by Raoul Hernandez
illustration by Nathan Jensen
It was early Sunday evening, dusk, twilight racing the weekend into history. With the sliding glass doors wide open, ocean air poured into the second-story living room like laughing gas; intoxicating, as if you could breathe underwater. Santa Cruz, Calif., an integral link in the state's university system -- two hours south of San Francisco on the coast -- is like that: enchanted. Imagine if Austin and Port Aransas were one and the same. Atlantis by the sea.
Scott was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of his stereo, dropping discs into the CD carousel and sampling albums he'd bought the previous year during our brief tenure together at Rasputin's, a Bay Area record store chain. Pixies, Stones, Bob Marley, Stevie Ray Vaughan -- the usual. Suburban white-boy soul. The Replacements, U2. The mushroom cloud known as Nirvana was just beginning to change the landscape of modern music. Guns N' Roses still had a career.
"Have you ever heard of Johnny Hodges?"
Scott, I have to go! Time to get back to the real world (or whatever you call graduate school).
"Charles turned me on to him."
Oh, great. Charles. Mr. Minutemen and free jazz freak -- an ardent anti-socialite and friend of squalling noise designed to drive employees and customers alike stark, raving insane. Typical Rasputin's manager. A contrarian.
"He played sax with Duke Ellington," enthused Scott, his system swallowing the CD with a soft mechanical whir. I had one foot on the stairs leading down to the front door, my hand on the railing. That's when "Stompy Jones" made his entrance.
Johnny Hodges (l) and Duke Ellington,
backstage at the Monterey Jazz Festival, 1960
It was the very first sound that filled the room, a pianist mashing down a couple of chords, hitting them a few times then letting the bass and drums make quick asides. Again. There was something about that piano -- the echo, the slightly angular tone, the insistence -- something exciting. I stopped dead in my tracks, waiting breathlessly for whatever the piano player was obviously clearing the way for. Time stopped. Waited. And then in blew Johnny Hodges on a honeyed stream of golden alto sax, silken smooth and sensuous -- a sound spun out of moonbeams from the night kitchen. Some things you know in an instant, a split second in which the concept of time is unfathomable -- know it almost before you know it. One chorus from Hodges, 30 seconds max, was all it took. That and those mysterious piano chords. Someone had just ricocheted a silver bullet off of my crystal bell.
Before you could say, "This is a stick-up," Scott was looking up at an outstretched hand and heeding demands to surrender the disc, punching it out of the player and into the jewel case. Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges, Side by Side, Verve Records, 1959. On the cover, looking like Xerox copies under a pea-green screen, were pictures of two old black guys in their Fifties hats and Fifties sports shirts. They reminded me of my grandfather. That's Duke Ellington? On the back, the name of that first song leapt out like sunglasses in a police lineup. "Stompy Jones." Perfect. A lifetime of imagination in a song title. We were in the car and on our way back to Palo Alto within minutes, me and my new friend -- on the seat next to me -- sitting Side by Side.
Later, back at the dorm, "Stompy Jones" made another grand entrance, sauntering gracefully into my gray brick and tile holding cell like he owned the place, and this time he laid out the entirety of his tale. A story about late-night, back-room swing sessions with six of your closest friends: piano, sax, trumpet, guitar, bass, and drums. Smooth, but not sleepy. Intimate. Full of warm, after-dark caresses and melodies bright as diamond cufflinks under a spotlight. Suddenly, there's Ellington, banging out those opening chords -- harder, louder -- bass and drums rising to meet his nearly-dissonant pounding until Harry "Sweets" Edison can't take any more and lets loose a trumpet blast to croak a rooster at daybreak. Damn!
And so it went, song after song, play after play of Side by Side; cool, confident, continental, especially the album's three rave-ups with Ellington, "Stompy Jones," "Squeeze Me," and the high-rising "Going Up"; who had time to notice that lush ballads such as "Just a Memory" and "Let's Fall in Love" were from sessions featuring Billy Strayhorn on piano, and Roy Eldridge on horn? It didn't even sound like jazz, necessarily, more like backstage blues -- uptown sounds. Night music. By the time my one and only elective, an introduction to jazz course, finally rolled around several days later, my seduction was complete. Grover Sales was unimpressed.
