Ellington Hits 100

Ellington Hits 100

On the eve of the New York premiere of his Symphony No.


On the eve of the New York premiere of his Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World,” in 1893, Anton Dvorak stated in an interview that he was “now satisfied that the future of music in this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”

Dvorak had been brought over to New York from Bohemia in 1892 by one Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, the wife of a wealthy New York grocer, to help establish a national conservatory of music of America. Its objective was to develop American composers who would follow the example of what Dvorak had done with the Slavonic folk materials of Bohemia and create music from indigenous American sources that would qualify as fine art worthy of being performed in the great concert halls along with the classics in the European canon.

What Dvorak did not point out, however, was the fact that for folk material to become a truly native fine art, it had to be extended, elaborated and refined through the employment of devices that were also indigenous. What he either left out or failed to emphasize was the indispensable dynamics of the vernacular imperative. Those “Negro melodies” he referred to were the product not only of native folk material as such but also of a native or homegrown process, the employment of certain musical devices that were also native, if only through frontier modification of imported procedures.

Nor did Dvorak provide any example of what an original school of American composition would sound like. Certainly his New World Symphony was not American music. It was European music about America. It was American raw material or subject matter developed in terms of European conventions of composition. Not that any American idiom would, should or even could be altogether different from European convention. It would be European-derived music significantly modified by conventions evolved in the Western Hemisphere.

Dvorak had heard Negro spirituals and other Negro melodies as well as the popular plantation-derived airs in the repertory of Stephen Foster, to be sure; and on a visit out to Spillville, Iowa, he was impressed by various Indian melodies and chants. Moreover, between 1892 and 1894 he could also have heard ragtime tunes and cakewalk instrumentals–and perhaps also some of the new music for the fox trot, the one step, etc., that was beginning to replace the waltz as the rage of popular music. Surely the composer of Slavonic Dances should not have missed anything so basic as that to a truly American music. Nor is it irrelevant to wonder what was or would have been his reaction to a musical element so uniquely American as syncopation.

In all events, he returned to Europe in 1894, and he died in 1904, four years before W.C. Handy’s codification of the blues put its basic structural devices in the public domain of the popular music that was to be extended, elaborated and refined into jazz. But even so, Dvorak was prophetic enough to have declared that “in the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay, or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or any purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.”

Among the American conservatory-oriented composers who took Dvorak’s advice was William A. Fisher, who published a book of Negro spirituals and also made an arrangement of a spirituals-derived melody from Dvorak’s New World Symphony titled “Going Home” that became a very popular semiclassic concert piece during the twenties and thirties. Another Dvorak protégé was Rubin Goldmark, who became an instructor at Mrs. Thurber’s conservatory and later became head of the department of composition at Juilliard from 1924 until his death in 1936. One of his best-known compositions was A Negro Rhapsody, and among his students at one time was George Gershwin, the composer of Rhapsody in Blue, Piano Concerto in F, An American in Paris and Porgy and Bess, who also studied with a legendary Harlem stride piano player and composer named Luckey Roberts. Incidentally, Gershwin’s pre­Porgy and Bess attempt to compose a Negro folk opera was called 135th Street, after a street in Harlem.

With the exception of Gershwin, such Dvorak-inspired efforts, however, did not lead to music that was significantly more peculiar to the United States than was Dvorak’s own. The subject matter was indigenous, to be sure, but the process of stylization was hardly less European than his. Indeed, it was as if American musical training was primarily geared toward putting American subject matter into the European canon. The concert hall status of the traditional Negro spirituals and gospel and jubilee songs was obviously enhanced by Dvorak’s enthusiastic admiration, but, alas, even they were often Europeanized by conservatory-trained musicians. After all, European conventions of stylization were precisely what American musical training was all about.

And yet within less than a generation of Dvorak’s sojourn at the American conservatory there was American music that Europeans recognized as such and that had a universal appeal that was downright infectious. And it was clearly the employment of indigenous devices of stylization that led ever-so-sophisticated European musicians and theorists not only to admire it but also to place it in the context of avant-garde innovation rather than that of the homespun or the primitive.

Obviously the keyboard skill–nay, virtuosity–required to play the ragtime piano music of Scott Joplin, for instance, was not only beyond the level of primitive and folk musicians but also the precision of conservatory-trained musicians in America and Europe alike, who were very hard put to reproduce the subtleties of its idiomatic nuances even after careful study and rehearsal of the scores and the piano rolls of American musicians.

