The Duke Ellington Renaissance: A Review of Recent Books, Recordings, and Music Editions

October 1, 2000

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Book title: Duke Ellington: A Listener's Guide
Book author: Eddie Lambert
ISBN: 0-8108-3161-9
TISBN: 0810831619

Book title: Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography
Book author: Janna Tull Steed
ISBN: 0-8245-2351-2
TISBN: 0824523512

Book title: Duke's Diary: Part One; The Life of Duke Ellington, 1927-1950
Book author: Ken Vail
ISBN: 0-9522287-1-8
TISBN: 0952228718

Book title: The New DESOR: An Updated Edition of Duke Ellington's Story on Records, 1924-1974
Book author: Luciano Massagli

Book title: The New DESOR: An Updated Edition of Duke Ellington's Story on Records, 1924-1974
Book author: Giovanni M. Volontbr>
Book title: Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington
Book author: Stuart Nicholson
ISBN: 1-55553-380-9
TISBN: 1555533809

Book title: The Duke: Duke Ellington; The Essential Collection, 1927-1962
Book author: Sony Music Entertainment
ISBN: B-0000-4OCD-5

Book title: Duke Ellington Anniversary
Book author: Masters of Jazz
ISBN: B-0000-0J29-9
TISBN: B00000J299

Book title: Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1927-1973
Book author: BMG
ISBN: B-0000-0IIQ-Y


Duke Ellington: A Listener's Guide, by Eddie Lambert. Foreword by Dan Morgenstern. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1999. (Studies in Jazz, No. 26.) xiii + 374 pp. ISBN 0-8108-3161-9.

Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography, by Janna Tull Steed. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1999. (Lives & Legacies series.) 192 pp. ISBN 0-8245-2351-2.

Duke's Diary: Part One; The Life of Duke Ellington, 1927-1950, by Ken Vail. Cambridge, England: Vail Publishing, 1999. 368 pp. ISBN 0-9522287-1-8. Available only by mail from: Vail Publishing, 36 Histon Road, Cottenham, Cambridge, England CB4 8UD. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The New DESOR: An Updated Edition of Duke Ellington's Story on Records, 1924-1974, by Luciano Massagli and Giovanni M. Volonté. Milan: [n.p.], 1999. Two volumes, 1515 pp. Available only by mail from: Luciano Massagli, Foro Buonaparte 52, 20121 Milano, Italy.

Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington, by Stuart Nicholson. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999. xix + 538 pp. ISBN 1-55553-380-9.



The Duke: Duke Ellington; The Essential Collection, 1927-1962. Sony Music Entertainment C3K 65841, 1999. Three discs, boxed, with 79-page softcover book.

Duke Ellington Anniversary. Masters of Jazz MJCD 1300, 1999. Thirteen discs, boxed, with sleeve notes in English and French.

Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1927-1973). BMG 09026-63386-2, 1999. Twenty-four discs, boxed, with 128-page softcover book.


Music Editions

Anitra's Dance from the Peer Gynt Suite, Concerto for Cootie, I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good), The Mooche, The Peanut Vendor, Perdido, The Shepherd from the Second Sacred Concert, and Star-Crossed Lovers from Such Sweet Thunder. All transcriptions of recordings by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Parts and bound scores; each piece sold separately. Miami: Warner Bros. Publications, [1999].



Ellington's centennial year of 1999 witnessed a flurry of concerts, symposia, books, music publications, and recordings devoted to the master. As a result of these and earlier publications and recordings, Ellington is evidently the world's best-documented major recording artist-composer.

And, I would argue, rightfully so. In the years since writing a biography of Ellington (Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington), my thinking has continued to evolve, and I now regard him as the greatest all-around American musician: composer, arranger-orchestrator, conductor-bandleader, soloist and accompanist. He was the supreme creator of music for that essential American musical institution, the jazz orchestra or big band. He developed his own harmonic language and tonal colors and ceaselessly experimented and innovated. He composed everything from musical miniatures and popular songs to suites, a ballet, religious and symphonic works, motion picture soundtracks, and an uncompleted opera. He wrote exclusively for his repertory company of players, finding ways to bring out the best in his band of striking individualists and to lift artistic individuality to new aesthetic heights. He developed his own personal, musical, sartorial, and linguistic style so completely that he can be considered sui generis, or to use the phrase that he and collaborator Billy Strayhorn were fond of, "beyond category."

