Duke Ellington is considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz composers. His vast creative output as a big band leader saw him take jazz to new levels of sophistication, whilst still managing to retain those key elements that define the music as true jazz. As well as having an endless resourceful musical imagination, he was also greatly skilled at harbouring the individual talents of his band members, designing his compositions towards their specific niche, the widely admired ‘Ellington effect.’ This often made the band’s own recordings the definitive performances of his compositions.
Ellington demonstrated his creative talent from very early on in his career, producing a series of 78 r.p.m recordings which required him to compose great pieces of music within the confines of three minutes. One of his first masterpieces was 1930’s Mood Indigo, which immediately displayed his skill for writing both catchy and innovative music. As a result, it quickly became a standard. By the 1940’s his style had developed to a point which many consider to be his peak for turning out these concise three minute gems, such as 1941’s Koko. However, in these later years, he was also seeking to produce longer more intricate works, such as the symphony (or tone poem) Brown, Black and Beige. He would prove less successful in these extended ventures though, and so later discovered a compromise in the form of suites. These allowed him to compose a series of shorter movements, often linked to one another. Many of these suites were new versions of existing classical works, such as his re-imagining of the Nutcracker Suite, featuring the movement Sugar Rum Cherry.
Like most jazz musicians, Ellington employed very simple structures, often either 32 bar song form, or the 12 bar blues. Mood Indigo, however, has a 16 bar form divided into four bar phrases (A-A1-B-A.) This is stated four times. Firstly there is a statement of the main melody, followed by a clarinet solo, then a trumpet solo, and a four bar piano break before a final recapitulation. This simple structure is not only appropriately concise for the limited three minute recording space, but also displays Ellington’s influence from the blues and New Orleans. Whilst other band leaders of the time, such as Paul Whiteman, produced more complex arrangements or ragtime style multiple sections, Ellington stuck to traditionally authentic blues structures that allowed space for solo improvisations within pre-composed outlines. As Ken Rattenbury states, “Ellington integrated pure improvisation…by means of harmonic progressions which he organised as the bases for extemporisation. Frequently these were conventional blues structures of eight or twelve bars.” Through this, Ellington retained the straightforward emotional directness that gives the blues its power and evocative sense of humanity. He himself would state that “My men and my race are the inspiration of my work,” with many people viewing the blues as the purist expression of African American cultural identity.
Koko makes use of a twelve bar blues structure, although by this point Ellington’s style had significantly developed and the simple form is less obvious, due to the greater variety of textures being used. Despite this, the piece retains its jazz integrity. The track begins with an eight bar introduction, and this leads into seven choruses. These each feature a different combination of soloist and section in dialogue with one another, such as in the opening chorus, where a trombone solo alternates with the reeds. The piece then ends with a varied version of the introduction. Koko demonstrates not only Ellington’s affinity with the blues, but also the skill he had developed at this stage of his career of disguising simple blues structures through intricate composition.
Sugar Rum Cherry features a slightly more complex structure due to it being an adaption of Tchaikovsky’s original Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. However, the result is still relatively simple and nicely accommodates a bluesy saxophone solo. Once again, Ellington mostly sticks to four and eight bar phrases, dividing the main original material into three 8 bar sections, producing loosely the following structure: A-A1-B-B-C-C1-A. The piece also kicks off with a four bar percussion solo, which appears again after the opening A section, and after the C1 section. The reappearance of the opening A theme at the end of the piece is only a partial recapitulation, with the opening bar and a half of the melody repeated time and time again as the piece gradually fades away. The original Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is transformed by this more straightforward structure; it allows for a more direct blues approach, with the B and C sections providing the harmonic outline for a superb tenor saxophone improvised solo that provides a delightful element of hot jazz.
