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Duke Ellington: Best Songs

“All the musicians should get together one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke.” – Miles Davis

by Terry Teachout (excerpt reprinted with permission)

“I recall one occasion when he’d jotted some notes for the saxophones (Toby [Otto] Hardwick, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, and Barney Bigard) and each was given a part, but there was nothing for Johnny Hodges. Duke had the saxes run the sequence down twice, while Johnny sat nonchalantly smoking.

Then, Duke called to Hodges, “Hey, Rabbit, give me a long slow glissando against that progression. Yeah! That’s it!” Next he said to Cootie Williams, “Hey, Coots, you come in on the second bar, in a subtle manner growling softly like a hungry little lion cub that wants his dinner but can’t find his mother. Try that, okay?”

Following that, he’d say, “Deacon, you are cast in the role of the sun beating down on the scene. What kind of a sound do you feel that could be? You don’t know? Well, try a high B-flat in a felt hat, play it legato and sustain it for eight bars. Come on, let’s all hit this together, and that’s the way things went—sometimes.” – Rex Stewart

Duke Ellington & The Washingtonians
East St. Louis Toodle-O

“East St. Louis Toodle-O” gets under way with eight bars of moaning low-register saxophone-section chords (the bass line is played by a tuba, darkening the sound still further) that serve as an ear-catching minor-key introduction. The introduction is promptly repeated, this time as the opening section of a thirty-two-bar AABA-song-form chorus, with Bubber Miley playing a raspy, blues-drenched plunger solo that floats freely atop the arc of rising and falling chords.

What would normally follow is a string of additional choruses constructed along similar lines, but Duke Ellington surprises us by introducing a contrasting sixteen-bar strain with a two-bar tag. The major-key harmonies of this strain are first used to accompany a solo by Tricky Sam Nanton, then heard underneath an ensemble theme whose polkalike rhythms bear a definite resemblance to the tune of “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.”

The two strains alternate unpredictably, with Miley returning at the end to round out what is not a mere repeating-chorus song but a full-fledged instrumental composition. The form of “East St. Louis Toodle-O” is simple but satisfying, and though Miley’s solo is the best part, it is the dark-hued saxophone-and-tuba accompaniment that helps to make it so—a sign that Ellington may already have been starting to think of orchestral color as his musical signature.

The trumpet solo was a defining contribution in and of itself, and Tricky Sam Nanton, speaking with specific reference to “East St. Louis Toodle-O” and “Black and Tan Fantasy,” called Miley “an idea man. . . . His ideas were more or less the backbone of the band. His ideas and the tunes he wrote set the band’s style.”

The question of what constitutes a “tune” is central to grasping the nature of Ellington’s achievement as a composer. Miley made one statement that may touch on the matter: “When I get off [i.e., play an inspired solo] the Duke is always there.”

What did he mean? Perhaps he was saying that Ellington used his best improvised solos as the raw material for finished compositions that showed off Miley’s playing to even more advantageous effect, as he would do with other players later on. We can only speculate, since no manuscript materials for the original version of “East St. Louis Toodle-O” survive, — and it’s safe to assume that the piece, like the rest of Ellington’s early compositions, was worked out on the bandstand and in the studio long before anyone thought to write it down. But most scholars now believe that Ellington supplied and scored the chordal backdrop for Miley’s solo, composed the second strain, and established the overall running order.

Not only is “East St. Louis Toodle-O” an epitome of much that was to come in his music, but the 1926 recording is so well played as to indicate that the Washingtonians must have been performing the piece regularly. According to Sonny Greer, it was one of the band’s signature numbers: “People heard it and said, ‘Here they come!’” Ellington, who always knew a good thing when he heard it, responded by making “East St. Louis Toodle-O” his radio theme, playing it nightly for years to come.

“East St. Louis Toodle-O” is one of the most completely realized jazz recordings of the mid-twenties, a performance worthy of comparison with such classics of early ensemble 1920’s jazz music as Jelly Roll Morton’s “Black Bottom Stomp” or Fletcher Henderson’s “The Stampede,” both of which had been cut only a few months earlier.

