The Magazine


The Centennial of a Great American Composer, Jazz Musician, and Businessman

May 3, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 31 • By ERIC FELTEN
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Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson had a lot in common. Both were born into middle-class black families, Henderson in Cuthbert, Georgia, in 1897, Ellington in Washington, D.C., on April 29, 1899 -- one hundred years ago this week. Both were pianists who moved to New York and became bandleaders, Henderson in 1920, Ellington in 1923.

But it was Henderson who first enjoyed real success, leading perhaps the best and most important jazz band of the late twenties. It was with Henderson's band that Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, J. C. Higginbotham, and Rex Stewart earned their first fame.

And Henderson's band was impressive for reasons beyond its soloists: Henderson (with his brother Horace and his side-man Don Redman) wrote songs, arrangements, and orchestrations that all but invented the big-band sound. It's hard to imagine the Swing Era without Henderson's "Sugar Foot Stomp" and "King Porter Stomp." Ellington himself acknowledged his debt to Henderson: "His was the band I always wanted mine to sound like when I got ready to have a big band, and that's what we tried to achieve the first chance we had with that many musicians."

But Ellington is recognized as the most important composer in the history of jazz, and Henderson is mostly forgotten. The primary reason is simple: Ellington was a great musician who over a long career created a brilliant and unique American music. But there's also a less exalted reason: Henderson didn't lose his muse or even his knack -- he just didn't have a head for business. And jazz is a very tough business.

In the days of Henderson and Ellington, bandleaders had to rely for their cash on nightclub owners, booking agents, and record producers (not exactly the most reputable lot). They had to get their bands, uniforms, and equipment to and from far-flung gigs -- and, along the way, they had to command platoons of jazz musicians (not exactly the most obedient lot).

The rigors and pitfalls of the business brought many a bandleader down. The ragtime leader James Reese Europe was stabbed to death by a disgruntled drummer. Woody Herman had to keep his band out on the road long after he wanted to retire, just to pay the IRS back the money his manager stole from the payroll accounts.

In the midst of all this potential chaos, the bandleader who was also a composer had to find the time and energy to write music. It was too much for Henderson, whose biggest success as a composer and arranger came only after he gave up being a leader. In 1934 Henderson sold his orchestra's arrangements to Benny Goodman, eventually becoming a well-paid staff writer for Goodman's band. It was just a year later that Goodman became the most popular act in the country, in no small part thanks to Henderson's charts.

The career of Fletcher Henderson may provide, in fact, the best measure for judging the remarkable accomplishment of Duke Ellington, whose centennial is being widely celebrated this year. Over his fifty-year career, Ellington wrote nearly a thousand compositions -- all while keeping afloat the most consistently excellent band in jazz.

Ellington's father was the butler for a Washington doctor, a job that required him to manage a household with panache, which may explain where Ellington learned his crucial business skills. Hardly a musical prodigy, Ellington wanted to be a big-league ballplayer and only began the piano after his mother, witnessing him struck by a baseball bat, decided he needed a different pastime.

By the time he was seventeen, Ellington had begun to play music professionally -- and it didn't take him long to realize that working as a sideman was no way to get rich. He had begun by filling in on gigs for his piano teachers, and soon a local booking agent sent him out on a solo job playing cocktail music. The young Ellington was to be paid ten dollars for the night, and his eyes were opened when the client gave him $ 100. "I gave [the agent] his ninety dollars," Ellington wrote, "but the very next day I went down to the telephone office and arranged for a Music-for-All-Occasions ad in the telephone book." From then on, Ellington led his own organization.

Ellington left for New York in 1923 and was soon leading a band at the Kentucky Club. In 1927, he moved to the Cotton Club, where he first achieved some fame. Though he wrote a slew of important arrangements in the late 1920s -- "Black and Tan Fantasy," "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" -- it wasn't until "Mood Indigo" in 1930 that he had a hit record. Over the next decade he wrote most of the tunes that would comprise his popular songbook, among them, "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "Sophisticated Lady," "Solitude," and "In a Sentimental Mood."

Ellington's band came to prominence largely on the strength of his compositions and the originality of the group's soloists, but also important was his show-biz flair. His band at the Cotton Club was one of the great spectacles of jazz. He surrounded drummer Sonny Greer with a rococo assemblage of percussion instruments -- timpani, woodblocks, xylophone, chimes and an enormous Chinese gong. And Ellington played the piano with showy extravagance, a trick he had learned early, hustling gigs back in Washington: "I started throwing my hands up in the air, . . . and they all said, 'Oh, yes, Duke's a great pianist. Send him back again!'"

