Duke Ellington: Great American Moustaches

Duke Ellington at the Hurricane Club, 1943

‘Mood Indigo.’ ‘Creole Love Call.’ ‘Prelude to a Kiss.’ ‘Black and Tan Fantasy.’ They could be different styles of facial fungus, but no – they are examples of some of the greatest jazz music ever composed. And they were composed by an immaculately moustachioed Duke.

Duke Ellington (1899 – 1974), who came to music at an unlikely late age, nevertheless brought a certain genius to jazz music, and is credited with lifting the style to an art form. One of the greatest moments in jazz history is considered by many critics to have been a short period in the early 1940s, before a union dispute over royalties temporarily halted recording in the U.S. In 1940 Ellington switched from Columbia to RCA Victor. He had just begun to work with a brilliant young composer called Billy Strayhorn. Together they took Ellington’s band to heights never before reached.

The song ‘Ko-Ko’ (1940), in particular, is considered a masterpiece. ‘Originally written as part of an extended work,’ says the dictionary of American National Biography, ‘it is based on a blue in E-flat minor and is built up of the layering of increasingly dissonant and contrasting lines. Dense and abstract, there is little soloing beyond some straightforward plunger work by trombonist Nanton.’

The lives of jazz greats have furnished us with some of the most entertaining, troubling, and astonishing stories of twentieth-century America. Here are a few selections from the Memorial Library’s collection.

The Duke Ellington Reader (Oxford UP, 1993), edited by Mark Tucker
One of our most fascinating books is an anthology of work by and about Ellington, edited by jazz scholar and musician Mark Tucker. Tucker, who taught at Columbia University and the College of William and Mary, has put together what you might consider a Who’s Who of jazz criticism. Collected here are beautiful and sometimes unlikely essays by Quincy Jones, John Hammond, Ralph Ellison, Simone de Beauvoir, Blaise Cendrars, and so on. There are interviews with Ellington and with musicians who worked with him (including Strayhorn). There is a review of the Ellington orchestra’s 1933 BBC broadcast. There are transcribed solos. It is a delightful book that altogether defies categorisation.

With Billie (Pantheon, 2005), by Julia Blackburn
Ellington’s short film Symphony in Black (1935) won an Academy Award and introduced the singer Billie Holiday, who was then 20 and had already spent time in prison for prostitution. Julia Blackburn paints Holiday’s portrait as seen through the eyes of friends, lovers, fellow musicians, critics, producers, pimps and junkies, narcotics agents, and others, from her Baltimore childhood to her rise to fame and her tragic death.

The History of Jazz (Oxford UP, 1998), by Ted Gioia
From the rent parties of Harlem to the after-hours spots in Kansas City, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Wynton Marsalis and Pat Metheny, this book captures all the vibrant colours of jazz on one glorious palate. Gioia’s “Olympian knowledge” is paired with a sometimes contentious subjectivity in this history of an art form, reaching across cultures and oceans.

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