Photo by Ben Collier
The great jazz writer Gary Giddins talks about the great jazz legend Duke Ellington. [34:38]
Gary Giddins: And with Ellington, I think one of the things that works against people giving Ellington his due in some respects is that the output is so immense, you could devote your life to it and not hear everything. And so putting him into perspective is a difficult thing to do. It's-- you know, it's not just that he wrote 1,500 to 3,000 different pieces, it's that frequently he arranged them in three or four different versions and made, in some cases, dozens of different recordings that have great variations between them.
Jo Reed: That was the award-winning jazz critic Gary Giddins talking about the incomparable Duke Ellington.
Welcome to Art Works that program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Today, we're introducing an occasional series that will appear from time-to-time in our podcast. It's a celebration and exploration of some of the country's most influential artists through an examination of their work with noted critics, writers, or other artists.
We kick the series off with a conversation with the great jazz writer, Gary Giddins about American composer, pianist and band leader, Edward Kennedy Duke Ellington. Ellington was born on April 29, 112 years ago in Washington DC. He moved to New York City at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Fronting his own band, Ellington made his name through radio broadcasts, recordings, and film appearances and his national reputation was insured when his orchestra became the house band at Harlem's Cotton Club in 1932 where it remained for a decade. Many members of his orchestra are considered jazz greats in their own right, but they did their best work with Ellington who melded them into one of the outstanding orchestras in jazz history. And that was only one of his talents, as Gary Giddins mentioned at the top of the show, Ellington composed some 3,000 pieces of music; Many of his tunes are mainstays of the American Songbook, songs like "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing" and "Sophisticated Lady." By the early 1940s, Ellington also began experimenting with long-form musical pieces; premiering his work "Black, Brown, and Beige" in 1943 at what would be the first of a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall. His passion for longer compositions grew and Ellington continued to compose innovative work as he led his orchestra in national and international tours, playing and recording his music until his death in 1974.
When it comes to talking about jazz in general and Ellington in particular, you just can't beat Gary Giddins. He is a long-time columnist for the Village Voice, an author, essayist, producer and educator who has won a National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism for Visions of Jazz, a Peabody Award for broadcasting, an unparalleled six ASCAP–Deems Taylor Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship and was given Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Journalists Association. His many books include biographies of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Bing Crosby; his latest book, co-written with Scott DeVeaux is called Jazz. Gary is second to none in his admiration of Ellington, whom he writes about frequently.
Giddins believes that Duke Ellington is certainly the most important jazz composer of the 20th century and possibly the most important American composer. When I spoke with Gary Giddins, I asked him to say more about this.
Gary Giddins: I don't know who you'd really compare with him, because American music, just as European classical music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had a popular component, it used popular tunes, beer-drinking songs and so forth, and opera in particular had a public following even if you couldn't afford to go to performances, the material got into the society. That's true of very few classical composers in American music, some of Copland's ballets. But for the most part, there's been a pretty strict line drawn between concert music and popular music. And Ellington straddles that line better –only Gershwin even approaches, and if Gershwin had lived longer, might have achieved something of, you know, the sure immensity of Ellington's output. But Ellington wrote about America, he wrote about every aspect of America, he spent his entire life on trains and in cars going from town to town. He probably saw more of the country than any other American composer.
Jo Reed: And we should point out, this was a segregated country he was seeing for most of that time.
Gary Giddins: And usually there were black homes that were open to him because he couldn't stay in the hotels, this is true of most of the black bands, they knew in advance that there were people in the community who would put up the musicians and the members of the orchestra. Yeah, he had to put up with a lot in that respect. But he never-- there's no sense ever in Ellington's music of, you know, second-class citizenship or self-consciousness about that. He just knows he's better than that and, you know, plows right through, he's completely dedicated to the orchestra.
Jo Reed: But as you point out, he comments on it, and I'm thinking about "Black and Tan Fantasy," which has a great backstory.
Gary Giddins: Yes, he comments on black culture in particular all the time, I mean, his whole series of portraits of great black entertainers and black artists, the number of times the word "Black" is used in his music is, you know, extraordinary. And as you mentioned, "Black and Tan Fantasy" is a piece that really is a satirical look at the so-called black and tan clubs that you found in Harlem in the 1920s, which were considered the sort of liberal answer to the problems of segregation in that whites and blacks could hang out together. But the place where Ellington himself was working, The Cotton Club, blacks could not enter except for the servant's entrance and never get past the stage. So the irony is pretty heavy.
Jo Reed: You said that he wasn't a Broadway composer who borrowed from jazz like Gershwin for example, but he was a jazz composer. Talk about that distinction.
