How Duke Ellington stretched the boundaries of jazz and classical
Born in our nation’s capital in 1899, Duke Ellington went on to write more than 2,000 pieces of music.
San Antonio's KRTU Jazz 91.7 FM Music Director Kory Cook says Ellington (1899-1974) was the “heart and soul of American music.” Pianist Bill Charlap elaborates, “he was a bandleader, he was a pianist, he was a classical writer, he was a songwriter, he was a jazz writer, and an incredibly effervescent and charismatic personality.”
For African American Voices on KPAC 88.3 FM, we’re listening to the music of Duke Ellington, and taking a deeper dive into how he pushed the boundaries of jazz with pieces that were inspired by classical forms and composers. Duke Ellington wrote extended suites, symphonic jazz, ballet music, film scores, and he left behind a partially completed jazz opera.
NOTE: Listen to all five segments using the audio player at the top of this story.
PART ONE — Two sides (of a 78) aren't enough
As a young boy, Edward Kennedy Ellington grew up playing ball around the neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. But he was no rough and tumble kid. His mother Daisy emphasized the importance of manners. He took piano lessons. And his friends, noticing the dignified air with which Edward carried himself, took to calling him Duke.
Syncopated ragtime music was sweeping the nation in the first decade of the 20th century, and when Ellington was still a teenager, he wrote the “Soda Fountain Rag.”
Duke Ellington formed his first group in 1917, playing around the D.C. and Virginia area, and moved up the east coast to New York. His earliest records came in 1924, and his first big hit was “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” in 1927.
Ellington’s vision was greater than the three-minute sides of a 78 RPM single, though. In 1929, he recorded a two-sided version of the famous “Tiger Rag,” to better recreate the experience audiences got in the clubs, where the band could stretch out. That opened Ellington’s world, according to pianist and Northwest Vista College professor, Aaron Prado.
“All of a sudden sort of the sky's the limit,” Prado says.
With “Creole Rhapsody” in 1931, Prado says, “There's an incrementality of like, how do you increase those lengths? But it's always based on something that's fairly simple and then expands upon it through the development. I mean that compositionally… development using the different voices in the band in a way that takes the original subject matter and then, you know, recasts it like a prism. You see a different color of the same stuff.”
“Creole Rhapsody” was through-composed. There’s little if any improvisation, and in total, it’s over six minutes long. In the jazz world, no one else but Duke Ellington was doing things like this in the early 1930s. Despite the simple form of “Creole Rhapsody,” these were musical adventures, as author Harvey Cohen wrote in his book, “Duke Ellington’s America.” Early works like “Creole Rhapsody,” and “Reminiscing in Tempo” (written after the death of Ellington’s mother Daisy), “upset those segments of society that insisted on strict pop/classical segregation,” according to Cohen.
By the mid-1930s, Duke Ellington was on film as well as on record. The “Symphony in Black,” short film and accompanying piece, though only 9 minutes long, borrowed not only its four-movement structure from classical music, but storytelling as well. The secondary title of the work was “A Rhapsody of Negro Life.” This was music to convey the Black experience in America, something that Duke Ellington would continue to explore in the decades to come.
PART TWO — Gershwin and Ellington
Duke Ellington stretched the boundaries of jazz when he wrote his "Creole Rhapsody" in 1931. The six-minute composition was longer than anything ever attempted by a jazz writer. In 1933, the piece shared the bill with music by Ferde Grofé at Carnegie Hall as part of Paul Whiteman’s famous series of concerts dubbed “An Experiment in Modern Music.” This was ten years before Ellington’s band themselves would grace the stage, a landmark performance that we’ll be talking about in the next episode of this series.
Sidebar: Jazz historians haven’t been kind to Paul Whiteman, and for good reason. As writer Harvey G. Cohen observed, Whiteman’s written history of jazz ignored African Americans, and the 1930 Hollywood film starring Whiteman, “King of Jazz,” is an all-white revue. But Duke Ellington himself praised Whiteman in his autobiography “Music is My Mistress,” writing “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity.”
