18 June 2022

Duke Ellington – the greatest composer of the 20th century?

I discovered the music of Duke Ellington when I was about 13 or 14. That was around 1960. I’ve loved his work ever since; all of it from the 1920s till he died in 1974. I was lucky enough to see him twice, in Birmingham in the late ’60s and in London in ’72 or ’73, shortly before his death. Somewhere I will still have the programme for London.

In the words of Bob Blumenthal of The Boston Globe, “In the century since his birth, there has been no greater composer, American or otherwise, than Edward Kennedy Ellington.” I can’t remember the original album I listened to back then, but I’m pretty sure it contained classics like Caravan, Rocking in Rhythm, Perdido, Satin Doll and Warm Valley.

Duke was a great pianist, although he always maintained that his instrument was his orchestra. Certainly, despite many changes in personnel over the years, his sound was always instantly recognisable. I’ll save his piano playing for another post, but let’s start where I began with Caravan, recorded in 1952 and featuring Juan Tizol on valve trombone.

Duke’s music had many moods; he could be lyrical as in Caravan and he could produce a piece that swings along as hard as anything by Count Basie, Woody Herman or any of the great swing bands of the era. Here he is in 1931 with Rocking in Rhythm, a piece that continued in the band’s repertoire for decades.

As an example of its continued popularity here it is again, played this time by Weather Report, in 1980.

Duke had less success with his singers than with his instrumentalists. None of them that I have come across were anywhere near his league as performers, except perhaps Al Hibbler. His collaborations were something else, however, including greats like Ella Fitzgerald and the incomparable Mahalia Jackson. Here’s Ella and Duke with Take the A Train,

Over the years Duke wrote many suites, perhaps the earliest being Black Brown and Beige. Here is Mahalia Jackson, with a live recording from 1958 of Come Sunday from that suite. Whatever your religious views, if this doesn’t make your spine tingle and the hairs on your neck stand up, you must be dead!

Duke’s music always showed great humour, too. One of my fun pieces, also from a suite (The UWIS suite) is Klop, which believe it or not is a polka. Still recognisable, but unmistakably Ellington.

Let’s finish with this electric performance from 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival. The Duke was no longer the high-flyer he had been, but this piece, Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, with a stomping, rabble-rousing solo from Paul Gonsalves brought him back to the fore and fuelled the rest of his career.

Duke Ellington wrote over 1000 compositions, so this post can only offer a taste. I’m sure I will be back with his piano playing, and almost certainly with more from the band. What would your choice?


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