Old Man Blues

“Old Man Blues,” which was recorded for Victor in Hollywood that August, just before Duke Ellington returned to New York and the Cotton Club, brought to a close what Gunther Schuller has called the band’s “‘workshop’ period.” Unlike the up-tempo showpieces that preceded it, most of which consisted of strings of solos bookended by nondescript theme choruses, “Old Man Blues” (whose underlying harmonies are borrowed from Jerome Kern’s “Ol’ Man River,” written three years earlier) demonstrates that Ellington now know, how to fuse written ensembles and improvised solos into fully integrated musical structures.

While the piece itself, a thirty-two-bar tune cast in Standard AABA pop-song form, is in no way elusive, the arrangement is still full of surprises. After an eight-bar vamp-till-ready introduction, it gets under way not with the customary full-band theme statement but with an improvised duet by Tricky Sam Nanton and Barney Bigard, followed by an even more startling change of key.

Only then do the trumpets proclaim the fanfare-like theme, which gives way to a sequence of solos by Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, and Freddie Jenkins superimposed on an instrumental background that changes from phrase to phrase. Observe, for instance, how Ellington plays a thrusting stride-piano obbligato behind the first and last parts of Carney’s solo, then lays out on the song’s minor-key bridge as Nanton and Juan Tizol move in with a sly “wah-wah” riff’.

Mood Indigo

Duke Ellington is said to have thought “Old Man Blues” to be his best composition yet, but “Mood Indigo,” recorded two months later by a seven-piece combo drawn from the band, is even more inspired, and unlike “Old Man Blues,” which was never played in later years, it became a permanent part of the band’s repertoire.

A nocturne whose “exquisitely tired and four-in-the-morning” quality (in Constant Lambert’s phrase) he would evoke time and again, “Mood Indigo” opens with a three-part chorale intoned by muted trumpet, muted trombone, and  low-register clarinet, the combination that André Previn had in mind when he marveled at how “Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and I don’t know what it is.”

Then Barney Bigard steps out from the ensemble to play the tune, backed by the ticktock strokes of Fred Guy’s banjo and the steady walk of the rest of the rhythm section. Arthur Whetsel plays a delicate solo and Ellington ripples through a four-bar piano interlude, after which the chorale is repeated as the record spins to a close. Two months later the full band re-recorded “Mood Indigo,” but Ellington knew better than to tamper with the scoring of the introductory chorale. It is as simple and unforgettable as a proverb.

Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue

Duke Ellington had more than former glories on his mind in 1937. In September he recorded Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, a six-minute-long composition that takes up, like the first version of Creole Rhapsody, both sides of a ten-inch 78. A few weeks later he wrote an article for The Chicago Defender in which he discussed why he wrote the piece: “Like all of our compositions, ‘Blues Crescendo’ and ‘Blues Diminuendo’ concern themselves with capturing and revealing the emotional spirit of the race. That is why so many white musicians find them difficult to understand and in several cases, meaning-less.”

Part of what he may have had in mind was that Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, unlike most of his recent compositions, was based on the twelve-bar blues, the most elemental of jazz structures—but writ spectacularly large. It consists of twenty-two consecutive blues choruses, interrupted only by a single brief modulatory passage. Not only are there no improvised solos in the piece, but there are no real themes, only a kaleidoscopic assemblage of riffs tossed back and forth between the sections of the band.

When described as badly as that, Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue sounds like a recipe for monotony. It is, in fact, Ellington’s most inspired large-scale work of the thirties, a piece that plays to all of his musical strengths and demands nothing that he is not capable of supplying in abundance.

Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue starts in medias res with two jumping choruses in the key of E-flat. Instead of stating a melody, the brass and reeds exchange antiphonal call-and-response figures so closely interwoven that the ear cannot tease them apart. Then Ellington moves smoothly through the keys of G, C, and F minor before settling on D-flat, at which point he starts to gradually lower the volume, introducing brief written-out obbligati by Cootie Williams and Harry Carney, followed by a quiet rhythm-section chorus that wraps up the first side of the record.