On the other hand, in the American musical context in which Duke Ellington grew up and formulated his vocational and professional objectives, the technical nuances of ragtime or Harlem stride piano were among the earliest challenges one had to learn to cope with, and as for the “Negro melodies” that so captivated Dvorak, they were as much a part of his everyday musical environment as were the idioms of everyday discourse.

Duke Ellington, né Edward Kennedy Ellington, the musician who was to become the composer who would process or stylize–which is to say extend, elaborate and refine–more indigenous American raw material into universally appealing fine art by means of idiomatic devices than any other, was born in Washington, DC, on April 29, 1899, six years after Dvorak’s pronouncement preliminary to the premiere of the New World Symphony.

So in addition to the intricacies of ragtime keyboard technique as such, Ellington’s musical context from the very outset of his apprenticeship (c. 1914) was one in which primary emphasis was placed on coming to terms with the vernacular music of New Orleans, the blues, vaudeville show tunes and novelties, and popular dance melodies. After all, the audiences that he was hoping to please were not in the great concert, recital and philharmonic halls. They were in the vaudeville and variety-show theaters, in dance halls, at parties, parlor socials, honky-tonks, after-hours joints and dives. Moreover, Ellington always used to point out that while some of his mentors were conservatory-trained, others who were no less formidable played by ear, and he was strongly influenced by both.

Such was the beginning context of the natural history of the sensibility of the musician whose idiomatic approach to composition would produce the largest body of works that amount to the musical equivalent of the representative verbal or literary anecdotes about the national character and attitudes toward life in the United States during the formative years of the twentieth century. By contrast, in most of the works of the most publicized of American concert hall­oriented composers, even such idiomatic subject matter as life in Appalachia or on the Mexican border, the world of the rodeo or New York’s Central Park, the Louisiana bayous or the Great Plains, tends to sound more like European avant-garde experimentation than the extension, elaboration and refinement of American vernacular experience that has achieved the stylistic level of fine art. Nor does any of it amount to a significant or influential US export. In any case, Ellington’s music was to win a sophisticated international following even as he began to receive national recognition as a popular entertainment star in the United States.

But back to the context. As socially and politically reactionary as was the Washington of Ellington’s early years of apprenticeship there, it was not provincial in matters of entertainment and the arts. It was not as cosmopolitan as New York, to be sure, but even so, it reflected much of the New Yorker’s taste, perhaps to an extent comparable to that of a suburb of Manhattan. In fact, many Washingtonians were hardly, or only slightly, less regular patrons of New York cultural events than were residents of the five boroughs. Also, the quality of public education was such that even graduates of the outstanding segregated schools were academically qualified to satisfy the requirements of Ivy League and other elite Northern colleges and universities, generally considered to be the best in the nation.

Ellington, whose academic performance in visual art qualified him for a scholarship to Pratt Institute in New York, did not graduate from high school, dropping out in his senior year to seek his fortune as a piano player in a local dance band. And although he never took any courses at Washington’s nationally renowned Howard University, he never seemed less formally educated than those who did. Moreover, the urbane deportment of his sidemen was no less impressive than that of those in the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra, which actually began as a student band at Fisk University, a very prestigious undergraduate liberal arts college in Nashville, Tennessee. Nor was his orientation to technical precision ever at issue. On the contrary, his band is said to have impressed other musicians as being very thoroughly rehearsed from the outset.

In all events, Ellington never seemed to regard himself as a “young man from the provinces.” And no wonder. When he and those who would become the nucleus of his great world-famous orchestra decided to go to New York and seek their fortune in the big time, they had not only heard but in a number of instances had made personal and professional contact with such headline Manhattan-based musicians as James P. Johnson, Luckey Roberts, Eubie Blake, Fletcher Henderson and Fats Waller, among others. After all, Washington’s Howard Theater, which was more relevant to Ellington’s destiny than Howard University, was not only the nearest thing in the nation to such New York Theatre Owners Booking Association­type circuit theaters as the Lincoln and the Lafayette, it was also the showcase for Washington’s formally trained elite’s cultural events.

And it should not be forgotten that when Ellington and his musicians presented themselves to New York as the Washingtonians, they seem to have had no fear of being mistaken for a bunch of hayseeds. Even Sonny Greer, the Manhattan-wise drummer from Long Branch, New Jersey, who had left a roadshow to join them several years before, seems to have had no objection to re-entering the New York scene as one of the Washingtonians.

The immediate impact of Ellington on New York was not comparable to that which King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Freddie Keppard and other musicians from New Orleans had on the city of Chicago, but in a matter of four years he was well on his way to a prominent status in the city, the nation and the world. Unlike the musicians from New Orleans who arrived in Chicago bringing a style of music that was not only revolutionary but immediately captivating, Ellington and his fellow musicians had come to New York to qualify as big-time professionals.

To which end he and the group of mostly Washingtonians that he was leading in the Hollywood Club in midtown Manhattan, on 49th Street between Broadway and 7th Avenue, were booked into the plush Cotton Club nightspot uptown, on Lenox Avenue at 142nd Street near the Savoy Ballroom, in 1927. Ellington had been in New York since 1923, during which time he had played in a significant variety of theaters and nightspots, including the Lafayette Theatre, Baron Wilkins’s Exclusive Club and other uptown venues, and had also made regular rounds of the legendary rent-party sessions frequented by such top-flight Harlem stride virtuoso keyboard ticklers as James P. Johnson, Luckey Roberts, Willie the Lion Smith, The Beetle, the Lamb, Fats Waller and others. And there were also the tours he and his group had made in New England, during which they had been enthusiastically received on the circuits played by such well-established orchestras as those of Paul Whiteman, Vincent Lopez, Coon Sanders and Mal Hallett.

Meanwhile, Ellington had also begun to apply himself to becoming a professional writer of popular songs, and by the spring of 1925 he had written the music for a revue called Chocolate Kiddies, the production of which featured a band led by Sam Wooding, who took it on a European tour beginning in May of 1925. Also in 1924 he had started making recordings, and by the time he began his tenure at the Cotton Club he had already recorded such enduring Ellingtonia as “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” “Birmingham Breakdown,” “Creole Love Call” and “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

All of which adds up to the definitive working context (including the competition for bookings and recording dates and sales) of the natural history of the kind of composer Duke Ellington was to become. In New York, as in the Washington of his early apprenticeship, his approach to music was not predicated on the requirements of conservatory-oriented composers of what Americans refer to as the serious music of the concert halls. It was, rather, the product of the immediate and daily response to and interaction with the vernacular aesthetics of the world of popular entertainment that ranged all the way from folk-based minstrel fare through the wide variety of popular and novelty songs and the most elaborate production numbers of the more sophisticated nightclubs, hotel ballrooms and music halls.

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.

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.

Ellington, who is said to have declined an invitation to participate in the “From Spirituals to Swing” extravaganza of American folk- and entertainment-circuit music staged there in 1938­39 by a jazz enthusiast and booster named John Hammond, certainly seems to have regarded his performance of a program of his own arrangements and compositions at Carnegie Hall as a very special historic achievement not only for his career but also for the idiom of American music that he represented.

So for the occasion, in addition to the premiere of Black, Brown and Beige a forty-five-minute tone parallel to the history of American Negroes, composed specifically for concert performance, the program included such already unmistakably Ellingtonian items as “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” “Portrait of Bert Williams,” “(Portrait of) Bojangles,” “Ko-Ko,” “Jack the Bear,” “Cottontail,” “Boy Meets Horn,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Mood Indigo,” and others.

In contrast to generally enthusiastic approval from reporters and reviewers in the realm of popular music, the so-called regular music critics, unlike a significant number of their European counterparts, tended to be condescending and dismissive, especially of Black, Brown and Beige. Said one, “Such a form of composition is entirely out of Ellington’s ken.” As for the other selections, they were approached as if their brevity were more important than their musical content. Conspicuously absent from all the condescension, however, was any evidence of practical understanding and appreciation of the dynamics of the evolution of national cultural identity in the arts comparable to that to be found in Constance Rourke’s American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1932) and her posthumous Roots of American Culture and Other Essays (1942); or in John A. Kouwenhoven’s Made in America, the Arts in American Modern Civilization (1948) and The Beer Can by the Highway: Essays on What’s “American” about America (1961).

Not only was the Carnegie Hall concert a commercial success that turned out to be the first of a series of annual Ellington at Carnegie Hall concerts–some previewed or repeated in comparably prestigious auditoriums in Chicago and Boston–but it can also be said to have played a crucial role in making a significant number of Americans aware that a form of American music had achieved the status of fine art of universal appeal through the extension, elaboration and refinement of folk and pop fare by means of such vernacular devices of stylization as vamps, riffs, blues choruses, pop-song choruses, breaks, fills, call-and-response sequences (solo to ensemble, solo to solo, ensemble to ensemble), turnarounds, substitutions, among others, including idiomatic timbres, harmonies, elementary-level onomatopoeia (especially of the pre-diesel and -electric locomotives), plus a combination of individual sensibility and skill at on-the-spot improvisation required for effective participation in a jam session.

Between the first Carnegie Hall concert in 1943 and his death in 1974 at the age of 75, Ellington went on to compose, perform and record such extended works as Deep South Suite, The Liberian Suite, Tone Parallel to Harlem, A Tonal Group (Melloditti, Fugeaditti, Jam-A-Ditty), The Tattooed Bride, Night Creature, Such Sweet Thunder, Toot Suite (Red Shoes, Red Carpet, Red Garter, Ready Go!), Anatomy of a Murder, The River, The Goutelas Suite, Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, The New Orleans Suite, U Wis Suite, Suite Thursday and the Degas Suite, among others.

Shorter but no less important works such as Mainstem, Cottontail, Someone, Idiom ’59, Opus 69, Let the Zoomers Drool, Track 360, Satin Doll, Laying on Mellow, In a Mellotone, Sepia Panorama, C-Jam Blues, B.P., Volupté, The Purple Gazelle, Afro-Bossa, Black Swan and others not only outnumber those of any other jazz arranger/composer but also exceed them all in variety. And there are enough vocal vehicles such as “Sophisticated Lady,” “Solitude,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” “I Got It Bad,” “Rocks in My Bed,” “I’m Just a Lucky So and So,” “Everything But You” and “Prelude to a Kiss” to qualify him as an outstanding songwriter.

When Lincoln Center, which includes the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet and The Juilliard School, inaugurated its first year-round program of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Duke Ellington’s music was the definitive source of its approach to jazz composition, and his orchestra was the comprehensive model upon which the now internationally admired Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is based.

Such is the context in which Jazz at Lincoln Center has elected to take the leading role that it will play in the yearlong worldwide centennial birthday celebration of Duke Ellington in 1999. During which repeated, most-honorable mention should be made of Jeannette Thurber, who, according to an article by J.E. Vacha in the September 1992 issue of American Heritage, titled “Dvorak in America,” “didn’t merely endorse her director’s theories [about the importance of ‘Negro melodies’ in American music], she backed them up with concrete actions. The same article that carried the Dvorak interview also announced her decision to open the National Conservatory to black students. Tuition would be waived for the most gifted.”

Two who achieved historic distinction were Harry T. Burleigh and Will Marion Cook. Burleigh, who became an outstanding singer (and who incidentally served as soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church from 1894 to 1946 and concurrently at Temple Emmanu-El from 1900 to 1925), is most widely celebrated for his choral arrangements of such “classic” Negro spirituals as “Deep River,” “My Lord What a Morning,” “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” “Were You There?” “Everytime I Feel the Spirit” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”

Will Marion Cook, who had been an outstanding young violinist at the Oberlin Conservatory and the Berlin Hochschule, was primarily interested in composition at the National Conservatory, and he went on to collaborate with poet Paul Laurence Dunbar on “Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk,” a musical-comedy sketch, plus a number of other musicals on his own and with other collaborators. He also served as musical director for the legendary Williams and Walker Variety Show Company. But perhaps his most celebrated undertaking was his organization and direction of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, with which he made a highly successful national tour in 1918 and took to England and high acclaim in 1919.

It was Will Marion Cook (also from Washington, by the way) who was Ellington’s most direct connection to Dvorak and Jeannette Thurber. Not only did Ellington already admire him enough by 1919 to name his son Mercer after Cook’s son, he also sought him out in New York and began an informal mentor-and-protégé relationship that lasted until Cook’s death in 1944. Incidentally, for all of his highly impressive formal training, Cook’s technical advice to Ellington was entirely consistent with the dynamics of the vernacular imperative: Don’t be restricted by the established rules. Proceed in terms of what is most natural to your own individual sensibility. Obviously, the devices most natural to Ellington’s personal (which is to say idiomatic) sensibility were those of ragtime, the blues and the pop-song chorus. This suggests that as enthusiastic about American folk music as Dvorak was, he may have mistaken the vernacular devices peculiar to European music for universal principles of composition. Ellington did not.

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