R. D. Darrell was the first critic to take Ellington seriously as a composer, declaring in 1932 that "he has mastered the small form as thoroughly as Gershwin," and praising the vocal quality of his melodies: "Ellington's finest tunes spring into rhapsodic being as simply, as naturally as those of Mozart or Schubert."

When Ellington toured Europe in 1933, Darrell was joined by a chorus of highbrow praise. And it's from this praise that the great controversy of Ellington's career stems. Feted for his artistry, Ellington developed a growing ambition to be a serious composer. He began writing long works, mostly suites and what he labeled "tone parallels."

Ellington admirers split into two camps, those who championed these grander efforts and those who preferred his musical miniatures.

The schism became permanent after the band's first Carnegie Hall concert in 1943, where Ellington's massive "Black, Brown, and Beige" premiered. Most critics for the New York papers panned the piece as over-long and under-organized. John Briggs in the New York Post was typical: "Mr. Ellington was saying musically the same thing he had said earlier in the evening, only this time he took forty-five minutes to do it."

In the aftermath, a raft of erstwhile Ellington boosters -- John Hammond, Andre Hodeir, and Alec Wilder -- started to gripe that Duke was abandoning jazz, to the detriment of his art. Others -- Leonard Feather, Mike Levin -- insisted that only the long form provides a grand enough scope for Ellington's talent. The debate has gone on for decades and is no less bitter today. When Terry Teachout echoed Wilder recently in Commentary, the advocates of Ellington's large forms felt obliged to denounce Teachout's apostasy.

But there is reason to think that this entire debate misses what is unique about Ellington. After the war, when big bands were folding like deck chairs, Ellington kept his ensemble up and running. He had more resources than many other leaders: The royalties from Ellington's popular songs helped to smooth over the rough patches. He also had more reason to keep up the struggle, for his efforts to realize his ambitions as a composer required the existence of his own jazz orchestra.

If Ellington had accepted that his gems of the late 1930s and early 1940s were the pinnacle of what he could accomplish, it's doubtful he would have subjected himself to a grueling routine of trains, buses, and planes well into his seventies. Benny Goodman all but quit playing jazz (turning to Mozart and modern European composers) because he thought he had exhausted the idiom. "What is jazz?" Goodman asked in a 1980s interview. "What are you going to do, go out and play 'Lady Be Good' again, forever and ever? How many times?" By striving to achieve serious works of art, Ellington saved himself from the boredom with jazz that overcame Goodman.

No doubt some of Ellington's longer works are more successful than others: "A Tone Parallel to Harlem" is spectacular; the "Perfume Suite" is a mess. But to say that Ellington and his collaborator Billy Strayhorn penned their share of pieces that didn't quite work is only to say that they rejected complacency. Ellington's score for the 1959 movie Anatomy of a Murder hardly lives up to critic Tom Piazza's fulsome claim that it is "the closest thing we have to a vernacular American symphony." Indeed, when Ellington was asked whether he would ever write a symphony, he answered, "No. I have to make a living and so I have to have an audience." Much of the music in Anatomy of a Murder -- "Flirtibird" in particular -- counts among Ellington's most beautiful and affecting.

There is something peculiarly American about Ellington. His music was rooted in popular culture and practiced at the dangerous intersection of art and commerce. But rather than forcing Ellington to sell out, the demands of the marketplace kept him from wasting much time down blind alleys. That's one reason Ellington's high ambitions didn't lead him into the "mathematical" compositions that laid waste to a generation of serious composers. It's also a reason he avoided the lazy, snide impulse of modern art (supported by university or government subsidies) to ignore or insult its audience.

The entrepreneurial Ellington had to appeal to his audiences and did so enthusiastically. There was nothing insincere when he would shout at the crowd, as he always did: "Love you madly!" And one expression of loving them madly was not playing down to them but raising them up to an appreciation of some of the finest and most complicated American music ever made.

Fletcher Henderson didn't have what it took to compete in the brutal band economy, but Ellington embraced the fact that his music had to be made within the business of music. "Competition," he told jazz historian George Simon, "only makes you play better."