Breaking down walls between genres that are usually discussed separately—classical, jazz, and popular—this highly engaging book offers a compelling new integrated view of twentieth-century music. Placing Duke Ellington (1899–1974) at the center of the story, David Schiff explores music written during the composer’s lifetime in terms of broad ideas such as rhythm, melody, and harmony. He shows how composers and performers across genres shared the common pursuit of representing the rapidly changing conditions of modern life. The Ellington Century demonstrates how Duke Ellington’s music is as vital to musical modernism as anything by Stravinsky, more influential than anything by Schoenberg, and has had a lasting impact on jazz and pop that reaches from Gershwin to contemporary R&B.
The Ellington Century
Ellington plays the piano but his real instrument is his band. Each member of his band is to him a distinctive tone color and set of emotions which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing which I like to call the Ellington Effect.
In modern orchestration clarity and definition of sonorous image are usually the goal. There exists, however, another kind of orchestral magic dependent on a certain ambiguity of effect. Not to be able to identify immediately how a particular color combination is arrived at adds to its attractiveness. I live to be intrigued by unusual sounds that force me to exclaim: Now I wonder how the composer does that?
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, "O yes, that's done like this." But Duke merely lifts a finger, three horns make a sound, and I don't know what it is.
One thing that I learned from Ellington is that you can make the group you play with sing if you realize each of the instruments has a distinctive personality; and you can bring out the singing aspect of that personality if you use the right timbre for the instruments.
Now if it is possible to create patterns out of tone colors that are differentiated according to pitch, patterns we call melodies ... then it must also be possible to create such progressions out of the tone colors of the other dimension, out of that which we call simply "tone color."
Hear with your eyes and see with your ears.
Duke Ellington, born on April 29, 1899, could easily have become a painter rather than a musician. Though he began piano studies, with Marietta Clinkscales, when he was seven, he later recalled that "all through grade school, I had a genuine interest in drawing and painting, and I realized I had a sort of talent for them." In 1963 he even helped paint the sets for My People, a multimedia theater piece marking the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Ellington called many of his compositions "tone parallels" or "portraits"; his music linked sounds and images. Coloristic titles located the music on a chromatic spectrum: azure, magenta, turquoise, indigo, black, sepia, beige, and tan. Ellington's palette of many colors signified: blue of whatever shade referred to the musical form, expressive vocabulary, and social function of the blues; the gradations leading from tan to black announced the central subject of his creative work, the history, experience, and culture of African Americans. Just consider this panchromatic catalogue of Ellington titles:
Black and Tan Fantasy
Black, Brown and Beige
Blue Belles of Harlem
Brown Skin Gal
Café au lait
Crescendo in Blue
Diminuendo in Blue
The Gold Broom and the Green Apple
Lady in Blue
Lady of the Lavender Mist
On a Turquoise Cloud
Ellington's gift for translating visual colors into tone colors set his music apart early on. By the time the Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra recorded "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" on November 29, 1926, the better-known bands of Paul Whiteman and Fletcher Henderson had already configured the standard sound of large ensemble jazz. In 1925 the Whiteman band had twenty-six players: six violins, two violas, two cellos (including the young William Schuman), string bass, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, four saxes, banjo, guitar, drums and piano-no wonder they called this style of jazz "symphonic." For its highly influential 1926 recording of "The Stampede" the Henderson band had eleven players: one trumpet, two cornets, one trombone, tuba, three saxes (all doubling clarinet), banjo, drums, and piano. Despite the difference in size, both Whiteman and Henderson configured their bands in instrumental choirs (reeds, brass, and, for Whiteman, strings), a method codified as early as 1924 in Arthur Lange's Arranging for the Modern Dance Orchestra. Classical composers had similarly deployed the orchestra in terms of instrumental choirs, winds, brass, and strings, the better to synchronize articulations and intonation. Hybrid sonorities, mixing instrumental families, can sound muddy if they are not well rehearsed. Or they can sound magical.
