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The Duke is king.


slaytonf
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Duke Ellington, making an appearance with his band tonight in Cabin in the Sky (1943), is one of the most renowned American musicians and composers.  But still I don't think he gets his due.  In fact, I think a solid argument could be made that he was the best of all American composers--notwithstanding the likes of Ives, Copland, and Bernstein.  He's mostly known for popular swing hits like "Take the 'A' Train," and "Mood Indigo".  But he also composed many other more ambitious orchestral and choral works which are magnificent.  I don't know enough about music and theory to say exactly why, but when you listen to works like Black, Brown, and Beige, you hear an energy and vitality, even in the reflective segments, that is fresh, exciting, and wholly American, pulled both from his African-American heritage of gospel and blues, and contemporary life.  He also composed sound tracks for movies like Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and musicals, notably Jump for Joy.  It's beyond my understanding why this last hasn't been revived by anyone, listen to some of it:

 

I'm sure it'd be a smash.

In the movie, Ellington's band included probably at that time Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, and Harry Carney.

 

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1 hour ago, slaytonf said:

In fact, I think a solid argument could be made that he was the best of all American composers--notwithstanding the likes of Ives, Copland, and Bernstein.

A "solid" argument? I think not. Confine him to his own genre and he fares better, although he still has to contend with Gershwin.

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He has no confines.  As the Duke said himself, there are only two kinds of music:  good and bad.  Even a slight familiarity with the standing he had with his contemporaries, and his current estimation, reveals his worth.  He is regarded by many, but not by enough, as the greatest American composer.  And his work gets some, but not nearly enough performance by symphonies.

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"Ellington composed incessantly to the very last days of his life. Music was indeed his mistress; it was his total life and his commitment to it was incomparable and unalterable. In jazz he was a giant among giants. And in twentieth century music, he may yet one day be recognized as one of the half-dozen greatest masters of our time" ---Gunther Schuller

......

I can live with that.

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19 hours ago, laffite said:

A "solid" argument? I think not. Confine him to his own genre and he fares better, although he still has to contend with Gershwin.

As for composer of what are now jazz standards and part of the American songbook,   I rate Duke in my top 5 but not #1,  which would be Gershwin,  followed by Porter and then Kern. 

The main reason being I don't find his harmonic progressions to be as interesting as some of the others.   (and with Porter,  the combination of harmony,  solid melodies and ahead-of-there-time lyrics).

Still,  great to see Duke get some love!

 

           

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20 hours ago, laffite said:

A "solid" argument? I think not. Confine him to his own genre and he fares better, although he still has to contend with Gershwin.

Art can't be confined. Art is universal. Its man made media that categorizes for profit.

Let's not get into what he wasn't allowed to do. This is an era when his music was called "Jungle Music", and its some of the classiest compositions ever written. Far from any jungle. 

I think he compares to anyone of his time.

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10 minutes ago, GGGGerald said:

Let's not get into what he wasn't allowed to do. This is an era when his music was called "Jungle Music", and its some of the classiest compositions ever written. Far from any jungle. 

He wasn't not allowed to do anything in music.  As I said, he composed a wide range of works, from three-minute swing numbers (many the best known standards), to choral, orchestral, and musicals.  And he got them performed. Mostly, lamentably, they weren't well received.  People weren't looking for more sober, serious works from the great swing man.  But take a listen to Black, Brown, and Beige.  You don't have to hear the whole thing (though I recommend it).  Even from the very beginning, boy, you can hear America in every note of it:

If you don't want to spend the time listening, I recommend you at least skip to the end to hear Mahalia Jackson sing the 23rd Psalm.  

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1 minute ago, slaytonf said:

He wasn't not allowed to do anything in music.  As I said, he composed a wide range of works, from three-minute swing numbers (many the best known standards), to choral, orchestral, and musicals.  And he got them performed. Mostly, lamentably, they weren't well received.  People weren't looking for more sober, serious works from the great swing man.  But take a listen to Black, Brown, and Beige.  You don't have to hear the whole thing (though I recommend it).  Even from the very beginning, boy, you can hear America in every note of it:

If you don't want to spend the time listening, I recommend you at least skip to the end to hear Mahalia Jackson sing the 23rd Psalm.  

Oh really ? I missed all those movie soundtracks and film scores he wrote. As late as the 1960's Quincy Jones ventured into scoring films and it was questioned "could a black man score a film ?" (Very good documentary on Quincy Jones on Netflix. I recommend it to anyone who loves music and its history).

When your music is not allowed to be played on popular radio stations, it has an effect.

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54 minutes ago, jamesjazzguitar said:

The main reason being I don't find his harmonic progressions to be as interesting as some of the others.   (and with Porter,  the combination of harmony,  solid melodies and ahead-of-there-time lyrics).

           

Now, I'm speaking from an ignorant position, but if I'm right, I think you've stated why he isn't estimated as highly as a composer as he ought to be.  You're looking from him what you look for from other popular composers, comparing him with Gershwin and Porter.  I'm talking about him in an entirely different way, looking at his longer works, ones he meant to be in the same arena as composers like Ives, and Copeland.  

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3 minutes ago, GGGGerald said:

When your music is not allowed to be played on popular radio stations, it has an effect.

Yes, if you want to be a popular success.  And Duke Ellington was.  Twice.  But eventually his popular music was supplanted by other pop music, and rock and roll.  As I've said elsewhere, I'm talking about him not from the perspective of him as a composer of music for a big band, but of works on a larger scale.  These works did get played, mostly by him during his life.  They do get played occasionally by symphonies today (and I think they deserve to get played more often).  And he did record them.

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12 hours ago, slaytonf said:

Now, I'm speaking from an ignorant position, but if I'm right, I think you've stated why he isn't estimated as highly as a composer as he ought to be.  You're looking from him what you look for from other popular composers, comparing him with Gershwin and Porter.  I'm talking about him in an entirely different way, looking at his longer works, ones he meant to be in the same arena as composers like Ives, and Copeland.  

Very solid point and you're speaking from a very enlighten perspective.    When I gig the Duke songs I play are the 'standards' like Don't Get Around Anymore.    Those longer works are fine works but as you imply they're a different type of music for a different type of setting\gig.     

So yea, from that POV,  Duke does deserve more attention by all (and especially me!).

 

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