Duke Ellington – “Elegance of Jazz”

Duke Ellington, 1940

Perhaps the most innovative and certainly the most prolific composer of the big band era was Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974). What Louis Armstrong did for the improvised solo line, Duke Ellington did for the harmony and structure of jazz.

During his life, Ellington composed over 2000 works: 1,000 short instrumental pieces, hundreds of popular songs, over twenty large jazz suites or tone poems for orchestra, three sacred works, six film and television scores, seven musicals or stage works, a couple of ballets, and one opera. The sheer volume of his work warrants him a place of significance in jazz history.  It wasn’t the weight of the music that was most important, but rather the transformation of the sound and the respectability that he brought to the genre.

Ellington first made a name for himself as bandleader at the Cotton Club in Harlem from 1927 to 1931. His run as a bandleader, however, began in 1923 and went uninterrupted until his death in 1974. No other bandleader in music history had the stability that Ellington enjoyed. Some band members played with him for twenty to thirty years without switching bands.

Such loyalty allowed him to craft complex arrangements that were at times less like a jazz song and more like a sound painting. Mixing sounds of different instruments together, building more complex harmonic sounds, and drawing upon the strengths of individual players in his band, Ellington took jazz from the backroom speakeasies to the tuxedoed stage of Carnegie Hall. Symphonic jazz which incorporated strings and full percussion sections, was hinted at by Whiteman and developed by Gershwin, came to adulthood with Ellington.

Duke Ellington, 1954

During his career, Ellington and his band made more recordings than any other jazz group. His compositional breadth extends from the 1932 song definition of jazz: “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing” to the majestic “Black, Brown, and Beige,” a fifty-minute tone poem describing the history of the American Negro.

Unlike Armstrong, Duke, the son of a Washington, D.C. butler, grew up in relative affluence, being taught by both his parents an elegant manner of speech, dress and conduct. Undoubtedly, it was this sophistication which earned him his nickname reflecting royalty.

He was, however, entirely self-taught as a musician. His craft was learned in the clubs of Harlem and was so well developed by the 40s that he could often be observed writing songs, parts, and sections in restaurants and airport lobbies.

By the late ’30s, Ellington was also moving jazz down a new, more complex harmonic path. Simple chords of three or four notes (triads and 7th chords) were expanded to chords of five and six notes (9th, 11th and 13th chords) as well as complex augmented and diminished chords. Harmonies no longer followed a simple and predictable path; chord progressions which had been standard in American music since the time of Stephen Foster were now being given unexpected and unpredictable turns.

Just as he was borrowing from the forms of classical music, he was also adopting compositional techniques from classical theory to jazz performances. If Armstrong completed the alphabet, Ellington made the musical statements polysyllabic.

The impact of Ellington, then, was threefold: 1) the extended harmonic language, 2) the expanded musical forms, and 3) the elegance and class that he brought to the jazz.


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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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