The Late Show

Why Duke Ellington’s late work deserves our attention.

The late, great Ellington

Like most artists of heroic proportion, Duke Ellington’s sweep is difficult to comprehend. His output of original compositions and co-compositions is estimated to number between 1,000 and 3,000 works, ranging from starkly simple pieces to complex adventures in long composition, from the lowest low-down blues (the swamp water virtually runs off the notes) to the most urbane renditions of the big city (its people, its architecture, its pulse, and its dreamy, private situations). His grand aesthetic vision was to bring work songs, spirituals, blues, and ragtime together with jazz, that aesthetic idiom of great latitude. Ellington combined his sources with more blistering force, imagination, and understatement than anyone had before him, inventing variations and grooves along the way. He produced music that would not only extend the reaches of jazz but would become one of the largest and most original bodies of American music ever created. Ellington’s early classics, produced between 1927 and 1940, have been often and rightly praised; his late work has been largely neglected. But the late work offers plenty of masterworks for the listener of sufficiently refined taste, or the one willing to sophisticate his or her taste. Put simply, Ellington’s late work is largely a secret treasure. Anyone purporting to be civilized, or who desires to be, should have as many late Ellington recordings as possible in his or her audio collection. In conventional jazz writing, Ellington is said to have reached his musical peak in the three years of 1940 to 1942, when there is supposed to have been an unimpeachable balance between composition and personnel, resulting in stellar renditions and eloquent improvisation. But Ellington’s ongoing evolution, from 1943 to the end of his life, runs counter to the standard critical take. In that last 30 years of band-leading and composing, Ellington achieved a remarkable range and authority. This was the result of both the time he had spent in the musical game and the vast technical and human experience his players were able to bring to the music, resulting in an abundance of varied tonal depth, emotional expansion, and subtlety—all of which is revealed in an increasing number of reissues and remixes now available. These recordings, stretching from the ‘40s to the ‘70s, demonstrate just how brilliantly Ellington and his band developed, decade by decade, almost right up to his death in 1974. Given its remarkable variety (some of it due to the length made possible by compact discs), Ellington Uptown is a perfect place to enter the world of late Ellington. The basic areas of investigation and expression that Ellington would look into for the next quarter-century are laid out on this recording, made between 1947 and 1952. Ellington reveals how in control of his New Orleans blues roots he remained and the many refinements, extensions, and elaborations he was still bringing to them. Three different masterpieces appear in a row: “The Mooche,” “Take the A Train,” and “Harlem.”

“The Mooche,” made in 1928, is a piece that reflected Ellington’s love of New Orleans and had been played in many versions by 1952. (Ellington constantly remade his pieces, and they are thus examples of how an inventive jazz composer works. He personally wrote or co-wrote new arrangements, commissioned new arrangements, or, upon listening to the improvisations of his players, found fresh material that could enrich or reinterpret a familiar part of his repertoire.) On “The Mooche,” we hear the two colors that were essential to Ellington’s sound. There’s the clarinet, which Ellington never abandoned even though jazz orchestras usually set the instrument aside after the emergence of Charlie Parker in the middle ‘40s. Then there is the equally important plunger-muted brass (trumpet, on this track) that also remained a fundamental element of his style.