One of the most crucial times of Ellington’s early career was in the late 1920’s when his band had a residency at the Cotton Club, during which period Ellington had to master composing pieces to accompany the club’s stage shows, as well as providing general dance music. As Lewis Porter describes, “At the Cotton Club, (Ellington’s band) played their own swing numbers, played the music of Jimmy McHugh, and did many of the accompaniments. Ellington was forced to learn to write show tunes of various types, and to push the latest dances.” This versatility saw Ellington become adept at three main different styles; the famous ‘jungle style’, abstract instrumental works he often called concertos, and blues influenced mood pieces. Although Ellington worked in a harmonic idiom influenced by European impressionism, he didn’t seek to evoke specific scenes and images, but rather certain moods and emotions, more akin to the impressionism of Delius than Debussy. Burnett James has written that “Ellington’s tone poems are not so much observations of natural objects or human activities as subjective reactions to those objects and activities.” Mood Indigo perfectly demonstrates this. It is one of the bluesy mood pieces he composed for the Cotton Club in 1930, and brilliantly establishes a laidback atmosphere with its slow pace, wistful melody, impressionistic harmony and melancholic sonorities. Koko on the other hand is in his jungle style, a primitive mood established via rasping timbres, tribal percussion rhythms and dissonant harmonies. Ellington’s Sugar Rum Cherry also evokes the jungle style, completely transforming the dainty original via tribal dance rhythms on percussion, stark textures, and dark sonorities. Ellington was the first jazz composer to really explore these varied expressive possibilities in his music, and Porter asserts that “Ellington virtually invented the instrumental jazz ballad, or what Gunther Schuller has called ‘mood pieces’.”
One of the key ways Ellington achieved these different moods was his unique approach to arranging. He favoured innovative and dramatically evocative textures. “A lot of men organised the sections of a jazz orchestra in the way that is common to most big bands…and voiced them, by and large together…Duke didn’t do it that way. He put his colours up through the sections, matching and mixing colours in all sorts of odd ways.” Mood Indigo for example featured unique orchestration for its time, with the melody stated by a wind trio led by a soft muted trumpet in its undemanding middle register, followed by a muted trombone playing at the top of its register, unusually placed above the clarinet, which is on the bottom playing in its lowest register. This creates a highly distinctive sound that is rich, warm and wistful, perfectly matching Ellington’s harmonies. Rattenbury states, “The high register, pent-up trombone sound contributed the essential ingredients of passion and warmth.” This is perfectly matched by the fine trumpet sound and deep rich clarinet. “They sounded like one instrument.”
In other respects, the work is more typical. The block scoring and parallel voicing of the theme is very common in big band music, particularly Ellington’s, where his voicing was influenced by his piano playing. This again is a link to his heritage, in that it is the approach of a self-trained jazz musician, and emits the rustic folk charm and individualism of the blues. As Gunther Schuller asserted, “Such voicings were unorthodox and wrong according to the textbooks. Ellington did not care about the textbooks.” Also, this sort of voicing worked well at heightening the impact of blues notes, as described by Rattenbury. “Ellington was well aware of the enlivening blues dissonances created when the blues scale is superimposed over a basic triadic accompaniment.”
The rest of the piece also uses traditional textures, featuring soloists against a simple rhythm section accompaniment that mostly just states chords every beat. Ellington does create a little variation though, with a double bass countermelody and a brief unaccompanied moment in the clarinet solo, highlighting a moment of climax where the clarinet climbs up to a held high note. However, for the most part the piece retains a very simple, static texture suitable for its dreamy ambience.
Koko on the other hand is a more complex arrangement. This is more appropriate for its restless, jungle style, but again Ellington displays his touch for innovative textures as well as his blues roots. As in Mood Indigo, Ellington avoids sticking to predictable combinations of colours, and instead varies each passing chorus with different instrumental combinations, generally getting thicker as the piece goes on, causing growing dissonance and complexity. For example, the first chorus features a solo trombone and the saxophone choir on top of the rhythm section. Chorus two sees a brass punctuated figure join this texture, and by chorus five all the sections feature, playing off one another. The piece eventually climaxes with a very dramatic and loud full orchestra seventh chorus, with all the sections colliding to great effect.
Unlike Mood Indigo, Koko is constructed as a series of antiphonal exchanges between these different combinations of instruments, another link to the blues, where pieces are often constructed as call and response between a vocalist and his accompanying instrument. These antiphonal exchanges are largely built from riffs that reoccur throughout the work, and there are also a series of pedal notes used in most of the choruses. For example, the introduction features an antiphonal exchange between a recurring baritone saxophone low E flat pedal note that introduces the main rhythmic riff of the piece, and a syncopated descending figure for the three trombone choir. Ellington is often credited for first promoting the three trombone choir, a “less obvious (of) innovations…which he began to use in the thirties.” As in Mood Indigo, simple block parallel voicing is used throughout.
Ellington’s use of the rhythm section has also developed to a more prominent role, rather than merely providing a harmonic and rhythmic foundation. A walking bass is employed that provides a greater sense of momentum in a piece that thrives on its restless energy. The bass also has an important solo role in the sixth chorus, being given a series of breaks in antiphony with the rest of the band that create some effective moments of space and tension before the final big chorus. The piano is also given a prominent solo, in the fifth chorus. The percussion too has a more varied and striking role, as is clear from the evocative dark jungle effects of the introduction produced by “an insistent pattern” on booming tom-toms and bass drum. This only then reoccurs once, at the end of the work, to avoid losing its impact. In the choruses, the hi-hat works with the walking bass to create a gathering sense of momentum, no more clearly than at the start of the final chorus where the percussion crashes back in after a break and creates an immediate feeling of forward propulsion that really adds to the drama.
