The Musicianship of Duke Ellington 

Duke Ellington

Photo: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington is one of history’s most significant musicians. His debonair presentation and refined approach to the implementation of the big band orchestra made him a key figure in the development of jazz, a genre which he ultimately transcended.

Over the course of his sixty year career, Duke Ellington was responsible for establishing dozens of original jazz standards. He also mentored a number of musicians who would become top players within the genre. Some such players include Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, and Billy Strayhorn.

While many of the most prominent figures in jazz, such as Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane earned their reputations by way of virtuosic command of their instruments and improvisational composition in a band setting, Duke Ellington’s foremost contributions to the musical form are often considered to lie within his seemingly innate aptitude for arrangement and composition. The predisposed sonic textures present within his original compositions did much in the way of shaping the way instruments would be blended together and presented in future recordings and performances throughout multiple genres.

While Ellington’s work as a composer and arranger have had an indelible effect upon the development of the genre, his own abilities as a musician often go unevaluated by comparison. This, despite the leader having conducted his famous orchestra from the piano throughout his career. However, a cursory review of the pianist’s extensive discography would without doubt reveal innumerable instances of irrefutable excellence from the piano lead.

One such example is 1963’s Money Jungle – recorded with bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach – which sees Duke Ellington doing the heavy lifting melodically while being supported only by the rhythm section. Money Jungle has become an influential document in the greater jazz canon, it’s presentation relying upon the musical interplay between Duke Ellington and his collaborators. The music throughout draws heavily from the inspired approach of iconic soloists Mingus and Roach, and maintains the relative lack of distinguishability between the performative and compositional instincts of the bandleader.

More illuminating delineations of Duke Ellington’s own musicianship exist within the composer’s rare forays into sparser musical territory. When approaching an artist whose work is most prominently characterized by the lushness and richness of its arrangements, one must begin to peel back layers in order to gain a true understanding of what makes the music tick.

As a young man, Duke Ellington developed his abilities by emulating stride pianists such as Luckey Roberts and Cliff Layton. Composing his first piece of music at 14 before learning to chart notes, he would repurpose the piece – which he called “Soda Fountain Rag” – by applying different rhythmic structures and presenting the variations themselves as independent pieces of music. This would foreshadow Duke Ellington’s sharp instinct for song structure and for the intertwining of disparate musical forms to create entirely new pieces.

Duke Ellington knew early on, however, that he wanted to play with other musicians, and thus set out to assemble a group. By 1923 he would be leading his own orchestra, a position which he maintained up until his passing in the mid-70s. As a bandleader, Duke Ellington was able to fulfill a role which he relished, that of the accompanist. Bebop legend Dizzy Gillespie, who played with Duke Ellington’s orchestra for a short while, spoke reverently of the composer, praising his unsurpassed instinct for accompaniment, or comping, as the best in the world.

While Duke Ellington would take the occasional solo spot and was more than proficient in improvisation, his ultimate aim was always to serve the composition. Duke Ellington was perhaps the first pianist to develop a style centered primarily on accompaniment, and – along with Count Basie – pioneered the utilization of the piano as a lead instrument that doesn’t necessarily go out of the way to draw attention to itself. As such, his performative approach was more akin to that of a musician like Keith Richards than Yngwie Malmsteen, with Duke Ellington often opting to allocate solo spots to members of his orchestra rather than to himself.

Nonetheless, Duke Ellington’s body of recorded work offers listeners chances to experience his distinctive touch in a more personal capacity through his collaborations with smaller ensembles. One such opportunity presents itself through his 1953 album The Duke Plays Ellington, which features the composer interpreting many of his own pieces in a three-piece ensemble format.

The album’s mix features the piano prominently, with light bass and brushed drums acting as a loose framework for Duke Ellington’s eloquent, stride-infused expressionism. Here, the nuance and control of Duke Ellington’s playing are underlined, with tracks like “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” displaying exemplary use of space simultaneously with incredible speed and dexterity of the right hand.

Many characteristics of Duke Ellington’s playing would be adapted by Thelonious Monk, including a highly percussive approach to striking the keys, as well as utilization of space as a compositional tool. Though it could be argued that Ellington’s own approach employed an even more economical use of notes. Tracks like “Melancholia” and “Retrospective” carry the emotional density and subtlety of note selection that would color much of the work of Bill Evans, himself widely regarded as one of the most emotive players of all time due to his application of European Classical techniques with the purposeful exploration of modal jazz harmonics.

Duke Ellington’s predisposition to generous dispensation of bass notes is evident throughout these numbers, as is his propensity for allotting a wide breadth of distance between the bass and treble notes being played on the piano. The resulting effect gives the sensation of parallel movement in a single direction from highly varied vantage points. This, while nearly disorienting on its own, is tied together by the bass tones within the mid-range of the accompanying instrumentation.

Despite being applied within the context of a smaller ensemble for The Duke Plays Ellington, this technique is one of many which are highly indicative of why Duke Ellington’s approach is so effective in a big band setting. Despite the inherent fullness of his sound, there is a sparseness in Duke Ellington’s note selection when building chords which allows for the layering of multiple tone colors in the assemblage of multiple instruments, while taking care not to overwhelm the listener with walls of repeated notes.