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, 1934
"Is this any good?" I asked Sales, offering up Side by Side to the lifelong jazzer, a retired writer/publicist, who once counted Ellington among his clients, and who was now in charge of teaching the young know-it-alls at Stanford about "America's Classic Music."
He cast a quick glance at the CD, the familiar after-class crush of students already surrounding the tall, white-haired septuagenarian.
"Sure, they're all good," he said, turning to the next eager face.
I tugged at the hem of his garment once again, a seeker of knowledge clinging to the slope of enlightenment.
"But is this one, is this Ellington album any good?" I pleaded. "Which ones should I get?"
Sales looked at me, then at the CD, then back at me again, tipping his bifocals down a notch so he could level me with a gaze.
"Sure, they're all good."
If the birth of jazz can be traced to New Orleans, and the date 1899 affixed to it -- the year a young black pianist named Scott Joplin published his "Maple Leaf Rag" and thereby touched off a nationwide music/dance craze synonymous with early jazz -- then Edward Kennedy Ellington was born at exactly the right time: April 29, 1899 -- Washington, D.C. He was also, it seems, born into the right circumstances: His father James worked as a butler for a prominent society physician, while his mother's father had been a District of Columbia police captain. According to his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, published a year before his death on May 24, 1974, Ellington's father lived as though they were millionaires, while mother Daisy repeatedly told her then only child, "Edward, you are blessed. You don't have anything to worry about. Edward, you are blessed!"
A fairy tale.
Ellington in the 1920s
"Once upon a time, a beautiful young lady and a very handsome young man fell in love and got married," writes Ellington in the prologue to Music Is My Mistress. "They were a wonderful, compatible couple, and God blessed their marriage with a fine baby boy (eight pounds, eight ounces). They loved their little boy very much. They raised him, nurtured him, coddled him, and spoiled him. They raised him in the palm of their hand and gave him everything he wanted. Finally, when he was about seven or eight, they let his feet touch the ground."
Blessed middle-class in a time with blacks were still being lynched in the South, Ellington's feet raced him straight to the local baseball diamonds where President Teddy Roosevelt often rode up on his horse to watch the children play. The budding sports fan might have stayed this course had not his mother been present to witness her baby getting hit in the head with a bat. After that it was piano lessons. Given that the Ellington household sported pianos, and young Edward was growing up alongside "ragtime," this only made sense. By the time he was 13-14, and after a particular vacation to Atlantic City where he was exposed to "stride" piano (ragtime that allowed for improvisation), Ellington was sneaking into D.C.-area poolhalls and getting an education.
By 1917, the year Scott Joplin died, "Dixieland jazz" had replaced ragtime as the youth culture sound, and Ellington was debuting his first band: The Duke's Serenaders. The group took its moniker from a nickname conferred upon Ellington by one of his "socially uphill" high school friends: "I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship I should have a title. So he named me Duke." The Duke's Serenaders, booked and managed by their namesake (the latter duty would not change throughout his entire career), were more or less an instant hit, allowing Ellington to buy a house and car within two years. Not to be overlooked were Ellington's talents as a pianist; when Ellington challenged the father of stride piano, James P. Johnson, to a "cutting contest" (a battle of the chops) several years later, the upstart made an instant friend and fan out of the legendary Harlem pianist.
In fact, it was Johnson and other legendary stride pianists of the era -- Willie "the Lion" Smith and Thomas "Fats" Waller -- who befriended Ellington when he and his small band hopped a train to Harlem in 1923. "Why, it is just like the Arabian nights," Ellington is reported to have said according to Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington, an expert career biography written by John Edward Hasse, the curator of the Smithsonian's Ellington archive. Though his initial stay would not be long, Ellington playing rent parties to eat, he would not stay away long, either, returning to Harlem for good that fall. By the time the Duke's Serenaders became the Washingtonians, their bandleader had recruited trumpet player James "Bubber" Miley.
"Our band changed character when Bubber came in," says Ellington in Beyond Category. "He used to growl all night long, playing gutbucket on his horn. That was when we decided to forget all about sweet music." A disciple of King Oliver's New Orleans' sound, and by extension Oliver's cornet/trumpet player Louis Armstrong, Miley transformed the Washingtonians from what Hasse terms a "polite dance band" to something "irrevocably into the realm of jazz." It was in this realm, then, that doors began opening for Ellington.