Sugar Rum Cherry has a more laidback style, making use of novel, stark textures that turn the elegant, classical original into a seductive piece of jazz. The stripped back texture means there is no walking bass or piano, and consequently the piece often doesn’t resemble typical big band music. The main feature is a slinky percussion riff that runs throughout and gives a sense of exotic dance, heightened by the use of tom-toms, as are often employed by Ellington in his jungle works). The piece opens with this percussion part alone, and it appears by itself at various other points throughout, creating a desolate musical landscape. This is matched by a harsh saxophone choir, again working in block parallel voicing, which states the opening theme. Ellington also creates a nice contrast by having the second statement of the theme voiced by the higher saxophones, creating a call and response feel. The B and C sections see muted brass block writing take over the original material. This provides the parameters for an improvised saxophone solo that often works in call and response with its accompaniment. Again, there are contrasts of high and low. As the first theme returns for a series of false starts, Ellington gradually reduces and lowers the texture each time, creating a sense of fading away. The original classical movement is completely transformed by this sly arrangement.
One of Ellington’s most renowned abilities was the way he adapted his compositional style to the players he was writing for, creating a unique sound famously termed as ‘The Ellington Effect’. He worked with incredibly talented musicians, who were always superb blues players and improvisers, and he would allow their skill to inform his composing. This is a process that took place with trumpeter and cornet player Bubber Miley, and the clarinettist Sidney Bechet, from whom he learnt that music “should be sharply characterised and openly emotional.” Bechet’s lyricism is evident in Mood Indigo, particularly in Barney Bigard’s clarinet solo, which perfectly fits Bigard’s temperament as a player. Jeff Aldam describes his style as having “a warm, vocalised tone, full of inflections and long glissandi…He is an exceptionally able improviser of the blues.” All these elements abound in his florid yet delicate solo.
Koko on the other hand emanates Miley’s ‘jungle style’ influence. The blues tradition of rough, growling vocal tones is imitated by the imprecise intonation and coarse timbre of the instruments, such as Harry Carney’s visceral baritone saxophone sound which opens the piece, and the frequent use of plunger brass punctuation. Sam Nanton also influenced the development of the jungle style, and his Koko improvised trombone solo demonstrates this, with his frequent ‘wa-wa’ mute in typically frequent use. Sonny Greer delivers his energetic tribal drumming effects, and Jimmy Blanton is one of “a series of forward looking bassists” Ellington would use, capable of a “precise, buoyant beat, a rich tone and who could play melodies with impressive speed and lyricism.” This is evident from his alternating walking bass patterns, and lively solo breaks. Ellington’s piano solo meanwhile shows how his own unusual style had developed. Percussive, brusque and dissonant, it anticipates the innovative approach of Thelonius Monk. Ellington’s playing style was “widely admired by other pianists. Modern jazz pianists such as Thelonious Monk, Mal Waldron and Randy Weston have testified to his influence on their playing.”
Sugar Rum Cherry has a similar jungle approach to instrumentation, but with far more dominant saxophone textures throughout. Again, rough blues timbres are employed, tribal drumming effects, and muted brass. Ellington also brilliantly accommodates a superb tenor saxophone solo improvisation for Paul Gonsalves that gives him plenty of space for his typically “extended improvisations of great swing”. His very breathy, hot approach also matches the desolate mood of the piece.
Harmonically, Ellington like most jazz musicians combined the basic principles of European harmonic progressions, which, as Jeff Aldam describes, “he organised as the bases for extemporisation,” to which he added the blues scale. Ellington also has strong overtones of more sophisticated impressionistic harmony in his work, with Ken Rattenbury noting his use of “impressionistic chordal structures…the closest harmony could come to incorporating the effect of the nontempered intervals formed by blues improvisation against a basic blues accompaniment.” Mood Indigo clearly shows this. It has the same repeating 16 bar chord sequence almost all the way through, allowing for prominent extemporisations. The relatively straightforward chord sequence is enriched with blue flattened thirds, fifths and sevenths, whilst unusual major seventh and ninth chords create the dreamy impressionistic ambience. Mood Indigo also demonstrates how Ellington explored more subtle approaches to chord changes than other jazz musicians of the time, with chords “shaped by very small movements in the line of one or two instruments- for example, a shift of one half step in the clarinet makes the chord change at the end of the first bar.” This gave him far more expressive avenues than other band leaders explored.