By any measure, Ellington left an enormous legacy: employing more than 800 different musicians, writing more than 1,200 compositions, making more than 10,000 recordings, playing more than 20,000 engagements, and traveling more than 10 million miles. He can be regarded as the greatest single topic in American music.

Reflecting his growing status, the library of books on Ellington has now grown to thirty-some titles. Among the most singular contributions is Janna Steed's Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography. "You can jive with the secular, but you can't jive with the Almighty," said Ellington. "The greatest thing that one man can do for another," he also asserted, "is pray for him." The eminent gospel singer Mahalia Jackson considered Ellington's band "a sacred institution." He was, indeed, a deeply religious man, and Steed, an ordained United Methodist minister, examines the spiritual dimensions of his life in her compact book. She concludes rightly that spirituality was at the core of his being and his artistic self, and offers insights into his overtly religious compositions such as the three Sacred Concerts, as well as into his other work and his underlying religious beliefs. This is a thoughtful and compassionate book about an under-appreciated dimension of Ellington. (Full disclosure: I contributed a two-page discography to the book.)

In Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington, the British jazz writer Stuart Nicholson renders a very different look at the maestro. Like Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff's jazz-history classic Hear Me Talkin' To Ya, Nicholson's book is an assemblage of quotations. Because it has virtually no connective tissue, it is not the first book one would want to read on Ellington, but for those already familiar with the Ellington story, Nicholson's volume, despite its disjointedness and its lack of analysis or critical commentary, offers directness, authenticity, and freshness from the voices of Ellington, his family members, musicians, and other associates. Among Nicholson's primary sources were the oral history tapes in the vast Duke Ellington Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, and it is in oral history excerpts such as these that emerge most vividly the voices of informants unfettered by editorial hands (except for Nicholson's). Scholars will regret that when Nicholson quotes from a periodical article, he supplies the skimpiest of citations, omitting the author and title of the article and sometimes the page number.

Another British writer, the late Eddie Lambert, has contributed a valuable overview of Ellington's musical career, focusing on his recordings. His essential book, Duke Ellington: A Listener's Guide, offers critical commentary on about two thousand of Ellington's recordings. Lambert has listened deeply to Ellington's music and has written intelligent and judicious commentaries. His non-technical discussions contrast with the musical examples and technical analyses of Ellington's work that Gunther Schuller supplies in Early Jazz and The Swing Era. For maximum effect, Lambert and Schuller should be read simultaneously—though Lambert covers many more recordings and while Schuller cuts off about 1945, Lambert continues his coverage through the maestro's death in 1974.

A third Brit, Ken Vail, has compiled Duke's Diary: Part One; The Life of Duke Ellington, 1927-1950. Ellington left no diaries, so the title must be taken loosely. Rather, this book is a month-by-month illustrated chronicle of Ellington's career through 1950, as witnessed in engagements, recording sessions, broadcasts, and films. Drawing extensively on Klaus Stratemann's massive pièce de résistance, Duke Ellington: Day by Day and Film by Film (Copenhagen: JazzMedia, 1992), Vail lays out the information in an accessible way, greatly enlivened by illustrations—more than 500 photographs, ads, newspaper reprints, and maps. The Achilles heel of the book is its lack of documentation: many of the article reprints carry no source citation and the book lacks an index, discography, or bibliography. And among the hundreds of photos there is not a single photo credit. And yet, the book is quite browsable, and if you already know what year and month to look at, the information can be useful.

Still other Europeans have contributed an extraordinary resource for those in search of detailed information on Ellington's recordings: an updated edition of the Duke Ellington Story on Records (or DESOR). It is the only discography I know of for any musician that outlines the musical developments in each recording and identifies every soloist with uncanny accuracy. Ellington frequently refreshed and refashioned his orchestrations, and this book presents capsule summaries, in chronological order, of Ellington's many variations (in orchestration and soloists) over the years of, say, The Mooche or Mood Indigo or countless other pieces. That feature alone justifies the purchase price and represents a triumph of aural talents on the part of the book's creators, the Milanese Ellington aficionados Luciano Massagli and Giovanni M. Volonté. (For those needing fewer details on Ellington's recordings, a less costly and somewhat less accurate alternative is W.E. Timner's Ellingtonia: The Recorded Music of Duke Ellington and His Sidemen, 4th edition [Scarecrow Press, 1996].)

