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Introducing Duke Ellington

A couple of jigs got on the bus with a doghouse. “You know Larry Brown?” said one of them. “Yeah,” said the other, “he plays a gang o’horn.”

One way to catch the spirit of jazz music is to know its slang. The cryptic paragraph above may be translated as follows: two Negroes got on the bus with a bass viol; when asked if he knew Lawrence Brown, one of them said he did, and that Mr. Brown was a fine trombone player. Continuing in the language of jazz, it may be explained that Lawrence Brown is a hot trombonist with Duke Ellington’s famous Negro jazz orchestra. That is to say, he excels in spontaneous, highly syncopated solos.* He is decidedly not a sweet trombonist—he doesn’t play sentimentally with lots of vibrato. He could, but he just doesn’t like that sort of thing. Nor is Mr. Brown cornfed. Cornfed or corny is the jazz musician’s term for what is old-fashioned. For example, it is now extremely corny to use the once popular wah-wah mutes which make brass instruments sound like crying babies. And corny music is what generally happens when a sweet band, or long-underwear gang, tries to play hot. Returning to Trombonist Brown, he can get off, swing it, sock it, smear it, or go to town (all of which mean syncopate to beat the band). His licks (musical phrases) are original to the point of being screwy (fantastically exciting). When the occasion demands it, he can go to church (the hot man’s version of musical solemnity, which is usually thoroughly screwy). In sum, Mr. Brown plays plenty trombone or, as his friend suggested, a gang o’horn.

Before the money changers failed us, it was customary to call this the Jazz Age. The etymology of the word jazz is obscure. It was once jass, and some say this was the corrupted nickname of a Negro musician called Charles. Others think the word has lecherous origins. However that may be, jazz means different things to different people. To some it means the whole cocktail-swilling deportment of the post-War era. To others it suggests loud and rowdy dance music. Many people go so far as to divide all music into “jazz” or “classical.” By “classical” they mean any music which sounds reasonably serious, be it Hearts and Flowers or Bach’s B Minor Mass, while their use of “jazz” includes both Duke Ellington’s Afric brass and Rudy Vallée crooning I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?

But Duke Ellington bears just about as much relation to Vallée as the B Minor Mass to Hearts and Flowers. The curly-headed Vallée has made a fortune dispensing popular ballads to the vast public which always adores them. In this respect he resembles Guy Lombardo, Russ Columbo, Bing Crosby, and various other radio and tea-dancing idols. On the other hand, Mr. Ellington and his orchestra offer rich, original music, music of pulse and gusto, stemming out of the lyricism of the Negro and played with great virtuosity. Ellington’s music is jazz; it is the best jazz.

ELLINGTON has just undertaken his first tour of Europe, where he was resoundingly greeted in Great Britain and France. Said the London Times: “Mr. Duke Ellington … is exceptionally and remarkably efficient in his own line … And the excitement and exacerbation of the nerves which are caused by the performances of his orchestra are the more disquieting by reason of his complete control and precision. It is not an orgy, but a scientific application of measured and dangerous stimuli.” It is no paradox that Ellington should arouse a special personal interest abroad. He is an idol of the jazz cult, which has developed a critical canon as precise and exacting as that applied to porcelains or plain song. The jazz cult is apathetic to nine-tenths of modern dance music—just as apathetic as the old lady who never cared much for a bass drum. But the cultist will often go to preposterous lengths to hear or collect records of the remaining tenth, the genuine hot music. Furthermore, the jazz cult is international. It has no boundaries. In Europe, which is more critical and discriminating about all kinds of music than the U.S., there are many jazz connoisseurs. England and France have magazines strictly devoted to hot music. A Belgian lawyer, Robert Goffin, has written the only knowing volume on the subject (Aux Frontières du Jazz), which makes such American jazz apologists as Gilbert Seldes and Carl Van Vechten seem positively unlettered. Apropos of Ellington, M. Goffin remarks: “Sans extravagance, avec des moyens tout en douceur et en demi-teintes, Duke a atteint le pinacle de la gloire.”

