Beginning to See the Light
By Jay Trachtenberg
MAY 3, 1999: Midway through The Matrix, the hippest, hottest, high-tech mega-movie of the year, a visceral soundtrack of ear-splitting hard rock, hip-hop, and electronica has matched the nonstop action blow for blow. Now, however, the mood and pace have changed from the frenetic to the serene, and it's obvious that this scene, with our hero visiting an otherworldly soothsayer, is a crucial point in the film. Its contrast to the rest of the movie is striking and so is the music. From behind the conversation, exuding in the background as if from a kitchen radio turned down ever so low, is the gentle, lilting, and indeed, lyrically prophetic sounds of Duke Ellington's "I'm Beginning to See the Light." This may be the cybernetic 22nd century, with the human race hanging on the ropes, but it's reassuring to know that Ellington's music has endured the ravages of time. And with our current century fast coming to a close, it may very well be the incomparable musical creations of Duke Ellington that prove most timeless of all.
It hasn't always been that way. "Timeless" is a quality best determined through the perspective lens of hindsight. At various points in a career than spanned six decades, the music of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was viewed as passé. Such was the case in 1956, when his famed Orchestra, a group the bandleader kept together in one form or another starting in the Twenties up until his death in 1974, appeared at the all-important Newport Jazz Festival. By the Fifties, the big band era had long been supplanted in jazz by the advent of small groups in the form of hard bop on the East Coast and cool jazz on the West Coast. Ellington, while still a giant of the genre, was not perceived as cutting edge at this point, and was therefore somewhat out of the spotlight. That is until tenor saxman Paul Gonsalves, as captured on the oft-cited Ellington at Newport, blew an incendiary 27-chorus solo of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" during the Orchestra's festival-closing set, and caused a near riot that instantly put the famed bandleader back on the map.
Likewise, in early 1972 when Ellington was booked into the University of California at Santa Barbara, where I was in school, his music was considered as obsolete and out of fashion as any self-respecting counterculturist could possibly imagine. To put in perspective just how outdated big band jazz was to my generation at that time, when a friend and I, hot off seeing the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder, went to see the Count Basie Orchestra with Ella Fitzgerald and an array of swing stars in Los Angeles the following week, we were virtually the only people there of college age. Here we were, stoned to the gills, with our de rigueur long hair, straggly beards, and T-shirts, while the rest of the sold-out house looked like our parents dressed up for a swank night on the town. Talk about a cultural divide.
Nevertheless, Basie's music was, as expected, every bit as rapturous as the Stones' had been raucous. The swinging, riffing blues we heard all night was akin to Ellington at Newport, my first real exposure to the Duke's music; I remember buying a used copy of the LP in the late Sixties for $1.98. Back then, I hunted mainly for blues albums, but I decided to take a chance on Ellington, perhaps because I recognized the name and knew the reputation, but probably more so because the LP included titles such as "Jeep's Blues" and "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." The latter performance, as mentioned above, was a spectacular rave-up I would play countless times.
Naturally, when the opportunity arose a few years later to book the Ellington Orchestra into UC Santa Barbara for a fraction of what they were paying mediocre rock bands at the time, I jumped at the chance in my capacity as co-chairperson of the school's concert committee. To be perfectly honest, other than the Newport album, my knowledge of Ellington's music -- let alone of his true significance to jazz and American popular music -- was one of benign ignorance.
As proof, my initial intent was to have a greasy, young Chicago-style blues band open the show. Fortunately, the booking agent politely suggested that something with a bit more class might be in order, so jazz pianist Roger Kelloway was booked to open instead. Of course, it never occurred to me as to whom among my fellow students would be the least bit interested in going to hear Duke Ellington. Who, for that matter, in the entire sleepy town of Santa Barbara would want to go? Despite my obvious naivete, I realized this was something special, something that needed to happen, so two shows were booked, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.
A beautiful poster was printed with a magnificent picture of the maestro announcing, in bold lettering, "Duke Ellington." Unfortunately, again in my ignorance, the poster neglected to say "Duke Ellington and His Orchestra," and immediately phone calls started pouring in asking if he was performing alone or with the band. That could have been one contributing factor as to why neither show was more than half filled. Advance sales were so slow; I can remember giving tickets away to various friends just so there would be bodies in the 900-seat hall. I wonder now how many shows Ellington must have played over the years, especially late in his career when he was invisible to the youth culture, where he faced similarly disappointing turnouts.
