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The Boston Phoenix Love Him Madly

The first wave of the Ellington Centennial

By Jon Garelick

APRIL 26, 1999:  Duke Ellington turns 100 on April 29. Although the media and marketing storm began months ago -- with magazine and newspaper arts-section cover stories, and the unveiling of plans for massive CD reissue campaigns from the major record labels -- nothing served to announce the Year of Duke Ellington as forcefully as a footnote to the Pulitzer Prizes. On April 12, the Pulitzer committee awarded a "Special Citation" to Ellington for his "indelible contribution to art and culture" The citation almost righted a 34-year-old wrong when back in 1965 the 14-member Pulitzer advisory board rejected a similar unanimous recommendation by its three-member music jury and created a scandal. Ellington responded with his most famous epigram: "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young." He was 66 years old.

Since that famous snub, Wynton Marsalis, Ellington's most politically powerful living acolyte, has received the first Pulitzer for a jazz composition (despite some argument about whether a piece that includes improvisation can be judged as "composition"), and Ellington has taken his place in the pantheon as not merely the most important jazz composer but the paramount American composer: one whose work married vernacular forms like the blues with formal innovation, whose work spanned popular song and extended instrumental pieces. Credited with more than 2000 compositions, Ellington was a protean talent who, like Shakespeare, worked fast and for money. (One source credits him with 70 pop hits between 1927 and 1953.) He elevated dance-band swing, the early cabaret exotica known as "jungle music" (ages before the current techno variation of the term), and subverted the "sweet" society-band sound of the '20s with dirty "talking" brass. He was the first jazz composer to achieve the self-professed goal of his latter-day descendant George Russell: to "create a classical music from the popular rhythms of our time."

But the Pulitzer citation underlines the controversies -- it hasn't been an easy road to canonization for Duke. Certainly he had his commercial ups and downs, from enormous success to near-irrelevance at certain points. Scholars and critics have argued about his shortcomings -- chief among them that unlike other composers who've reached "major" status by Western criteria, and despite numerous extended "suites," the sustained long form more or less eluded him. (He worked on one opera that remains incomplete and unperformed.) Critics also point to inconsistent quality and lesser achievements after 1950. And there's always been the question of how much Duke is Duke -- how much credit for his compositions belongs to collaborators like Bubber Miley, Juan Tizol, Johnny Hodges, and -- from 1939 until 1967 -- Billy Strayhorn. Surrounding these issues is the usual condescension regarding distinctions between popular art and "high" art, "official" culture and subculture, white mainstream and black margins.

The coming week -- the coming year -- will afford endless opportunities to re-examine Duke Ellington's uncontainable legacy. The major labels are releasing their vast holdings of Ellingtonia in refurbished, repackaged deluxe editions -- RCA with its mammoth 24-CD Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1927-1973 and Columbia with a four-LP reissue on the same date (April 27), followed by the historic Ellington at Newport on May 11, and a triple-CD survey in July. In Boston this week, Marsalis comes to town (Symphony Hall on Wednesday) with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for an Ellington program (following the release on Columbia of their Ellington album Live in Swing City), and our own Aardvark Jazz Orchestra (who have made a specialty of Duke Ellington's music over the years) will assay a night of Ellington, including portions of his ambitious "Sacred Concerts," at MIT's Kresge Auditorium this Saturday (April 24).

The first spate of Columbia reissues gives a good taste of later Duke. First Time! The Count Meets Duke (1961) shows Ellington and Count Basie combining forces to create a riffing, dance-band juggernaut, sleek as it is massive. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is Ellington's one major soundtrack score. Black, Brown and Beige (1958) is an abbreviated suite drawn from an ambitious 50-minute piece he originally wrote for his band's first Carnegie Hall appearance in 1943. Such Sweet Thunder is one of Ellington's most important later works, based on themes and characters drawn from Shakespeare, and recorded in 1956 and '57.

The most accessible of the bunch is the Count Basie session, with Ellington's band in the right channel, the Count's in the left. From the first track, Ellington's "Battle Royal," the album rocks. "Battle Royal" is an uptempo riff tune, and if it doesn't show Ellington's full range as a composer, it shows the kind of dominance bands like Ellington's and Basie's could have over a dance floor, and the importance of individual voices in the Ellington palette. The rhythm section lays down a driving beat, Ellington plunking the tune on piano with Basie-like minimalism. The beauty of the form emerges in the succession of soloists over shifting backing choruses. Here you get a sense of the colors in Ellington's paintbox, his ability to set up a soloist, to match the color and personality of different pieces and passages to the color and personality of each player. In "Battle Royal" you get the combined forces of Basie and Ellington, one distinctive voice after another emerging from those massed horns to speak his piece and move on. Deep trombones join Ellington on the theme, the volume builds with reeds. Ray Nance's trumpet calls out a tart phrase of the theme, a deeper Basie trumpet (Thad Jones?) answers. A florid Frank Wess tenor is answered by Johnny Hodges's suave insinuating cries on the bridge, Nance comes back with a chorus of muted trumpet. The usually lyrical Lawrence Brown gets to show off some tailgating brawn. Sometimes the soloists get no more than eight bars apiece. At one point, Basie and Ellington are throwing piano phrases at each other. It ends with Cat Anderson's stratospheric trumpet flying over the ensemble. It's a simple 32-bar form, AABA, but it's rich in events. A lot of weight gets thrown around -- and a lot gets said -- with fleet economy and not a wasted note.

