On the centenary of Duke Ellington's birth, Richard Williams hails a suave, mischievous and supremely talented showman
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT WAS still possible, 30 years ago, to see Duke Ellington and the members of his Famous Orchestra arrive at the stage door of a European concert hall, clamber out of their bus, file through the artists' bar, and make their way to their dressing rooms in an unhurried parade of legends. First Ellington himself, swaddled in a wraparound overcoat, that voluptuous face set in what Kenneth Tynan called its "immaculate bandit smile", beneath an elaborately furled and slicked arrangement of thinning hair; then, in a casual procession, his 20 or so musicians and attendants and band- boys, including a group of older men who had been with him since the Cotton Club days, men whose individual sounds were as unique as fingerprints, who were among the legends of jazz, and whose collective sound was Ellington's true instrument.

An hour later, on stage, that sound had come to life, and yet another new audience was sharing the shock felt by generations of first-hand listeners to Ellington's music. Posterity will learn part of the story from recordings. But the sound of these men moving the very air in the room through the use of metal and reeds - the glistening vibrato of Johnny Hodges, the lyric poet of the alto saxophone; the brassy cries of Cootie Williams's trumpet; the velvety croon of Lawrence Brown's trombone; the imperturbable weight of Harry Carney's baritone saxophone, the keel that stabilised the ensemble; and the laconic, teasingly off-centre piano phrases of Ellington himself - touched the senses in a way that can never be recaptured.

This was Berlin in 1969, and the Ellington band was well into the final chapter of its long history. But as the musicians rocked through the jaunty cadences of "Take The `A' Train" and turned "Mood Indigo" into a sighing evocation of perishable dreams, it was easy to identify with Max Jones, a British jazz critic who described his reaction to seeing the curtain rise on the Ellington orchestra at the London Palladium in 1933. "The sound and spectacle," he wrote, "were such as to rob me momentarily of all reason." Even in Ellington's last years there were audiences just as avid to experience the dizzying sensation for themselves. In 1971, when the band visited Leningrad for their first concert in the Soviet Union, they were greeted by people who had queued for days to buy tickets and who wept at the sound they had loved in secret for many years.

"Take The `A' Train" was, after all, the signature tune of The Voice Of America's Jazz Hour, broadcasting its subtextual message of peace, democracy and free-market capitalism across the world every night, despite the attentions of the Russian radio technicians, who jammed the frequency with a blizzard of static whenever East-West relations took a turn for the worse. When it came to presenting jazz as a symbol of America's virtues, Ellington was the perfect figurehead. Even in friendly territory, he represented something ineffably exotic. Tynan, again, summarised the experience of many far-flung admirers when he wrote of "the remote and lordly musician who brought the sound of Harlem chugging and wailing into my Birmingham suburb late in the Thirties".

Later this month (on 29 April) the centenary of Ellington's birth will be celebrated around the world. For he has a fair claim to be called the century's greatest musical figure, not only by virtue of his specific accomplishments, but also through the way his life and work incorporate so much of the story of African-American music. He reminds us of the swiftness and diversity of the music's evolution, of the breadth of its dissemination, of the thoroughness with which it has been absorbed by other cultures.

Unlike Louis Armstrong, jazz's first great instrumentalist, Ellington did not rise to world renown from origins in a home for "colored waifs". Unlike Charlie Parker, jazz's other undisputed genius, he avoided the indulgences that ruined the lives and careers of many musicians. Born in Washington DC, the nation's capital, Edward Kennedy Ellington was a child of the middle class, of handsome, personable parents who provided a solid home where music, in the Victorian manner, was a family activity. His father had worked as a butler at the White House before becoming a blueprint maker with the US Navy. His adored mother instilled in him lifelong religious beliefs and sent him to a piano teacher, Marietta Clinkscales, whose lessons were often the casualty of competition from informal baseball games, and whose encouragement had less to do with the boy's eventual choice of career than his own attempts at fooling around on the keyboard, freed from notions of theory.

The nickname was the idea of a high-school friend. "I was a pretty fancy guy," Ellington remembered. And he always stood apart from the crowd. Something about Ellington, something that had less to do with his musical and organisational talents than with a mysterious blend of ambition and allure, enabled him to rise above those who led first-class big jazz bands in the inter-war years - the likes of Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Jimmy Lunceford, even Count Basie, all talented, all respected - to achieve an imperial position within jazz.

