Duke Ellington: Symphony of the Body and Soul

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The sound that Ellington created was unique. To me it was just classical music that sounded very different compared to anything I was used to listening as part of my academic regimen. Even without the extensive string section it still captured the vast palette of tones and textures of sound. It was rhythmically inventive. And the music could be both subtle and forthright. But more than anything else, the music of Duke Ellington—even in the 1960s—was a beautiful and richly laden document of the history of a people, which had emerged through tormented struggle into an exuberant sunshine of almost spiritual proportions. It was the document of a triumphant journey—that began in with the lament of the blues and... well taken together it was beginning to sound like a triumphant passacaglia... in continually evolving, emerging ode to joy. This swirling migration into human freedom began, in many respects, more than three decades ago...

It was time, time to put away the photograph of that day back between the dark pages of the old album of childhood memories.

Now I pick up the box that I received in the mail a week or so ago. It is one I have been expecting for some time and I am thrilled that it has finally arrived. I tear open the wrapping tape and its contents are revealed. This is Duke Ellington: 1936-1940 Small Group Sessions (Mosaic, 2006).

Duke Ellington has always occupied a very special place in my memory and in my heart. He was my second and most powerful inspiration. I wanted to look like him, tap my feet like him, sound like him when he spoke. Sit at the piano and play like him. At eight years of age, I knew that I would be asking Ludwig von Beethoven to make room for Duke Ellington. Now once again, I know why.

I spin the first of seven discs. The tape hiss is pronounced, but the magic and majesty of the music is unmistakable. I hear it all very clearly—despite the early primal rhythms that folks once called jungle music—yet I detect a thick sophisticated canvas of color and texture where notes and phrases meld and drip like life-giving sap from an age-old tree in a dense forest. It is misty and the mist too is alive. I am enraptured and seduced by the intense rhythm of the bass and drum and the growl of the Rex Stewart's cornet sharing melody with the svelte glissandos of Johnny Hodges' alto... horns in strange yet beautiful harmony. Mesmerized, I travel further back in time.

Now, as Alejo Carpentier did as he undertook that mind-expanding journey in search of the source of music in the Amazon years before, I retrace The Lost Steps. No longer a "baiano" I am a Yoruba now. The immense sophistication and architecture of this old-yet-new music and the scale of the compositions appear to dwarf all else in the world—including me. I am a bedazzled interloper now and I have an epiphany.

In it I see the how the Duke hears sounds. He hears everything differently. He hears sound and sees the color of each tone individually. He puts the two together in the notes he conceives for each of his musicians: Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol, Tricky Sam and the others... Each, it appears has an individual living taste, an odor and a color and tone... Duke hears this in every note they will ever play, so he begins to live these sounds too as he conceives of them and writes them, these notes ascribed to each and his instrument both of which are indelibly hewn in the rocks of ages and which inhabit a unique color and texture and vibration. This explains how each trombone has a different hue... Trumpets growl and sing and the bass swings sexily, punctuated by tickling, rattling and rolling and rim-shooting... "Indigo Echoes" are subtly expressed in each take on disc 1. They are filled with a subtle grace that comes from a distillation of everything else to leave behind only the purest of pure sounds.

This is more than merely the work of a Washingtonian—albeit one who writes in the 1930s and 40s. It is the artistry of an alchemist of sound. One who is able to bypass the filigreed sound that fluffed the dance-bands of the era and the elegant puffery of the dance hall. It is the sonic secrets revealed at the hands of a veritable druid of sound.

The proverbial grail for Ellington was the orchestra that he came to lead with magical elegance. Anyone who cared to sip from the cup of the then new sound that in the late 1930's broke the cacophony of pedestrian entertainment so to speak knew that they were imbibing something special; something that so altered the music they were used to hearing that it couldn't but change the effect on mind and heart. Such was the effect that the music of Duke Ellington's small groups that it was to establish a new sound in the classical music of the 20th Century—a new era for all music that came after this to become—the "swinging-est" music yet, written and performed.


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