Anatomy of a Murder and Black, Brown and Beige are less satisfying. Ellington never recorded Black, Brown and Beige complete -- after a rough ride from critics at the 1943 Carnegie concert, he apparently lost confidence in it. Subtitled: Tone Parallel to the American Negro, the three-movement piece was a sonic history, from slavery to emancipation, including work songs, spirituals, and ritual dances. To some critics (classical, especially), Duke was overreaching: "a gaudy potpourri of tutti dance passages and solo virtuoso work . . . The whole attempt to fuse jazz as a form with art music should be discouraged," wrote Paul Bowles in the New York Herald-Tribune.

Gunther Schuller, an Ellington advocate and scholar, has said that in the 1958 recording, "the work's original flaws were unfortunately expanded rather than minimized." You can hear what he means. Ellington's great 1940 masterpieces -- like "Ko-Ko," "Conga Brava," and "Concerto for Cootie" -- move faster than the ear, that ceaseless unfolding of detailed events never letting up, even at slow tempos. But the '58 Black, Brown and Beige keeps working over the same material -- the original's opening "Work Song," and Ellington's one lasting song from the piece, the gospel "Come Sunday" -- in various combinations all leading up to Mahalia Jackson's undeniably powerful performance of the latter ("God almighty, God above, please look down and see my people thru," she sings, before soaring on the bridge to godlike heights) and her singing of the 23rd Psalm. The Columbia reissue gives us the released performance and an alternate, about a half-hour each. Despite some beautiful playing the disc is worthwhile chiefly for Jackson's performances, including one previously unreleased a cappella "Come Sunday" that's breathtaking ("Jesus," mutters Mahalia under her breath when Duke asks her to try it).

The much-vaunted Anatomy of a Murder pales next to Such Sweet Thunder, the former a pastiche of themes, the latter a contained suite of individual masterworks. The opening, title tune of Such Sweet Thunder enters with swaggering brass over a big beat and then, with Ellington's hammering insistent dissonant piano, tinny muted trumpets call out with bluesy, sexy sarcasm. A pack of debonair reeds comes in for a secondary theme, there's a short, relaxed, swinging Ray Nance trumpet solo as the reeds shift down in sonority; then the swaggering figure returns, there's a full ensemble fanfare, and then an odd querying aside by a subdued trombone chorus until the theme returns and the piece ends on an unresolved piano chord.

"Sonnet for Caesar" is a small ballad-tempo concerto for Jimmy Hamilton's clarinet pervaded by an air of mystery and sadness. There's the odd, hesitant martial beat, the chorus of sighing trombones behind Hamilton and, most of all, the strange, three-note-figure responses from an off-stage alto sax to Hamilton's soliloquy -- all lending a kind of instability to the minor-ish key. And then, in the middle of the tune, the martial beat is suspended, Hamilton breaks for a short a cappella phrase, takes a turn with that haunting alto, and breaks into an aching blues cadence as he's rejoined by the trombones and the rest of the reeds.

Those harmonies and colors are signature Ellington, this composer who constantly conjured imagery, scenes, and people in order to convey to his musicians what he wanted. On Such Sweet Thunder even an ostensibly simple swinger like "Madness in Great Ones" is full of odd breaks, stop-times, orchestral twists and turns. (I don't by the way, see any of the resemblances Ellington suggests between his pieces and his purported Shakespearean subjects like Lady Macbeth and Othello, but I'm for whatever helped him write the pieces.)

Ellington was one of the first jazz musicians to abjure the word "jazz," the man who defined the greatest music as "beyond category." On Such Sweet Thunder you can hear what he aspired to -- music that's integral, self-contained, its devices dictated by the necessity of the moment, every detail expanding on and supporting every other. "To attempt to elevate the status of the jazz musician by forcing the level of his best work into comparison with classical music is to deny him his rightful share of originality," Ellington wrote in 1944. Maybe now at last we can hear Ellington as a supreme American original.

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