The Harlem Renaissance: History Essay on Duke Ellington

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 Duke Ellington was born in Washington, and with his music, he gained a national profile through his band's performances at the “Cotton Club” in Harlem. Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington is one of America’s significant composers. Ellington’s birth in 1999 brought in a lot of people interested in his kind of music for listeners, other musicians, and students alike.

This research is an evaluation of three of Ellington’s songs: “Oclupaca,” “Cottontail,” and “East St. Louis Toodle-O.” All three songs will be researched in terms of form, harmony, instrumentation, texture, melody, harmony, rhythm, and tonality. The growth and evolution of Duke Ellington’s compositional methods and style during his career will be discussed. I will be naming specific compositions and arrangement techniques that he implemented, and how they changed during his career and over time. I will also be discussing what may have influenced his ideas and what impact his work has had on others.

These pieces were chosen as examples for the three stylistic periods that I've chosen to study in Duke Ellington’s career. “East St. Louis Toodle-O” was based on the first period of his career, which was in the 1920s through the mid-1930s. “Cottontail” represents his works in the second period of his career, which is in the late 1930s and early 1940s. A lot of people are still questioning which of the two periods was better than the other when it came down to creativity. “Oclupaca” represents the final period that runs from the 1950’s thought to the late 2960s.

The changes in the music pieces are distinct in a sequential style development: Bigger prominence on the composition and having the improvisation less of a priority. Second, Focus more on the reeds and less on the brass. Prominent harmonic complexity and more emphasis on tone color. Just like any other composer, Duke Ellington’s style and his techniques changed over the course of his career, whilst also keeping simple characteristics. There are a few definite styles that are attributed to Duke Ellington’s orchestra. One of them is called the “Jungle” style, which is identified by the very eloquent and expressive growl sounds that the trombone and trumpets play, which is somewhat similar to the voices in a jungle at night. Then there is the “mood” style, which is moody and sad suggested by the title. It’s supposed to represent a real blues feeling, especially in music pieces that are not in blues form. The “concerto” style is regarded as a set of small concerti for different instruments in his orchestra. And lastly, the “standard” style, was incorporated in the standard Jazz repertoire. The expertise in this band gave Ellington the power to get away from the conventions of band-section scoring. Alternatively, he created harmonies to combine his musician's own sounds and highlighted congruent sections and a graceful ensemble that presented the full bass-clef sound. He also highlighted the mood of the song with inventive combinations of instruments; amidst all the examples, “Mood Indigo” during the 1930s with a muted trumpet, a low-register clarinet, and an unmuted trombone.

Duke Ellington’s style, specifically concerning his form and rhythm, seemed to have been influenced by early forms of black american music, such as ragtime and blues, in addition to the trendy white music of Tin Pan Alley. The melodious arrangements of the blues and rhythms of ragtime still stayed essential to Duke’s work throughout his profession. He has always tried to avoid the title “jazz” when it came to his music, because of its connection to the tragic and corrupt parts of life and he chose to use the term “Negro music” or the “Music of his people” to refer to his work. He referred to it as

“something more than the American idiom. It is a result of our transplantation to American soil and was our reaction in the plantation days to the tyranny we endured. What we could not say openly we expressed in music.”

One traditional component of some West-African music is known now as a “call and response,” an abnormality of this call-response technique is the elision that happens between the two musicians, whilst they are frequently overlapping. Finding a balance between popular trends and art was an issue that bothered him during his time. But he soon decided to prioritize his own ideas based on what he wanted to do for his line of work, instead of what the majority of people did in the music industry. Duke Ellington recruited musicians for his band which gave his music a wide tonal palette.

“We write to and for the band, not the instruments,” he said.

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In 1926 Ellington introduced “East St. Louis Toodle-O” to his repertoire. It became his first “hit” and served as his orchestra’s trademark music piece until the 1940s when it was replaced by “Take the ‘A’ Train.” The song is one of the most significant songs when it comes to representing Ellingont’s use of texture and tone color. The opening ostinato pervades the work and provides a rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic foundation. This song’s composition shows his way of reworking and modernizing a piece of music over a period of forty-five years. This piece made him a contender in the very competitive Manhattan “hot jazz” scene.