It helped that he had a manager with a gift for media-manipulation. Irving Mills promoted his artist with the same cold-blooded thoroughness and intuitive reading of the audience's weaknesses that George Evans, Colonel Tom Parker and Tony DeFries were to employ with pop stars such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and David Bowie. Mills made the Ellington musicians dress in eye-catching uniforms, with two or three changes per night. He acquired a special Pullman car in which they toured the country, thereby avoiding segregated hotels while conveying the impression of exclusivity and success. He aggrandised Ellington by playing up any hint of a connection with admirers from other fields of music, such Leopold Stokowski and Percy Grainger. In Reminiscing In Tempo, a new oral biography of Ellington, the British author Stuart Nicholson reprints an "advertising manual", written by Mills for distribution to regional concert promoters. This is almost shocking in the candour with which it supplies hints for selling the band via newspapers, radio, record stores and charity shows, including specimen stories to be placed with friendly journalists, and even suggesting headlines: "Harlem's Aristocrat of Jazz!"; "Music No Other Band Can Play!"; "Primitive Rhythms! Weird Melodies! Amazing Syncopations!"

From 1927 until well into the Thirties, the band could be heard at the Cotton Club, where Harlemites and socialites gathered to hear early masterpieces such as "East St Louis Toodle-oo", "Creole Love Call", "Rockin' In Rhythm", "Daybreak Express", "In A Sentimental Mood" and "Black And Tan Fantasy" interpreted by a band featuring the brilliantly outlandish trumpet and trombone solos of James "Bubber" Miley and Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton. Listening to this music now is to be astonished by the range of gesture and the accumulation of detail crammed into each three-minute tune, and to envy those who were around at the time and were able to take them as they came, released in pairs on double-sided 78rpm records every few weeks - a schedule allowing the listener time to appreciate the significance of each piece and to savour every nuance. This privilege, too, is now lost to us; instead we put on a 70-minute CD and attempt to absorb perhaps 20 such tunes in a row.

Between 1939 and 1943, the band's line-up inspired Ellington to a creative peak. With Jimmy Blanton, the first truly modern exponent of the double bass, and the poetic tenor saxophone of the young ballad-master Ben Webster in the ranks, and with a fresh charge of compositional inspiration from a new collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, Ellington presided over the performance of a group of pieces which the critical orthodoxy has long claimed to be his finest work. They include "Ko Ko", "Jack The Bear", "Bojangles", `Harlem Air Shaft", "Cotton Tail", "Warm Valley", "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)", and the extraordinary suite titled Black, Brown And Beige, which premiered at Carnegie Hall. Here Ellington integrates every aspect of his experience and his craft in a music which is interdependent on its composer, its solo voices, and its collective. His years in the semi-vaudeville environment of the Cotton Club had given Ellington an unmatched feeling for colour and drama in music, and for compression and impact. In these pieces we find a sophisticate who none the less adored the chaos and urgency of ordinary life, who took pride in his cultural environment, and drew his own essence from its vitality.

The immediate post-war years were less kind. Late in his life, Ellington liked to tell people who asked his age that he had been born in 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival, reflecting his distaste for the era preceding an event that led to his popular and critical renaissance. He and his band had spent the summer of 1955 accompanying the Aquacades show at Flushing Meadow, New York, the old World's Fair site. Some of his longest-serving musicians, including the irreplaceable Hodges, had already left the band in the hope of making better money elsewhere. Five of the remaining players were dropped from the line-up, replaced by a string section, an extra pianist and two harpists, who made appropriate noises as ice-skaters and comedians went through their routines. The leader himself appeared only for a brief piano solo, leaving the direction of his orchestra to a house conductor. Back at home each night, he would set to work on a stage play, The Man With Four Sides, and on a symphonic piece, Night Creatures. The play was never performed; the music received a Carnegie Hall premiere, but had to wait eight years before anyone showed sufficient enthusiasm to make a recording of it.

In terms of popularity, then, 1955 was the low point of Ellington's career. The post-war economy had destroyed the big-band business, while the diverging forces of bebop and rock'n'roll had reduced the popular audience for jazz, taking the eggheads off in one direction and the dancers off in another. This was the time when even Andre Hodeir, the great French jazz critic and a confirmed admirer, could write that "Duke Ellington's decline does not seem merely temporary".