As for the U. S., Duke Ellington and his orchestra have appeared in every large Paramount, Loew’s, and Keith theatre in the country; they have played dance engagements from Bowdoin College, Maine, to Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club in Los Angeles; they shared a double bill with Maurice Chevalier in New York and have broadcast innumerable hours over various radio chains; they were featured in Amos ‘n’ Andy’s motion picture Check and Double Check and in the late Florenz Ziegfeld’s Show Girl. All of which means that Ellington is a commercial success. Cleverly managed by Irving Mills, he has grossed as much as $250,000 a year, and the band’s price for a week’s theatre engagement runs as high as $5,500. These figures are, of course, scarcely to be compared with Rudy Vallée’s receipts (with a much smaller band he is estimated to have grossed $312,000 in 1931). But what is remarkable is the fact that Ellington has never compromised with the public taste for watery popular songs, for “show bands” combining music with scenic effects, low comedy, and flag drills. He has played hot music, his own music, all the way along: Lazy Rhapsody in San Francisco, Hot and Bothered in Chicago, and It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing in New York. Moreover, Ellington himself, a robust, well-poised Negro of Paul Robeson’s stripe, is not a showman; he has no such fopperies as Paul Whiteman’s three-foot baton and still plays the piano in his orchestra.

HIS success with a type of music not noted for its box-office appeal may be partly attributed to the fact that he is assisted in his theatrical tours by feature singers such as Ivie Anderson and dancers like the gelatinous “Snake Hips” Tucker. These performers plus the band constitute the highest grade Negro entertainment, which always has a market of its own. But there can be little doubt that Ellington’s success is mainly due to his music itself. It is the final development of a moving, spirited, wholly American musical form.

So far as anyone can tell, jazz began with Negroes in the Deep South circa 1910. It is not very profitable to examine sources—you may easily be carried back to African rites of spring or plantation songs or, more exactly, fix on Buddy Bolden, a black cornetist from the Rampart Street section of New Orleans who played wild notes which never occurred on his scores and was committed to an asylum before the U.S. entered the War. For all practical purposes, jazz history begins with black boys of Bolden’s stamp who decorated the one-steps of the pre-War day with flourishes of their own. With swipes and runs and tantalizing beats like the patter of a tap dancer’s slippers, they took the starch out of ragtime and injected those sad, unorthodox harmonies which have echoed for years in the cotton fields.

A cardinal principle of their music was spontaneity. All true jazz music is built around passages in which the musicians improvise, exercise their personal fancy—and in this lies the difference between true jazz and ordinary dance music as well as the pretentious concert-hall syncopation of George Gershwin. Those country fiddling contests in which rustic Paganinis, inspired by corn whisky, play cadenzas they will never play again are not unlike the jazz musicians’ jam sessions where the players vie with one another in hot solos. Jazz classics such as St. Louis Blues, Tiger Rag, Royal Garden Blues, and Milenberg Joys are not set pieces, orchestrated in full. They are merely simple themes encouraging ad lib variations by the players. This spontaneity reaches truly magnificent lengths in the smokiest shrines of jazz, where you will frequently hear a Negro bandmaster yell “Blues in E Flat!” and launch out on an excursion all his own, superbly accompanied by men who have only an instinctive notion where he is going.

Jazz went up the Mississippi via river boat to Chicago (in Memphis, on its upward journey, W. C. Handy—who still lives in Seventh Avenue in Manhattan’s Harlem—conceived Memphis Blues and St. Louis Blues). Jazz blared across the West to San Francisco, and was introduced to New York in 1916 at Reisenweber’s restaurant by five white ambassadors from New Orleans called the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. They found the town dancing sedately to violins and cellos, and left it jiggling to Tiger Rag, composed by the Dixieland’s cornetist and leader, D. J. La Rocca. The band made half a dozen Victor records, long since out of print, sometimes earned as much as $1,200 a night, and pioneered jazz for a year and a half in London. None of the boys could read music, all of them were polished players. They made it forever after unthinkable that good jazz musicians could be otherwise. Jazz works on its performers like an intoxicant, and in 1925 La Rocca, fearing a breakdown, shelved his cornet and retired to New Orleans.

