Arranging Ellington: The Ellington Effect

Whenever anyone first discovers the music of Duke Ellington, they are invariably struck by the distinctive combination of instrumental colors that sounds utterly unlike anything else, before or since. Duke's earliest mature recordings from the late 1920's display an unprecedented mastery of mood, timbre, and harmony that even today sounds breathtakingly fresh. He helped usher in the "big band era" of the 1930's, when hard-swinging jazz aggregations became the hottest thing going in popular music, but Duke's band was in a class apart from all other swing-era sensations. After WW2, when most big bands folded or devolved into nostalgia acts, Duke forged ahead. He kept his orchestra working and touring for his entire adult life. His recorded legacy spans 50 years (1924-1974) and he made brilliant albums at every stage of his career. His creativity never flagged and he never stopped finding new, often startling ways to use the talents of the musicians in his band, many of whom stayed with him for decades and made their most celebrated work from inside the Ellington organization. This close-knit, long-term relationship between composer-bandleader and orchestra is the foundation of Duke's compositional style. As the writer Stanley Crouch has observed, "the single precedent in the entire history of Western music was the orchestra Esterhazy provided for Haydn, which lasted twenty-nine years."


Billy Strayhorn, Ellington's longstanding compositional collaborator, famously described Duke's ineffable sound as "The Ellington Effect" in a 1952 essay for Down Beat magazine. In an oft-quoted passage, Strayhorn writes:

"Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is his band. Each member of the band is to him a distinctive tone color and set of emotions, which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing, which I like to call the Ellington Effect. […] I have often seen him exchange parts in the middle of a piece because the man and the part weren't the same character. Ellington's concern is with the individual musician, and what happens when they put their musical characters together."


Ellington describes his own process in similar terms in the 1965 documentary film Love You Madly (which I highly recommend, by the way):

"Personalized arranging is about arranging with all of the better characteristics of the performer in mind, and with deep consideration for the limitations of each one. As you know, there's no musician in any kind of music who doesn't have some limitation, and this is a little problem which is very interesting to handle when you're writing. And it pays off when you hear the result of it."


This personalized style makes Ellington's music vivid and fascinating, but it can also make it difficult to analyze. Because he avoids the stock solutions that more conventional arrangers tend to gravitate towards, it's only by carefully listening to and considering each individual musician's line that you can understand why Duke makes the choices he makes. That's why I emphasized deep listening in my introductory video, and it's a point that bears repeating!


Sometimes, even the best musicians are misled by the subtle mysteries of the Ellington Effect. Composer Gunther Schuller is legendary for his great ears, but when it comes to Duke, even he managed to slip up. In his (otherwise excellent) book Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, Schuller offers the following transcription of measures 2-4 of Ellington's 1930 masterpiece, "Mood Indigo":



This is incorrect, and his mis-transcription leads Schuller to some faulty conclusions, particularly the idea that "Mood Indigo" has "the kind of parallel motion that a pianist would use, and Ellington simply applied to the orchestra the voice-leadings he used on piano." With all due respect to Gunther Schuller, this is almost exactly wrong!


Here is the audio of bars 2-4 of "Mood Indigo":


Listen to the above audio excerpt and compare it to Schuller's transcription. Can you hear where he went astray?


It may help you to know what instruments you are hearing. The theme is played by three horns:

- trumpet in cup mute (played by Arthur Whetsel)
- trombone with plunger mute (played by Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton)
- clarinet (played by Barney Bigard, who also wrote the melody for the B section of "Mood Indigo")


Before reading any further, take a minute to try to isolate the notes played by each of these three instruments.


Okay, let's compare notes. Is this what you heard?


As you (hopefully) noticed, Schuller's mistaken transcription has the top two voices (trumpet and trombone) in the wrong octave! Nanton's trombone, particularly, is playing in an extremely high register for the instrument, and there is a massive gap between the two brass instruments and Bigard's low-register clarinet. This is not a standard voicing by any means! But this unusual (unprecedented, in fact) spacing is what gives "Mood Indigo" its ethereal flavor.


Schuller is also mistaken when he describes the voice-leading here as being "parallel." As you can see, in the third measure of "Mood Indigo" (the second measure shown above), Whetsel's trumpet and Nanton's trombone move in contrary (not parallel) motion: Whetsel goes up to an F while Nanton goes down to an Ab. Meanwhile, Bigard leaps up to middle C, which reduces the gap between clarinet and trombone and creates a more conventionally balanced voicing. On beat 3 of this measure, the contrary motion between trumpet and trombone is reversed, with Whetsel leaping down to a C# and Nanton rising chromatically to an A. Bigard's clarinet drops a perfect fourth down to G natural, but here, Schuller mistakenly assumes the clarinet must be playing an Eb, which would be the b7th of the F7 chord. But Duke's actual choice is much more interesting and unconventional: he chooses to omit the b7th (normally considered an essential guide tone on a dominant seventh chord) in favor of having Bigard play an unexpected note in this context, the 9th (G). Finally, in the fourth measure (the final measure shown above), the brass both move upwards by semitone while the clarinet moves down by step (in contrary motion to the melody) to F.