Although Ellington's early "orchestra" was smaller than Henderson's by just one trumpet, this slight difference meant that the Ellington band really had only one full section, the reeds. Instead of playing choir against choir and hot soloists against sidemen, Ellington treated every member of the band as a soloist and blended the sounds of different instruments and players.
The contrast of Bubber Miley's muted, growling trumpet and the smoldering accompaniment in the baritone sax and tuba, blue against black, "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" put Ellington's distinctive approach to timbre on the map. By the time of its third recording, on December 19, 1927, the interplay of Miley, Harry Carney (baritone sax), Joe Nanton (muted trombone), and Rudy Jackson (growling low clarinet) formed a terse study in shades of brown that matched Miley's visual parallel for the piece: "This is an old man, tired from working in the field since sunup, coming up the road in the sunset on his way home to dinner. He's tired but strong, and humming in time with his broken gait." Fine-tuning the color balance as the piece evolved, Ellington abridged the statements of a contrasting theme (reminiscent of A. J. Piron's song "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate") in this third recorded version. Foreshortened and refocused, the conventional "sweet" coloring now set the gritty darkness of the rest of the composition in starker relief. Ellington was composing in colors-like Matisse.
Though he may have used the band as his palette, timbre for Ellington was neither abstract nor dehumanizing. Colors were also human voices. Ellington hired players with idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable playing styles, and composed parts for specific players rather than instruments. The musicians of the band formed a spectrum of strongly characterized timbre styles: Miley's aggressively rough sound contrasted with Arthur Whetsol's almost humming introversion; the liquid croon of Johnny Hodges's alto played against the rude honk of Harry Carney's baritone. Within a few years the trombone section of Nanton, Lawrence Brown, and Juan Tizol produced three completely different timbres: raspy, smooth, Latin.
Early on Ellington saw that the new mechanisms for amplification and recording could enhance coloristic explorations. Long before the advent of recording "production," let alone of electronic music, Ellington revealed his genius for technologically enabled sound synthesis in "Mood Indigo," first recorded on October 17, 1930, but written especially for the "microphonic transmission" of a radio broadcast. In a radio interview in 1962 Ellington recalled the radical role played by the microphone as a lucky accident: "When we made 'Black and Tan Fantasy' ... [we used] the plunger mute in the trumpet and in the trombone in that duet and always got a 'mike' sound.... They hadn't conquered this yet, and they messed up a lot of masters because every time they'd get the mike they'd throw it out." For the recording session of "Mood Indigo" in 1930 "the aim was to employ these instruments in such a way, at such a distance, that the mike tone would set itself in definite pitch-so that it wouldn't spoil the recording. Lucky again, it happened."
To signify the deepest "blue" in "Mood Indigo" Ellington scored the opening melody in a choralelike texture for three players: Whetsol (trumpet), Barney Bigard (clarinet) and Nanton (muted trombone). He painted his mood with the three instrumental colors found in New Orleans jazz but arranged them counterintuitively with the trumpet on top, the trombone a third below it, in its highest register, and the clarinet an octave and a fourth lower than the trombone, an acoustic gap labeled an "error" in the conservatories that Ellington, fortunately, never attended. The apparently upside-down scoring demonstrates Ellington's astute command of the acoustical properties of each instrument and of the individual styles of each performer, the haunting, hollow quality Bigard brought to the clarinet's low register, Whetsol's plaintive lyricism, Nanton's insidiously sliding speechlike inflections. It shows his prophetic instinct for technology as well: together the three sounds blend into a whisper that would be undetectable without amplification. No wonder that Billy Strayhorn dubbed such timbral magic "the Ellington effect."
