What Makes Duke Ellington So Great?

January 29th, 2013 by tom

Our “book” is stuffed with hundreds of charts, the cream of the crop of the Big Band repertoire, the best of the best of the Swing Era, plus a little before and beyond.  We love them all dearly, but there’s always an extra thrill when I call for an Ellington piece.

Ellington’s awesome reputation as Jazz’s greatest composer and bandleader can overshadow how much his music swung.  Contemporaries like Count Basie and Glenn Miller knew, and didn’t want to take him on in “battle.”   The music of Duke and his alter-ego Billy Strayhorn may be the single best reason to hear a live big band performance; it has a quality that’s only hinted at in his recordings, but which magically fills the room with warmth when experienced in the flesh.  Even though Duke hasn’t been with us since 1974, nobody has yet arrived at his level of orchestration.  Gil Evans, the leading jazz orchestrator after Ellington, said “That’s all I did – that’s all I ever did – try to do what Billy Strayhorn did.”

What Duke and Billy (and Gil) did was to write in a way that let overtones blossom.  An overtone is a ghost note that magically appears when two other notes are sounded.  I used to puzzle over their scores; while every other big band in the world would use all their saxes for backgrounds behind a soloist, Duke/Billy might only use four or even three of the five available, yet their projection was richer, fuller, than any other band’s five-sax chord.  They were optimizing the overtones that other arrangers were just ignoring!  In the words of Hollywood composer/arranger Andre Previn, “You know, 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 ‘Oh yes, that’s done like this.’  But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and I don’t know what it is!”

Jazz is the great musical expression of freedom.  When free men of their own will come together for a common cause, there’s an awesome presence.  Ellington’s ensemble has that.  As you listen to his records, you would never say that his band was sloppy, yet you can hear all 15 individual voices coming together as if by choice.  By contrast, the Glenn Miller group’s (for example) projection was of a well-oiled machine where the individual musicians were sublimated into the ensemble, losing their identity.

And what individual voices Duke and Billy had to paint with!  Every name evokes a specific, soulful sound:  Ivie Anderson, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Harry Carney, Barney Bigard, Sonny Greer, Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Ray Nance, Cat Anderson, Jimmy Blanton, Tricky Sam Nanton, Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol, and of course the Duke!

Finally, the list of Ellington or Strayhorn compositions that have become standards is too long to even attempt listing here.  So come on out on April 22nd and see if we play your favorite!  I’m pleased to announce that on Saturday, April 22nd, in cooperation with the Glen Echo Park Partnership for Arts and Culture, Inc., the National Park Service and Montgomery County, MD, we will present on stage at Glen Echo Park’s historic Spanish Ballroom “Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra: Fargo, 1940,”  the re-creation of a one-night stand at the peak of both Duke’s band and the Swing Era. The TCO, along with singer Robin Cunningham as Ivie Anderson, plans to tap into that legacy to present an evening of not just exceptional dance music, but a de facto concert of some of our country’s high musical legacy!  It should be a unique evening of singin’ & swingin’, and a great 118th birthday present to DC’s own Sir Duke.


Posted in Tom Cunningham News

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