Koko demonstrates how later in his career Ellington began “introducing dissonance to an unparalleled degree in jazz,” transforming the underlying twelve bar blues harmonies, and anticipating the greater use of dissonance in be-bop music. By not modulating at any point, the piece maintains a dramatic intensity. This is furthered by the dissonance, which increases as the texture builds and the various different parts collide, often on top of pedal notes that conflict with the changes in harmony. There are also endless added blue notes, most powerfully so in the big chords of the final chorus. This all creates a growing sense of tension and drama. Koko also anticipates modal jazz as it is in a transposed Aeolian mode.
Sugar Rum Cherry sees these various features all come together. The original theme is harmonised with blue notes and added dissonant chromaticisms, particularly when the melody frequently embarks on chromatic stepwise descents. The B and C sections then provide Ellington with the chordal outline for a hot solo that often deviates from the underlying harmony into more bluesy and dissonant territory.
A strong sense of syncopation and swing are equally vital elements of Ellington’s music. Like other jazz musicians, he inherited the syncopation of ragtime music, and the swung approach to melody and improvisation of the blues. Mood Indigo features a highly laid back rhythmic approach in its main melody. The solos however are highly swung and syncopated throughout, providing a crucial sense of lyricism that matches the reflective mood. Koko has a far more restless and energetic approach, with the immediately syncopated percussion and trombone choir rhythms of the introduction, helping establish the ‘jungle’ style with their sense of exotic dance. The various solos also all feature an element of swing to match the ‘hot’ nature of the piece. Sugar Rum Cherry similarly has syncopated percussion rhythms throughout, and Ellington brilliantly takes Tchaikovsky’s original melodies and transforms them with swung rhythms, taking away their daintiness and replacing it with a dirty, leering quality. Paul Gonsalves then delivers a very rhythmically complex solo filled with irregular phrases, extended periods of swing, unpredictable pauses, and virtuosic passage work.
In analysing these three pieces, not only can we see Ellington’s innovative approach to composition and the profound influence the blues had on his style; we also witness how much his music developed over the years. He grew more sophisticated in his use of contrasting textures and dissonant harmonies, to the extent that he outgrew the three minute recording format that had made him so famous. As such, he began composing larger, more complex works, but always with the same fundamental stylistic principles at heart: blues harmonies, simple structures, hot improvisations, innovative instrumental combinations and evocative textures. Also, because Ellington designed his work specifically for the players he was writing for at the time, these recordings give us the definitive interpretation of the works, as they were intended to sound. Consequently, credit must also be given to the superb set of musicians who contributed so much to Ellington’s great body of work.
Jeff Aldam, “The Ellington Sidemen” Duke Ellington: His Life and music, ed. Peter Gammond, (London, 1959)
James Lincoln Collier, Duke Ellington, (London, 1989)
Burnett James, “Ellington’s place as a composer,” Duke Ellington: His Life and music, ed. Peter Gammond, (London, 1959)
Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992 )
Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer,(London and New Haven, 1990)
 Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer, (London and New Haven, 1990) p52-53
 Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992) p98
 Ibid, p102-104
 Burnett James, “Ellington’s place as a composer,” Duke Ellington: His Life and music, ed. Peter Gammond, (London, 1959) p150
 Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992) p96-98
 Gene Lees quoted in Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer, (London and New Haven, 1990) p21
 Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer, (London and New Haven, 1990) p92
 Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992) p104
 Gunther Schuller quoted in Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer, (London and New Haven, 1990) p27
 Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer,(London and New Haven, 1990) p53
 Ibid, p106-108
 Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992 ) p110
 Ibid, p100
Jeff Aldam, “The Ellington Sidemen” Duke Ellington: His Life and music, ed. Peter Gammond, (London, 1959) p200
 Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992 ) p98
 Ibid, p106
 Ibid, p115
 Jeff Aldam, “The Ellington Sidemen” Duke Ellington: His Life and music, ed. Peter Gammond, (London, 1959) p206
 Ken Rattenbury, Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer,(London and New Haven, 1990) p53
 Ibid, p53.
 James Lincoln Collier, Duke Ellington, (London, 1989) p145
 Lewis Porter, Michael Ullman with Edward Hazell, Duke Ellington in Jazz: From it’s origins to the present, (London, 1992 ) p96
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