A slow, intimate blues recorded in 1938, "Blue Light" demonstrates how Ellington used tone color to shape mood and form. From its first meditative, bell-like chords on the piano, it suggests the indigo atmosphere of the last set in some nearly deserted nightclub; just one couple remains on the dance floor, perhaps with nowhere else to go, clinging to each other in the blue-tinted, smoke-filled air. "Blue Light" is that rare kind of music that evokes a specific time of day, temperature, and atmospheric condition. "The most neglected and least known of Ellington's masterpieces," "Blue Light" was recorded twice on December 22, 1938, by an eight-man subgroup of the Ellington Orchestra: Bigard, clarinet; Carney, clarinet (?); Wallace Jones, trumpet (?); Brown, trombone; Fred Guy, guitar; Billy Taylor, bass; Sonny Greer, drums; and Ellington, piano. Here's an outline of the form:
Intro: Piano solo four bars.
Chorus 1: twelve-bar blues. Clarinet solo with piano fills.
Chorus 2: twelve-bar blues. Trio for muted trumpet, muted trombone, and clarinet with piano fills.
Chorus 3: twelve-bar blues. Trombone solo with reed accompaniment. (Trombone melody composed by Lawrence Brown.)
Chorus 4: Piano solo.
Borrowing Schoenberg's term, we might term "Blue Light" a klangfarbenmelodie blues, a formal expansion of the color synthesis of "Mood Indigo." Each chorus presents a different kind of blue: the smoky middle range of Bigard's clarinet, the "indigo" scoring of the trio, the vibrato-rich warmth of Brown's trombone (set in relief by a low reed trio in the background), and Ellington's restrained pianism (with a brief homage, to my ear, to Earl Hines). Each timbre evokes a different aspect of the blues. Ellington's brief intro sounds urbane and modernistic; his first chord replicates exactly (if not intentionally) the opening harmony of Berg's Piano Sonata op. 1. Bigard's solo, by contrast, is roots music, straight out of New Orleans and Sidney Bechet. The trio, more muted and rhythmically steady, choralelike, than in "Mood Indigo," also has the ghostly gaslight sonority Ellington had used in his "Mystery Song" in 1931. Brown's solo, by contrast, feels fully embodied, like a warm embrace. In 1933 Spike Hughes had complained that Brown's sophisticated sound was out of place in "Duke's essentially direct and simple music," thereby underestimating both musicians, but Brown's lyricism here illustrates how Ellington could paint a jazz panorama (from Bechet to Tommy Dorsey) even within such a small framework. Ellington's closing solo chorus begins with the dissonant major-minor chord he habitually used to signify "the blues," momentarily muses on a fragment from Earl Hines's solo in "West End Blues," then turns out the lights.
"Blue Light" as Blues
A meticulously balanced tone-color composition, "Blue Light" is also a blues, although not in a way that devotees of, say, B. B. King might recognize. The term "blues" itself appears in bewilderingly various ways; it is used narrowly, to denote a chord progression, or grandly, as in Albert Murray's Stomping the Blues, to characterize an entire culture. Historically, the blues emerged after the Civil War from the sorrow songs of the antebellum period. As much a poetic as a musical genre, it has its own verse form, syntax, vocabulary, imagery, and subject matter:
When a woman gets the blues she hangs her head and cries,
When a woman gets the blues she hangs her head and cries,
But when a man gets the blues, he grabs a train and flies.
We can parse this blues stanza as follows:
Form: a thought stated, repeated, completed (surprisingly)
Syntax: lines broken midway by a caesura, and at the end by a comma; these breaks usually filled with a guitar response
Imagery: Love, tears, the railway
Subject: Suffering and escape from suffering
Most recorded blues consist of five or six stanzas that tell a story, though usually more as a sequence of images rather than a linear narrative. Jazz musicians refer to these stanza structures as choruses.
