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Duke Ellington: Symphony of the Body and Soul

Raul d'Gama Rose By
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Oddly enough that was not quite the way Duke Ellington saw it. But then Ellington always saw and heard things differently. He always heard what no one else did in the first instance. He was blessed with a peculiar characteristic: He became immersed in his musical environment with all his six senses, all at once. His response to stimuli was like a total-body experience. So he saw and heard, smelled and felt the world around him with fecund tactility, experiencing it as if with a sweeping in all its completeness of tone and texture and with a heartfelt rhythmic intensity—if such a thing is at all possible. The Duke: a remarkable visionary and connoisseur of sound. And he also experienced it from the twin polarities of the musical phenomenon: as artist-instrumentalist and as audience at the same time.

No one was more aware of this extraordinary gift that Ellington himself. He often spoke of how the music was made and how he was driven to make it. He suggested that he was a relentless artist, who was filled with the impulse to continuously create music from his extraordinary palette of vision and color and sound. He once said that he heard and saw and felt notes much like a chef could sense the dish that was to be created merely by imagining the ingredients that would go into creating it.

Again as a master chef the Duke cooked his musical fare with rare dexterity. He experienced the aroma of sound! And then he conjured up such a delicious fare that it left a memorable and potent taste on the musical palette of his audiences wherever he chose to serve these remarkable recipes for entertainment that he put together between 1936 and 1940. This is the subject of the documentation that I hold in my hands while the music plays.

Harlem circa 1923

They call themselves the Washingtonians alto saxophonist, Toby Hardwick, Arthur Whetsol, who wailed on trumpet, banjoist Elmer Snowden, guitarist William Escoffrey and, well, Bill and Felix Miller. Of course there was Edward Kennedy Ellington, The Duke, around whom everything revolved. The final ingredient in the Ellington coalesces when William "Sonny" Greer finds his way from Long Branch, New Jersey to Washington D.C. Greer dresses sharp and plays with flamboyance. He is in a pit band at The Howard Theatre. Ellington, Whetsol and Hardwick go to hear him play and they think he passes the test. In fact Sonny Greer comes with a line of jive and lays them low! Nevertheless, the real "Washingtonians" are born. Ellington is already a very busy musician. But the real Ellington sound is about to take shape.

The Washingtonians were playing svelte melodies all the way, thanks to Hardwick and Whetsol. All that changed when the band hit a lean period and Whetsol decided to return to school in the fall of 1923. Then came Bubber Miley. He used to growl all night long, playing gutbucket on his horn. Bubber Miley quickly gained a reputation as a brilliant soloist with a fine range of tonal colors and a devilish control of dynamic tension. He was the master of plunger and mute used in unison to produce a magnificent growl— a technique that became the hallmark of the Ellington "Jungle" style. He and Ellington composed the seminal chart "East St. Louis Toodle-o" (Vocalion, 1927), which heralded the new sound. Miley eventually left Ellington in 1926 three years before succumbing to tuberculosis, but not before the irrepressible, uninhibited master-showman left an indelible mark on the Ellington orchestra, one that was to characterize the band for decades to come.

In 1926 Duke Ellington's first recording for a major label was made. Irving Mills put the whole gig together and it was as a result of his hearing an unusually fine performance of "St. Louis Blues". This was the record that featured "East St. Louis Toodle-o" and "Birmingham Breakdown" and set the stage for the first great Ellington band—the Kentucky Club Orchestra—including the great growling horn meister, Bubber Miley, who also shared compositional honors with Duke as well as Toby Hardwick on saxophones, Joe Nanton on trombone, Prince Robinson on clarinet Fred Guy on guitar and banjo, Mack Shaw on tuba and of course, the magnificent Sonny Greer on drums. This was, said the Duke, the end of "sweet music," with Bubber "growling all night."

This was the much vaunted "jungle music"—raw, gut wrenching and beautiful beyond. It cut to the chase... boogie, no baloney! It was also the shape of things to come, the precursor to everything that Ellington did. It shaped the poetics of his music... and the dynamic of his sound. The Duke that great chef the concocter of all sound was now hearing the new sound... he was creating the sound that launched him into the world, and the world was never the same after that... never the same because of him.

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