As I began putting together this month’s highlight, I fell into a vast reverie of Edward Kennedy Ellington’s life and the universe of his musical legacy. Assembling the selected album listing became more and more involved while reviewing what was discovered, enjoyed, learned about, and heart-expanded from listening to recordings through the decades, beginning in earnest in 1975.
The reach of his imagination and creativity was utterly out of this world. The way he voiced horns, his musical ideas, writing for the specific quality of sounds and feeling each member of the orchestra brought to the table, his unmistakable pianistic style, his unbounded ability to continue to grow and expand as well as keeping his band working non-stop for 5 decades ... The liner notes for the 1950 LP, Masterpieces By Ellington observes something of Duke Ellington’s sources of inspiration:
Ellington once listed George Gershwin, Stravinsky, Debussy and Respighi as his favorite composers, a significant group of choices to remember in listening to his music. Gershwin, the inspired melodist, also showed a masterly preoccupation with intricate rhythms and meters. Stravinsky, certainly the most important influence in modern classical music, is an experimenter of the first order, continually exploring rhythms and textures in his compositions. Debussy is the master of Impressionism, refining delicate themes to a gauzy web of articulate grace. And Respighi, whatever his claims as a composer, was a master of orchestration. These revealing choices give the clue to the basis of Ellington’s music, and to its incontestably immense appeal: melody, rhythm, delicacy and color.
While he used the piano to compose, Duke Ellington’s instrument was his orchestra. As he put it in a 1962 interview in Vancouver, “The band is an accumulation of personalities, tonal devices, and as a result of a certain musician applied to a certain instrument you get a definite tonal character.”
The range of musical invention staggers the heart. Skimming SOME of my favorites (and yes, EVERY blue text song title of recordings listed throughout daveratcliffepiano.com does link to the specific recording—even though the mouse cursor does not change—and pops up a separate small window when clicked on):
Here’s to Edward Kennedy Ellington, the beauty of the world he reflected and magnified, and the echoes of his dreaming, creative self. Our single, universal language has been wonder fully expanded and deepened by Duke, and, the breathtaking synergy created with William “Billy” Thomas Strayhorn.
The following is the beginning of the Epilogue in Duke’s autobiography followed by excerpts of him asking himself questions and answering them.
The Mirrored Self
Let us imagine a quiet, cozy cove where all the senses except one seem to have dispersed. There is nothing to smell, nothing to taste, nothing to hear, and nothing to feel but the reaction to what can be seen. Nearby is a still pool, so still that it resembles a limpid mirror. If we look in it, what we see is the reflection of ourselves, just as we thought we looked, wearing the identical clothes, the same countenance . . .
Ah, this is us, the us we know, and as we savor the wonderful selves-of-perfection we suddenly realize that just below our mirror, there is another reflection that is not quite so clear, and not quite what we expected. This translucent surface has a tendency toward the vague: the lines are not firm and the colors not quite the same, but it is us, or should we say me, or rather one of our other selves? We examine this uncertain portrait and just as we feel inclined to accept it we realize that, down below this, there is still another mirror reflecting another of our selves, and more. For this third mirror is transparent, and we can plainly see what is going on both before and behind it, and we refuse to credit that here is still another of our selves. But there we are with four reflections, all reflections of us who look at them. We accept the first three, even with the vague and misty overtones, but the fourth, on the other side of the transparent mirror, leaves us baffled and on the verge of defeat. It is hard to believe that we would do this to me, but we saw it with our own eyes. Which is the one we love most? We know that I am one of our favorite people, but which one? It does not have anything to do with what we are doing to anybody else, but what we are doing to me, the thinker-writer, the okayer, the nixer, the player, the listener, the critic, the corrector. What are they all saying? We can’t hear them. We can only see them. A ripple in the pool and they all disappear.
Now we can hear, feel, smell, and taste....
Q. Do you work better under pressure?
A. I scarcely do anything without a tight deadline. I work to the last minute.
Q. You are known to work under extraordinary conditions, with the television going, people talking, lights blazing, and telephones ringing. Do you need that kind of semiconfusion, or are you so accustomed to it that you are oblivious to it? Or can you just tune out at will?
