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The Ellington Century
By David Schiff
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
"Blue Light": Color
Ellington plays the piano but his real instrument is his band. Each member of his band is to him a distinctive tone color and set of emotions which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing which I like to call the Ellington Effect. —Billy Strayhorn
In modern orchestration clarity and definition of sonorous image are usually the goal. There exists, however, another kind of orchestral magic dependent on a certain ambiguity of effect. Not to be able to identify immediately how a particular color combination is arrived at adds to its attractiveness. I live to be intrigued by unusual sounds that force me to exclaim: Now I wonder how the composer does that? —Aaron Copland
Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, "O yes, that's done like this." But Duke merely lifts a finger, three horns make a sound, and I don't know what it is. —André Previn
One thing that I learned from Ellington is that you can make the group you play with sing if you realize each of the instruments has a distinctive personality; and you can bring out the singing aspect of that personality if you use the right timbre for the instruments. —Cecil Taylor
Now if it is possible to create patterns out of tone colors that are differentiated according to pitch, patterns we call melodies ... then it must also be possible to create such progressions out of the tone colors of the other dimension, out of that which we call simply "tone color." —Arnold Schoenberg
Hear with your eyes and see with your ears. —Charlie Parker
Duke Ellington, born on April 29, 1899, could easily have become a painter rather than a musician. Though he began piano studies, with Marietta Clinkscales, when he was seven, he later recalled that "all through grade school, I had a genuine interest in drawing and painting, and I realized I had a sort of talent for them." In 1963 he even helped paint the sets for My People, a multimedia theater piece marking the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Ellington called many of his compositions "tone parallels" or "portraits"; his music linked sounds and images. Coloristic titles located the music on a chromatic spectrum: azure, magenta, turquoise, indigo, black, sepia, beige, and tan. Ellington's palette of many colors signified: blue of whatever shade referred to the musical form, expressive vocabulary, and social function of the blues; the gradations leading from tan to black announced the central subject of his creative work, the history, experience, and culture of African Americans. Just consider this panchromatic catalogue of Ellington titles:
Azure Black, Brown
Beige and Beige
Black Butterfly Blue Harlem
Black and Tan Blue Belles of Blue Light
Black Beauty Blue Bubbles
Ebony Rhapsody Mood Indigo
The Gold Broom Moon Mist
Brown and the Green
Brown Skin Gal Golden Cress
On a Turquoise
Café au lait Golden Feather Cloud
Creamy Brown Lady in Blue
Crescendo in Lady of the
Diminuendo in Magenta Haze
Midnight Indigo Violet Blue
Ellington's gift for translating visual colors into tone colors set his music apart early on. By the time the Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra recorded "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" on November 29, 1926, the better-known bands of Paul Whiteman and Fletcher Henderson had already configured the standard sound of large ensemble jazz. In 1925 the Whiteman band had twenty-six players: six violins, two violas, two cellos (including the young William Schuman), string bass, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, four saxes, banjo, guitar, drums and piano—no wonder they called this style of jazz "symphonic." For its highly influential 1926 recording of "The Stampede" the Henderson band had eleven players: one trumpet, two cornets, one trombone, tuba, three saxes (all doubling clarinet), banjo, drums, and piano. Despite the difference in size, both Whiteman and Henderson configured their bands in instrumental choirs (reeds, brass, and, for Whiteman, strings), a method codified as early as 1924 in Arthur Lange's Arranging for the Modern Dance Orchestra. Classical composers had similarly deployed the orchestra in terms of instrumental choirs, winds, brass, and strings, the better to synchronize articulations and intonation. Hybrid sonorities, mixing instrumental families, can sound muddy if they are not well rehearsed. Or they can sound magical.
Although Ellington's early "orchestra" was smaller than Henderson's by just one trumpet, this slight difference meant that the Ellington band really had only one full section, the reeds. Instead of playing choir against choir and hot soloists against sidemen, Ellington treated every member of the band as a soloist and blended the sounds of different instruments and players.
The contrast of Bubber Miley's muted, growling trumpet and the smoldering accompaniment in the baritone sax and tuba, blue against black, "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" put Ellington's distinctive approach to timbre on the map. By the time of its third recording, on December 19, 1927, the interplay of Miley, Harry Carney (baritone sax), Joe Nanton (muted trombone), and Rudy Jackson (growling low clarinet) formed a terse study in shades of brown that matched Miley's visual parallel for the piece: "This is an old man, tired from working in the field since sunup, coming up the road in the sunset on his way home to dinner. He's tired but strong, and humming in time with his broken gait." Fine-tuning the color balance as the piece evolved, Ellington abridged the statements of a contrasting theme (reminiscent of A.J. Piron's song "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate") in this third recorded version. Foreshortened and refocused, the conventional "sweet" coloring now set the gritty darkness of the rest of the composition in starker relief. Ellington was composing in colors—like Matisse.