HE LEFT a host of followers in the field. One impolite dive on Chicago’s South Side was featuring the amazingly windy trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, who blew such frenzied tattoos as he has recorded under the titles Mahogany Hall Stomp, Knee Drops, Skip the Gutter, and Muggles (named for the Mexican cigarettes drugged with marijuana which have inspired perfectly incredible solos). The Wolverines, a barnstorming white orchestra, featured the late Leon (“Bix”) Beiderbecke, a cornetist from Davenport, Iowa. Beiderbecke tempered Louis Armstrong’s violence with his own exquisite taste, exhibiting a lyric grace and variety of beat which made him perhaps the most admired white jazz musician. Meanwhile a locomotive fireman from St. Louis named Frank Trumbauer practiced his instrument in his cab and because the favorite saxophonist of the Mississippi belt. In New York, Joe Venuti was playing all four strings of his violin at once, and even this tour de force was no more admired than his hot inventions on a single string. In Manhattan, also, Trumpeter Red Nichols gathered a jazz band which devoted itself to hot recordings with all the painstaking care of the Flonzaleys approaching a Mozart quartet. The long series of Nichols’ recordings for Brunswick illustrate jazz at a point of great refinement. Sometimes they spent weeks in preparation for a single recording date, yet they never sacrificed the informal, honky-tonk spirit. To hear Trombonist Jack Teagarden get off in Hallelujah is to realize that jazz needs a new critical vocabulary.

THESE men loved their work; when they played for their own pleasure they inevitably played hot. There was intense rivalry among them, and a mutual admiration foreign to such egocentric arts as the opera. The jazz musicians gave no grandstand performances; they simply got a great burn from playing in the groove. But it was only infrequently possible for them to make a steady living with the hot style. The public preferred the so-called “symphonic” dance music originated by Paul Whiteman, who played popular tunes elaborately scored and adorned with snatches of Grieg or Tschaikowsky, and also had great success with dance paraphrases of such standard music as the Meditation from Thaïs and César Cui’s Orientale. And so the hot men were usually to be found playing for profit under “symphonic” leaders. Sometimes they were allowed to go to town, but for the most part they accommodated public taste.

Had jazz not been so stanch, it would surely have received the coup de gràce in 1929. That year skirts as well as stocks descended; there was a perceptible revival of gracious manners. The national thirst yearned for something less positive than gin, the tail coat replaced the dinner jacket, and ladies who had sworn never to submit to corsets again were shaping themselves to meet the new order of things. Appropriately, Rudy Vallée breathed a genteel number called Deep Night and became almost immediately the highest priced musician this country has ever known. Bing Crosby, who first made a name for himself singing in the jazz style with Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys, discovered there was more money to be made with teary effects in the low register and became, via radio, a promising rival for Vallée’s popularity. During the last few years there has been less public demand than ever for hot music. You hear practically none of it in the leading hotels and night clubs (which do, however, provide much that is corny). The radio offers true jazz, along with everything else in the world, but not in conspicuous quantities. It is even losing its great popularity at college promenades. Paradoxically, however, the jazz which persists today is the best jazz ever.

This is explained by the fact that jazz, as has been suggested, has never been dependent on widespread popular favor. It is played because certain men like to play it, and it is played in public because a sufficient number of laymen have always shared the musicians’ pleasure. Furthermore, the years have brought the jazz players more and more musical sophistication, more and more technical ability; the jazz spirit is better equipped for expression today than ever before. The best white ensembles usually compromise by playing both sweet and hot music. This is true of Ben Pollack’s excellent swing band of Chicago (with Trombonist Teagarden and other crack soloists) and of the superbly drilled Casa Loma orchestra, favorite of Yale promenades and the New England dance-hall circuit, whose Guitarist Gene Gifford has composed and arranged some of the neatest exercises in stomp (very fast) time. But since it seems to be congenitally impossible for Negro dance musicians to play straight, it is not surprising to find that jazz survives most vigorously today among the race which gave it birth.

Various names are worth mention—Don Redman, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines—but it is Duke Ellington, a veritable prince of pulsation, who probably deserves to be called the first figure in jazz today. When Ellington and his orchestra played before Percy Grainger’s music classes at New York University, Mr. Grainger drew some casual comparisons with the music of Bach and Delius. “I’ll have to find out about this Delius,” said Mr. Ellington. The chances are he has never made the investigation. So busy is he with his band and his own musical ideas that he seldom troubles to hear his own phonograph records.

