Sing A Song of Ellington

Duke Ellington leads his Orchestra

"In this country,"
Shakespeare wrote in Othello,
"The Ducal word is law."

So it was too in the world of jazz,
where the word of Duke Ellington
was law for 50 years.

Describing Ellington is like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, in that you're dealing with half a dozen complete entities at once: the bandleader, the pianist, the songwriter, the composer of extended works. Each individual Ellington was a master of his art and taken together, the parts add up to genius.

("Of course," as the Maestro himself would say, when we talk about Ellington, particularly in the vocal department, we also mean his partner, Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn was originally hired to help with vocal charts, although his responsibilities quickly expanded to include instrumentals.)

Of the jazz's major composers, Ellington devoted the most effort to exploring the relationship between vocal and instrumental jazz. Earlier than most, Ellington realized that jazz was a music in which instrumental solos were initially vocalized - that is made to sound as close to the human voice as possible (a key factor in the genesis of jazz in New Orleans). Subsequently, vocal jazz was a matter of making the human voice sound like an instrument. The dichotomy comes across perfectly in "On A Turquoise Cloud": on this 1947 classic, the two primary "voices" are a singer (the opera-oriented Kay Davis) who emits wordless "vocalese" that sounds exactly like an extra-human instrument, and a trombonist (the smooth-toned Lawrence Brown) whose sound solo that could easily be mistaken for a human voice.

For all of its compositional possibilities, the act of singing also expanded Ellington's interests in the dough department. Like other leaders, Ellington knew that singers were commercial. Not only did they help him satisfy A&R men and radio producers by allowing the band to address current "plug" tunes, but, particuarly in pieces like "It Don't Mean A Thing" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," Ellington's singers were enormously crucial in establishing his own songs as pop hits. Throughout his five-decade career, Ellington alternated between using the many singers who served on his payroll for business and artistic purposes - and, like everything else he did, Ellington usually achieved both.

Ellington once wrote, "We have been extremely lucky with our singers. Each seemed to join us at the right time when what they were doing with songs was just right for the places we were playing. They are virtually a story in their own."

How true ...

This essay was originally written by Will Friedwald to accompany the Columbia compilation DUKE ELLINGTON AND HIS GREAT VOCALISTS.