Though he may have used the band as his palette, timbre for Ellington was neither abstract nor dehumanizing. Colors were also human voices. Ellington hired players with idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable playing styles, and composed parts for specific players rather than instruments. The musicians of the band formed a spectrum of strongly characterized timbre styles: Miley's aggressively rough sound contrasted with Arthur Whetsol's almost humming introversion; the liquid croon of Johnny Hodges's alto played against the rude honk of Harry Carney's baritone. Within a few years the trombone section of Nanton, Lawrence Brown, and Juan Tizol produced three completely different timbres: raspy, smooth, Latin.
Early on Ellington saw that the new mechanisms for amplification and recording could enhance coloristic explorations. Long before the advent of recording "production," let alone of electronic music, Ellington revealed his genius for technologically enabled sound synthesis in "Mood Indigo," first recorded on October 17, 1930, but written especially for the "microphonic transmission" of a radio broadcast. In a radio interview in 1962 Ellington recalled the radical role played by the microphone as a lucky accident: "When we made 'Black and Tan Fantasy' ... [we used] the plunger mute in the trumpet and in the trombone in that duet and always got a 'mike' sound.... They hadn't conquered this yet, and they messed up a lot of masters because every time they'd get the mike they'd throw it out." For the recording session of "Mood Indigo" in 1930 "the aim was to employ these instruments in such a way, at such a distance, that the mike tone would set itself in definite pitch—so that it wouldn't spoil the recording. Lucky again, it happened."
To signify the deepest "blue" in "Mood Indigo" Ellington scored the opening melody in a choralelike texture for three players: Whetsol (trumpet), Barney Bigard (clarinet) and Nanton (muted trombone). He painted his mood with the three instrumental colors found in New Orleans jazz but arranged them counterintuitively with the trumpet on top, the trombone a third below it, in its highest register, and the clarinet an octave and a fourth lower than the trombone, an acoustic gap labeled an "error" in the conservatories that Ellington, fortunately, never attended. The apparently upside-down scoring demonstrates Ellington's astute command of the acoustical properties of each instrument and of the individual styles of each performer, the haunting, hollow quality Bigard brought to the clarinet's low register, Whetsol's plaintive lyricism, Nanton's insidiously sliding speechlike inflections. It shows his prophetic instinct for technology as well: together the three sounds blend into a whisper that would be undetectable without amplification. No wonder that Billy Strayhorn dubbed such timbral magic "the Ellington effect."
A slow, intimate blues recorded in 1938, "Blue Light" demonstrates how Ellington used tone color to shape mood and form. From its first meditative, bell-like chords on the piano, it suggests the indigo atmosphere of the last set in some nearly deserted nightclub; just one couple remains on the dance floor, perhaps with nowhere else to go, clinging to each other in the blue-tinted, smoke-filled air. "Blue Light" is that rare kind of music that evokes a specific time of day, temperature, and atmospheric condition. "The most neglected and least known of Ellington's masterpieces," "Blue Light" was recorded twice on December 22, 1938, by an eight-man subgroup of the Ellington Orchestra: Bigard, clarinet; Carney, clarinet (?); Wallace Jones, trumpet (?); Brown, trombone; Fred Guy, guitar; Billy Taylor, bass; Sonny Greer, drums; and Ellington, piano. Here's an outline of the form:
Intro: Piano solo four bars.
Chorus 1: twelve-bar blues. Clarinet solo with piano fills.
Chorus 2: twelve-bar blues. Trio for muted trumpet, muted trombone, and clarinet with piano fills.
Chorus 3: twelve-bar blues. Trombone solo with reed accompaniment. (Trombone melody composed by Lawrence Brown.)
Chorus 4: Piano solo.
Borrowing Schoenberg's term, we might term "Blue Light" a klang-farbenmelodie blues, a formal expansion of the color synthesis of "Mood Indigo." Each chorus presents a different kind of blue: the smoky middle range of Bigard's clarinet, the "indigo" scoring of the trio, the vibratorich warmth of Brown's trombone (set in relief by a low reed trio in the background), and Ellington's restrained pianism (with a brief homage, to my ear, to Earl Hines). Each timbre evokes a different aspect of the blues. Ellington's brief intro sounds urbane and modernistic; his first chord replicates exactly (if not intentionally) the opening harmony of Berg's Piano Sonata op. 1. Bigard's solo, by contrast, is roots music, straight out of New Orleans and Sidney Bechet. The trio, more muted and rhythmically steady, choralelike, than in "Mood Indigo," also has the ghostly gaslight sonority Ellington had used in his "Mystery Song" in 1931. Brown's solo, by contrast, feels fully embodied, like a warm embrace. In 1933 Spike Hughes had complained that Brown's sophisticated sound was out of place in "Duke's essentially direct and simple music," thereby underestimating both musicians, but Brown's lyricism here illustrates how Ellington could paint a jazz panorama (from Bechet to Tommy Dorsey) even within such a small framework. Ellington's closing solo chorus begins with the dissonant major-minor chord he habitually used to signify "the blues," momentarily muses on a fragment from Earl Hines's solo in "West End Blues," then turns out the lights.
