the road would have removed at least one source of that inspiration.

The third group of critics are to be taken the most seriously. They simply assert that Ellington’s accomplishments, though substantial, are overrated. They point to his inconsistency, especially when he deviated from the popular song form, and his tendency to write in an overblown, pretentious style.

To argue these points thoroughly would force us to discuss each piece of music separately and define our terms carefully. I, for one, don’t pretend to know much about Ellington’s non-jazz work, and I would even agree that some of his jazz compositions are pretentious. But I don’t think that lessens Ellington’s status overall.

I cannot think of a great artist--whether a painter, a novelist, an architect, or a composer--who did not create some bad stuff. In fact the greatest artists have created a lot bad stuff because they are the greatest risk-takers, and the more risks one takes the more likely one is to fail. Do we hold it against Herman Melville that he wrote a couple of convoluted, unreadable novels, or do we give him credit for writing Moby Dick? Do we hold it against Ella Fitzgerald for recording "Chew, Chew Chew your Bubblegum?" or do we give her credit for "How High the Moon"? Do we hold it against Irving Berlin for writing "How Do You Do It, Mabel, on Twenty Dollars a Week?" or do we give him credit for "White Christmas?" Of course the truth is that we evaluate artists on their best work, not on their worst. Often it is important to fail before one can succeed. Ellington was a risk-taker, a musical experimenter. Had he not been, he likely could not have written "Sophisticated Lady," "Prelude to a Kiss," "Azure" and a host of other distinctive songs. To judge the failures as heavily as the successes is to be unfair.

But perhaps the most serious and consistent charge leveled against Ellington is that he filched other people's songs. For years there was grumbling about that among musicians. In fact, when Ellington turned seventy, Earl Hines took out an ad in Down Beat which said, "Happy Birthday Duke" and then in small print ("Remember, I wrote 'Satin Doll.'")

Two things should be said in response to such accusations. First, several major songwriters have been accused of the same thing. Irving Berlin was taken to court three times for plagiarism. He was aquitted each time because the evidence against him didn't hold up. Ellington might have been grumbled about, but nobody ever mounted a legal challenge against him, suggesting that the grumblings had no legal basis.

But if there was nothing to the charges, why did they persist? I suspect that because Ellington sat on the bandstand night after night listening to some of the world's greatest improvisers, he heard attactive phrases and ideas that he developed into songs and published. When he made money, the people who initiated the phrases grumbled. And yet a phrase is not a song. It takes a significant musical imagination to develop a nice phrase into a memorable song. Ellington had that gift. There is certainly nothing illegal or inappropriate about it.

Having said all that, however, it must be acknowledged that at times Ellington did put his name on songs that he didn't write. Many of the Ellington/Strayhorn collaborations were written exclusively by Strayhorn. We know that from surviving manuscripts. We also know, for example, that "Caravan" was exclusively Juan Tizol's.

Ellington's name was attached to this music for financial reasons. Ellington was well known. Music with his name on it sold more and was recorded more. It made more money for Ellington, but also for Strayhorn, Tizol and the others. It was not done slyly, but with everyone's knowledge and approval. Furthermore, it was a common practice. Bing Crosby had nothing to do with writing "(I Don't Stand) a Ghost of a Chance." Victor Young wrote that, but he wrote it for Crosby. Crosby's name sold sheet music, so Crosby is listed as one of the composers. Benny Goodman didn't write "Don't Be that Way." Edgar Sampson did. But Goodman's name helped sell it, so Goodman is listed as one of the composers. To criticize Ellington for doing what everyone else was doing isn't fair.

Ellington's Greatness

But to answer Ellington’s detractors is not the same as explaining Ellington’s greatness, and that is our fundamental concern. What made Ellington great?

Perhaps we should begin by thinking about Ellington the arranger.

By the 1920's, the two dominant arrangers in jazz were Fletcher Henderson (who worked closely with Don Redman) and a young, rapidly-rising Duke Ellington. Their styles, however, were quite different. The Henderson/Redman style proved to be the model for big band arranging. They wrote section parts--for trumpets, trombones, reeds and rhythm section--and worked these parts against one another for contrast.

Ellington's imagination worked differently. His conceptions were based on individual voices rather than sections. Like a painter, Ellington was fascinated by the idiosyncratic textures of individual expressions. Though he sometimes used contrast, he was more interested in finding tones that blended to form new effects. He often started with a unique, individual voice and blended the other sounds around it, creating a more wholistic effect than Fletcher Henderson or Don Redman.