EDWARD KENNEDY (“DUKE”) ELLINGTON lives in a large Harlem apartment at 381 Edgecombe Avenue—and therefore New York may lay claim to being the jazz capital of the world. Separated from his wife, he makes his home with his parents, a nineteen-year-old sister Ruth, and a fourteen-year-old son Mercer, who prefers drawing to music (even his father’s). For many years Duke Ellington’s father was a blueprint maker at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard. Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in the capital in April, 1900. He began studying the piano at the age of eight under a Mr. Grant and a Mrs. Chink-scales. At Armstrong High School he veered away toward painting, etching, and all kinds of athletics, but his mother kept him on the piano stool. At sixteen he began to play raggy music for Washington society with Louis Thomas’ orchestra. These were the years when jazz entered the North; the Original Dixieland was enjoying its New York heyday, and in 1918 the late Lieutenant Jim Europe, famous Negro bandmaster of the A. E. F., returned from overseas with a group of black boys who had discovered the New Orleans brand of nerve tonic before the War. One fine day in France, when several bands of the allied nations were assembled in concert, Jim Europe had stopped the show with St. Louis Blues. He played it again in Boston a year or so later, and after the performance his drummer stabbed him in the back.

Jim Europe and the Original Dixieland convinced Ellington that jazz was his medium. In 1923 he toured with one of the earlier and more raucous jazz bands, directed by Wilbur C. Sweatman, a mammoth Negro whose specialty was a number in which he found room for three clarinets in his mouth at once. This feat was not so interesting to Ellington as the pliable idiom of jazz, which barred no experiment and allowed each player to formulate his own rules. The fact that a man could squeeze a living from such irregular music was almost too good to be true. Back in Washington a little later, he formed his own band, the Washingtonians, with Trumpeter Arthur Whetsel, Clarinetist Barney Bigard, Saxophonist Otto Hardwick, and Drummer Sonny Greer. All of these men are with him today.

THE local success of the Washingtonians encouraged Duke to move on to New York. He opened at the Kentucky Club in 1926, and was soon verging on bankruptcy. Almost any New York success requires press-agentry, and Ellington’s jazz had no ballyhoo. Fortunately before it was too late a press agent appeared. Irving Mills is not a musician himself, but he knows what is distinctive and is an experienced showman. No one needed to convince him that Ellington was highly potential: he had heard the band.

The problem was one of sales, and Mills believed that with a larger orchestra and a distinctive location, Ellington could be made a drawing card. For a while he flirted with the idea of forming a musical bureau to be known as the Royal Orchestras—led off by Benny “King” Carter. Once and for all, therefore, Ellington became “Duke,” a sobriquet first earned in his Washington school days. The Royal Orchestras never materialized, but Mills augmented Ellington’s band to twelve pieces, placed him at the Cotton Club in Harlem (where rents were low), and installed a Negro floor show, fast, agile, and undressed. A dozen men were what Ellington needed to give body to his ideas; the radio spread his name and music throughout the East, and between the floor show and the band—undeniably the most toe-tickling in the city—the Cotton Club attracted a large downtown clientele.

Ellington had arrived, and subsequently only one other Negro bandmaster has had a comparable success. This is Cab Calloway, also managed by Irving Mills. In many places, including New York, Calloway’s gate exceeds Ellington’s. Draped in such fascinating haberdashery as a snow-white dress suit with extra long tails, Calloway weaves gracefully before his orchestra and in a high, spasmodic voice emits hot arias like Minnie the Moocher and Kicking the Gong Around. He usually plays no instrument and, as a composer, has boasted only of the lyrics to the chorus of Minnie. They begin as follows: Hi-de-hi-de-hi—ho-de-ho-de-ho. Calloway’s vocalizing is sensational; his band is not to be compared with Ellington’s.

Ellington composes perhaps half the music his orchestra plays, and stamps his personality unmistakably on the rest. In addition to those already mentioned, among his best numbers are Mood Indigo, The Mystery Song, The Dicty Glide, It’s Glory (Victor records), and Blue Tune, Lightnin’, and Ducky-Wucky (Brunswick records). His best recorded versions of other music include Limehouse Blues and Three Little Words (Victor), and Rose Room, The Sheik, and Blackbirds Medley (Brunswick). Ellington uses fourteen men—three trumpets, three trombones, four saxophones (doubling on all manner of reeds), piano, guitar, string bass, and drums. Very frequently the sections are employed in unison, the six-part brass team playing in counterpoint against the four reeds with the remaining players acting as percussion. But Ellington has no set rules of orchestration. His conceptions are miniatures; and in the titivating mysteries of rhythm, tone color, and interweaving voices. Ellington is an adept. R. D. Darrell, writing in the magazine Disques declares: “To me … the most daring experiments of the modernists rarely approach the imaginative originality, mated to pure musicianship, of a dozen arresting moments in Ellington’s works.”

