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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Welcome to "Ask the Experts," a regular web feature that highlights the expertise of various Bucknellians in a range of topics related to current news events and other timely subjects. || Ask the Experts archive
This week, we asked Phil Haynes, jazz artist in residence at Bucknell University, about the legacy of Duke Ellington, who was born 110 years ago. A new recording of jazz standards, "Day Dream," features Steve Rudolph on piano, Drew Gress on bass and Haynes on drums. Recorded at Bucknell's Rooke Recital Hall, the recording includes the Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington composition, "Day Dream."
Q: What is Duke Ellington's legacy today?
A: Ellington is one of the pivotal figures in jazz. Take him and Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and those people are still changing the music today.
His music, like all the great masters, it lives. He pulled all genres into his own language. Jazz, like America, is a melting pot, and for Ellington it's about celebrating individual voices brought together collectively. It's a very true democracy. In Europe, we look for being able to blend with other stringed instruments and matching bowing exactly. In jazz, like a democracy, it's not about an ideal as much as it is a living, changing, breathing system. It's absolutely vibrant and alive, complete with mistakes and brilliance. If people are being cautious, they are unlikely to be brilliant. "Aha" experiences don't happen when you're being cautious.
When we talk about his legacy, we have to look at how he was as a performer. The name? Duke. He was seen and he was regal. The kind of pride that Ellington exudes and his grace is duke-like. For American culture to see a black African ancestor like this was a new experience. Both he and Louis Armstrong carried themselves beautifully. Everyone could relate to this man's brilliance and personality. Entertainers still look to that model. There is nothing classier. Who knew in the midst of the 1960s we would have President Barack Obama? People like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were the ones who really made that all possible. They were American artistic ambassadors, Time magazine cover people, household names, whereas masters of modern jazz now, very often, are not.
Q: Talk about the sound he incorporated into his music.
A: He grew up playing and leading society orchestras — just a working musician. In the 1920s, he heard Fletcher Henderson's band and trumpeter "Bubber" Miley, who used bathroom plungers as mutes. It sounded as though he was talking through his horn. Ellington hired Bubber, and others, and soon he had a brass section that could all talk with their horns. They talk about it as being the jungle music. A piece like "Koko," one of Ellington's classics, has all this. It has blues but it's an expanded blues. He brought the jungle, or Africa, this speaking language and these very strange and exotic sounds into the American — everybody's — living room through the radio.
We think of Ellington as a big band writer, and he certainly is, but he took popular dance forms, pop music, added the blues and these speaking instruments that were counter/low culture. And yet his music was wildly popular. He didn't write for five trumpets and five trombones and five saxophones. He wrote for Johnny Hodges. He wrote for Russell Procope. He wrote for "Cat" Anderson and "Cootie" Williams. He wrote specifically for the people in his band at the time. Why? They just weren't trumpet players, trombonists and clarinetists. They were individuals. The greatest thing great jazz musicians have is their own voices, their own personalities, their own sounds, their own way of interpreting jazz. Ellington knew by hiring these people and listening to them how they would sound in his compositions. He was writing for an orchestra of individuals. Instead of one idealized sound, it' a collection, a democratic rally of people. That to me is his biggest legacy.
Q: He pulled from all genres, right?
A: Duke's catalog is vast. Of course, he was writing jazz. But he wrote two- to three-thousand pieces. Then there are the re-dos on the catalog. Not because they weren't right the first time, but because he'd say, "Wouldn't it be fun to do this?" Or somebody in the band started improvising riffs and it became part of the arrangement. What's amazing is the creative quality level over decades.
There's more blues than anything else in Ellington. He takes this very humble form and he popularizes it for big band dance, and yet he's using all these talking, strange sounding instruments, and you listen even in the '30s to a piece like "Koko" and the harmony is odd. It's modern. There is a direct lineage that goes from Duke to Thelonious Monk, the great be-bop piano player, and right out to Cecil Taylor. Anyone who was an innovator in jazz had to be a revolutionary, and Ellington was a revolutionary. You listen to his harmony and what he popularized, it's different.
He did all these blues works. He was listening to classical music. He wanted to feature his band, so he was doing film score work. Imagine, black bands in the '30s doing film scores and captured live — not in white face — often in black face. They crossed all kinds of barriers and Duke took this music and started writing multi-movement suites, a whole different scale. Then before the '60s, he started writing sacred music. There's nothing that he doesn't touch as an American and he always sounds like Ellington.
Ellington called his music "American music." It's jazz, it's a melting pot. He's taking elements — rag, blues, the concerto format, American popular song — and then he's pulling in international sources from around the world. He goes to Asia and writes "The Far East Suite." You can hear the influences. He takes some of the basic harmonic Asian language and feeds it in through the blues and his esthetic and his band's esthetic and — what happens? — we have world music evolving.
Q: Your favorite Ellington recordings?
A: If you're starting to introduce someone to Ellington, you can't miss the Jimmy Blanton-Ben Webster so-called band. That era — the '30s and '40s — is classic. It's quintessential Ellington.
We also have to talk about Ellington the soloist, Ellington the small group artist. Imagine in the late '50s he meets the new masters of the emerging avant-garde — Max Roach and Charles Mingus. There are all kinds of stories about "Money Jungle." It's great. It's wild. Read the stories and listen to the music. These guys were not getting along. You'd think the new guys would be running roughshod over the old Ellington and there's no doubt it becomes his record. They are all at wits-end with each other and with the music and yet because no one is taking it easy, they're all taking chances. It is wild, woolly, entertaining and utterly unpredictable. It is some of the most amazing Ellington. It's true jazz. You can be in a democracy and have an argument. I love that.
"Duke Ellington and His Orchestra in Concert in Europe," from 1965, is beautifully captured by French radio and, wow, what power. To me, it's not as smooth and not just a dance band. It's a band that could play any night of the week and you never knew what was going to come out of them. Listen to this and you hear the majesty, you hear the professionalism, and you hear all these surprises constantly - and the mistakes. But not bad mistakes, just being human. Ellington embraced humanity, in a way. Instead of looking for the idealized human, he realized the idealized human being was right in front of him. He celebrates you how you are. Ellington certainly could smell the roses and help the rest of us do it, too.
New editions of "Ask the Experts" will appear on the Bucknell University website on most Thursdays during the fall and spring semesters and on occasion throughout the summer. If you have ideas for future questions or are a faculty or staff member who would like to participate, please contact Sam Alcorn.