"Black and Tan Fantasy" is a good example. Written in 1927 during the early "jungle band" phase, it has many structural similarities with Jelly Roll Morton's "Dead Man Blues," written and recorded a year earlier. But the effect is different. In the original version, the main theme is expanded upon by the growling trumpet of Bubber Miley (in later years by Cootie Williams). A secondary, more ethereal theme is stated by Otto Hardwick (in later versions by Harry Carney or Russell Procope). Dissonant piano interludes lead us to the muted trombone ruminations of Tricky Sam Nanton (later Lawrence Brown) which move us to a conclusion that quotes liberally from Chopin's Funeral March. The beauty of the piece is the multiplicity of voices--some wailing, some growling, some praying--but all expressing a fullness of heart and heaviness of mind. It is a "Black and Tan" fantasy because it uses African-American, blues-based expressions to hint at the unsettled state of the human soul—a state that only men like Duke Ellington were eloquent enough to express.

"Creole Love Call," also from 1927, is another example of Ellington's unique use of tone colors. The wordless almost classically soaring cry of Adelaide Hall (in the original version) creates a sense of great emotion being tightly controlled. That pent up feeling is released when the bluesy, growling trumpet of Ray Nance (in later versions Cootie Williams) takes over, giving vent to the throbbing emotion beneath the surface. The song is so effective because it expresses such a wide gamut of impulses.

One could discuss dozens of Ellington songs in such detail, but in brief Ellington was great because he created richer, more diverse tone colors than anyone else in popular music. Those tone colors, moreover, unearthed a complexity of human emotions that no other art form could touch so well.

Secondly, Ellington was great not only because he could recognize rich, unusual, musical voices, but because he gathered them together and used them so well. It is one thing to have Johnny Hodges, it is another thing to use him as well as Ellington did. I don’t wish to get into an argument about the relative merits of Johnny Hodges and long-time Basie saxophonist, Marshall Royal. Royal told me one time that Johnny Hodges was his idol, and indeed Royal played much like Hodges, with similar tone and phrasing. But Royal’s unique saxophone abilities were never explored in the Basie orchestra. I mean no criticism of Basie, and if Marshall Royal were alive he would insist—as he insisted to me when he was alive—that he loved Basie and wouldn't have changed a thing about his career. My point is simply that Duke Ellington had a highly calibrated sense of individual, musical sounds and was able to present those sounds in a context for us to appreciate fully. Basie's imagination was more ensemble oriented.

Cat Anderson, to cite another example, is the most famous of all high note trumpeters, not because he could play the highest notes or could play them better than the others, but because he was used better over a longer period of time.

Thirdly, Ellington is great because his music is forever new. He speaks to different generations in different ways. His "Tone Parallel to Harlem," to cite just one example, sounds different to a post-Civil Rights world than it did to a world which had not undergone those experiences. As great as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Cole Porter were, they are of a time and place. Their genius is in capturing their world and enabling us to appreciate it more fully. Ellington's music--at its best--transcends the historical moment.

Duke Ellington on Disc

One thing missing in all the Duke Ellington mania this year is a discussion of his available recordings. Ellington recorded so much for so long--and with such variety--that it is hard for newcomers to know where to begin. (It is hard enough for us veterans to keep it straight.) With that in mind, I will hazard a few suggestions, confining my comments to the jazz work since I am unqualified to discuss the classical or sacred material. (If I don't mention your favorites, forgive me.)

First of all, for those who have unlimited time and money, RCA's Duke Ellington Centennial Edition (which was just released this month) is perfect. It contains twenty-four CD's of recordings made between 1924 and 1973. RCA will begin releasing this material in a variety of triple CD packages this summer.

Columbia, not to be left out, has just released cleaned up versions of six albums, including the fine film-score album Anatomy of a Murder and the Shakespeare inspired Such Sweet Thunder, which is uneven but terrific in spots. Like RCA, Columbia is also planning a triple-CD overview.

Few of us can afford the big packages, however, so we have to pick and choose among an ocean of discs and labels. Those interested in early Ellington should check out Columbia's The Okeh Ellington. It's a two disc set that focuses on the Cotton Club period and includes recordings from 1927 to 1930. The fidelity is not great, but good for its time. The interesting arrangements and splendid early soloists are well worth listening to.

The Columbia material, however, is expensive. As a bargain hunter, I like the Classics series, which is a low-priced French label that reissues early jazz works chronologically. The quality is generally good and the compilations intelligently done. Many volumes of early Ellington have been released in single disc format. For only a few dollars, one can put together a good sampling of early recordings.

Ellington's work in the early 40's became more impressionistic, partly due to the new influence of Billy Strayhorn. This impressionism is captured in RCA's triple disc package, Black, Brown and Beige. Interestingly, Black, Brown and Beige opened in New York within two months of Rodger's and Hammerstein's epoch altering Oklahoma! Oklahoma! (a homey, humorous, non-threatening piece of Americana) was immediately understood and embraced as a classic. Ellington's work was misunderstood and largely ignored. Like Porgy and Bess, Black, Brown and Beige is easier to understand sixty years after its debut than it was at the time. The RCA discs capture it well, including the startling "Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America."

