- Saturday, April 21, 2012
- by Jonathan Martin
Duke Ellington was one of the most prolific and popular composers in Jazz. He wrote over 1000 compositions of varying size and scope. He mainly wrote songs for Big Band in standard AABA song form.
Some of his most popular songs were written in the 1930's. "Mood Indigo", It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" "Sophisticated Lady" "Solitude" and "In a Sentimental Mood".
He especially enjoyed the challenge of writing songs taylored to the skills and strengths of the members of his band. Like "Jeep's Blues" for Johnny Hodges, "Clarinet Lament" for Barney Bigard, "Yearning for Love" for Lawrence Brown, and "Echoes of Harlem" for Cootie Williams.
A Grand Vision
But, Ellington had great aspirations for the music called Jazz and knew it could be used to create great works of art. Not just floor show novelty pieces or production numbers.
He had two categories for music. Good music. And, the other kind. He had definite opinions about what was good and what was not. He said that playing Bebop was "like playing Yahtzee with all the vowels removed."
Bebop was primarily for small groups and soloists. But, he was primarily a composer and arranger for large ensembles. Ellington had a grand vision for Jazz. One that would elevate it to an equal status with Classical European Art Music.
Jazz Art Music
His idea was not only to keep a large ensemble, but to expand the Jazz form to a longer period of time. At that time in the 1930's and 40's, the typical Jazz song lasted three minutes or less. It was meant to fit on one side of a 10-inch or 12-inch vinyl record. Ellington wanted more time to develop his compositions.
"Creole Rhapsody", "Black and Tan Fantasy" and "Black, Brown and Beige" are among his longer works. "Reminiscing in Tempo" was dedicated to his mother and was contained on both sides of two 10-inch records.
Classical composers didn't have this problem of time. Because their music was meant to be performed live. And, recording technology wasn't around in the time of Mozart or Beethoven.
It's a Matter of Time
It's hard to imagine that time could be such a problem since now we have CD's that can play up to 1 hour and 20 minutes. DVD's can play more than 3 hours of music. Although, Pop songs still keep close to the three minute format.
Jazz itself seemed to resist Ellington's efforts to expand the form. His most popular and well known works are those he wrote using the standard song form. Not the grandiose large compositions that he created.
Becoming Classic Anyway
Yet, the volume of his creations are truly astounding. He wrote over a thousand songs. Seven of his compositions earned the distinction of being included in the "Great American Songbook". He earned twelve Grammy Awards. And nine of his songs have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for "qualitative or historical significance".
He really did accomplish what he set out to do. He elevated the style of Jazz to the status of "high art". Even if he didn't do it the way he was trying to.
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born April 29, 1899.
How many Jazz songs do you think you could write? Tell us in the comments ...
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