Elsewhere – on tracks like “Who Knows?” – Duke Ellington demonstrates an effortless propensity for swing, again making exceedingly economic use of space to create dynamics which one may not have even considered possible within the limitations of a three piece ensemble. Similarly, 1974’s The Pianist features Duke Ellington’s technique largely unimpeded, again with only a rhythm section occupying the space between the listener and Duke Ellington’s masterful attack. Projects such as these stand as staunch affirmations of Duke Ellington’s musicianship on its own merits, his unparalleled brilliance as a composer and arranger notwithstanding.

Collaborative efforts with highly regarded soloists such as John Coltrane made clear that the jazz legend was more than capable of holding his own with more contemporary figures as styles and trends began to evolve. Jazz itself underwent a litany of evolutions in the decades following Duke Ellington’s arrival upon the scene.

But Duke Ellington was insistent upon maintaining a sound which he felt was true to himself. This led to a period of commercial misfortune for the pioneering pianist, but professional regard to his indispensable contributions to the form never faltered, and Duke Ellington became an elder statement of sorts for the genre during its contemporary resurgence during the 1950s.

Duke Ellington would record collaborative projects – in addition to those previously mentioned – with several high profile artists. Collaborators on these records would include Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong, among others. The collaborative efforts only further solidified Duke Ellington’s standing as one of the most highly respected comping musicians in the genre. The attentive, understated, and mindful backdrop he provided for other musicians not only provided them with the opportunity to showcase their own abilities, but also elevated their playing to optimal levels.

Collaborations with monumental figures such as Basie and Armstrong – who had been considered peers of Duke Ellington’s in the developmental years of jazz music – had been eagerly awaited for decades. The very undertaking of these excursions – never mind the riveting results produced from the efforts – speaks to the enormity of Duke Ellington’s musical influence, as well as his immense capacity as a musician in his own right.

The resulting albums, First Time! The Count Meets the Duke – with Count Basie – and Together for the First Time and The Great Reunion – with Louis Armstrong – continue to be held in high regard, and serve as invaluable documentation for the posterity of jazz and of popular music as a whole. Furthermore, Duke Ellington’s collaborative album with Frank SinatraFrancis A. & Edward K. – demonstrates the level of respect displayed for him by other musicians, as Sinatra was one of the world’s most well-known artists at the time of its recording.

The true return to commercial distinction for Duke Ellington following his mid-to-late career slump is most widely considered to have occurred following his 1956 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The orchestra’s set was said to have been going as would normally be expected, when the playing of tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves during a chorus section of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” – a stage number comprised of two sister-tracks, “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue” – began steadily working the crowd into excitable hysterics.

Quick on his feet, the veteran bandleader took notice and seized the opportunity. Despite the set already having run very late into the evening, Duke Ellington continued calling for Gonsalves to play on. Doing what he did best, comping relentlessly behind the musician, Duke Ellington – along with the frenetic Newport crowd – urged Gonsalves on for a whopping 27 choruses. Festival organizer George Wein repeatedly called for Duke Ellington to wrap up his set, but the pianist followed his instincts, pushing the show well past the established cut-off time.

The resulting LP, Ellington at Newport, would become the highest-selling album of the musician’s influential career. The record would once again establish the Duke’s position as one of the foremost voices in jazz at a time when more experimental, modern approaches were usurping the lion’s share of attention within the genre.

The album also created a fresh demand for live dates from Duke Ellington and his famous orchestra, with which he would continue to successfully perform and record until his passing in 1974. On the strength of his innumerable contributions to popular music – and ostensibly, his increased profile – Ellington was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon in 1969.

Never content with resting on his laurels musically, Duke Ellington was always on the hunt for the next mountain to conquer. This artistic restlessness led to his eventual involvement in film, beginning in the late-1950s, where he demonstrated even further depth in his playing and compositional instincts.

With Billy Strayhorn, Ellington worked on his first film as a composer, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, a legal drama which featured James Stewart in a starring role. The feature also marked Duke Ellington’s on screen debut in film, and featured the musician in the role of a bandleader. Duke Ellington’s work in film scoring would bring him critical acclaim, and he would continue to produce scores not only for films, but also for onstage theatrical productions and even novels. His work on the score for 1961’s Anatomy of a Murder earned Duke Ellington an Academy Award nomination in the ‘Best Score’ category.

Much of what Duke Ellington attempted musically would be made to appear effortless. He was an inordinately talented man, as evidenced by the fact that his spectacular ability on the instrument he played throughout his career is so often overshadowed by his prodigious skill as a composer and bandleader. Duke Ellington wore many hats, but never in an attempt to draw attention to himself.

In fact, Duke Ellington was highly particular in the execution of his abilities, as he was searching for something more substantial than recognition. His search was for a sound which he ultimately found, but perhaps through the complexity and grandeur of his compositions, he was also searching for himself. Duke Ellington’s catalog, which extends over a half a century, stands as a testament to the fortitude and sophistication of one of the greatest composers of all time, and to hear that expression executed directly from the artist himself should be regarded as a gift of the highest esteem.




Duke Ellington Biography


A Fresh Look at Duke Ellington as Pianist – A Study of Styles – Dr. Matthew Cooper (Eastern Oregon University), CMS book author


Duke Ellington: Beyond Category


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