The Seven Ages of Duke
Here’s my handy cut-out and keep guide to the various stages of Duke’s career. It is, of course, utterly ridiculous to try to reduce the work of a genius in this way and it’s true that if you listened to a recording made in 1923, you would evince the same mind at work behind a recording made in 1973 – but this is offered just in the spirit of fun as a starting place for further exploration if you are new to Duke…
From the late twenties to the mid-thirties, this is the period those songs most associated with Ellington’s name were written, Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady, In A Sentimental Mood, etc. How they were written and by whom – well read Terry Teachout’s ungracious biography for a cynical and over-simplified account of that. Suffice it to say, the truth – like Prospero’s sea-change – is altogether something more rich and strange than that.
The Blue Period
Mid- to late-30s. I reckon this is the period of Ellington’s music which drew Billy Strayhorn, in particular, towards the flame. British composer Constant Lambert drew a direct line between the music of Ellington and that of Delius in particular – but also Ravel and Debussy. It was that Impressionist aspect of Ellington’s music the classically-trained Strayhorn took up and ran with so brilliantly in the forties and fifties.
The Swing Era
Talking of Billy Strayhorn, he was a good friend and mentor to Bill Finegan (his mother, also, called him Bill), chief arranger for Glenn Miller. In that fastidious reed sound, the quotation from other musical sources, the complexity of the arrangements, you can hear Strayhorn’s tutelage. Anyway, the period of Miller’s great commercial success coincided perfectly with the the era of what many consider to be the greatest incarnation of Ellington’s band, the Blanton-Webster band named for revolutionary bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. Jack the Bear, Ko Ko, Sepia Panorama and Strayhorn’s Take The ‘A’ Train all date from this period when ‘jazz’ and popular taste coincided to incendiary effect.
Beginning with Black, Brown and Beige in 1943, a ‘tone parallel’ as Ellington called it to the history of the black American, the mid-to late forties saw a whole series of longer form pieces – The Perfume Suite, The Deep South Suite, New World A-Comin', The Symphomaniac, The Tattooed Bride as Ellington and Strayhorn stretched their wings.
Water water everywhere, nor any drop...
They were hard times for the big bands as the flame of the Swing Era guttered and all but burnt out in the early fifties. Ellington lost key men – Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Hodges for a while – Tricky Sam Nanton, the plunger trombonist and Ellington’s drumming man from the beginning, Sonny Greer. The replacements – Louie Bellson, Willie Smith were brilliant technicians but I don’t think had the soul of the originals. If Ellington’s band ever had a tendency to sound like all the other big bands, then this was the period that happened. The low point must have been playing for the swimmers at Blly Rose’s Aquacade.
Hodges and Strayhorn returned. Tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’s barnstorming twenty-seven choruses at Newport 1956 saw the Ellington band renew itself in the public consciousness. Classic albums – the Shakespearean suite Such Sweet Thunder, Anatomy of a Murder et al – followed. Ellington was back and roaring across all six continents.
Even Ellington could not defy gravity forever. Billy Strayhorn was lost to cancer in 1967, Johnny Hodges died in 1970. The old man kept going but the road was taking its toll. Don’t think that even as the band began to break up there weren’t more than moments of brilliance and beauty, however – The New Orleans Suite, The Latin American Suite. Ellington was performing, making, writing music to the last which came on 24, May, 1974. The rest is silence...