I trust you now see why it's so important to listen carefully to Ellington's music! Before you even begin to write your arrangement for the Arranging Ellington project, you will want to check (and double-check, and triple-check!) your transcription against the original recording. Do not rely on the provided piano-vocal lead sheets, and do not take anything for granted! If even the great Gunther Schuller can make mistakes, so can you. So be as careful and thorough in your listening as you possibly can.


There's another oft-repeated quote about Duke Ellington, this one from pianist, conductor, and composer André Previn:

"You know, Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, "Oh, yes, that's done like this. But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and I don't know what it is!"


Previn was talking about "Mood Indigo."



Here is a link where you can purchase the full version of "Mood Indigo," which I guarantee will be the best 99 cents you'll spend today:


[N.B. This is not quite the original recording of the piece — at this point in his career Ellington often recorded the same work several times in quick succession, for different record labels. This version, for the Brunswick label, was recorded on 17 October 1930, seven days after the original. But the sound quality and performance here are both superior. This version also features a tremendous double-time bass line from Wellman Braud underneath the B section melody.]


Here is my transcription of the first 16 bars of this version of "Mood Indigo."


"Mood Indigo" was Ellington's first big hit. It's been recorded countless times — by Duke's band and by many others, in both instrumental and vocal versions. As you consider how you might approach writing your own arrangement of "Come Sunday" or "Almighty God," you might find it helpful to consider the ways in which Ellington would reimagine his own works over the course of his career. (Trumpeter Clark Terry, a notable Ellington alumnus, aptly described Duke's music as "always in a state of becoming.") And of course, it can be revealing to compare Ellington's versions to recordings by other artists.


In addition to the 1930 Brunswick version linked above, I'm partial to the 1956 version on Ellington's album Blue Rose (featuring multitracked vocals by Rosemary Clooney). I also love the 1956 trio version by Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus's 1963 recording, where, perhaps taking a cue from Wellman Braud, it becomes a virtuosic bass feature. (The arrangement is by Bob Hammer.) Monk and Mingus are the two jazz artists who best embodied the Ellingtonian spirit in the generation that followed Duke's (Mingus even spent a brief period in Duke's band — his account of how he got fired is a classic bit of jazz lore) so it is not surprising that they are both superior interpreters of the Ellington songbook.


What's your favorite rendition of "Mood Indigo"? What other works do you think feature memorable instances of the "Ellington Effect"? Which other jazz artists embody the Ellingtonian spirit?

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Comment by Andrew Herring on December 12, 2013 at 11:41pm

Below you'll see (my attempt at) a transcription of the first short phrase of "Sunset and the Mockingbird." I tried to get down as much of the piano, bass, sax, and bone parts as possible. I was able to get everything except the lower trombones at their entrance. One thing I find difficult is picking out the individual voices in a chord- how could I better do this? Also, I had difficulty in transcribing the exact rhythm in the piano's Ab-Eb riff. Please note, this is my first attempt at transcribing something like this. Thanks!

Comment by Darcy James Argue on November 21, 2013 at 3:53pm

Andrew, The Queen's Suite is full of great material! It would be great if you were to try to transcribe a bit of "Sunset and The Mockingbird" and post it here!

Comment by Andrew Herring on November 19, 2013 at 9:03pm

Very insightful post! Currently, I think the most substantial challenge for me will be staying true to Duke's style, while incorporating a certain level of originality. I find that listening is a great tool, because I often find myself thinking about different ways I may have written something.

One of my favorite Ellington tunes is "Sunset and The Mockingbird" from the Queen's Suite. I haven't gotten to sit down with the score much, but from listening to and playing it, I'm well aware of the "Ellington Effect" in that piece- each part was written flawlessly, with respect to each musician.

Comment by Aaron Siegel on October 25, 2013 at 4:57pm

Darcy,  I really enjoyed reading and re-reading this post.  The Ellington Effect is in full effect here.  Just these few bars of music are filled with so much mystery and subtly.  Thanks.

Comment by Nutchapon Choosakul on October 25, 2013 at 12:40pm

That's the great lesson. I appreciate that. Thank you very much.

Comment by Connor Peavy on October 25, 2013 at 11:35am

Great post and a awesome lesson in Duke Ellington's music theory.I agree deep listening is the best tool in arranging, learning or composing music.
After reading this I have to say the hardest part will be doing this to a point that gives the due respect to Duke Ellington and his music. 


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