Duke Ellington Essay Research Paper The Life

Duke Ellington Essay, Research Paper

The Life of a Pioneer

One of the greatest jazz composers that has ever lived is, arguably, Duke Ellington. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington D.C. in 1899. By the age of 17 was playing professionally. In 1923 he moved to New York City where he started recruiting people for his orchestra. He started off with an average jazz band of ten people but through the thirties and forties that number greatly expanded. He started playing in small nightclubs, theaters, and on the radio. His biggest break is considered to be when he got the chance to play at one of the most popular nightclubs of the time in Harlem, The Cotton Club, when another performer (King Oliver) turned down the offer, from that day forward Duke Ellington become a well known name in the jazz world.

Ellington?s first compositions were considered to be very stiff and jerky rhythmically as was all jazz music of the era and in his music you could hear a strong tie to New Orleans music. In 1924 the first recordings were made, these seemed to be the recordings of a jazz musician who was headed in the wrong direction and some did not consider him to be a jazz musician at all. When we look back on those recordings now we see that all they were was an inauspicious beginning for some major talent. With the addition of Bubber Miley a strong folk influence was added in with the New Orleans sound. Miley helped Ellington affirm his calling as a leader of the jazz orchestra. Ellington?s music began to show the expressive depth and increasing sophistication he is famous for. His ideas of harmony, melody, orchestral color, and form came from the music around him. Ellington would listen to the music of the time and end up turning it into his own jazz style.

When he first started writing music he would devise a harmony and melody on the piano and from there assign a line to a different instrument in his orchestra. Over the years he learned how to write for what some people consider to be his greatest instrument, the orchestra. This was accomplished because he realized that he had to take everything he had ever learned from people such s Miley, Redman, and Henderson, even his own innate urbanity and sophistication and start over with a new approach to Big Band Jazz. His approach to the Big Band Jazz was a new one, even though the idea was not. In the past people had tried and failed when they would take an existing orchestra and add a few jazz soloists. Ellington on the other hand took a small show band or pit band and turned each person in the orchestra into a jazz artist.

In the past jazz consisted of much improvisational work that at times seemed out of control. Ellington?s theory was that a song should not consist entirely of improvisation but should not be very strict either. His performances turned out to be larger than the sum of each of its parts because of his discipline of improvisation and how he extended the orchestration so that they complimented each other and both became enhanced.

Ellington learned to think directly as a jazz orchestrater, he was now looking at scores as a whole and not writing for one main part or instrument. Ellington had made his primary instrument the orchestra. He had started to become a pioneer of jazz music. This now was a completely new challenge for what he was doing there was no presidents to follow and no models to compare to his music. Ellington also started writing for the horns themselves. He was not creating a melody on the piano for them anymore now he wrote so that the horns could perform with the best sound possible. A final thing he began doing that had not been done before is using more flexible rhythms for a newer sound. In his orchestra he helped the soloists and players alike invent and develop their own best resources and proceeded to write for those talents.

Some of Ellington?s most famous pieces are as follows, Mood Indigo written in 1931, Sophisticated Lady 1933, and Solitude 1934. Some of his larger scale works consist of Black, Brown, and Beige written in 1943, A Concert of Sacred Music 1965, and Far East Suite 1967. Ellington has also contributed to movies such as Anatomy of a Murder and Paris Blues, along with the musical comedies Beggars Opera. and Pousse-Cafe. Ellington?s most famous song is considered to be Take the A Train, even though it was written by his longtime associate Billy Strayhorn it became the theme song of Ellington?s orchestra.

The Music of a Legend

In 1937 Ellington wrote two pieces that complimented each other better than any in the history of jazz. He named these to pieces the Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. Appropriately named for the style that they were written. These two songs are considered to be some of Ellington?s most ambitious efforts and when he first wrote them they were beyond the capabilities of his band. It took until 1957 for the full potential of the songs to be realized. This was one of Ellington?s many pieces written with very little room for improvisation and it was very demanding, structurally and harmonically. Starting with Diminuendo in Blue a song that was based on Blues changes but used elongated 14 bar choruses with 2 bar subdivisions and modulated through 5 keys. The modulations were very abrupt and hard for the players and audiences to handle. Its predecessor, Crescendo is the complete opposite. The beginning of the song starts quietly and gradually builds to the climax in dynamic levels along with exploiting the full texture, timbral, and registral resources of the orchestra. Crescendo also differs from Diminuendo because it has no modulations. These two songs are considered to be an important stepping stone for another famous song Ko-Ko

Ko-Ko was written in the crescendo or bolero form where each chorus builds on the one before it. Ellington included many different enhancements to add depth to the song such as dynamics, harmonic density, timbral, textural augmentation and increasingly expanded range. These elements were used in such a way as to have a steady buildup where one element supports and compliments another. The first chorus (A) is calm and the next two choruses (B & C) begin the ascent to a more powerful climax. Chorus B is higher dynamically than the first and played with a slightly more intense sound. In both A and B the saxophones riffs remain the same. In chorus D the saxophones move up a fourth along with the brass chords moving up thus making the song sound fuller and thicker. Next the song is lifted to an entirely new level with Ellington?s piano interjection and dissonant harmonies, with the addition of the piano the song becomes bitonal. In chorus E the song moves up yet again with two bars of brass and piano jabs while the riff raises a third. Next the chorus is divided into four choirs; trombones, trumpets, reeds, and rhythm Incredibly the song can still move to a higher level in parts E and F. In F Ellington adds even more massive chords to the past choruses and for a finale he saves just enough for a unison saxophone riff in the middle register that is phenomenal. Ko-Ko is done with an amazing eleven piece horn section and a four man rhythm section. The song closes with an abrupt four bar coda.

In the summer of 1938 Duke Ellington recorded a prime example of the 32 bar AABA song format, Gypsy Without a song. Gypsy was a collaboration of Mack Gordon, Ellington, and Tizol. In the first 16 bars the melody is split between two trombones. The two parts were written to give the appearance of only one being played throughout the section. This is doneby using different muting techniques and further aided with the addition of a two bar open horn trumpet solo between the two trombone solos. Ellington believed that the different trombones could better express different moods. In measures 17-24 saxophones further exploit the reeds and intensify the mood. The saxophones are also used to proceed the song to the A2 theme. The third part of the song, B, is a chorus given to the trumpet to reach the songs highest point of tension along with three other elements. First, the trumpet represents an inevitable acoustical intensification over the alto sax. Second, the eight bar trumpet solo is filled with expression and depth. Finally, the song returns to the to the tonic leading into the A3 part. For a finale Ellington uses both trombones for a duet where one is playing the melody while the other weaves around it in a variation of the A1 part until the song relaxes with the return of the A2 part where it comes to a close.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

In 1974 tragedy came upon the jazz world, Duke Ellington had passed away, he had performed sense the age of 18, nearly 55 years. He said he decided to become a musician when, in his youth, he realized that ?when you were playing piano there was always a pretty girl standing down at the bass clef end of the piano.” By the end of his life, he would declare, “Music is my mistress,” which became entirely true, for it was his love and his life. Duke Ellington has received numerous honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and at least fifteen honorary degrees. The name ?Duke” came from his personality, it is said he was something of a dandy with a love of fancy clothes and an elegant style. He retained those traits throughout his life, but he wore his sophistication without a hint selflessness, that continued on in his music.


1. The Jazz Tradition Williams, Martin Ó1970

2. The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 Schuller, Gunther Ó1989

3. What Jazz Is King, Jonny Ó1997

4. Reading Jazz Gottlieb, Robert Ó1996


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