Gary Giddins: Ellington did not have a formal education in music. A number of early jazz figures did, Fletcher Henderson, for example, and Don Redman. But Ellington pretty much learned by doing. So one of the things that is exciting about his music from the very beginning, or at least from the period of late 1926 right as he's about to go into The Cotton Club and has a band that really reflects his style, is that he doesn't go by the rules of how you voice the different instruments in a section, let's say in the brasses or in the saxophone section. And he doesn't go by the prevailing style that Redman and Henderson helped to invent, which is to use a kind of a church-like call and response between the different sections so that the brasses and the reeds are constantly sort of answering each other, calling and answering. Ellington, first of all, he writes across the orchestra so he creates sonatas that nobody had ever heard before. And it's funny, I was teaching Ellington recently and we were talking about chords and whole passages in his music that are very difficult, almost impossible to transcribe. One of them that is apparently impossible, I don't think anyone has ever done it, is a piece from 1933 called "A Daybreak Express." When Ellington died and his son Mercer took over the orchestra, they were doing Daybreak for a concert, and Mercer told me that he had every kind of transcriber and they could not figure out how Ellington got the reeds to simulate the sound of a train whistle. And so finally they had to bring in a slide whistle, which Ellington would never have done. But then on top of that, Ellington, you'd be at a recording session, for example, and all the musicians have their music on the music stands for a piece. And after the first run-through Ellington will tell the trombone, the second tromboners "Over here I want you to voice with the saxophones. And over here I want this guy to lay out and I want this guy to, you know, put a B flat there instead of a B natural." And nobody is copying all these things down and making a final score. So by the time the piece is ready to record, each musician knows what his job is, but it is gone so far from what's on the paper that when the papers finally made their way to The Smithsonian, frequently the scores just don't sound like the recordings, because Ellington was constantly fooling around with it, trying to get sounds. The basic sound of his instrument is heavy bass. The saxophone section was led by the baritone saxophone instead of the alto, right away that gives it a certain weight and modernity that you don't hear in the other orchestras of that period. And then no musician made the bass a more integrated and significant instrument. You know, he hired Jimmy Bland who revolutionized the bass, but even before that sometimes he would use two bass players. And so he was constantly looking at all the possibilities of the instrument, whereas most band leaders said "Well, this is what the bass does, he just plays time, four-four, <makes bass sounds> and that's what they do." Or "the drummer's just going to keep time here" or "The guitarist is to show us what the changes are." Ellington never just settled for what an instrument….there was no rule there of what an instrument could do. So his trumpet players played higher notes than anybody else has ever played. He wrote concertos, he wrote concertos centered around the personality of each musician. He didn't write a trumpet concerto, he wrote a concerto for Cootie Williams that is, you know, based entirely on the whole concept that Cootie Williams individually brings to the trumpet, which is like nobody else's.
Jo Reed: Well, he was really known for that, the way the musicians were just inseparable from the music that Ellington would write for them, because as you point out, it was for them.
Gary Giddins: Written for them. There's two things that come to mind here. One, one of the reasons that Ellington was able to create some of the sounds he did, is that musicians stayed with him for decades and sometimes their entire lives, like Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges took five years off, but other than that he was, you know, with Ellington from the time he was 20 or 21 until his death. This is true of many, many musicians. So they really became part of his orchestra, this is an unusual thing. But also if you look at a lot of the careers there, now some of the musicians in Ellington's band became major, major jazz stars. Johnny Hodges is one of the great figures in jazz history all by himself, and yet one of the reasons is because Ellington recognizing his genius and Billy Strayhorn, his co-composer also, they wrote pieces that brought out all of the strengths of Hodges. Now when Hodges did leave the band for five years, he did have a hit record, one hit record, a rhythm and blues thing that he doesn't solo on. He gives the solo to a sort of a honky-tonk tenor player. But he didn't do very important work for those five years, and this is true of many musicians. They went outside, they became so famous because of their work with the Ellington band. Paul Gonsalves would get a record session here, and Ray Nance would get a record session there, but the music that makes them enduring, is the music they did with Ellington.
Jo Reed: I think it's in your book "Jazz", where you talk about a composing session with Ellington, you know, it was quite social. All the musicians would be getting together, and it was almost like a tennis ball going back and forth.