RCA has another triple disc set entitled The Blanton-Webster Band (1940-2) with a lot of great things on it, but it's expensive. In my opinion, it's too much to pay for recordings over such a short period. A cheaper option is Sophisticated Lady (also on RCA) which contains many Ellington standards from the 1940's.

Contractually speaking, Ellington moved around a lot in 1950's. I would certainly recommend Columbia's Ellington Uptown from 1952. I have a soft spot in my heart for this album, since it's the Ellington album I remember hearing most frequently on my dad's stereo while growing up. Louis Bellson moves that album well. The following year, Ellington recorded an album for Capitol called Piano Reflections. I recommend it. It's fairly tame, and I wish Duke had stretched out a little more on it, but I do love Duke's piano style, and I regret he didn't play more. The famous 1956 performance At Newport is being re-released by Columbia this month, and it's exciting listening. However, I prefer the Live at Newport 1958 album. It exists in single and multi-disc versions. This is another album I came to know on LP from my dad's record collection. Mahalia Jackson's "Come Sunday" and Cat Anderson's "El Gato" will never--in my estimation--be matched. I also wouldn't overlook the Verve album with Ella Fitzgerald The Duke Ellington Songbook (1957). This is a triple CD set that sells for about $45.00. However, a good single volume compilation can be had for around $13.00. The Ellington band is a little sloppy on this album--and some of the album doesn't even include the Duke or his orchestra--but Ellington with Ella in her prime is always good. "Drop Me Off at Harlem," "Take the 'A' Train," "Cottontail" and others make fine listening. Another Verve album I like is Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges: Back to Back (1959). Again, I wish Duke played more piano, but Johnny Hodges, "Sweets" Edison and Duke play good, relaxed jazz on some old blues numbers.

Ellington continued to record impressively in the 1960's. I like the 1960 Columbia album, Blue Rose, with Rosemary Clooney. (This is another of Columbia’s recent CD reissues.) Rosie had such talent during these years and was misused so frequently. This album places her in a jazz context and totally outside Mitch Miller’s sphere of influence.

Also in 1960, the Ellington band was encamped for several months at the Americana Hotel in Miami Beach playing at a posh supper club for dancing. Ellington worked up some suitable arrangements, and from it emerged the album Duke Ellington, his Piano and Orchestra at the Bal Masque. This is another fairly tame album, but one of my favorites nonetheless. Duke plays lots of piano, and the band does all kinds of interesting numbers Ellington scarcely (or never) recorded before or after—"Satan Takes a Holiday," "Got a Date with an Angel," "Indian Love Call" and others. Unfortunately, this hasn’t yet come out on CD, but I’m keeping my eyes peeled.

In 1961, Ellington teamed up with Louis Armstrong on Roulette for sessions that were originally issued on two LP's but have since been released on one CD entitled simply Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington. Stylistic differences notwithstanding, this is a good album (and if you are zealot for either one of these two guys, it's probably a great one). Duke sits in for Billy Kyle with Armstrong's All Star group and fits right in. Louis sings a lot and Duke plays a lot. It's a hard combination to top.

Ellington was recorded in concert several times in the mid 1960’s. Most of these recordings are two volume sets, and they contain much—but not all—of the same material. The Great Paris Concert (Atlantic, 1963) splendidly showcases Johnny Hodges with "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "All of Me." The Great London Concerts (Jazz Heritage, 1963) reprise Paul Gonsalves’ "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" as well as a satisfying version of "Caravan" that thoroughly surveys the band’s varied solo voices. The 70th Birthday Concert (Blue Note, 1969) reprises Cat Anderson's "El Gato," boasts some good Wild Bill Davis at the organ.

The 1966 Far East Suite on RCA is a good example of late Ellington/Strayhorn collaborating. As with many Ellington suites, I find the Far East Suite uneven, but containing enough excellent material to be worth the money. Another RCA album from the same year is The Popular Duke Ellington. This album has its critics, but I like it, maybe because it's the first Ellington album I ever bought. It features all Ellington standards, many of which he hadn't recorded in years. Duke plays a lot of piano; Cootie Williams and Johnny Hodges also get lots of space. One of the best albums of this decade is the 1967 ". . . And His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA)," written in tribute to the recently deceased Billy Strayhorn. A nice variety of Strayhorn material, both recent and otherwise, is showcased.

One could on almost indefinitely. Those are some high spots. As with any artist of this magnitude, the best way to become familiar with his work is to talk to as many people as possible who have spent time listening to it, then listen as much as you can yourself.

As we stand at the gates of a new century, our tendency is to look back on the one we are leaving. It takes an enormous stretch of imagination to thrust ourselves forward to the dawn of the twenty-second century and consider which artists might still be important and relevant. Such speculations are hazardous, but I have a hunch that as long as people listen to music, as long as they are captivated by tone colors, rhythm and meaninful self-expression, they will find rewards in listening to Duke Ellington.