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Ellington Hits 100 | The Nation

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Ellington Hits 100

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Nor should it be forgotten that as a musician who was no less a performing artist than a composer, Ellington's sense of context was inseparable from his awareness of the nature of his daily and perpetual competition. Thus obviously his evolution was more directly and profoundly influenced by the approach to musical statement in the procedures utilized by his competition than by any established principles of formal conservatory training. In fact, in his workaday milieu many of the legitimate approaches to tone, execution, structure and so on were often more likely to be frowned upon and derided than admired and praised.

About the Author

Albert Murray
Albert Murray is the author of, among other books, Stomping the Blues (De Capo) and the novels The Seven League Boots...

Not that Ellington or any other major jazz musician ever hesitated to employ conventional or so-called classical or legitimate devices when it suited their needs. After all, inasmuch as the overwhelming majority of the most influential jazz musicians have been musically literate, their elementary exercise books, whatever their instrument, have been precisely the same as those of other formally trained musicians. The definitive idiomatic approaches and modifications of procedure evolved and developed (extended, elaborated and refined) as required. Such are the dynamics of the vernacular imperative to process indigenous material into aesthetic statement through the use of technical devices that are also peculiar to native procedures.

No wonder, then, that Ellington as an arranger and composer of indigenous American folk and pop music was far more directly and profoundly influenced by the output of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman and his early and indelible identification with such stride-time piano players and composers as James P. Johnson, Luckey Roberts, Willie the Lion Smith and others, including such music-show mastercraftsmen as Will Vodery, than by such highly celebrated contemporary concert hall revolutionaries as Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel or the theories of Nadia Boulanger.

Such were the background factors and workaday circumstances and incentives that actually enabled Ellington to fulfill the aspiration that led Jeannette Thurber to bring Anton Dvorak to the United States to head an American conservatory back in 1892. Nor should the fact that Ellington's achievement was recognized by European critics before their counterparts in the United States come as any surprise either, inasmuch as it reflects the reason that Thurber sent for Dvorak in the first place.

When Ellington made his first trip abroad in 1933, such items as "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," "Mood Indigo," "Creole Love Call" and "Rockin' in Rhythm," among others, created for performance in nightclubs, dance halls, popular stage shows, popular music records and radio broadcasts, had gained him the status of a new celebrity in the American world of popular entertainment, but he was of little or no concern to "regular" music critics and theorists in America. In Europe, however, his musicianship was regarded as a matter for serious analysis not only as quintessentially American music but also as it related to contemporary European music on its own terms.

In England, for example, as Barry Ulanov reports in his biography of Ellington, Constant Lambert wrote:

The orchestration of nearly all the numbers shows an intensely musical instinct, and after hearing what Ellington can do with fourteen players in pieces like Jive Stomp and Mood Indigo, the average modern composer who splashes about with eighty players in the Respighi manner must feel a little chastened. All this is clearly apparent to anyone who visits the Palladium, but what may not be so apparent is that Ellington is no mere band leader and arranger, but a composer of uncommon merit, probably the first composer of real character to come out of America.

The European trip, during which it became quite obvious to Ellington that his approach to music was a matter of serious concern and even admiration and emulation by such highly regarded concert hall composers as Auric, Durey, Hindemith, Honneger, Poulenc and Tailleferre, came about almost ten years before his band made its debut at Carnegie Hall in January 1943. There had been concert performances on several American college campuses during the mid-thirties, but the Carnegie Hall concert symbolized the achievement of the ultimate level of musical prestige in the United States.

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