To read my brief "Ellington Appreciation" and a selective list of the most well-knownof his 2,000 compositions. Click here.
Ellington was a master at creating "soundscapes." Even a 3-minute composition, which was the limit to the length of a recorded track until the 1950s, has multiples themes and rich orchestrations making use of very creative harmonies and sublime dissonance. Ellington as i explained at greater length in class was the prominent creative musical voice in Harlem of the 1930s, when so many artists were searching using their art forms for black identity. Through their work, they asked, Who are we? We have come to America as slaves torn from our past with no common religion, language, or culture. There is no "old country" we have from where out families and cultures survive intact. This was the project of the Harlem Renaissance, to explore / define black identity in the US. in America. Duke Ellington was the musicians who made that his conscious goal.
We started out by comparing Ellington to Count Basie and Glenn Miller, two popular bands whose music was often guid on "riffs" -- simple rhythmic figures or motifs that are repeated along call-and-response interplay between the section of the band. This best example i Jumping at the Woodside" from the mid-1930s. I could not find it on Youtube, but if you have a music service provider see if you can find it . If not, listen to this recording of "Playing the Blues" from 1936.
A more watchable example is Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" well-recorded on film in 1941. Note the simple "riff" the music is bouillon and the (visible) call and response between the sections of the orchestra.
With Ellington, the whole approach and depth of the music changes: Ko-Ko from the 1940 Ellington Orchestra. This is a composition using the blues form, but there is such variety and sophistication in the multiple themes that it is difficult to recognize it is a simple 12-meaure form based on tradition harmonies. This is a blues in F minor.
Caravan is another great and exotic orchestration of the juan Tizol song written for the Ellington Orchestra by the Puerto Rican trombonist who played with him for years. Tizol was also the composer of the well-known Ellington standard, "Period." Aside from the infectious rhythm and melodic exotic scale from which the melody derives, listen to Ellington's crashing dissonant and percussive piano playing behind the soloists. This is from a live recording in Fargo in 1940. The band plays the song with two different feelings, both of which are unlike the version i Played in class (which is my favorite).
Video playlist from the class:
To watch Ellington's 1935 film "Symphony in Black" on Youtube, click here.
A similar film called "Black and Tan Fantasy" (1929), is based on a thin but interesting dramatic story line. This film has a brief scene involving comic, racial stereotypes, that are sadly in keeping with the year it was made. The music is genuine Ellington. Click here.
The Ellington Band playing "Cotton Tail" with some athletic dancing by fantastic dancers made up to look like teenagers. It;s a great piece of music and really enjoyable choreography I had intended to show this in class but there wasn't time. Click here.
Jazz Icons DVD.Ellington. We saw samples from this in class, eg., "Rockin' in Rhythm" with the opening Ellington piano solo. All of the Jazz Icons DVDs are excellent, but this one is special . Click here for Amazon page. (Only $20 per DVD, if there are any left.)
"The Intimate Ellington", a DVD of his trio and an octet with some of his favorite soloists, filmed by Danish TV in 1967. It has two stunning sessions one of trio and the other of an 8-piece ensemble. The DVD is $29 on Amazon. Because of the videography, it is almost as good as attending the performance in person. The octet session is priceless -- there is no better showcase for the Ellington band soloists. The version of Take the A Train played in class came from this DVD. Click here for Amazon page.
this is a style of piano playing that evolved in the late 1920s and continues to be employed by later pianists (for example in the Thelonious Monk version of Satin Doll -- link below).). although. Duke Ellington was influenced by Stride pianists like Willie "The Lion" Smith, Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller.. One of the first piano pieces he learned was James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout," which he learned by ear after listening to the record multiple times. Ellington also was influenced by Fats Waller, a stride pianist who was also a prolific composer. One of his pieces "Handful of Keys" (recorded in 1929) is a joyous and technically impressive romp exploring a few ideas in a playful way. After listening to that, check out Ellington's composition played in the stride style called "Black Beauty." On this 1928 recording (one of the best versions of the tune) and with acceptable audio quality, note the wistful and sometimes melancholic nature of the music as compared with Fats Waller's bon vivant style. It is relaxed and thoughtful, despite the demands of the style, which is to be technically impressive and upbeat.
Thelonious Monk (solo piano) playing Ellington's music at Berlin Jazz Festival, 1969), showing his admiration for Ellington as well as his indebtedness to stride piano -- played in his own idiosyncratic way, a wonderful example of Monk fully exploiting syncopation and dissonant harmony. (Click here.)
Here is Monk's repertoire in this fairly lengthy Youtube video -- but "Satin Doll" is first: Satin Doll Sophisticated Lady Caravan (particularly exciting exploration) In My Solitude Crespescule With Nellie (Sarah Vaughan, and other pianists follow Monk on stage in this long video from Berlin.)