Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Duke Ellington, Feb. 19, 1967.
Duke Ellington, Feb. 19, 1967. Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
In American music, Duke Ellington stands alone. Over a period of 50 years — from the '20s to the '70s — Ellington led one of history's finest performing ensembles and established himself as one of America's most powerful musical forces. He encountered jazz in its infancy and expanded it into a sophisticated, internationally celebrated art form.
This episode of Jazz Profiles, the fourth in a series of four, examines Duke Ellington's instrument: his orchestra, a hand-picked group of the best musicians available that he used to bring his innovative musical ideas to life. The signature Ellington sound was a blend of the talents, personalities and regional influences that each musician brought to the band.
Duke Ellington nurtured his musicians, often working to bring out performances they didn't even know they were capable of. A generous bandleader, Duke cared deeply for his players and inspired them to play their best.
Many musicians stayed with Ellington for decades, and those that left often were lured back, such as his star alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Baritone saxophonist Harry Carney epitomized the loyalty of Ellington's musicians: Carney's rich, vibrant sound was a cornerstone of the orchestra for 50 years.
Ellington's music was so tailored to his musicians that their names frequently appeared in his scores, in place of generic notations for specific instrumental parts. Duke cultivated what was came to be known as the "Ellington Effect" with his trombone section, with the distinctive tonal character of Lawrence Brown in the upper register, valve trombonist Juan Tizol's middle range, and the deep tone and plunging technique of "Tricky Sam" Nanton. The combination achieved but one of the band's many distinctive timbres — the full "Ellington Effect" combined stellar compositions, intriguing new harmonies and outstanding soloists.
When players did leave the Ellington Orchestra, Duke found replacements who could handle both the old job, as well as make their own unique contributions. The dynamic results can be heard in two versions of Ellington's popular hit "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," [sic] by comparing a 1927 recording with Bubber Miley on lead trumpet to Cootie Williams' gut-bucket rendition recorded in 1937.
Starting in the late 1920s, Ellington consistently recruited new musicians to enhance the character and quality of his signature sound. He added clarinetist Barney Bigard and trumpeter Freddy Jenkins in 1928.
In 1929, Juan Tizol joined the band, adding a Latin flavor to the mix — his composition "Caravan" is among the Ellington band's best-known. In 1931, Ivie Anderson, the band's first full-time vocalist, came on board, to be joined later by the debonair Herb Jeffries. Ellington added cornetist Rex Stewart in 1934, expanding the colorful tonality of Duke's brass section.
In 1939, Ellington added the dazzling technique of bassist Jimmie Blanton to his rhythm section. The 1940 addition of virtuoso tenor saxophonist Ben Webster made possible a new era for the Ellington band, with Blanton and Webster featured prominently. With the addition of Webster's swinging sound Duke had five saxophones to write for, and he utilized their full potential. 1940 also saw the addition of the versatile trumpeter, cornetist and violinist Ray Nance.
In the late 1940s and '50s, the costs of supporting a big band were rising while musical tastes were changing. With the advent of the bebop era, smaller ensembles were in vogue. But with the royalties he earned from his compositions, Ellington was able to pay his musicians 52 weeks a year, even if they were not performing live. While this fostered their loyalty, Duke's generosity was also motivated in part by self-interest. Ellington needed his orchestra in order to keep composing — it was his creative outlet.
The 1950s saw the return of veterans who had ventured out on their own, including the great Johnny Hodges and Juan Tizol. New voices would also be added — tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, drummer Louis Bellson and trumpeter Clark Terry among them.
Throughout the entire five decades of its existence, the quality of the signature Ellington sound was a constant. The Duke Ellington Orchestra remained an ensemble of consummate musicians, with extraordinary individual talents, right up until its great pianist and leader died in 1974.
Click here to view the playlist.
Link to NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library:
Duke Ellington: 'The Duke at His Best'
Duke Ellington: 'Such Sweet Thunder'
Duke Ellington: 'Duke Ellington & John Coltrane'