Like Ellington, Whiteman’s commissions bridged the gap between classical and jazz. It was at his first “Experiment in Modern Music” in 1924 that his band premiered George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” In his biography, "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington," writer Terry Teachout says that while Gershwin’s first “Rhapsody” is still more of an episodic work than a piece where the themes connect in a so-called classical manner, “the episodes are sufficiently long—and tuneful—to endow the piece with a modicum of solidity.”
George Gershwin also spent time studying the way classical music was constructed, and just eleven years after “Rhapsody in Blue,” he wrote what many scholars claim to be the great American opera, “Porgy and Bess.”
But as pianist and Northwest Vista College professor Aaron Prado points out, Gershwin may have been influenced by Black culture, but influence only goes so far.
"If his music is being imitated by Gershwin, then put on the concert stage, shouldn't Duke Ellington... present his own version of what that would sound like?"Aaron Prado
“I don't think anybody would argue that 'Porgy and Bess' isn't one of the great pieces of American music,” Prado says. “[But it was] written by George Gershwin, who was not Black. And it was portraying, you know, Black people on stage and the music of Black people, in the blues phrasing and the syncopated rhythms and all of that.”
“So I think Duke Ellington wanted to do what George Gershwin had done. I think he was inspired by Gershwin, I don’t think there's any way to deny that. But he had an opportunity to do it from … a more authentic way, as somebody who was actually doing the stuff that George Gershwin was imitating in the first place! If his music is being imitated by Gershwin, then put on the concert stage, shouldn't Ellington do that same work of making concert music, and present his own version of what that would sound like? I think that's what he was trying to do.”
So Duke Ellington aimed his sights and his compositional pen toward an opportunity to share the Black experience on one of the most prestigious stages in America, Carnegie Hall.
PART THREE — "Black, Brown and Beige"
As early as 1930, composer Duke Ellington was thinking about sharing Black history through music. Throughout the 1930s, he’d give interviews where he talked about writing a symphonic saga of the African race, "from the jungle to Harlem." At one point the piece was going to be an opera, called “Boola.” The title, Ellington explained, referred to someone who was a credit to their race. But there were no financial backers to be found. America was a segregated country, and even someone of Ellington’s stature couldn’t get a piece about Black history produced onstage.
But as author Harvey Cohen pointed out in his book “Duke Ellington’s America,” the outbreak of World War II brought a new opportunity. America was fighting the Nazi scourge abroad while putting up the façade of a country united in diversity. By framing his piece as part of the war effort, Ellington was able to present his African American story.
“Black, Brown and Beige,” as the piece was called, premiered in Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943, as part of a mammoth-length concert with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, proceeds of which benefitted Russian War Relief.
The black-tie audience was dotted with famous names like Glenn Miller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, and Leopold Stokowski.
Thundering kettle drums announce the “Work Song” that opens the first movement, which gives way to one of the loveliest melodies Duke Ellington ever wrote, played by Johnny Hodges on saxophone. The song later became known as "Come Sunday." Ellington said the theme was "intended to depict the movement inside and outside the [white] church, as seen by workers who stood outside, watched, listened, but were not admitted. This is developed to the time when the workers have a church of their own."
Writer Terry Teachout called Ellington’s feel for orchestral color in this opening movement “as sure as anything to be heard in the music of Debussy or Ravel.” The second movement of the piece, “Brown,” includes influences from the West Indies, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, and pays tribute to the Black contributions to American military struggles, eventually leading to the blues, sung by Betty Roché.
“Beige,” the third movement, brought the history of African Americans up into the 1920s and ‘30s, and here Duke used his introduction to offer a subtle political commentary on the state of Black folks in America.
"Many don't have enough to eat and a place to sleep, but work hard and see that their children are in school. The Negro is rich in education, and develops 'em until we find ourselves today struggling for solidarity. But just as we're about to get our teeth into it, our country is at war and in trouble again. And as before, we of course find the Black, Brown and Beige right in there for the Red, White and Blue."Duke Ellington
“Black, Brown and Beige” lasted nearly 50 minutes that night. No one had heard anything quite like it before. Critic Douglas Watt wrote in the Daily News that the piece was “entirely out of Ellington’s ken.” Another, John Hammond, lamented that Duke Ellington was “deserting jazz music.” Ellington dismissed those criticisms with a wave of his hand. “We stopped using the word 'jazz' in 1943,” he later claimed.