No matter how good the books are, however, nothing can replace listening to Ellington's recordings—the core of his legacy. His recorded output, in fact, ranks, as critic Gary Giddins has observed, as "surely the finest recorded documentation of a living composer's art since Edison patented the phonograph."

During the course of a recording career spanning 51 years, Ellington recorded for dozens of record labels. Two labels stand out as owning perhaps 80% of his most significant material: the RCA Victor family of labels (now BMG Music) and the Columbia family of labels (now Sony Music). But in Europe, copyright laws allow sound recordings to lapse into the public domain after 50 years, and for 78 rpm "sides" of that vintage, the question of label ownership becomes irrelevant. This actuality enabled the French label Masters of Jazz to issue a 13-CD set of early and mid-career Ellington recordings, all made before 1949, that represents his work for a variety of labels, and to keep the street price under $100—around $7 per disc. The distinguishing and interesting feature of this set is not, however, that it draws so broadly from Ellington's many pre-1949 recording labels, but that it organizes its 14-plus-hours of material into 13 mixed categories: blues, ballads, composer, dance, friends, jungle, ladies, New York, pianist, portraits, soloists, swing, and vocal.

Such an organization offers ample possibilities for the teaching of Ellington—and affords students accessible ways of examining and comparing Ellington's music within certain categories. The "Blues" disc, for instance, makes one marvel at the ways that he deployed that quintessentially American—and amazingly elastic and expansive—form. While the compositional gifts of Ellington (and collaborator Strayhorn) are well-represented in all 13 discs, the "Composer" disc supplies some of Ellington's greatest works, including Ko-Ko and Concerto for Cootie (both 1940); his first extended composition, Creole Rhapsody (1931); excerpts from his magnum opus Black, Brown, and Beige (1944); and two train-travel impressions, the rocking Happy-Go-Lucky Local (1946) and the astonishing Daybreak Express (1933).

The set would be stronger if each disc had organized the material chronologically—so one could follow Ellington's development, and if the notes had been longer and included an overall index to the 256 selections. But as it is, the set provides a novel and useful "take" on Ellington, and a genuine bargain.

The mother of all jazz boxed sets is the 24-disc Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1927-1973). With a list price of well over $400, the set is beyond the reach of most individuals, but it is an essential purchase for music libraries. It includes a prodigious 462 selections with a running time of over 24 hours. Any "complete" set will include some inferior material; yet the musical treasures here are staggering. Here one can fully trace Ellington's genius as a composer, orchestrator and bandleader; witness the rise of Billy Strayhorn as the band's other great composer-orchestrator; and hear one brilliant soloist after another—trumpeters Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams, cornetist Rex Stewardt, saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster, trombonists "Tricky Sam" Nanton and Lawrence Brown, bassist Jimmie Blanton, and others.

Under the overall supervision of Orrin Keepnews, the set offers several dozen unissued recordings or alternate takes, including a heretofore unheard duet by Lena Horne and Billy Strayhorn from Ellington's first Sacred Concert (1965). The set also includes his entire Second Sacred Concert (1968), licensed from Fantasy Records, and his Third Sacred Concert (1973), bringing all three Ellington sacred concerts together in one package for the first time.

A handsomely designed, oversized softcover book is richly illustrated and well annotated by a team of writers that includes Dan Morgenstern and Steven Lasker. Though the packaging is eye-catching, it suffers from impracticality when one attempts to remove or replace the individual CDs, which are laid in four-square, layer after layer.