“Cottontail” was recorded in 1940 on the 4th of May, which was a part of the Blanton-Webster sessions. This song was based on George Gershwin’s “I got rhythm.” Webster's two-chorus solo is rightly acknowledged as a spectacular example of swinging Improvisation. Webster wrote;

“He finds a remarkable balance between a whole world of musical ideas: swinging eight-note phrases interspersed with long and expressive held notes, some of these embellished with passionate vibratos and shakes, tonal colorations ranging from soft hues to hot and raspy timbres… (including his patented ‘yodel’ effect). It is a solo of remarkable logic and craft, deviating (somewhat) from Gershwin’s chord changes, yet ultimately abounding in memorable melodies. It has become a cliché to say that a jazz solo to be effective should tell a story. But Webster achieves just that: a commanding introduction, followed by the development of key phrases which lead logically to a climax.”

Ellington’s work during his middle period is mainly said to be experimental other than entirely withdrawing from the convention. For instance, he used uncommon and unconventional voicings for common harmonies, such as asking the baritone sax players to play a ninth of a chord or repeating a “non-chord” tone such as a sixth. It’s completely different from his early works, which had a head and a few solos after. In his songs during the middle period, he would usually have one or two songs, if any, in the middle of orchestral sections. Improvisation was not as important next to the composition's structure.

His final piece in this study is “Oclupaca,” which was recorded in 1968 on November the 5th. In the 1950s and 1960s, Ellington’s work defined the trends that were done earlier in his line of work. He utilized harmony, instrumental voicings, tonality, and ensemble resources that mirrored an addition to the techniques he used in the 1940s. As time went on, there seemed to be a lot of people more focused on the smaller “Chamber-oriented” ensemble combinations and the reed section. Whilst it was happening, the use of tight ensemble voicings, the level of harmonic discordance, and the way they treated the tonality clearly shows a different style from his previous years of work. Innovative 12 harmonies, crossed voices, and inverted textures definitely played a big role than they did earlier in his career. He started to use a lot more dissonance and better quality in his harmonic styles.

Ellington’s Harmony and texture are composed, to a bigger degree, around the presentation and contrast of textures, and is seen in all three eras. Duke used disparate ways to create different colors and moods by changing the texture. “Cottontail” as well as “East St’ Louis Toodle-O'' are both based on the contrast of solo and ensemble textures. The outcome of these contrasts in his texture makes the harmonies change from chorus to chorus. The sound you can hear over the ostinato in the solos in “East St. Louis Toodle-O '' constructs a few harsh dissonance and unpredictable harmonies while the sections without the ostinato are reasonably “pure” harmonically. “Oclupaca '' and “Cottontail'' do not really have such simple voicings.

Ellington’s improvement as a composer can be illustrated in the number of composed songs which is seen in each piece. Ellington is responsible for the brass solo in “East St. Louis Toodle-O,” and possibly Miley’s theme, although he’s basically responsible for most of the music in the other two pieces mentioned. The melodic work in the three pieces of work in this study is not really conjunct, diatonic melodies; they moreso contain characteristics full of leaps and chromaticism. Miley’s melody in “East St’ Louis Toodle-O” and the melody in “Oclupaca” focuses on the variation of motivic ideas as well as the repetition, whereas a lot of the other melody ideas depend a little less on these elements.

Ellington's music, and tempo, play a huge part in creating the character in his music. Between all of the pieces in this Study of Elllington’s career. “Cottontail” is the song that’s most evident in tempo. The songs “East St. Louis Toodle-O,” and “Oclupaca” are played at 125 BPM, while “Cottontail” is played around 235.65 BPM. The two songs lean on idiomatic rhythmic figures. “Cottontail” guides the heart of the movement in Bebop, the rhythms determine most of the characterization in the song. “Oclupaca” depends on Latin Rhythms to create a base for the wind sections.

Ellington “Kennedy” Duke was a composer, as that’s what he was passionate about, and then secondly a leader of his orchestra. When he was creating a concert piece or a dance piece, Ellington put a lot of hard work into his pieces. His work evolved and changed over time as he grew and discovered himself, and how he wanted to be seen in the jazz music industry. The way he used tone color and orchestration created a path for a lot of other musicians who would love to follow him, which includes both Sun Ra and Charles Mingus. Ellington’s perception of musical drama and his orchestra’s talents with the wide scope of moods they used were rare indeed. His ability to create melodies, with his skills in textures, rhythms, and his compositional arrangements translated his frequently subtle, often compound perceptions into a body of music unmatched in jazz history. Duke Ellington deserves to gain the scholarly recognition it deserves.     

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