Some publications praised “Black, Brown and Beige” and its message. Those included Metronome, Down Beat, and Billboard.
Jazz 91.7 Music Director Kory Cook says the mixed-to-negative reaction at the time is understandable, given the skill set of the critical establishment.
"How they reviewed music back then is so different than it is today because of their perception of music," Cook says. "[Those] sort of Euro-centric values that they would apply to chamber music or symphonic music... [Ellington] was criticized because of his his playing in jazz. But I don't think it really bothered him too much or anything. It might have provided sort of a a challenge for him to stand out."
Even if he wouldn’t admit it, the criticism of “Black, Brown and Beige” stung. The live Carnegie Hall recording is the only record of the full-length version, because Duke Ellington never again performed the work in its entirety. He did excerpt the music for future recordings including a date for Columbia Records, with Mahalia Jackson. As a result, “Come Sunday” became a standard of the repertoire that’s found its way into classical and jazz concerts alike.
PART FOUR — Duke Ellington finds the suite spot
Eleven months after Duke Ellington made his Carnegie Hall debut he was back on December 11, 1943 with more new music. The program once again included a piece of music meant to share the Black experience. “New World A-Comin’” is a short piano concerto that shares its title with a best-selling book in which the Black journalist Roi Ottley called for racial equality.
Duke Ellington wrote about the music in his autobiography: “I visualized this new world as a place in the distant future, where there would be no war, no greed, no categorization, no non-believers, where love was unconditional, and no pronoun was good enough for God.”
The music not only looked toward earthly matters, but foreshadowed Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts” in the 1960s. “New World A-Comin’” was later arranged for piano and symphony orchestra.
Pianist Aaron Prado says one of the great things about Ellington is his ability to tell stories in music—the stories of his people.
“His music is about stuff, you know?” Prado says. “His music is painting portraits. Look at some of the great concert pieces like the ‘Tone Parallel to Harlem.’ It's about the scenes of the people living in that part of New York City. And so he's always painting a portrait of everyday life, of celebrations, of sorrows.”
“Harlem,” from 1951, was commissioned by conductor Arturo Toscanini as kind of a concerto grosso, where the Ellington band would be integrated into the larger NBC Symphony Orchestra. The music takes the listener on a tour of Harlem, which Ellington pointed out was always full of more churches than nightclubs.
“It's just a tour de force! I think of the Bartok ‘Concerto for Orchestra,’ where each instrument is given a chance to shine. I mean, ‘Harlem’ is just about as close as you get to that sort of thing,” says Prado.
Still, in the 1940s and 1950s, Duke Ellington found his greatest long form success in a series of suites that allowed him to bring together thematically linked material. There was the "Perfume Suite," from 1944. "The Deep South Suite" in 1946, which featured the famous “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” melody. "The Liberian Suite," commissioned for the centennial of Liberia in 1947. "The Newport Suite," written for Ellington’s comeback gig at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. And later, jazz interpretations of music by Edvard Grieg, and Tchaikovsky’s famous “Nutcracker Suite.”
“With the advent of the suite, Duke is able to take the miniature, and in the tradition of the dance suites of, say, Bach and Haydn and any of the composers of the baroque and classical period, have these shorter movements that together make up a larger work,” Prado explains, “instead of trying to do the ‘jazz symphony’ thing of ‘Black, Brown and Beige.’ And I think that ends up working for him equally, if not a little bit better, than the symphonic approach.”
One of the most fascinating of these suites was written for Her Majesty the late Queen Elizabeth II. It was 1958, the Queen was attending an arts festival where Duke and his orchestra were performing. The story goes that the two royals really hit it off, and Duke Ellington composed a special suite for the Queen, recorded it in 1959, pressed one copy on a gold record, and sent it straight to Buckingham Palace. The music was never released commercially in Ellington’s lifetime. But a few years after his death, "The Queen’s Suite" was issued on record. The music hangs together beautifully through its heavy use of woodwinds; all of the movements are themed after something in nature. And the best melody? "The Single Petal of a Rose."
In the final installment of our Duke Ellington series on African American Voices, we’ll listen to Ellington’s work for stage and screen.