Duke Ellington, 1935
As Harlem's rich cultural renaissance of the Twenties hit full swing, Duke Ellington & His Washingtonians gained more and more acclaim, counting famed Crescent City soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet briefly among their roster. From 1923 on, the growing orchestra even managed to record regularly. It wasn't until late 1926, however, when Ellington met music publisher/promoter Irving Mills, that these recordings would have any lasting significance. The single most important figure in Ellington's career up to that point, it was Mills, who already counted immortal songwriters-to-be Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Arlen among his clients, who made Duke Ellington a household name.
Thus, it's no coincidence that Ellington's first Mills-arranged recording session yielded "East St. Louis Toodle-O," the bandleader's commercial breakthrough. "Black & Tan Fantasy" and "Creole Love Call," two more early, seminal Ellington compositions, soon followed, the former number introducing a new sound to Harlem; a moody, atmospheric cry, wildly exotic, yet mellifluously lyrical. Nocturnal pleasures personified. "Jungle music," someone dubbed it, and not only did it put Ellington on the map, musically speaking, it was also precisely what a bunch of gangsters with a nightclub were looking to exploit. On December 4, 1927, they filled their vacancy for a house band with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Welcome to the Cotton Club. And the roaring Twenties.
Looking like a log cabin from the outside, Harlem's infamous Prohibition-era nightclub was a 500-700 person room located above a theatre at the corner of 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, and it was run by English gangster Owen Madden, bootlegger. Catering to whites only, the Cotton Club was conceived as an after-hours/after-theatre stop, and they took their floor shows and music seriously. Ellington's "jungle" sound fit perfectly with the club's Africa-by-way-of-New Orleans decor. Exotic music for exotic sets, as described in a passage from Beyond Category by Cab Calloway:
"It was a huge room. The bandstand was a replica of a southern mansion, large white columns and a backdrop painted with weeping willows and slave quarters. The band played on the veranda of the mansion, and in front of the veranda, down a few steps, was the dance floor, which was also used for the shows ...
"The sets and costumes were stunning and elaborate, like operatic settings almost. The chorus girls changed costumes for every number, and the soloists, dancers, and singers were always dressed to the hilt -- the women in long flowing gowns, if that was appropriate, or in the briefest of brief dance costumes. Talk about the String -- these chicks wore less than that. Low cut and very, very risqué."
It was here at the Cotton Club, from 1927-31, that Ellington became the embodiment of a famous publicity still from the period, that impossibly debonair black man in top hat and tux. Romance personified. And the country noticed. For starters, Irving Mills had little or no trouble getting the New York press out to see Ellington, music critics instantly recognizing something new and different. The bandleader and his surroundings had achieved a certain synergy; the decor demanded no small amount of "jungle" in the music, but it just so happened that Ellington's three star soloists -- growler Bubber Miley and slide trombonist "Tricky Sam" Nanton, along with Barney Bigard, a clarinetist from New Orleans -- found their strengths in the exotic musical settings their boss was creating for them.
Accordingly, the recordings from this period are some of the best and most beloved in the entire Ellington oeuvre. The titles alone are tantalizing: "The Mooche," "Doin' the Voom Voom," "Jungle Nights in Harlem," "Creole Rhapsody," "Jubilee Stomp." During the same time, Ellington was busy recruiting singular musicians who would become mainstays of the orchestra for decades to come: baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, alto saxist Johnny Hodges, and another growling horn player, Cootie Williams. Ellington would have no problem composing for any of these exceptional sidemen, and with the patronage of the Cotton Club providing a safe, stable environment, that's exactly what he did. Who could have guessed a gangster's nightclub would become the perfect incubator for Duke Ellington?
Aiding Ellington's ascension to household name was, ironically enough, the Depression. Though the orchestra had been playing live simulcasts since its earliest shows at the Cotton Club, adding motion pictures to their résumé in 1929, and Broadway in '30, it was through radio that Ellington's music began seeping into the public consciousness. The cheapest form of entertainment in a time when a dust bowl full of Americans could not afford food and shelter, radio brought Ellington to millions, who, rather than being turned off by the cosmopolitaness of it all, were swept away by the wordless romance, tales of far away places and better times. "Mood Indigo" was recorded specifically for radio, Ellington having figured out miking techniques in the studio. If a nation's dreams were dead, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra were making more -- over the airwaves. Free.