Gary Giddins: That's right. He's not somebody who needed solitude or who went to some mountain airy, he composed in hotel rooms, on trains. He wrote down ideas when he got them sometimes on his shirt cuff. I remember going to hear the band in the late sixties and they had just hired a bass player, young man named Jeff Castleman, and he showed me the bass book, which he inherited, which had gone from bass player to bass player, you know, over decades. And as he was showing me some of the scores, which were, you know, four bars on this one and, you know, a page here, a cocktail napkin drifted out of the folder. And I picked it up, and he said "Yeah, that's the entire music for—-" I forget what the piece was now, it was a minor piece, but Ellington had just written down a bass idea for him, and that was all he had to know, everything else he would create on the bandstand. And then he loved-- he collaborated, I mean, a lot of his most celebrated ideas he took from guys in the band, and it was quite, you know, above board about that for the most part. "Mood Indigo" was based in part on a melody that his clarinetist Barney Bigard had heard in New Orleans. But what makes "Mood Indigo" a legendary piece of music, first of all, the bridge or the counter-melody, the second melody, which is pure Ellington and the voicing, which, you know, the three musicians who play the theme of "Mood Indigo," a clarinet, trumpet and a trombone and he creates out of those three a very eerie, unforgettable exquisite sound that, you know, you just sit there and wonder "How does he do that?"
Jo Reed: As a composer he had the laboratory of that band to play with. And it was so important to him that even when big bands were over and he wasn't making money with them, he would pay them out of his own pocket just to be able to write something and hear it.
Gary Giddins: Well, fortunately one of Ellington's talents, especially in the 1930s and I'd say into the middle ‘40s was for writing popular tunes. A lot of the pieces that began as instrumental numbers like "Sophisticated Lady" or "Solitude", when enhanced with lyrics, became very popular songs, and he had an extraordinarily high ASCAP rating. And those personal royalties, which, you know, most songwriters, goes right into their pocket, he did funnel them back into keeping the orchestra alive. The last really big pop song was one that Strayhorn wrote for the band in the early fifties, "Satin Doll." But "Satin Doll" was recorded by everybody, and that just kept generating funds. Also Ellington's records sold very well, not all of them, but cumulatively they sold extremely well. Most of his classic pieces never went out of print, have never been out of print. And so there was all kinds of money coming in that way. But still the only way the orchestra survives is by being on the road almost every night of the year travelling every place. I mean, I saw, I went to college in Iowa and I saw them play for a 4H dance, I couldn't believe it. I mean, these were guys in overalls who came in, packed the place on a Saturday night to hear the Duke Ellington Orchestra. And what I thought was so funny and had never realized before was that frequently when people hired the band they would be paying for two sets. And they would want one set to be a concert set and one set to be a dance set. But Ellington used the same book for both, that's the first time I ever realized that. The only difference between the two sets was that one of them had chairs, you know, folding chairs, and for the second set they removed the <laughs> chairs. That was the difference between the concert and dance sets. Now there were of course concert pieces that you could only play in Carnegie or that kind of a setting, but those pieces were not often played, and when he did, you know, it was like a great gift. When he went to Paris in ‘62 and played "Harlem", "Harlem", that was a moment that nobody there will ever forget, and because we have the recording of it, we won't either. But the book was just huge. There were certain pieces he didn't revisit, there were other things that audiences loved that he played virtually every night. The medley of hits. You know, I remember as a kid I used to go to hear the band whenever I could and I thought I was superior to that. You know, "I've heard him play so many times, you know, I don't want to hear the medley of hits, I want to hear ‘Warm Valley.' I want to hear, you know, ‘Braggin' In Brass.'" When I think back now what I would not give to hear the band play <laughs> the medley of hits again, because it was a brilliant thing. And he understood his audience. He was a great showman, in addition to everything else. He was extremely charming and delightful on stage.
Jo Reed: He hated, and hated, that's a big word, he disliked the term "Jazz," he didn't want to be known as a jazz composer, why do you think that is?
Gary Giddins: Well, because from almost the very beginning jazz was used as a kind of prison to say "You know, you're in the jazz world, that means we don't have to take you that seriously, you're not a real composer. If we're only interested in real composers we don't have to give you any consideration." Also the term has a dubious origin, and he-- I think it was Fletcher Henderson that he said to "We should call this black music or African-American music." But ultimately nobody was going to stand for that, and many great white players came into the music. And he finally had to sort of accept the idea. But there are reviews, some of them were reprinted in a book called "The Ellington Reader" where he is attacked for going over his head for writing, you know, pieces that aren't blues, that aren't jazz. And I think one reviewer said, you know, "Someday jazz musicians will get beyond playing the blues", and Ellington said "I hope that will never happen." He was very proud of the language of this music. And his whole legacy is evidence that there's nothing, there's no emotion, there's no programmatic idea that jazz cannot encompass.
Jo Reed: Well, let's talk about an extraordinary collaboration he had with Billy Stray horn, because before I came here, I was a little weepy-eyed listening to And His Mother Called Him Bill.