PART FIVE — Stage, screen, and final works
Duke Ellington’s best long-form music, as we’ve seen in this series, tells great stories. So why not add pictures?
In 1959, director Otto Preminger brought Ellington on to his latest project, the courtroom drama, “Anatomy of a Murder.” The film, distributed by Columbia Pictures, was the first major Hollywood production to hire a Black composer to write the score.
Throughout the 1960s, Duke Ellington continued writing suites, and producing stellar jazz music. But as he moved into what would be the final decade of his life, he was hard at work on projects for the stage.
Ellington had been tinkering with the idea of writing a piece of aquatic music. “The River” was commissioned by Alvin Ailey in 1970. The maestro poured himself into this music despite a grueling schedule—he’d wake up at five in the afternoon, play shows and entertain guests, and work through the following morning until 10 a.m. before finally catching a few winks.
For “The River,” Ellington was inspired in part by listening to Handel’s “Water Music,” and Claude Debussy’s “La Mer.” His son Mercer Ellington says his father’s sacred concerts of the 1960s also influenced “The River.” Ellington spoke of the piece being about “birth, the wellspring of life… reaffirmation… [and] of heavenly anticipation of rebirth.” The music moves one through “Giggling Rapids,” and across a peaceful lake. It’s one of Ellington’s best long-form works, exquisitely recorded later by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Only seven movements of the full ballet were performed during Ellington’s lifetime.
Another dance score Ellington was working on when he died was “Three Black Kings,” written for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The piece for jazz band and orchestra was completed by Mercer Ellington, and follows three historical figures, the King of the Magi, King Solomon, and Martin Luther King, whose music is characterized with a soulful gospel beat and feel atypical of Ellington’s other work. The Martin Luther King movement has started to enter the classical canon.
In his biography of Ellington, Terry Teachout says Ellington was well-suited for the stage, writing, “how great a loss it was that Ellington never wrote a full-evening ballet… his ability to write concise musical character studies made him as well suited to the creation of dance scores as were Tchaikovsky or Delibes.”
Ellington also left behind sketches of a jazz opera, “Queenie Pie,” and no doubt countless other songs and pieces of music, when he died on May 24, 1974. Over 12,000 people attended his funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan.
He is remembered today for hits like “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Mood Indigo,” and “Sophisticated Lady.” But Ellington also deserves the wider recognition of having stretched the format, breaking down the walls between classical, jazz, and popular music.
“Duke Ellington always thought that the best music was what he would call beyond category, and Duke exemplified that in every way," says pianist Bill Charlap. "He was everything. He was a bandleader, he was a pianist, he was a classical writer, he was a songwriter, he was a jazz writer, and he was an incredibly effervescent and charismatic personality. You can't you can't categorize Duke Ellington, but he was all of those things.”
As Jazz 91.7’s Music Director Kory Cook says, although no one disputes Ellington’s ranking as a great composer, we’re still taking today about where he fits.
“People discuss whether he brought jazz into the symphonic world or if he took elements of the symphonic world and brought it to jazz,” Cook says. “I did see one interview once where Duke Ellington says he was a he wrote jazz symphonies, and Leonard Bernstein says he wrote the symphonic Jazz. And they agreed on that! But at the same time, I think it's both. I think he brought jazz into classical music and he took other elements of classical music and put it into jazz. And that's why that discussion continues to go on to this day… [audiences] want to put him in a category. We want to put him among a bunch of other names. Duke Ellington can stand on his own, as well in the history of American music.”
To wrap up, I’ll offer my own favorite maxim of Duke Ellington’s, that there are only two kinds of music: good, and bad! By now, you know where I stand.
- Cohen, Harvey G., "Duke Ellington's America" University of Chicago Press, 2010
- Teachout, Terry, "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington" Gotham Books, 2013
- Duke Ellington, "Carnegie Hall Concerts, 1943," Notes by Leonard Feather
- Duke Ellington, "Carnegie Hall Concerts, 1944," Notes by Jerry Valburn
- American Composers Orchestra, "Four Symphonic Works by Duke Ellington," Notes by Maurice Peress
Broadcast of African American Voices on KPAC 88.3 FM is made possible by the Carver Community Cultural Center.