He then switches back to E-flat and stays there throughout the second side. The four saxophonists pick up their clarinets and play a purring low-register riff that is answered by the trombone section. During the next twelve choruses, the volume stealthily increases as the musicians ascend by stages into their upper registers. The bomb goes off when, one minute before the end, a trumpeter (almost certainly Rex Stewart) tears loose from the section and plants a screaming solo on top of the fiery shout choruses that swing the piece to a close.

Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue is a choice example of Ellington’s mosaic method of composition. Instead of the usual contrasting themes, he gives us a parade of cunningly varied blues riffs, just as the “structure” of the piece amounts to nothing more than a long diminuendo followed by a longer crescendo. Rather than flowing into and out of one another, the successive choruses are conceived as separate musical units that

Ellington juxtaposes with an unerring sense of balance, scoring each one in such a way as to keep the listener in a constant state of surprise, nowhere more so than when the clarinets are heard for the first time. No less surprising are the four modulations in the first section, the last three of which are completely unprepared. This creates a sense of tonal instability balanced by Ellington’s decision to circle back to E-flat at the midway point and stay there throughout the second half of the piece.

For a time Ellington played Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue regularly, never to better effect than at the “Carnival of Swing” big-band festival held in May of 1938 on New York’s Randall’s Island, where it stopped the show cold A correspondent for The Melody Maker reported that three thousand members of the twenty-five-thousand-person audience stormed the stage toward the end of the performance: “A call was put in for extra policemen and the session was delayed about ten minutes.” The jazz music critics who reviewed the recording were, predictably enough, less impressed. Down Beat went so far as to dismiss it as “nothing more or less than a series of old Ellington tricks neatly lined up with none too brilliant strategy.” But Aaron Copland admired Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue and said so in print, and it is instructive to read what America’s greatest classical composer thought of America’s greatest jazz composer:

The master of them all is still Duke Ellington. The others, by comparison, are hardly more than composer-arrangers. Ellington 1s a composer, by which I mean, he comes nearer to knowing how to make a piece hang together than the others. His recent Diminuendo in Blue—Crescendo in Blue… cannot be placed in the completely successful category with his “Mood Indigo” or the amazing “Clarinet Lament”—but they are far from being dull pieces nevertheless. (The end of the Diminuendo is particularly inventive.)

Ellington would long be troubled by the lack of a logical transition between the two halves of Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, a structural flaw that he papered over in the forties by sandwiching a contrasting blues composition between the two halves of the original piece, creating what he called a “blues cluster.” It was, however, a makeshift expedient. Not until 1951 would he finally figure out how to lock together the first and second parts of Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue in a way that satisfied his ear—and his fans.

I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart

While it is impossible to single out a recording from 1938 that is fully representative of Ellington’s late-thirties compositional methods, “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” says as much about what he could now do as anything else that he recorded in that year of grace. It opens with a four-bar rhythm-section introduction that sets a medium-slow walking tempo, at the end of which Hodges enters with the main theme, a swooping tune in which an octave-wide leap is balanced by off-beat syncopations.

Hodges, Brown, and Harry Carney pass the melodic baton from hand to hand, alternately accompanied by “ooh-wah” brass riffs and choralelike reed harmonies. In the second chorus, the full band enters and restates the theme (one of Ellington’s favorite structural devices) in a warmly scored block-chord ensemble variation, with Bigard soloing on the bridge. Then the first half of the opening chorus returns, transformed this time into a “sumptuously velvety” twelve-bar coda (Gunther Schuller’s phrase) that fades down and out.

Like “Old Man Blues” before it, this dancer-friendly ballad is structured so imaginatively that the casual listener is likely to overlook the resourcefulness with which Ellington has juxtaposed the instrumental colors on his palette.