Take the A Train,” is an example of Ellington’s jauntiness, his “boudoir” tenor saxophone, and his unexpected shift to a swift, high-tailing virtuosity. Written in 1940 by Billy Strayhorn (a longtime Ellington collaborator), it was once the most famous band theme in the world. This is Ellington’s arrangement, which foreshadows the many forthcoming jazz pieces written by other musicians that would present more than one tempo and mood. This version is a puckish, medium-tempo swinger, boasting a vocal feature by Betty Roche that is so sensual and knowing it will show listeners what hip actually means. There is plenty of erotic suggestion but not one overworked note of vulgarity. This performance is also a two-part musical platform for the masterful tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, who first uses his breathy, seductive lyricism at a walking ballad tempo before he seems to snatch up his pants and his shoes, jump out the window, and exhibit his red-hot virtuosity at a champion sprinter’s tempo. “Harlem,” an extended piece that was Ellington’s favorite longer work, opens with a trumpet announcing the two-note theme. Wynton Marsalis considers this one of Ellington’s great masterpieces. In this musical portrait, Ellington, always at war with limitations, seeks to create a varied set of musical images that goes beyond narrow, popular stereotypes. His Harlem is an epic community of endless, varied types. There is wistfulness, gravity, delight, mocking humor, sexual banter, mourning, hope, dancing, and calibrated power. In short, Ellington achieves an emotional fullness as inclusive of joy as of grief. It is a glorious moment in his output. ” ‘Harlem,’ ” says Marsalis, “shows how a musical genius can use his original, technical imagination in order to capture the vitality, humor, resourcefulness, spiritual depth and great sadness of the people he knew. No one has ever celebrated the humanity of Harlem as deeply as Duke Ellington did.”After 1950, Ellington’s band went through many personnel changes, losing some of its unique voices such as alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and trombonist Lawrence Brown. Hodges returned in 1956, at which point Ellington and Strayhorn seemed to step into another dimension of melodic, harmonic, formal, and rhythmic development that sustained itself for a decade. A clear high point of this period is the 1957 Such Sweet Thunder, which is Ellington’s “Shakespearean Suite.” (Three of these 12 pieces were written by Billy Strayhorn.) Here Ellington made the startling decision to challenge himself by creating a number of “real” musical sonnets, meaning 14 phrases of iambic pentameter (which equals 10 notes). ” Sonnet to Hank Cinq“is a perfect example, but each one is unique in mood and execution. This is Ellington and his musicians at their very best, exhibiting their unmatched range. 1959 was the year before the decade when jazz began to struggle with its own identity, resulting in much experimentation, most of it hopeless noise and confusion. In that last year of the ‘50s, Ellington showed how firmly he had solidified his greatness with signal achievements in jazz parties, film scores, and suites.
Jazz Party
(1959), with its variety of material and unexpected guests whom Ellington makes compatible, is unusual even for Ellington. It is an example of the ever-surprising repertoire that became characteristic of late Ellington from 1959 to the end of his music-making. The recording contains an intriguing six-part suite (Ellington’s first six-part suite was the masterful 1948 “The Liberian Suite,” on Ellington Uptown), some witty blues writing for concert percussion and jazz orchestra, and a classic Strayhorn vehicle—“Upper Manhattan Medical Group”—used to challenge an inspired Dizzy Gillespie who appears in a guest slot. There are also a couple of luscious, humorous features for Johnny Hodges, and a rousing blues finale in which the great Oklahoma blues singer Jimmy Rushing and the Bop King Gillespie are propelled by the soft-shoe strutting and declarative riffs of a brass-and-reed ensemble clearly enjoying the weight of its groove powers. (For several more examples of Ellington’s talent and range in his late years click here.)

The 1966 Far East Suite (RCA Victor) finds Ellingtonia enriching itself with new Third World influences. (This remix, which brings absolute clarity to it, is an example of contemporary technological gifts.) This is probably the best jazz-orchestra recording of that decade, the most forcefully successful blending of jazz and outside music. The musicians are in masterful and inspired form, which allows Ellington to effortlessly remake his palette once again, this time with the influences of the Middle East and Asia. The superb And His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA Victor) is a salute to the then recently deceased Strayhorn, which finds Ellington the pianist outplaying everyone else on the album. Like the hero in winter, with death and retirement taking many of his finest voices, Ellington continued to make superior music, as revealed by the 1971 “Goutelas Suite” found on The Ellington Suites (Pablo). He remained busy remaking his past and taking in new influences, as revealed on The New Orleans Suite (Atlantic Records) and the especially impressive very late Ellington of Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (Fantasy). There is no thrill in the arts like hearing a grand master expand his palette, reinvigorate himself, and take on all of the challenges specific to an era. Ellington said to a relative when asked what he thought of the new generation: “It’s not about this generation or that. In Art, the issue is regeneration.” These records make that case as powerfully as it has ever been made.

Into the face of death Duke Ellington wrote music until the end, and we are all the better for it.