WHILE Ellington’s music is personal and finished to the nth degree, there are always hot solos by the players—the jazz fundamental is preserved. Ellington’s instrument is not so much subservient to him as sympathetic. The understanding between the men is uncanny: Ellington and his drummer, Sonny Greer, for instance, engage in a constant signaling with eyebrows, hands, or grimaces. It is no exaggeration to say that his band of fourteen can fake (improvise) as adroitly as the early five-piece combinations. Usually the music is a striking blend of arrangement and invention, typical of which is a trumpet player stabbing bright patterns through lustrous curtains of tone.

Ellington hates the spade work of writing music. At rehearsals, which are frequently called for three o’clock in the morning, after the night’s work is done, no scores are visible. The leader seats himself at the piano and runs over the theme he wishes to develop, shows the men what he thinks the saxophones might play here and the brasses there. Perhaps Barney Bigard, the solo clarinetist, suggests a rolling phrase on the reeds at a certain point; it is tried and judged by general opinion. Freddy Jenkins, the electric little trumpeter, may favor muting the brass in various passages. Each man has his say. After four to five hours of this informal process, a new number has been perfected—suavely and intricately arranged, played with the utmost technical command. Ellington believes his men memorize more easily this way than they would by using prepared scores. Most of his famous arrangements have never been written down: sometimes, after five or six months. Manager Mills succeeds in persuading Ellington to put one on paper. The hot solo passages are, of course, left blank, with some such notation as “get off.”

BUT there is really very little reason why Ellington should bother to score his arrangements. They are so difficult that few other dance bands can play them at all, and very few with anything approaching the ease and spirit of Ellington’s musicians. Reading his scores, other orchestras quickly discover that he continually expects things from his men which even the best players elsewhere are seldom called upon to deliver. He conceives his music, for instance, in terms of piano chords and indicates certain notes for the fourth saxophone, regardless of whether the intervals and sequences are convenient for a saxophonist to play. Ellington knows his men can play them; other leaders are not so fortunate. Manager Mills wastes considerable money buying Ellington special arrangements of standard tunes. By the time the orchestra plays them they are Ellingtonian—lustered with his own harmonies, pungent with his rhythm.

Ellington spends his spare moments writing a score for a Negro musical show to be produced next season by John Henry Hammond Jr., son of the New York lawyer John Henry Hammond, and one of the leading jazz connoisseurs of the country. Ellington is also conceiving a suite in five parts, tentatively entitled Africa, The Slave Ship, The Plantation, Harlem—the last being a climactic restatement of themes. Whether this will be arranged for his band as now constituted or for an augmented group has not been decided. The composer expects to leave the piano, taking a baton in the form of a drumstick which, while conducting, he will beat on an elaborate choir of tom-toms. And he is trying desperately to find a reed instrument lower even than a contrabassoon with which to produce voodoo accents in the opening section. His friends say he will ultimataely invent one.

With this suite in his repertoire, Ellington may some day make his Carnegie Hall début. It will be an occasion—but, depend on it, there will be no concert-hall piety about the affair. Harlem offers a foretaste of it this very day. In Harlem hot music survives. In Harlem argument survives—the jazz boys debate the merits of two Negro pianists, the partially blind Art Tatum and Willie Smith, somewhat terrifyingly known as The Lion. And in Harlem Duke Ellington and his men have a traditional place in the purple glow lamps of the Cotton Club. Presiding high above his fellows is the dapper Sonny Greer, surrounded like an alchemist with his tom-tom crucibles and tympanic retorts. In the delicacy and pertinence with which he approaches these instruments he is the very symbol of elegant, seething syncopation. There, while Ellington’s brass sprays out the steaming measures of Ring Dem Bells and Greer titillates the chimes, listeners may remember their Aldous Huxley and cry out: “What songs! What gongs! … What blasts of Bantu melody!”

*In its jazz sense, the word “hot” does not necessarily mean loud and fast. “Hot” music may well be languid and soft. The word “hot” refers to a musical attitude and idiom, discussed in these pages, not to a particular tempo or volume.