Despite attending both shows that weekend in February 1972, I can recall very little about either. As far as personnel, I only remember that trumpeter Cootie Williams was in the band and was featured on at least one tune where he was introduced effusively by Ellington, hamming it up while taking his bows. It seemed rather corny and vaudevillian at the time. Recording sessions from this period indicate that along with Williams, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney and alto saxman/clarinetist Russell Procope would have been present and were all who remained from the classic Ellington bands of the past. Indeed, a 16-year-old Carney had filled in for what was supposed to be one night in Boston back in 1926 and ended up staying on with the Orchestra until his death 47 years later. The incomparable alto saxman, Johnny Hodges, had passed less than two years before this gig, and with him went the last semblance of the majestic groups of yore. "My band will never sound the same," lamented Ellington following Hodges' death in 1970.
This seems to have been borne out by both UCSB shows, which were virtually identical, somewhat rote, and to be honest, not particularly impressive to these ears. The music and its execution lacked conviction, the show more or less totally devoid of passion. It was just another couple of one-night stands in a half-filled hall in another small town along an endless road that Ellington been traveling for 50 years. Although I was unfamiliar with even the most famous Ellington evergreens, what I've read since would indicate that the sets most likely included standards like "Satin Doll," "Sophisticated Lady," "Mood Indigo," and "Take the 'A' Train." "How could we not play those songs for the people?" asked Ellington's son Mercer years later. How many thousands of times had they already played those same tunes, night after night?
In retrospect, of course, I feel fortunate to have seen Duke Ellington at all, even in the twilight of his illustrious career. Very few music lovers of my generation had the opportunity. Almost 30 years later, those same songs are still standards in the American popular repertoire and are probably heard and performed more often now. It's unfortunate that my self-directed musical education and a narrowly focused youth culture provided me no basis for being able to appreciate what I was hearing at the time, nor any real musical context in which to place it. Coming out of a rebellious rock & roll aesthetic, the grace, elegance, and subtlety that characterized Ellington's music was totally lost on me. Even as a big blues fan, I couldn't appreciate the sophisticated manner in which Ellington transposed and extended the blues form as no one before or after has even come close to doing.
As a matter of fact, it's been relatively recently that I've come to fully understand and grasp the genius of his music. As a jazz fan for many years, one reaches a point where all roads ultimately lead to Duke Ellington. There isn't a jazz musician alive who was not influenced by Ellington in some way, shape, or form. As a jazz radio program host, I've made it a point for the past several years to play at least one Ellington selection during the course of virtually every weekly show. Even then, one can only barely scratch the surface of the over 2,000 compositions commercially available.
So large is the legacy, so expansive is the scope, so advanced is the vision, so reflective is the music of the American experience and culture, that Duke Ellington is quite simply in a class all by himself. As a musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, and musical conceptualist, he's quite possibly the foremost all-around musical figure of this century. He is certainly the towering presence upon the jazz landscape as we conclude the music's first 100 years.
Taken in its entirety, the Ellington canon stands unparalleled in the annals of American popular music. It has been well-documented how he wrote specific tunes to highlight the distinctive strengths of specific band members. It's generally acknowledged that he used the entire Orchestra as his primary instrument in creating a body of work of such depth and scope as to include jazz instrumentals, popular songs, spirituals, movie scores, theatre pieces, extended suites, semi-classical works, and an unfinished opera. The names of his compositions that are firmly established as certifiable popular standards is simply too lengthy to list. As well, he was a pioneer in his use of the rich African-American experience and the affirmation of racial pride as the basis for many of his most renowned and beloved creations.
The arrival of the centennial celebration of Duke Ellington's birth (April 29, 1899) is a time to pause and take account of his enormous contributions to the American cultural milieu. Even the stodgier strongholds of the arts establishment seem to be making amends. Three weeks ago when the powers that be awarded Ellington a Pulitzer Prize for lifetime achievement 25 years after his death, they were, in essence, making up for their pompous and grievous oversight some three and a half decades ago. Ellington had been unanimously recommended for a special prize to honor his, then, 40 years of "distinguished contributions to music," but he was denied the award on the flimsiest of grounds. It wasn't hard to read between the lines, however. The cultural establishment at that time was just not ready to move beyond the persistent, narrow-minded, ethnocentric notion that anything other than European-derived music could be worthy of such noble recognition. The 66-year-old Ellington was, for his part, characteristically gracious, if a tad sarcastic, in his well-publicized response. "Fate is being kind to me," he declared. "Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young."
Perhaps it has been fate, or maybe enlightenment, that has changed some of these pernicious attitudes in recent decades, attitudes that have prevented us, as Americans, from appreciating a wider and more varied cultural frame of reference. Fate will also have the ultimate word when it comes to Ellington's music, and even though none of us will be around, it wouldn't be at all surprising that the timeless and monumental accomplishments of Duke Ellington would still be recognized, and indeed celebrated, in the 22nd century and beyond.
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