As a follow-up to my Recommended Listening post, I'd like to also direct Arranging Ellington participants towards a few books that I think will help you form a more complete picture of Duke Ellington's world. I think it's extremely important for us as jazz musicians to cultivate a full understanding of where this music comes from — particularly when we are talking about someone like Ellington, who was not only a jazz titan but a hugely influential public figure. His music was and is meaningful to many people who are not jazz aficionados (including my own parents, as I mentioned last time) and it would be hard to overstate his importance to American culture and history.

In addition to his widespread popularity, Duke Ellington became the first African-American composer to carve out a position of intellectual respectability in elite circles. He somehow managed to do this at a time when jazz was still very young and very strongly associated with speakeasies, brothels, drugs, gangsters, and the general moral decay of American society. But even while the Ellington orchestra was playing exoticized "jungle music" behind showgirls at the Cotton Club (which, like the fictional Onyx Club in HBO's Boardwalk Empire, was “black on stage and white in the house”), he was simultaneously being presented and recognized as a serious artist. As early as 1932, Ellington was being compared favorably to J.S. Bach, Claude Debussy, and Frederick Delius, and hailed for creating "the purest, the most sensitive and ineluctable revelation of feeling in music today" (R.D. Darrell).


The Duke Ellington Reader, edited by Mark Tucker (Oxford University Press)

A must-read collection of essays, reviews, interviews, and such like, including several pieces by Ellington himself — "The Duke Steps Out," from 1931, is an important and trenchant statement of purpose from the young composer-bandleader. The collected material goes all the way back to 1923 for the band's first New York review (which begins "This colored band is plenty torrid") and each period of Duke's career is amply represented. There is a substantial section devoted to the (mostly negative) critical response to Ellington's ambitious long-form epic Black, Brown and Beige, which as you know, is the original source of "Come Sunday."


Duke, by Terry Teachout (Gotham Books)

This hot-off-the-presses biography is terrifically well-written and does a superb job of placing Ellington's life within the broader context of American social history. Teachout gives us a vivid chronicle of both the struggles and the triumphs. He also provides an unvarnished account of Duke's personal and professional life. Teachout comes down especially hard on Duke's always-by-the-skin-of-his-teeth work habits, his propensity for (at times) assuming credit for work created by Billy Strayhorn and borrowing melodic material from his sidemen without attribution, and what is, in his view, a lack of formal coherence in Ellington's large-scale works. I recently interviewed Teachout and will be publishing some of our conversation in an upcoming blog post ("watch this space," as they say). I don't concur with all of his critical assessments, but I appreciate that he has paid Duke the respect of painting a full, frank, and authentic portrait.


There is, shamefully, still no published collection of Ellington study scores. However, David Berger's transcriptions for the Essentially Ellington series are available à la carte from Alfred Music Publishing — individual scores are in the $8-$10 range. 

Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn by Walter van de Leur (Oxford University Press)

Brilliant, thorough, and absolutely indispensable analysis of the work of Ellington's longtime collaborator, a genius beyond category in his own right. The book goes to the source — Strayhorn's original handwritten manuscripts — and includes much fascinating discussion of early and unrecorded works, including an entire Broadway-style musical Strayhorn wrote (lyrics and orchestration included) when he was barely out of high school. Van de Leur puts to rest a number of longstanding misconceptions about Strayhorn (including the fundamental question of "who wrote what?") and his thoughtful analysis of the many musical examples included in the book help clarify the very significant differences between his compositional voice and Duke's. An essential book for any serious jazz composer. There needs to be a similarly comprehensive volume about Ellington!


Changes Over Time: The Evolution of Jazz Arranging by Fred Sturm (Advance Music)

A case study of the history of jazz arranging, which is organized around case-studies of how four classic compositions have been treated by various arrangers over the years. One of the four works in question is the Duke Ellington Orchestra's theme song, Billy Strayhorn's immortal "Take The 'A' Train." Changes Over Time examines melodic, harmonic, formal, and orchestrational details from Strayhorn's original as well as subsequent arrangements by Ellington and Strayhorn, Charles Mingus, Don Sebesky, J.J. JohnsonRob McConnellSun Ra, Julius HemphillBill HolmanClare Fischer, and others.

Early Jazz and The Swing Era by Gunther Schuller (Oxford University Press)

Despite some flaws in the transcriptions (as I noted in my earlier post), these volumes both include serious consideration of Ellington's craft from someone who is a very significant composer in his own right. Schuller is always worth reading.

Jazz Arranging and Composing: A Linear Approach by Bill Dobbins (Advance Music)

Although only tangentially related to Ellington's own work, this book is very highly recommended — especially if you are somewhat new to jazz arranging. Dobbins takes two of his original compositions, "Minor D" and "Blues for Barry," and arranges them many different ways, for ensembles consisting of rhythm section plus two, three, four, and five horns. His analysis of his arranging choices is lucid and highly illuminating. The volume concludes with a thematically-integrated extended composition, "Suite for Swee' Pea," dedicated to Billy Strayhorn.

I'd like to close by quoting at length from Dobbins' introduction to A Linear Approach because I think his observations here are incredibly insightful and extremely relevant to the work ahead of you as you craft your arrangements of "Come Sunday" or "Almighty God":

I always wondered why Ellington's music sounded so much more colorful than that of most other jazz composers. Of course the warm and personal sounds of the musicians themselves was an important factor. After painstakingly transcribing some of this music, however, I began to notice that there were very few doublings of the same pitches and that one or more of the parts under the melody often moved in an independent manner. More importantly, this independent movement was simply a means of giving each instrument a good line. It was never used merely for technical display or complexity for its own sake. It has been reported that, after rehearsing one of his new pieces with Ellington's orchestra, Billy Strayhorn would always ask each of the musicians if they enjoyed their part. Because of this concern with strong individual lines, Ellington and Strayhorn could often make a richer sound with three or four horns than most composers could make with six or eight.

Ellington's music, then, seems to be the best example of economy of means in the jazz tradition: the ability to express a musical idea with perfect clarity, and with the fewest possible notes. Every important jazz composer and arranger of the past forty years has, admittedly, been influenced by this aspect of Ellington's work.

Have you read any of the volumes I mentioned? If so, what were your impressions? Are there other books about Ellington, or more generally about jazz arranging or harmony, that you've found helpful in your own work? Have you looked at any transcriptions of Ellington scores, or attempted to transcribe any of his works yourself? (If so, please share your transcriptions!) Maybe you've even seen some of the original Ellington and Strayhorn manuscripts that are housed in the Smithsonian Institution? (Scans of a few manuscript pages from "Caravan" and "Take the 'A' Train" are available online.) Is Dobbins right about the concern for strong individual lines being key to the Ellington Effect? As an arranger or composer, how do you reconcile that kind of linear thinking with vertical, harmonic thinking?

As always, I'm interested in hearing back from members of the Musical Exchange community. If you're not a member, I encourage you to sign up so you can participate in the discussion!

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Comment by Zack Sulsky on November 20, 2013 at 10:48am

Thanks for the recommendations Darcy! I very much look forward to digging into this material myself, and I'm sure everyone participating in the Arranging Ellington project feels the same way. 

Arrangers, what have you learned in listening to and reading about Duke Ellington that surprised you? 


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