The summer after the nadir of the Aquacades, a single midnight performance of one previously unremarked composition, "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue", effectively restored his fortunes. A long, long solo - 27 choruses in all - improvised by the tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves had the effect on 7,000 festival-goers assembled in the gardens of a Newport mansion of a can of petrol on smouldering embers. Suddenly Ellington and the band were rocking with an unstoppable momentum, and the news of their performance reignited his entire career. Concert bookings flooded in from around the world, a surge of interest from major record companies led to important extended pieces such as The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, Such Sweet Thunder and The Queen's Suite, and Ellington's all-round eminence increased to such dimensions that when the Pulitzer Prize committee rejected him for a special award in 1965, its members were the objects of widespread derision. The non-honoree responded with a famous bon mot, typically suave and mischievous. "Fate is being kind to me," he said. "Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young."

Ellington was a complicated man whose relationships, with musicians and women alike, were conducted according to highly personal rules of engagement. With all women he was egregiously charming; with those he fancied, he was lethal. In 1918 he married Edna Thompson, a high-school sweetheart, but they separated in 1929, when their son Mercer was 10, after Edna discovered Ellington's relationship with an actress and slashed his face with a razor. Thereafter he enjoyed relationships of varying durations with countless women, both before and during his liaison with Evie Ellis, a former dancer, which began in 1938 and lasted until his death in 1974. Evie kept a home for him in New York and was seemingly unbothered by his other activities; she and Duke are buried together, near his parents's grave.

"Duke liked life to go smoothly," the impresario Norman Granz once said. "If anything disturbed his equanimity, then that was a great drag to him." He was distressed, for example, when Granz briefly enticed Hodges away. The unique longevity of the Ellington band was, after all, based on a set of relationships that was often difficult for outsiders to comprehend. Ellington was not given to the style of leadership - pitched somewhere between military officer, sports coach and head teacher - that was favoured by others; he preferred to exert control in subtler and less confrontational ways. Paul Gonsalves, whose solo had sparked the Newport triumph, was a notable lush; his employer would respond to Gonsalves' arrival on the bandstand in a particularly poor state by featuring him on the first five numbers, all played at unusually rapid tempo, at the end of which he would be the soberest man on stage.

Ellington's debt to his employees is still a matter of debate. Lush Life, David Hajdu's fine biography of Strayhorn, probably gets close to the true nature of a remarkable collaboration. But Barney Bigard, Ellington's featured clarinetist in the pre-war years, claimed with some vehemence years ago that he and Johnny Hodges had been the actual composers of "Rockin' In Rhythm", knocking it out as a number to back the act of a comedy duo at the Palace Theatre in New York one day in 1930. Yet it has always been credited to Ellington, Harry Carney, and Irving Mills (who, in the manner of those days, grabbed an unwarranted share of several important compositions). Similarly, Bigard claimed to have written one of the key themes of "Mood Indigo", while the authorship of "Sophisticated Lady" has been reliably attributed to the saxophonist Toby Hard- wicke and the trombonist Lawrence Brown, both important early members of the orchestra.

Bigard, a man of few illusions, nevertheless provided an admiring appraisal of Ellington's techniques. "Duke was different from anyone else," he told Max Jones. "He studied every man in the band, figured his style, what his character was, and if he made an arrangement to feature me, he knew exactly that it would fit me." Ben Webster endorsed this view: "Duke makes a star of everyone because he's the greatest judge of musicians I've ever come across. Within a very short time of you joining the band he'll know your musical abilities, and he'll know the man. Next thing you'll have a concerto to play, and that way you begin to get famous, or more famous than you were before."

These men, like Ellington, are long dead. Nothing survives of them but the recorded echoes, and a legend that is all the more convincing for its inconsistencies. The Duke Ellington Orchestra was never a precision instrument, for alongside the charm and the vision and the imagination and the generosity of its leader, it also contained his vanities. Yet that sound - vivid, exultant, exquisite, vibrant, a sound that could bop you on the nose or stroke the soles of your feet or tell you a joke or introduce you to a new best friend - represented an unrepeatable miracle of humanity.