"BLUE LIGHT" AS BLUES
A meticulously balanced tone-color composition, "Blue Light" is also a blues, although not in a way that devotees of, say, B.B. King might recognize. The term "blues" itself appears in bewilderingly various ways; it is used narrowly, to denote a chord progression, or grandly, as in Albert Murray's Stomping the Blues, to characterize an entire culture. Historically, the blues emerged after the Civil War from the sorrow songs of the antebellum period. As much a poetic as a musical genre, it has its own verse form, syntax, vocabulary, imagery, and subject matter:
When a woman gets the blues she hangs her head and cries,
When a woman gets the blues she hangs her head and cries,
But when a man gets the blues, he grabs a train and flies.
We can parse this blues stanza as follows:
Form: a thought stated, repeated, completed (surprisingly)
Syntax: lines broken midway by a caesura, and at the end by a comma; these breaks usually filled with a guitar response
Imagery: Love, tears, the railway
Subject: Suffering and escape from suffering
Most recorded blues consist of five or six stanzas that tell a story, though usually more as a sequence of images rather than a linear narrative. Jazz musicians refer to these stanza structures as choruses.
Often blind or lame, and so excluded from manual labor, early blues performers, or "blues men," sang to their own guitar accompaniment. At once outsiders and shamanic representatives of the community, they sang about themselves, and about everyone. Within African American culture the blues formed part of a larger musical landscape that included work songs, religious songs, and ragtime. These genres denoted class and region, the sacred and profane. Until around 1900 the blues was heard only in the Deep South, and in Mississippi and Louisiana in particular. Growing up in Washington, D.C., Ellington did not hear the blues until he encountered Sidney Bechet: "I shall never forget the first time I heard him play, at the Howard Theatre in Washington around 1921. I had never heard anything like it. It was a completely new sound."
Some jazz musicians, like Louis Armstrong and Lester Young, were born into the blues environment, while others, like Ellington and Coleman Hawkins, had to acquire the idiom consciously. The ease with which blues traveled and the very possibility that musicians from widely different backgrounds could master it suggests that blues was just part of a more widespread African American musical inheritance, and also that it was a transportable, itinerant music built for travel, whether on a train, or through the media of radio and recording. It was a kind of music that was everywhere, if you knew where to listen. As Ellington wrote, "I went on studying, of course, but I could also hear people whistling, and I got all the Negro music that way. You can't learn that in any school."
The blues, stylized verse in song, is both a poetic idiom and a distinctive musical sound. Blues singing, as ethnomusicologist Jeff Todd Titon observed, employed a particular kind of vocal production: "The tone quality of early downhome blues singing largely resulted from the way the singer enunciated his words. Singing with an open throat, he relaxed his lips and mouth and kept his tongue loose, low, and toward the back of his mouth. This position favored certain kinds of vowels and consonants and made it somewhat difficult to produce others." Titon noted that blues singers employ nasal, rasping sounds not used in their ordinary speaking voices, effects that can be traced to the "heterogeneous sound ideal" or "timbral mosaic" of African music. In the blues, speech and song mix; in instrumental blues, the instrument always has a vocal quality: "the nasal, foggy, hoarse texture that delivered the elisions, hums, growls, blue notes and falsetto, and the percussive oral effects of their ancestors." In his classic study Stomping the Blues Albert Murray uses the terms blues and jazz interchangeably, but the blues encompasses many musical idioms beyond the usual boundaries of jazz. Buddy Bolden, often cited as the musician who brought the streams of ragtime and blues together, as well as the secular and the sacred, and the spoken and sung elements in African American music, played "with a moan in his cornet that went all through you, just like you were in church or something ... made a spiritual feeling go through you. He had a cup, a special cup, that made that cornet moan like a Baptist preacher." Bolden's playing also took its timbre from the streets, from the sounds of itinerant ragmen playing long tin horns, party instruments that produced blues sounds later imitated on the trumpet. The translation of blues from voice to instrument therefore was not an artistic elevation of a folk form into an art genre, but rather a complex process of interweaving many oral and aural traditions to pass on a body of experience and wisdom—folk songs without words.
Excerpted from The Ellington Century by David Schiff. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsPreface
Part I: Overture: Such Sweet Thunder
1. "Blue Light": Color
2. "Cotton Tail": Rhythm
3. "Prelude to a Kiss": Melody
4. "Satin Doll": Harmony
Part II: Entr’acte: "Sepia Panorama"
5. "Warm Valley": Love
6. Black, Brown and Beige: History
7. "Heaven": God
What People are Saying About This
"'The Ellington Century' redefines the Duke's place in American music. . . . It's a must-read for music students and enthusiasts."The Oregonian
"Schiff makes you yearn to be a part of the ongoing flow of all music, not just jazz, or classical, or pop, or anything else. And that is one of the highest compliments I can pay the book."Music
"The most stimulating contribution to the Ellington literature I have encountered since Eddie Lambert's Listener's Guide."Dems Bulletin
"This book will be a must read for Ellingtonians and any musician interested in jazz-classical theory."All About Jazz
"An important milestone in Ellington scholarship, a one-of-a-kind substantive, in-depth study that opens possibilities for better understanding and appreciation of Duke Ellington the composer."Ellingtonia