While jazz is most often identified as an art form that is the soul of individual expression, the most important element of jazz is the band, the unit which gives wing to that sense of individual expression all within the context of a well-oiled, cohesive ensemble structure. Look up the definition of bandleader and the picture is that of Duke Ellington. That sense of well-oiled cohesion which identifies the successful band also yields that irresistible gravitational pull known as swing. None embodied large scale swing better than the various ensembles of Duke Ellington. And on occasion fluid small ensembles also gave voice to Duke Ellington’s mind-boggling array of compositions.
Keeping a band on the road for roughly 50 weeks a year was a Herculean task even back in the days of road-bound travel that Duke operated in, an achievement unheard of in these days of diminished jazz touring circuits. But Duke managed this feat while spending the wee small hours of mornings after performances writing thousands of compositions, often in the company of his good right arm, collaborator Billy Strayhorn. Imagery abounded in his compositions, inspired as he was by elements he encountered in his travels, from the mundane to the sublime. With Duke there was no telling where his next inspiration would come from. One of his staffers, writer Patricia Willard, tells the story of Duke and his erstwhile driver, the great baritone saxman Harry Carney, traveling across the mountains by car and discovering a nighttime rainbow. Willard researched it and found scientific precedence for such an occurrence, soon to be a new Ellington composition titled “Moon Bow.”
Ellington compositions, from standards like “Prelude to a Kiss” to commissioned scores like “Anatomy of a Murder,” to extravagant extended works like “Black, Brown and Beige,” have withstood the test of time in numerous permutations, from traditional to modernist. During his time on earth Duke capitalized on the various skills and nuances of his musicians by writing music best suited to their individual abilities. Examples abound of how his musicians were so uplifted by his music that following their Ellington stints they never reached such heights of expression. Such was the power of both Duke’s music and his band leadership skills.
As an instrumentalist he carved out a piano style based on the stride piano tradition, yet with a minimalist’s touch that was to influence pianists as diverse as Thelonious Monk. To call Duke Ellington a renaissance man would be to sell him short; his influence spanned not only music but visual arts and letters, fashion, and civil rights. A statesman in the manner of Louis Armstrong, but with a peerless savoir fare, Duke Ellington is one of the enduring giants of the 20th century.
Duke Ellington playing with his orchestra in 1958.