A. In the early music publishing houses, there might be as many as ten pianos going at once, and you had to learn to write a lead sheet under those circumstances. If I were making a lead sheet to get an advance, I couldn’t afford to let all those noises interfere with the noise I was trying to put down on one sheet of paper. Of course, I don’t make the blueprint for coincidences of the kind mentioned, but if and when they happen, I seldom have the urge or fortitude to be a disciplinarian. Nor do I have the impudence to be rude, or the gall or brass to demand order.
Q. Do you hear your music mentally first? Does it work out in a pattern from a beginning? And do you hear it in single notes, chords, phrases, or larger, whole parts?
A. Each and all the ways. Acceptance is unconditional.
Q. Do you think a composor will ever be able to figure out mathematically what he wants, feed it to a computer, and let it compose?
A. They had the player piano years ago.
Q. An artist is now expected to do many things to “promote” himself and his work. Is there danger in overexposure on television, in radio interviews, etc., etc.?
A. Everybody is different. There is no general rule.
Q. How does the artist keep control and avoid manipulation by agents, managers, and business people?
A. The artist is either a better businessman or a better artist.
Q. You function in triplicate as performer, composer, and conductor. In what order would you put these roles, or does it change according to the situation?
A. Each is different and each must be approached with a different perspective. None is as important as—or more important than—the one being enjoyed at the moment.
Q. How do you approach an assignment to score a movie or a play? Is it dominated by your feeling or the director’s interpretation of the story?
A. The composer usually has his own idea about it, but this may be altered at the discretion of the director. Scoring is primarily for background purposes and it should never overpower the action or dialogue on the stage or screen.
Q. Do you ever get tired of playing those old perennials night after night?
A. No, this is a responsibility we owe people. Say, for instance, someone comes along who says, “We were married to ‘Caravan,’” or “I met my girl at the Blue Note when you were playing ‘Mood Indigo.’” It’s important to them. We were playing one night some place down in Georgia when three people came up. “I met my wife,” the man said, “for the first time when you were playing ‘Sophisticated Lady,’ and we danced together. It’s a strange thing that you should be playing in our hometown on our daughter’s twenty-first birthday!” Then they introduced their daughter. You have to respect such memories. Of course, when we get requests for numbers that are not in the book from people like that, we just say, “Fake it!”
Q. Don’t you get tired of doing what you’re doing year in and year out?
A. You’re talking from the perspective either of someone who doesn’t love music, or who doesn’t do what he enjoys most for a living. To be frank, that question annoys me very much, and not merely because it recurs so often. Millions and millions of dollars are spent building big vacation places for people to escape to from their daily chores, but they are the people who don’t enjoy what they are doing for a living. Nobody else does what we do for fifty-two weeks of the year, every day of the week. It’s our unique thing. Nobody does anything every day like we do, and nobody does it in so many places as we do. Doctors, surgeons, football players, bankers—you name it— they all take vacations. We go to many countries and we fly more than pilots do! We live in an entirely different climate. Three days ago we crossed the equator. Yesterday we went through a blizzard. Everybody else takes a day off, but not us. We’re not captive, but we’re built in.
Q. Do you think you have a more highly developed degree of anticipation than most people?
A. Some people have sensitivities in directions they never have an opportunity to use, because they have been drawn away from them for monetary reasons. They would be surprised to discover how rewarding it is to pursue the natural tendencies and become a Number One yourself rather than a Number Two somebody else. Heaven is a place where you get an opportunity to use all the millions of sensitivities you never knew you had before.
Q. Who is the most sensitive and gentle person you have known?
A. Daisy, my mother.
Q. If you could make one sure bet, what would it be?
A. Gray skies are just clouds passing over.
Q. Do you have any idiosyncrasies or beliefs that might be considered superstitious, such as not walking under ladders?
A. When you arrive here on earth, you find many superstitions already established, and as you go through different phases of life you encounter many more. From childhood on, each phase has its own, and offhand it’s easy to think of many that belong to athletics, for example, or the theatre. The most difficult part is trying to decide which of them are based on someone’s religion and which have just been carried down through the ages. As Geoffrey Holder says, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to play with or kid about another man’s religion.” People, of course, can be made to believe anything, true or false. I’m a people.
Q. What has been the most valuable thing in life for you?
Q. Is the blues a song of sorrow?
A. No, it is a song of romantic failure.
Q. What is the spiritual?
A. A song of prayer and worship.
Q. Who are you?
A. I am a musician who is a member of the American Federation of Labor, and who hopes one day to amount to something artistically.
Q. Are you not being too modest?
A. Oh, no, you should see my dreams!