An inexpensive alternative is Beyond Category: The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington; His Greatest Victor, Bluebird and RCA Recordings, 1927-67, a two-disc, 37-track anthology issued by Smithsonian Recordings and BMG. Included are milestones from his Cotton Club period, the great early 1940s aggregation, and the late 1960s edition of his band, as well as samples of his small-group sessions. (Full disclosure again: I served as annotator and assistant producer of the set; Bruce Talbot was producer.) First issued in 1994, the set was reissued in 1999 on the Buddha label. Henri Renaud, Columbia Records' veteran Paris producer, has compiled a three-disc overview of Ellington's work for that label, The Duke, spanning the years 1927-62 in 66 selections. While Ellington recorded some pieces for multiple labels, the Columbia vaults have the quintessential versions of such masterpieces as It Don't Mean a Thing (1932), Caravan (1937), Braggin' in Brass (1938), On a Turquoise Cloud (1947), Jeep's Blues (1956), Come Sunday with Mahalia Jackson (1958), and Flirtibird (1959)—all included here. There is nary a throw-away on this cornerstone set, which is accompanied by notes written by Robert G. O'Meally. This Columbia anthology together with the RCA material on Beyond Category could, in just five discs, furnish the teacher or student with a breathtaking overview of Ellington's music that can sustain repeated hearings and offer rewards for a lifetime of listening.

One of the things that has most hampered a detailed understanding of Ellington's music has been the lack of available editions of his oeuvre. In 1993-95, the Smithsonian Institution issued three thorough transcriptions (as scores and parts, edited, with commentaries, by Gunther Schuller) of Ellington recordings: Daybreak Express from 1933, Sepia Panorama from 1940, and Strayhorn's Take the "A" Train from 1941. (These Jazz Masterworks Editions are available only from the Smithsonian: contact Kennith Kimery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560-0616, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The funding to continue that series ran out, but a new series has been undertaken by Jazz at Lincoln Center and Warner Bros. Publications. As of mid-2000, thirty-seven editions have been issued, and the forecast is for six or eight to come out each year. The editions are aimed especially at high school bands, so Ellington's most difficult pieces are not included. As with the Smithsonian's Ellington editions, performance notes are included; unlike the Smithsonian editions, there are no analytical essays.

In the Warner Bros./Jazz at Lincoln Center transcriptions, where Ellington is accompanying the band, the piano parts include only chord symbols (rather than the full notation). Despite this shortcoming, the series is very valuable for the band teacher wanting to program Ellington and for the professor or student wishing to analyze an Ellington score. (Warner Bros. can be reached at 1-800-327-7643 or go to

For the sake of music education professors, two Ellington teaching resources should be mentioned here. One is a curriculum package called Beyond Category: Duke Ellington Education Kit, aimed at teachers for grades 6 and higher. Produced by colleagues of mine at the Smithsonian, the kit explores Ellington's life and music in the context of the social and cultural history of his times, and prescribes activities incorporating music, history, art, drama, creative expression, and language arts. (The kit can be purchased from Pearson Learning, 4350 Equity Drive, P. O. Box 2649, Columbus, OH 43216-2649, 1-800-321-3106, ISBN 1-57232-975-0).

The other resource is a website aimed at middle school teachers and students. A joint production of the Smithsonian Institution, the Kennedy Center Education Department, and the Music Educators National Conference, the site can be accessed at

These aforementioned materials enhance the understanding of Ellington as well as supply researchers, musicians, educators, and students with some robust new resources. Which leads me to ask these questions: How many colleges, universities, and conservatories offer a course devoted to the music of Beethoven? Of Mozart? Of Ellington?

There are a few Ellington courses: the 1990s saw fifteen or twenty institutions of higher learning—including Harvard, Columbia, UCLA, Indiana, Illinois, Amherst, Berklee, and Concordia of Montreal—offering courses devoted exclusively to Ellington. (Among the teaching tools most often used in such courses is Mark Tucker's invaluable The Duke Ellington Reader [Oxford, 1993], which continues to set the standard for readers in American music.)

In light of Ellington's achievements, oeuvre, and legacy, and now that so many well-executed books, recordings, and music editions are available, it is high time, I believe, that an Ellington course becomes not the shining exception in our music curricula, but the expected norm. Such a course can be commended strictly on musical-historical grounds, but it also strikes a blow against ethnocentrism and warmly affirms the rich diversity of our musical culture.

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