Tying Ellington's fortunes to the Depression makes even more sense when one considers that by the time the country had begun its economic thaw in the late Thirties, the "Swing" craze had touched down like a funnel cloud. Despite having already penned "It Don't Mean a Thing, If It Ain't Got That Swing," Ellington and his growing chorus of voices were by no means a swing band. They could swing all right, but their multitude of strong soloists combined with a myriad of musical textures precluded merely swinging. They were a jazz orchestra, not a swing band. In this sense, the Ellington Orchestra would always be set apart from the swing bands that rose in the wake of World War II, groups like the those of the Dorsey brothers and Glenn Miller.
Though it became increasingly expensive to tour a big band in the early Forties, Ellington had been on the road since 1931, when he left the Cotton Club, and would remain there until his death, his only offspring Mercer taking the reigns of the orchestra on the day his father died -- reportedly playing a date in Florida. Recording had come to a halt in 1934 thanks to a union ban on recording, making it all the more important to play a ballroom circuit that included the Shadowland in San Antonio, and according to Beyond Category "a large Austin hotel for the elite of the state." When the recording moratorium was lifted in 1940, however, Ellington was ready and waiting with a drastically revamped band.
Having already added two superb trombonists in Lawrence Brown and Juan Tizol (credited as co-writer of "Caravan" and the main purveyor of Afro-Cuban concepts in the Ellington fold), the bandleader recruited tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and bassist Jimmy Blanton for what many consider Ellington's finest band: the Blanton-Webster band. With the addition of Billy Strayhorn, a 23-year-old composer/arranger/pianist who approached Ellington in Pittsburgh and was told to look up the bandleader in New York (instructed to "Take the A Train"), the 1940-42 band not only established Blanton as the father of modern bass, it precipitated the rise of "bebop" with recordings such as "Cotton Tail" and "Ko-Ko." Of course, it was this mutant strain of jazz -- the punk rock of the genre -- that signaled the end of the big band era.
With Black, Brown & Beige in 1946, the first of Ellington's many extended works or "suites" -- musical meditations on a certain theme -- and its collection of the bandleader's standards-to-be ("I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Prelude to a Kiss," "In a Sentimental Mood," "I Let a Song Go out of My Heart," "Sophisticated Lady," "Solitude," "Things Ain't What They Used to Be"), the first half of his career came to a close. In the following 10 years, Ellington and the Orchestra would suffer a decline that bottomed out in 1951-55 with the temporary departure of Johnny Hodges. The following year, however, 27 choruses of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival would touch off a creative rebirth ending, more or less, with Hodges' death in 1970.
In between, Ellington would make a series of strong albums for Columbia, including the underrated Shakespearean suite, Such Sweet Thunder, and other welcome catalog additions such as Uptown Ellington, Ellington Indigos, and Blues in Orbit. At this point in time, Ellington started stockpiling his own private stash of recordings -- reinterpretations of older material, test runs of newer ideas -- most of which remains unreleased to this day. In addition, his collaborative work in the late Fifties and early Sixties, albums recorded with Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, and a career highlight trio date with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, remain strongholds of Ellingtonia.
By the time of his death due to complications from lung cancer in 1974, there were several hundred Duke Ellington albums commercially available. According to one Stanford professor, "They're all good."
Imagine a sound that encompasses all sounds, a sound that encompasses all experience -- all forms of being. A sound that originates in the most ancient part of Africa as musical rhythms taking the place of speech, and surfaces on these shores thousands of years later as a wordless wail after having been ripped from its mother's arms. The sound of humanity clinging to life. The sound of the deepest pain balanced with the deepest faith, hope, and ultimately happiness. The sound of the human experience. The sound of Edward Kennedy Ellington -- Duke Ellington and his Orchestra.
Born at the crossroads of two different centuries, not long after Buddy Bolden's cornet was heard in New Orleans' Storyville and Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" was being read as piano roles in sitting rooms around the country, Ellington doesn't just represent 60 years of jazz, he embodies the music of the 20th century -- which is to say, all popular music. After all, one can trace the musical lineage of Joplin to Ellington to jump blues king Louis Jordan to Chuck Berry to Keith Richards. Rock & roll. In fact, one could probably draw a direct line from the rumbling jungle sounds of Cotton Club-era Ellington to the jungle-type pounding administered by the likes of post-punkers like the Jesus Lizard. That, however, would probably be missing the point.
