The Magazine

Take the ‘E’ Train

A definitive life of the great American composer.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

From a six-man group, The Washingtonians, in 1926, Ellington’s orchestra would eventually, at its peak of brilliance, reach 14. In his first electrical recording, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” we can hear contributions from three players preeminent in their styles: Miley, who practiced “foul growling” with his muted trumpet; Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, who did a similar thing with the trombone throughout his long career with the band (Miley died young); and Otto “Toby” Hardwick, whose playing on the alto and soprano sax provided many identifiable touches of what Gunther Schuller has called “his slick, slightly oily tone and lip slurs.” Hardwick was seldom a major soloist, although he played with the band on and off for decades; but his touch—not appreciated by all fans of Ellington—is one of the distinct pleasures of listening to the band.

This pleasure in idiosyncrasy, the listener’s pleasure in identifying individual soloists, is one way of accounting for the difference between the Ellington band of whatever era and the bands of his contemporaries. Teachout’s way of putting it is to contrast Ellington’s operation with the more smoothly blended styles of Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw or Jimmie Lunceford. He calls Ellington’s sound, by contrast, “a loose festive ensemble sound.” Rather than the clean precision of a Goodman piece, Ellington’s way was different:

He preferred to hire musicians with homemade techniques that were different to the point of apparent incompatibility, then juxtapose their idiosyncratic sounds as a pointillist painter might place dots of red and green side by side on his canvas, finding inspiration in their technical limitations.

Interestingly, the great trombonist Jack Teagarden didn’t like the Ellington band: “He never had a band all in tune, always had a bad tone quality and bad blend,” he complained. Whether or not the “pointillist” comparison justifies Teachout’s claim that Ellington’s blend, far from “bad,” was, rather, unconventional, it’s significant that Teachout reaches out for an impressionistic metaphor to get at the specialness of Ellington’s sound. My own listening to Big Band swing in the 1940s was concentrated on three groups: Stan Kenton’s, Gene Krupa’s, and, above all, Woody Herman’s. Each of these had a more streamlined feel in its “blend” than did Ellington’s. And he seldom played as fast or as loud as Kenton, Krupa, or Herman. For me, and perhaps for others, Ellington took some getting used to.

Reviewing Duke in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik posed a large question: “What was it in this dance music, heard in short takes on scratchy 78s, that left its devotees devoted to some larger set of human values?” By way of suggesting the improbability that Ellington’s band could inspire such transcendent values, Gopnik feels compelled to play down, even demean, what he thinks are facts about the band and its leader in the late 1920s and ’30s, producing hundreds of recordings while playing countless gigs all over the United States and Europe. A look at Gopnik’s “facts” doesn’t inspire assent: “Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K. piano, got trapped for years playing ‘jungle music’ in gangster night clubs, and at his height produced mostly tinny, brief recordings.” 

One hardly knows where to start in refuting these claims, but a beginning would be to insist that Ellington’s original style at the piano was a lot better than “O.K.” His was not the technical brilliance and flash of a Fats Waller or Art Tatum, and it’s true that, occasionally, there’s not much to be said about his solos. But more often, his unobvious rhythms and muted tone are essential to the “thicker-textured” (Teachout’s phrase) colorings of the orchestral arrangement—again, to be distinguished from Goodman’s full-speed-ahead procedures on “Don’t Be That Way” or “King Porter Stomp.” 

But the most ludicrous of Gopnik’s claims is that all these years produced little more than “tinny, brief recordings.” Tinny? “Mood Indigo”? “Solitude”? “Rockin’ in Rhythm”? Is there no more to be said for the virtues of three-minute recordings than that they are “brief”? In fact, Ellington got into trouble when, time and again, he tried to extend his brief pieces into suites with some sort of thematic content, the best known of which is Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the American Negro

Whitney Balliett found Ellington’s three-minute events to contain “an incredibly rich sound that is one of the delights of Western music.” No musician, wrote Balliett, “regardless of his skill could reproduce the timbre, tone, and inflections of Ellington’s musicians.” Gunther Schuller called it a “perfect balance between composition and improvisation.”