The name Duke Ellington is ubiquitous in the jazz world. He was a great bandleader, skillful composer, meticulous arranger, and extraordinary pianist. Throughout his career, which expanded over fifty years, he constantly pushed his music to a higher level. Although he never changed his styles to fit in with the new trends, Ellington had always experimented and adapted new techniques to enrich his art. From his mastery of applying the twelve-bar blues into big band, his ability to get the sounds he wants from his musicians, his inventive “Ellington effect,” his creative call-and-response method, to his interest in mood and tonality, Ellington’s compositions are not only rich in sound, but also broad in range.
One of Ellington’s special techniques is the incorporating of the twelve-bar blues into his big band’s repertoire. “Creole Love Call” demonstrates his rich compositional style as well as his perfect timing—he needed to stay within the three minutes timeframe in order to fit in one side of the 78rpm record. In the first chorus, Adelaide Hall’s horn-like scat fuses naturally into the sweet sounds of the clarinets. At 0:30 seconds into the song, Bubber Miley’s growl trumpet takes over the second chorus with a big, hypnotizing solo. At 1:00, the third chorus kicks in with Ruby Jackson’s sensuous clarinet, and then the next two choruses (1:30-2:30) take off by the high-register reed section. Hall’s wordless singing comes back at the last chorus closes out the piece.
Another classic piece that structured on the twelve-bar blues is “Happy-Go-Lucky Local,” which takes up both sides of the 87rmp record. The arrangement proves Ellington’s talent as a bandleader who could find the sounds he wanted from his musicians. From the whistle blows to the escaping-steam sounds, his players bring the train’s atmosphere right to our ears. The experience is stunning; especially the way Oscar Pettiford’s bass resembles the motion of the train, and how Cat Anderson makes his trumpet screams to create a fascinating brake sound. Other train-liked composition that is filled with Ellington effects is “Daybreak Express.” The introduction’s crescendo and accelerando warn us that we’re about to enter a fast and powerful ride. Once the train takes off, the up-tempo rhythm captures the speed of the train, which travels about a hundred miles per minute. The best part of “Daybreak Express” is how the various train’s noises come together to produce such a lively harmony. Ellington knows what kind of sounds his men can give him; therefore, he tailors his music to a particular player, and he knows when to leave room for that musician to improvise. As a result, his compositions are affected whenever his personnel changes occurred. As a skillful big bandleader, however, Ellington always finds suitable replacements. For instance, when James “Bubber” Miley was struck by a bullet at a bar, he was replaced by Cootie Williams who is well known for his distinctive muted trumpet sound. His growl technique, which could be heard at the bridge in “Ring Dem Bells,” is breathtaking. Williams is not only a great horn player, but also a wonderful scat singer with a clear and playful timbre. The teasing, which occurs right before Williams’s two-part solos in “Ring Dem Bell” between Johnny Hodges’s alto saxophone and William’s vocals, creates a fantastic musical interaction.
The call-and-response method between the instruments and the voices is one of Ellington’s specializations. In “Hot and Bothered,” James “Bubber” Miley’s trumpet and Baby Cox’s vocals scream musical notes at each other. The alto saxophone also carries on a musical conversation with the reeds in the last chorus. In “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” the trumpet phrases like a human voice complementing Ivie Anderson’s vocals. So when she sings, “It don’t mean a thing / if it ain’t got that swing, “the trumpet would finish her sentence with “doo wah, doo wah.” On first listening, I thought the male vocalist was doing the back up, not the horn.
Ellington’s interest in tone color makes him an astonishing composer with an oceanic imagination. In “Mood Indigo,” he paints a quiet picture with calming and soothing melody. The relaxed solos from Barney Bigard’s clarinet and Arthur Whetsol’s trumpet add gorgeous colors to the muted palette. In contrast to the dreamy tempo in “Mood Indigo,” “Harlem Air Shaft” captures the city vibes, in which Ellington describes, “You get the full essence of Harlem of Harlem in an air shaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love, you hear the intimate gossip floating down… Jitterbugs are jumping up and down, always all over you, never below you. That’s a funny thing about jitterbugs. They’re always above you. I tried to put all that into ‘Harlem Air Shaft…'” (Davies 203). The amazing part is that Ellington and his musicians created this lively scene within three minutes. Ellington lays down the melody in the introduction; Williams’s ingenious trumpet solo takes charge in the second chorus. On third, Bigard’s clarinet bounces off the trombone section creating an engaging tune. The last chorus is even livelier with the whole band joints together to reach the climax and close out the composition. Another exhilarating piece that demonstrates Ellington’s artistic vision is “The Clothed Woman.” His intricate piano playing draws an image of a classy woman. The introduction is beautifully executed with touches of piano’s “shout,” which reflects the ragtime style. This piece showcases not only his composing skills, but also his unorthodox arrangement.
This short essay focuses only a few of his massive masterpieces. There is so much more to Ellington’s work to be studied and absorbed. With half a century of playing, writing, and refining, Ellington continued to excel and pushed his art to the limit. With the number of impressive works under his credit, Duke Ellington was one of the most significant jazz figures in the twentieth century.
Work Cited: Davis, Peter. Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, ed London: Hentoff and Shapiro, 1955.
(Written for Jazz History Class)