It's not the case that Ellington's influence towers over popular music; on the contrary, Charles Mingus and Sun Ra are two of only a small handful of jazz musicians who wear their huge debt to Ellington proudly on their sleeves. Rather, it's that the bandleader's vast body of music encompasses all other forms of music, beginning and ending with those innately American mediums -- blues, for instance; Ellington is, above all else, blues -- and extends across geographical and genre boundaries; The Far East Suite, for instance, not only filters Asian culture through the experiences of Ellington and Strayhorn, it's like a jazz version of The Who's Quadrophenia in its sonic and emotional thrust. Other suites such as The Togo-Brava Suite, The Latin-American Suite, and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse -- featuring Ellington's only overt nod to rock & roll, "Acht O'Clock Rock" -- are likewise more than musical postcards. Three Suites, which crosses Ellington's Orchestra with Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite and two Peer Gynt suites, is equally proficient at marrying styles, as is The Symphonic Ellington.
More than simply mixing and matching musical styles, however, Ellington filtered them not only through his orchestra, but also through his own personal experience. A man with an insatiable wanderlust and an even bigger appetite for women, Ellington's entire oeuvre is laced with a palpable sense of restlessness and romance -- a combination that never fails to stimulate the listener. A boy who considered himself "blessed," a black man who endured all the indignities bestowed upon his race, an adult who never got over the death of his mother, Ellington was a complex man, one whose base happiness is always reflected in his music. Oh, the music.
Grover Sales was right with regard to Ellington's recorded works: They are all good. After "Stompy Jones" and Side by Side, the natural progression of Ellingtonia dictated the purchase of the Back to Back, the Ellington/Hodges album that precedes Side by Side. It proved even better. Eight years and 60 albums later, only a handful of Ellington albums have been disappointments. In terms of sheer numbers, next down on my list of catalogs is the Rolling Stones, with something like 30 albums -- only 10-15 of which are really any good. Think of it, your favorite group's recorded output multiplied into the hundreds, those familiar voices coming back again and again. And Ellington is one of your favorites, you just don't know it; the dreamy, wistful romance of Ellington's long out-of-print Jazz Violin Session; the Atlantic/Saja 10-CD Private Collection treasure chest; Live at the Whitney, featuring Ellington in a trio reliving his entire career. All the albums, good. Better than good.
Everything we hold in the highest esteem about music -- originality, imagination, technical proficiency, passion -- all of it is in the music of the Duke Ellington to the highest degree. I was lucky. I was blessed with a scholarship that meant someone else was paying tens of thousands of dollars to have Grover Sales teach me and 200 students about Duke Ellington and jazz music. Everyone should be this lucky. All children should be taught jazz in school. It is not only the United States' most important contribution to world culture, it's this country's most important art/history class.
I would like to think that even without Grover's three words of wisdom, I'd have pursued the music of Duke Ellington. Years later, I still get chills everytime "Stompy Jones" comes on. Something about those chords, and how they didn't sound like anything I'd ever heard before -- don't sound like anything else, still. A sound that will take a lifetime trying to fathom while taking comfort in it. A sound that will take scholars and experts hundreds of years to fully understand. A sound Duke Ellington himself attempted to describe in the very last words of his autobiography.
"Roaming through the jungle, the jungle of 'oohs' and 'ahs,' searching for a more agreeable noise, I live a life of primitivity with the mind of a child and an unquenchable thirst for sharps and flats. The more consonant, the more appetizing and delectable they are. Cacophony is hard to swallow. Living in a cave, I am almost a hermit, but there is a difference, for I have a mistress. Lovers have come and gone, but only my mistress stays. She is beautiful and gentle. She waits on me hand and foot. She is a swinger. She has grace. To hear her speak, you can't believe your ears. She is ten thousand years old. She is as modern as tomorrow, a brand new woman every day, and as endless as time mathematics. Living with her is a labyrinth of ramifications. I look forward to her every gesture.
"Music is my mistress, and she plays second fiddle to no one."