Gary Giddins: Which is one of the most perfect Ellington LPs. They were together for 28 years. Ellington discovered him in Pittsburgh when he was a kid really, a very precocious young pianist/composer who was moving into classical music. And when he heard Ellington's band he just turned around and said "That's the music I want to write." He was gay, at a time when you didn't say <laughs> that actually. But he was not going to play any kind of game about it. So he knew he was never going to be in front of the microphone, he was not going to have any kind of pretense. Lena Horne who adored Billy Strayhorn, they were probably, was probably her closest friend and vice-versa, offered to marry him so that he could have the career he deserved. He turned down Lena Horne.
Jo Reed: Who can say that? <laughs>
Gary Giddins: Yeah, really, really. So Billy lived the life he wanted to lead. And he wrote a piece called "Lush Life", and Ellington always said it brought him to tears. Interestingly it's the only Strayhorn piece that Ellington never recorded, at least officially. He brought Strayhorn into the band in 1940 just as the ASCAP strike was taking over on radio, which meant that you couldn't play anything by an ASCAP composer because broadcast music was … created this strike. And a whole lot of songwriters who were connected to BMI were demanding to be heard, Ellington of course was an ASCAP composer. So he started assigning pieces to his son, Mercer, which, you know, lovely for Mercer to have his name on them, but you listen to "Blue Serge" and you know damn well who wrote it, and Billy Strayhorn. And Strayhorn brought in a piece called "Take the ‘A' Train," which really is Strayhorn. And the piece just knocked Ellington out, it knocked audiences out, and became his theme song. I mean, every night that Ellington ever performed from that point on he would begin with "‘A' Train" and then he would say "That of course is Billy Strayhorn's ‘Take the ‘A' Train.'" So they became very close, and when the strikes ended and everything got back to normal they began writing suites together, that was the-- you know, Strayhorn also wrote a lot of tunes that became classic parts of the Ellington, you know, repertoire like "Passion Flower" for Johnny Hodges and "Daydream" and "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing", these are classic pieces. But they also wrote a lot of pieces together, including these intricate suites like their adaptation of "The Nutcracker", Tchaikovsky, their "Suite Thursday", "Such Sweet Thunder", which they wrote for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Strayhorn was certainly involved in "Far East Suite" and most of the major long works, not all of them, not "Harlem" for example, that seems to have been solo Ellington. And when he was dying, the last piece he sent from the hospital was a piece I forget what the original title was, it later became "Blood Count" …
Jo Reed: "Blue Cloud."
Gary Giddins: I'm sorry? "Blue Cloud." Thank you. And there is a recording of Ellington's first performance of it, I think it was at Carnegie. And then they recorded it for this magnificent tribute album called And His Mother Called Him Bill.
"Blood Count" up and hot…
And it was not only musically an extraordinary album, but RCA had developed engineering the Dynagroove system in the 1960s, which just sounded great also, I mean, you never heard Johnny Hodges sound quite that brilliant. It was superbly sequenced. People forget about how important sequencing was in the LP era. In a sense, every LP that consisted of new music was a de facto suite. Because that's the way you listened to it, you listened to six tracks on a side, you spent a lot of time figuring out how to sequence this so that you didn't have songs all in the same key running one after another and so that there were tempo shifts and, you know, emotional and dramatic contrasts and all that kind of thing. And Ellington was very much a part of that. And during one of the sessions for And His Mother Called Him Bill as the guys started packing up their instruments, Ellington sat at the piano and started playing a Billy Strayhorn melody that was not orchestrated for the album called "Lotus Blossom."
Lotus Blossom up and under.
And as he's playing, you can hear the musicians packing up at first and then they stop packing up and then there's quiet. And by the time Ellington finishes there's just complete silence, and it's hard not to have a tear in your eye, it just one of the most moving performances ever.
And I just remember being absolutely devastated the first time I heard that album. And then, you know, CDs come along, and some idiot decides, as they do with so many, so many classic albums, that they should be sequenced in the order that they were recorded. I mean, to me this would be like taking Beethoven quartets and rearranging them because we found out that he actually wrote the adagio before the allegro so we're going to-- it's insane. So they programmed And His Mother Called Him Bill with "Lotus Blossom" in the middle of the CD completely, you know, killing the whole feeling and the whole meaning that it had for the LP. But Ellington was—the LP was a great inspiration to him. He was one of the first composers, if not the first composers, to actually write a piece for the LP format, that was "The Liberian Suite" written for the 10-inch LP which proceeded the 12-inch. And most of the great recordings he did after that were not just collections of pieces that were sitting around, they were conceived as LPs, they have a great thematic unity to them. And that's the way they ought to be heard.
