Album information

The “Duke” and the “Ellington Effect”

Some thirty years after his death, Duke Ellington—pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader—remains one of jazz’s most enduring legends. A great many of his works, like the ones on this recording arranged for piano four hands, have become jazz standards, pieces that successive generations of jazz musicians assimilate and remake in their own image or interpret as faithfully as possible to the originals.

Born in Washington in 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington, came from a middle-class family where music was held in high esteem. His father was employed primarily as a butler for rich white families in Washington, even working for a time at the White House, and young Edward would inherit from him the bearing and sense of elegance that very early on in his career earned him the nickname “Duke.” But beyond this outward appearance, both of Ellington’s parents instilled in their son a set of basic values and, above all, an impetuous joie de vivre that would be his music’s signature.

The family home had a piano, and both of Ellington’s parents played—his father by ear and his mother by note. Their son exhibited musical talent very early on and started piano lessons at the age of seven. But classical training bored him and he soon quit. At about the age of 13, he began to hang out in poolrooms, which were frequented by some of the city’s best jazz pianists. Between games of pool, these pianists would launch into veritable competitions of virtuosity and improvisation on the poolrooms’ old pianos; this is where Ellington really learned to play, observing and asking questions of these musicians. In 1914, at the age of 15, he wrote his first piece, Soda Fountain Rag, also known as Poodle Dog Rag, named after the Poodle Dog Café where he worked in the summer. During breaks, he would sit at the café’s piano and play; he soon began to get invitations to perform at private functions, dances, and jam sessions. The reputation of the young pianist grew quickly, and soon the “Duke” had more offers than he could accept.

However, Ellington was not satisfied with being a mere pianist for hire, and in 1919, he began taking lessons in harmony. Thus, when he decided to move to New York in 1923, he quickly found work, not only as a pianist, but also as a composer, arranger and bandleader. He had made the move to join friends who had preceded him there, and with them, he founded his first band, a quintet called The Washingtonians. Until 1927, they played on Broadway, at the Hollywood Club, later called the Kentucky Club, with the band gradually expanding to ten musicians. From 1927 to 1932, the group was the main attraction at the renowned Cotton Club in Harlem, which billed them as “Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra.”

By this time, Ellington had reached maturity as a composer and, unlike other bandleaders, would work closely with his musicians, taking advantage of each band member’s particular talents rather than trying to homogenize them. This was what his musicians called the “Ellington Effect.” If a trombonist found a way to imitate an elephant call, if a trumpet player with a great high register could evoke tropical bird songs and monkey cries, if a drummer could transform his kit into African drums, Duke would utilize these abilities to create a style that would earn his band the nickname “Jungle Band.” In his famous Mood Indigo (1930), he inverted the New Orleans style, giving the clarinet a supporting role for the trumpet and trombone.

But Ellington was not only about experimentation and novelty; he had no qualms or hang-ups about writing dance music and ballads. The only equal to his imagination was his incredible productivity. During this New York period alone, he recorded over 200 songs, had a contract for live radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club, and systematically published the scores of the pieces he recorded, all of which helped to make him an international star. The songs Rub-A-Tub-Lues, Rent Party Blues, Washington Wabble and Blue Bubbles date from this period.

From 1932 to World War II followed an intense period of U.S. and European tours. Swing was all the rage. Ellington helped start the phenomenon and was one of its dominant figures. Yet despite the heavy touring schedule, Ellington was able to tap into a seemingly limitless source of energy and musical ideas, composing in empty dance halls after shows, in hotel rooms, even on the backs of suitcases in airports and train stations. It was during this period—and likely in one of these settings—that he wrote the classics, songs.

After World War II, the Duke Ellington Orchestra became a cultural ambassador, often representing the United States at international events. By 1946, this role allowed the Duke to augment his band to 18 musicians and to keep it intact through changing tastes and styles. Toward the end of his life, though famous and covered with accolades, he continued to compose with the same verve—producing works such as New World A-Coming, Freedom (Word You Heard) and Satin Doll —until his death in 1974, at the age of 75.

© Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen

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