Often blind or lame, and so excluded from manual labor, early blues performers, or "blues men," sang to their own guitar accompaniment. At once outsiders and shamanic representatives of the community, they sang about themselves, and about everyone. Within African American culture the blues formed part of a larger musical landscape that included work songs, religious songs, and ragtime. These genres denoted class and region, the sacred and profane. Until around 1900 the blues was heard only in the Deep South, and in Mississippi and Louisiana in particular. Growing up in Washington, D.C., Ellington did not hear the blues until he encountered Sidney Bechet: "I shall never forget the first time I heard him play, at the Howard Theatre in Washington around 1921. I had never heard anything like it. It was a completely new sound."
Some jazz musicians, like Louis Armstrong and Lester Young, were born into the blues environment, while others, like Ellington and Coleman Hawkins, had to acquire the idiom consciously. The ease with which blues traveled and the very possibility that musicians from widely different backgrounds could master it suggests that blues was just part of a more widespread African American musical inheritance, and also that it was a transportable, itinerant music built for travel, whether on a train, or through the media of radio and recording. It was a kind of music that was everywhere, if you knew where to listen. As Ellington wrote, "I went on studying, of course, but I could also hear people whistling, and I got all the Negro music that way. You can't learn that in any school."
The blues, stylized verse in song, is both a poetic idiom and a distinctive musical sound. Blues singing, as ethnomusicologist Jeff Todd Titon observed, employed a particular kind of vocal production: "The tone quality of early downhome blues singing largely resulted from the way the singer enunciated his words. Singing with an open throat, he relaxed his lips and mouth and kept his tongue loose, low, and toward the back of his mouth. This position favored certain kinds of vowels and consonants and made it somewhat difficult to produce others." Titon noted that blues singers employ nasal, rasping sounds not used in their ordinary speaking voices, effects that can be traced to the "heterogeneous sound ideal" or "timbral mosaic" of African music. In the blues, speech and song mix; in instrumental blues, the instrument always has a vocal quality: "the nasal, foggy, hoarse texture that delivered the elisions, hums, growls, blue notes and falsetto, and the percussive oral effects of their ancestors." In his classic study Stomping the Blues Albert Murray uses the terms blues and jazz interchangeably, but the blues encompasses many musical idioms beyond the usual boundaries of jazz. Buddy Bolden, often cited as the musician who brought the streams of ragtime and blues together, as well as the secular and the sacred, and the spoken and sung elements in African American music, played "with a moan in his cornet that went all through you, just like you were in church or something ... made a spiritual feeling go through you. He had a cup, a special cup, that made that cornet moan like a Baptist preacher." Bolden's playing also took its timbre from the streets, from the sounds of itinerant ragmen playing long tin horns, party instruments that produced blues sounds later imitated on the trumpet. The translation of blues from voice to instrument therefore was not an artistic elevation of a folk form into an art genre, but rather a complex process of interweaving many oral and aural traditions to pass on a body of experience and wisdom-folk songs without words.
Within the realm of jazz the blues retains its poetic and timbral character, but it also serves as the basis of instrumental improvisation. When jazz musicians play the blues, they conceptualize the form in terms of a twelve-bar phrase structure, or "chorus," divided into three four-bar phrases, following the stanza form. They create melodic lines using the pitches of a "blues scale," which is usually understood to include major and minor versions of the third, seventh, and sometimes fifth degrees of the scale, and they follow a standard harmonic pattern, such as (one chord per measure):
Because all blues restate the same harmonic and poetic patterns over and over again, they are all genetically related, though perhaps at different removes. These degrees of separation might be termed stylizations; we might, accordingly, listen to "Blue Light" the way we hear Chopin's mazurkas. But that would extract them from the intertextual continuum of their own culture, in which, as we have seen, different genres mingled easily. To see how "Blue Light" dialogues with other kinds of blues we can listen to it alongside a vocal blues recorded by Jimmy Rushing and Count Basie, and an instrumental blues by Sidney Bechet.