Jo Reed: I'd just like to touch on that great Newport concert in 1956, it was another one of the times where Duke Ellington had been written off, he's like schlooshed to the end of the program.
Gary Giddins: Well, that--
Jo Reed: Set us up and tell us what happened there.
Gary Giddins: That is a great moment. God, I wish I could have been there. Unfortunately I was very small. Ellington had lost some of his key musicians in 1951 including Hodges, Lawrence Brown. The drummer whom he loved, Louie Bellson, left to accompany his wife, Pearl Bailey, and that was a difficult blow. Now they were all coming back in ‘56 after five years, he had his guys back. And he's playing the Newport Jazz Festival, and he really has been written off. He was put on so late, everybody else was going over-time, and at one point Ellington screamed at George Wein "What are we the animal act?" And finally they get on, and they got out and they played a couple of pieces, and then they went into a piece that Ellington wrote in 1937 called "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." And it was a two-sided 78 and it had a cadenza to connect them, an improvised cadenza. And during the fifties when Hodges and all those people are out of the band, frequently when they would perform it, because we have live recordings that have come down to us, Ellington would play the cadenza on piano, he'd play, you know, six, seven blues choruses and then they'd go into the second part. This night he had Paul Gonsalves, the tenor saxophone player, take it over. And it's just one of those magical moments where Gonsalves worked up such a pitch of energy and fury playing the solo, Joe Jones, the legendary Count Basie drummer, was standing at the lip of the stage and he had a rolled-up newspaper. And he started banging in time. And now the place is going crazy. Meanwhile while all this has started, the place has emptied out, because, you know, you want get back to the parking lot so you can get your car and not have to stand in line for two hours. So, hundreds of people are getting up and walking out, and then suddenly everybody starts realizing something's going on here, so they turn around and walk back to the field.
"Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" up and hot.
Well, by the time it was over it was just pandemonium, and fortunately for Ellington's band, there was a reporter from Time magazine who called the magazine and said, "I just saw something absolutely historic," and they had never put Ellington on the cover. And, actually, because he had been written off as a particularly good news idea, and that cover, the recording, brilliantly edited by George Avakian, and he brought Ellington into the studio to re-record mistakes to tighten it up. It was released as "Live at Newport," but again, Ellington believed in the technology and he made a perfect album. That album sold a million copies, many more than that by now, of course, and it just put him right back at the top. He was a Columbia artist for the next, I forget, six, seven years. Then he went to RCA, where he had another great contract, at least until Strayhorn's death, and then something else amazing happened. After Billy died in what was it, '67 or '68? I think it was '67. As if to prove that he wasn't finished by the loss of Billy Strayhorn, he went into one of his most prolific periods. This was the period of "The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse," "The New Orleans Suite." He just wrote "The Uwis Suite" about Australia. He just wrote piece after piece, and it's some of his most glorious music, and then one of the great punch lines in all of music history: After he dies, he allows Norman Granz at Pablo to release something that he had recorded in 1959 called "The Queen's Suite." He wrote it as a gift for Elizabeth. He pressed two copies. One was given directly to her. I don't think she knew that she was the only person alive who had a recording of this piece of music written for her. The other piece went into a vault and was never released until after he died and of course is now considered one of the supreme Ellington masterpieces.
Jo Reed: Gary Giddins, thank you so much.
Gary Giddins: My pleasure.
That was jazz writer Gary Giddins talking about jazz legend Duke Ellington.You've been listening to Art You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from "Black and Tan Fantasy," "Mood Indigo" and Take the A Train from the cd Ellington at Newport, 1956.
Excerpts from Blood Count" and "Lotus Blossom" from the cd And His Mother Called Him Bill.
Excerpts from Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" from the CD This is Jazz No. 7: Ellington.
Excerpts from Concerto for Cootie from the cd Sophisticated Lady.
All music was performed by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, director Howard Shalwitz talks about directing the Pulitzer-prize-winning play, Clybourne Park.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
ADDITIONAL MUSIC CREDIT:
Excerpts of "Black and Tan Fantasy," composed by Duke Ellington and Bert Miley, "Moon Indigo," composed by Duke Ellington, Irving Mills, and Barney Bigard, and "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" and "Concerto for Cootie," composed by Duke Ellington, all used by permission of EMI Music Publishing. [ASCAP]
"Take the A Train," "Blood Count," "Lotus Blossom," composed by Billy Strayhorn, used by permission of SONY ATV Music Publishing. [ASCAP]
All excerpts used courtesy of SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT.