Duke Ellington was (and still is) one of the most prolific jazz artists. With over 1,500 works, almost everyone is sure to have heard at least 5 of his tunes at some point in their lives. He has inspired and influenced countless musicians from the days he played the Cotton Club in the 1920’s until his death in 1974.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in 1899 to a middle class family in Washington D.C.. Both his mother and father were pianists, and wanted their son to learn to play piano as well. Ellington was enrolled in music lessons at the age of 7. By the age of 14 he was writing his own tunes, and was playing gigs at the Cotton Club by his late 20’s. Ellington held the Cotton Club job for three years and for the entire time he was required to compose entirely new songs every week for a three hour show. By his 30’s birthday, Ellington’s band became a star attraction and went on the road for an impressive thirty years.
As a a bandleader, Duke Ellington wrote music for the individual musicians in his band. He believed that since each musician has his/her own traits at their instrument (some play flat, some sharp, etc..), their sheet music should be written in order to reflect those traits. If Ellington’s alto saxophone player Paul Gonzalvez always played “C” a little flat, Ellington would recognize that in his writing and write the “C” a “quarter-tone” sharp.
Quarter-tones aren’t recognized in the western tradition of music but are seen in African and middle-eastern styles.
Ellington has created a huge number of albums, but some of his most important are as follows:
Ellington At Newport Jazz Festival
Live At The Blue Note
And His Mother Called Him Bill
Piano In The Background
Anatomy Of A Murder
If you’re only going to listen to one Ellington album, Live At The Newport Jazz Festival should be it. It has energy that you may not ever experience on any other live album. Paul Gonzalves’ solo in “Crescendo & Diminuendo in Blue” is one of the most memorable solos in all of jazz. During the beginning of Gonzalves’ solo, a woman jumped on stage and began dancing. This launched the festival audience into a frenzy. Feeling the vibe, Gonzalves continued improvising his solo over 27 choruses. George Wein, the man who was running the festival, feared a riot and requested that the band do something. Gonzalves’ solo ended with a drum solo and a riot was averted.
You can listen to the solo, and read a more detailed story by watching the following video.
Gonzalves played his solo into the wrong microphone and the recording sounded distant. The band was called into the studio in an attempt to recreate the saxophone solo, but the feeling wasn’t there because the solo wasn’t improvised and the audience’s energy wasn’t present. However, several years later, a tape recording of the solo was found and spliced into the original recording to create what you hear today.