Though Ellington's band never included a real blues singer like Basie's Jimmy Rushing (as we will see, Ellington often preferred more classical-sounding singers), it is still instructive to compare "Blue Light" to "Blues in the Dark," an equally atmospheric number recorded by the Count Basie Orchestra with Rushing in January 1938. Around that time, the influential jazz critic and promoter John Hammond championed Basie's blues-based jazz against what he perceived as Ellington's betrayal of the idiom: Ellington, Hammond wrote in 1943, "has introduced complex harmonies solely for effect and has experimented with material farther and farther away from dance music." Ellington and Basie knew better, and these two examples of the blues reveal similar elements. The similarities, though, are surprising. Rushing's "hot" voice sounds like Brown's "sweet" trombone: they both seem to rise out of the soil like a mighty oak. By contrast, Bigard's clarinet and Buck Clayton's muted trumpet dart and spin like a pair of dragonflies. The lyrics Rushing sings might provide a subtext for "Blue Light":
Kind treatment make me love you, be mean and you'll drive me away.
Kind treatment make me love you, be mean and you'll drive me away.
You gonna long for me baby, one of these long rainy days.
Did you ever dream lucky baby, and wake up cold in hand?
Did you ever dream lucky baby, and wake up cold in hand?
You didn't have a dollar, somebody had your woman.
Basie frames three choruses of blues in E♭ (two for Rushing, one for Basie) with a c minor blues in growling "jungle" style recalling Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy." The two pieces and the two titled bandleaders seem to be conversing; listening to them side by side reveals that the blues is a form of dialogue both internally and intertextually. Basie's southwestern country style and Ellington's urbane Harlem idiom are dialects of the same language.
We can also hear "Blue Light" as a conversation with Sidney Bechet; Ellington called Bechet the "epitome of jazz," and both Barney Bigard and Johnny Hodges were Bechet disciples. Bechet's "Blue Horizon," which received canonic status on the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, perfectly illustrates the central role that tone color plays in shaping blues as dialogue, even within an instrumental solo. Bechet recorded "Blue Horizon" in December 1944 with a quintet of distinguished New Orleans musicians: Wilbur de Paris, trumpet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Manzie Johnson, drums; Pops Foster, bass; and Art Hodes, piano. Although his preferred instrument was the soprano sax, Bechet played clarinet here, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he constructed an entire piece out of the particular timbral qualities of the clarinet, much as Stravinsky had done in 1920 in his Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, written either after hearing Bechet play (possible but not certain) or after reading his friend Ernest Ansermet's ecstatic praise of Bechet as "the first of his race to have composed perfectly formed blues." In constructing "Blue Horizon," a six-chorus blues in E♭, which uses only the pitches of an E♭ blues scale (E♭ major plus a lowered third, G♭, and a lowered seventh, D♭), Bechet contrasted the three distinct registers of the clarinet. He spread an extended melodic line over a range of three octaves (from the E♭ below middle C to the E♭ two octaves and a third above middle C). The low (called "chalumeau"), middle, and upper (clarion) ranges of the clarinet sound almost like different instruments. Bechet placed each chorus within one or two of these ranges:
Chorus 1: chalumeau
Chorus 2: middle register
Chorus 3 chalumeau
Chorus 4: middle and chalumeau in call-and-response
Chorus 5: middle
Chorus 6: clarion
In each chorus Bechet returned to the low chalumeau register for the third phrase, which serves as a refrain, unifying the piece but also bringing it back home to the timbre that is closest to speech. We might say that "Blue Horizon" is a klangfarbenmelodie for a single instrument, but its timbres differ from the classical clarinet sound, and that difference points to the particular way tone color functions in the blues. Bechet's clarinet does not sound like anyone else's. In the blues idiom the individual player's sound is far more important than an idealized notion of how an instrument should sound. Bechet's sound has a distinctive wide vibrato, but that is just one of its special sonorities. Bechet's lower register for instance, does not have the hollow, disembodied quality produced by classical clarinetists; it is a full, fat sound, almost like a trombone. Similarly the middle range is sweet, not pallid; the clarion register is trumpetlike, not shrill. Bechet also colored his sound with three ornaments, a slow downward slide, a more than usually pronounced vibrato, and a "blues" inflection, a flattening and bending of pitch that he reserves for the pitch G♭. Each of these ornaments points to what we might term a "blues sound ideal" of varying the color within a note rather than sustaining a single timbre all the way through. In the blues the timbre changes as much within one note as from one note to the next; every tone sounds unpredictably alive.
Both polyvocal and polytimbral, Bechet's clarinet portrays a community of voices speaking and singing that are linked by a refrain that pulls their differences back to a common source. In "Blue Light" Ellington's piano plays a very similar function, responding, completing, and summarizing the other instruments. Both pieces seem formally self-contained yet open-ended. Blues stanzas roll on in an endless narrative; individual blues performances or compositions take up a story that has already begun and then pass it along to the next speaker.
Theme and Variations: A Blues Gallery
Ellington reworked "Blue Light" over a decade, creating a variegated gallery of related nocturnes: "Subtle Lament," "Dusk," "Transblucency," and "On a Turquoise Cloud." Like Monet's series of haystack paintings, these works bathe identical subjects in changing light; heard back-to-back they might be termed "blues-as-process." They demonstrate how small changes in instrumental combinations or in their ordering can transform musical signification. They also reveal the range of Ellington's creative process, from informal on-the-spot improvisation to contrapuntal construction. Rex Stewart wrote that Ellington might arrive at a recording session, listen to a run-through, and then call for changes, "perhaps starting with bar sixteen, playing eight bars, then back to letter C, and when we got to letter E he'd call a halt. Then he'd sit at the piano and play something, have a consultation with Tom Whaley [the band's copyist], and some new music would be scored on the spot." Ellington's sketches, preserved at the Smithsonian, show that the music was usually written out in detail before such impromptu reshuffling.
"Subtle Lament," a moderate blues in G recorded on March 20, 1939, and again in the fall of 1940, sounds at first like an informal rearrangement of "Blue Light" with the "Mood Indigo" chorus placed right after a new piano and bass intro and rescored for four reed instruments. Following is a call-and-response chorus for piano (using material similar to the intro to "Blue Light") and trombone trio, a solo chorus for Rex Stewart (cornet using half-valve muting) over a low reed background in place of Lawrence Brown's chorus but without his melody, a chorus for trombone trio, a chorus by Barney Bigard with brass and reed accompaniment, and a four-bar restatement of the "Mood Indigo" section as outro. Moving the furniture around, however, Ellington altered the structure and timbre. The "Mood Indigo" chorale now became the binding element. It appears three times: at the beginning and end, but also as a background to the Stewart and Bigard solos. As it increases in thematic importance, however, the chorale also sheds its mysterious coloration; it is now played within a single instrumental choir, not as a hybrid color. Ellington compensated for this loss by introducing a new timbral contrast of low trombone trio against the high reeds. The three trombones become the mysterious element through the blend of their sounds (Brown, Nanton, and Tizol had sharply contrasting styles of playing) and also through their unexpected Debussyan harmonies.
Heard as a nocturne, "Subtle Lament" seems to depict midnight rather than the 3 A.M. of "Blue Light." On May 28, 1940, moving the clock and the quality of light back by several hours, Ellington recorded "Dusk," a considerable reworking of the elements in those two predecessors and of their template, "Mood Indigo." Like "Mood Indigo," "Dusk" is in B♭ and has a sixteen-bar AABA phrase structure that nevertheless sounds like a twelve-bar blues. It begins with a piano and bass intro very similar to "Subtle Lament." The first chorus is a chromatic melody scored in the "Mood Indigo" voicing, with muted trumpet and muted trombone in thirds, with a clarinet an octave and a half below, and, like "Indigo," with a ripe late romantic altered dominant ninth as its second chord. As in "Subtle Lament," Rex Stewart has a solo chorus, and in the third chorus the low trombone trio counters the high reed choir, but here the reeds sound like a tree full of birds chirping at sunset. The timbral heart of "Dusk," the last phrase of the third chorus, however, is new and also carefully composed for the entire band. Here Ellington blended five reeds and six muted brass in darkly dissonant harmonies that nevertheless produce a luminous tone color. This example of the "Ellington effect" has inspired superlatives ever since it appeared: "I know of no other work for jazz orchestra that conveys such an impression of tranquility on the verge of tears."
Ellington, however, had even more changes to ring on his nocturnal theme in general, and on "Blue Light" in particular. On January 4, 1946, he premiered "Transblucency" (a.k.a. "Transbluency," a.k.a. "A Blue Fog That You Can Almost See Through") at Carnegie Hall. Essentially, "Transblucency" is an overt variant of "Blue Light," significantly transposed upward from G to B♭. Here, though, nonchalant improvisation evolved into a classical-sounding, contrapuntally strict composition. Ellington signaled the classical turn by rescoring the "Mood Indigo" trio, replacing the trumpet with a wordless soprano (Kay Davis). Davis's vocal purity would suit Rachmaninoff's famous "Vocalise." The second chorus brings back Lawrence Brown's tune, even creamier and croonier than it was in "Blue Light" thanks to the upward transposition. Here, though, Ellington gives Brown's melody a Bach-like treatment. It serves as the cantus firmus for two choruses, the first a duet for soprano and clarinet (Jimmy Hamilton, whose classical tone blends perfectly with Davis's voice), the soprano intoning the cantus, the clarinet playing a new counterpoint; and the second with the cantus in the low reeds and brass with the soprano singing a new counterpoint. Sketches preserved in the Ellington Archive show how carefully Ellington planned the contrapuntal devices. Ellington's slightly frantic piano intro and outro have an impromptu air that contrasts tellingly with the work's contrapuntal and coloristic logic.
"On a Turquoise Cloud," premiered at Carnegie Hall on December 27, 1947, might be termed an encore for "Transblucency." It uses all the same elements (adding the color of the bass clarinet), but now they are employed in a delightfully informal fashion, transposed down to a mellow D♭, yet built on a new color, the floating timbre of Kay Davis's high A♭s (and singular high B♭). No longer a blues, somewhere between a pop tune and an opera aria, it is a siren song. The only further steps Ellington would make in this direction move upward to celestial realms: Mahalia Jackson's wordless humming after "The Twenty-Third Psalm" and Alice Babs's coloratura in "Heaven."
"Ko-Ko": The Color Black
Shades of blue make up one half of Ellington's color spectrum; variants of black, from café au lait to ebony, form their complement. The breathy but warm sound of the New Orleans clarinet, with Bechet as the foundation amplified by Bigard and Hodges, signified blue. The dark growl of Miley's trumpet, Nanton's trombone, and Carney's baritone sax, all derived from the sound of Joe Oliver's cornet, connoted black. Ellington uses both blue and black timbres in music that belongs, in form and gesture, to the genre of the blues, though often the black pieces state the blues harmonic progression in the minor mode. Ellington's noir style (branded-some say by George Gershwin-as "Jungle Music" at the Cotton Club) portrayed characters who are more African than American, representing the resilience and strength that existed before slavery and that survived beyond it. The black-to-tan spectrum also represented two momentous events in the African American experience, the traumatic Middle Passage from Africa to America and the Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North. Ellington sounded this theme in the 1920s with "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" and "Black and Tan Fantasy," in the '30s with "The Saddest Tale," "Echoes of Harlem" and "Menilek," and in the '50s with "Such Sweet Thunder." Throughout his career he referred to an operatic presentation of the theme, called Boola, "which tells the story of the Negro in America." In 1941 Ellington told Almena Davis, an interviewer for a black newspaper, the California Eagle, that he had "practically finished a full-length opera based on the history of the American Negro, and is readying a synopsis of it to submit to a prospective producer." The opera never appeared, but, according to B
About the Book
“’The Ellington Century’ redefines the Duke's place in American music. An important piece of scholarship, it's also a natural extension of Schiff's enthusiasms. Like his own music, which blends jazz and classical styles, the book is dense and rigorous, leavened with humor. . . . It's a must-read for music students and enthusiasts.”—David Stabler The Oregonian
“For music majors, this book is a must-read. . . . Schiff mixes a scholarly approach with a delightful human touch. . . . Schiff makes you yearn to be a part of the ongoing flow of all music, not just jazz, or classical, or pop, or anything else. And that is one of the highest compliments I can pay the book.”—John Scott G Music Industry Newswire
“The most stimulating contribution to the Ellington literature I have encountered since Eddie Lambert’s Listener’s Guide . . . a well-constructed, cogently argued addition to the Ellington literature which is most welcome.”—Roger Boyes Dems Bulletin
“This book will be a must read for Ellingtonians and any musician interested in jazz-classical theory.”—Lewis J Whittington All About Jazz
“The Ellington Century by David Schiff is an important milestone in Ellington scholarship, a one-of-a-kind substantive, in-depth study that opens possibilities for better understanding and appreciation of Duke Ellington the composer.”—Theodore (Ted) Hudson Ellingtonia
“Schiff is ostensibly addressing classical listeners, but jazz folks will find the book equally fascinating, looking over the fence from the other side, at the harmonic refinements that would enrich jazz. . . . The Ellington Century’s expansiveness and shifting frames of reference are typically Ellingtonian. This lively kaleidoscopic narrative evokes Ellington’s inclusive spirit.”—Kevin Whitehead Downbeat
“Does placing Ellington’s music alongside that of canonical European composers denigrate jazz, or celebrate its universality? David Schiff’s The Ellington Century marks a significant . . . milestone in this epic debate, not least in attempting to avoid uncritical appeals to the traditional classical/jazz schism.”—John Wriggle Los Angeles Review Of Books
“The book is an invaluable contribution to music history . . . [it] opens the door to a new understanding of modernism, one that resists traditional narratives of stratification and embraces history in all its messy complexity.”—Caroline Waight Make Magazine
“Schiff's ode to Ellington is a joy.”—Publishers Weekly“The Ellington Century is a wonderful journey through the world of music and art. If you are already an aficionado of Ellington's music, you will enjoy the author's informative and detailed analysis of the composer's work and musical influences. If you are less familiar, this book puts Ellington's music in perspective with the great ‘classical’ composers of the twentieth century. David Schiff's remarkable insight into the historical and musical parallels between these composers is a delight to read and his references are vast, from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky’s Agon to television’s Sesame Street. Schiff writes with a sense of humor and an enthusiasm for Ellington's music that comes out on every page.”—George Manahan, Music Director, American Composers Orchestra
“David Schiff points us forward, observing that ‘Ellington’s music asks us to see with our ears and hear with our eyes.’ Writing as a composer and scholar, he has a gift for making complex ideas strikingly clear. His insights move across a huge terrain of twentieth-century culture, as he builds bridges in his musical and cultural analysis where many have not seen a connection. Yet each musical work, each artist, is given his or her equal due. In this sense, he has met the spiritual and cultural challenge of Ellington’s life work.”—Marty Ehrlich, Composer/Instrumentalist, Associate Professor of Improvisation and Contemporary Music, Hampshire College
Table of Contents
Part I: Overture: Such Sweet Thunder
1. “Blue Light”: Color
2. “Cotton Tail”: Rhythm
3. “Prelude to a Kiss”: Melody
4. “Satin Doll”: Harmony
Part II: Entr’acte: “Sepia Panorama”
5. “Warm Valley”: Love
6. Black, Brown and Beige: History
7. “Heaven”: God