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Duke Ellington and His Orchestra – Masterpieces by Ellington – Classic Music Review

Several music business journalists have argued that the album is dead, supplanted by the pick-and-choose power of the customized playlist. Bobby Owsinski championed this perspective in an op-ed for Forbes:

To many music artists and bands, making an album has always been the epitome of their art. This group of songs was a statement to (sic) their voice and current state of mind, not to mention a reflection of their social and physical environment. It was thought to be the highest form of recorded experience the artist could offer. It wasn’t always that way though, and for the most part, it’s not like that now. The trouble is, too many artists fail to recognize that the album is quickly becoming a relic of the past and even detrimental to their success.

We live in a singles world today. No longer does anyone consistently sit down for 40 or 50 consecutive minutes to listen to an album from front to back like they used to. In our portable music society today where streaming music from Spotify or Apple Music is the king, there’s no reason to be tied to the music playback system or to listen to songs that we don’t care to listen to. If that’s the case, why should an artist even bother to spend the months it takes to create an album? It’s not like people are consuming them in any great numbers, and the costs involved can sometimes put both the artist and record label in financial jeopardy.

Spoken like a true capitalist who views music as a consumable commodity like toilet paper or frozen vegetables. The idea that a musician might be motivated by the desire to create an extended work of art never crossed his limited mind.

Living in a singles world is nothing new. The human race lived in a singles world for half a century due to the technological limitations of the 78 rpm disc. However, just because the record companies couldn’t produce what we would call an album doesn’t mean that albums were non-existent in the age of 78’s. Music aficionados worked their way around those limitations by creating albums themselves:

The first audio albums were actually published by the publishers of photograph albums. Single 78 rpm records were sold in a brown heavy paper sleeve with a large hole in the center so the record’s label could be seen. The fragile records were stored on their sides. By the mid-1920s, photo album publishers sold collections of empty sleeves of heavier paper in bound volumes with stiff covers slightly larger than the 10″ popular records (Classical records measured 12″). On the paper cover in small type were the words “Record Album.” Now records could be stored vertically with the record not touching the shelf, and the term was applied to the collection. (Wikipedia)

While some music buyers probably just slipped a new 78 into any album with an open sleeve, there were also diligent organizers (like my grandfather) who organized albums by genre, theme or artist, creating a primitive version of what we know as the album. The mid-1920s also saw the advent of the record changer, allowing music fans to listen to 78s in sequence without having to get their asses out of their easy chairs, a particularly appealing feature for devotees of classical music and diligent organizers alike.

The record changer was one of those workarounds that left much to be desired; the real problem had to do with the innate limitations of the 78 rpm disc. A typical 78 could only hold about three-and-a-half minutes of music on a side; longer twelve-inch 78s (primarily for classical recordings) could hold four-and-a-half minutes. The discs were pretty heavy and the three-inch drop sometimes damaged the grooves. Music lovers could hear uninterrupted extended compositions from classical and jazz composers on the radio or in concert halls but not on discs; listening to a full symphony at home involved waiting for the needle to lift from the finished disk, move the hell out of the way and cue the record changer to PLOP the next disc on the turntable. Composers of the era were denied the opportunity to record extended compositions with a minimum of interruptions. But even if some genius had figured out a way to cram Beethoven’s 5th into a single 78, the result would have been less than satisfying because the discs were not ideal mastering receptacles for recorded music.

Those limitations created a nagging problem in desperate need of a solution.

The first problem was solved when Peter Goldmark of Columbia Records perfected the long-playing vinyl record in 1948. The mastering problem was solved when the Allies won the war and part of the victors’ well-earned booty was the magnetic tape technology invented by the Germans in 1928. Magnetic tape became the standard medium for mastering in 1950; Les Paul and Mary Ford were the first to exploit its multitrack capabilities. These changes also opened the minds of some recording artists to the creative possibilities of the album format. Frank Sinatra was way ahead of everyone else on that score, releasing what we now call concept albums as far back as 1946 when 78s were still dominant (The Voice, on 78s) and releasing a string of long-playing concept albums throughout the 1950s.

Duke Ellington had successfully adapted to the era of 78 singles, with over seventy-five Top 20 hits in the period from 1927 to 1948. But while the Duke had mastered the commercial game, it had to be enormously frustrating to limit his recordings to short pieces designed for the dance floor. Duke had been writing and arranging extended jazz pieces since the early 30s and his passion for more lengthy explorations increased when he began his collaboration with Billy Strayhorn near the end of the decade. Though not well-suited to the format because of the need to flip the disk, a few of those compositions found their way onto 78s.

The LP and multitrack capabilities were godsends for Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, allowing them to finally present the full range of their creative talents to a wider audience in a format capable of musical continuity. Released in 1951 and described by jazz critic Gary Giddins as “one of the first genuinely innovative 12-inch LPs,” Masterpieces by Ellington would become one of the most cherished jazz recordings of all time.

Three of the four tracks are long-form arrangements of hit singles: “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Solitude.” In commenting on “Mood Indigo,” biographer John Edward Hasse marveled at the “variety Ellington and Strayhorn could manage from the sixteen-piece orchestra from a familiar short song!” The fourth piece was the recently composed tone poem “The Tattooed Bride,” the only one of the four that Ellington identified as an “extended composition.” Note that Ellington often used the words “arrangement” and “composition” interchangeably, which leads to some confusion as to which half of the Ellington-Strayhorn alter-ego relationship was doing what. On this record, Strayhorn was largely responsible for the new arrangements of the old hits while Ellington composed and arranged “The Tattooed Bride.”

What impresses me the most about the album content is the Ellington-Strayhorn gift for balancing accessibility and intricacy. All four pieces feature memorable melodies and gorgeous harmonies but underneath the hood, there’s a lot going on. Thankfully I found the perfect guide to help me through these engaging yet complex works in the form of a doctoral dissertation written by Darren LaCour: The Long-Playing Ellington: Analyzing Composition and Collaboration in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. LaCour devotes the entire first chapter to a deep study of Masterpieces by Ellington.

As I know that most of my readers aren’t versed in music theory, I’ll do my best to translate some of his most insightful contributions into less technical language, but let me give you a tip that might help you make sense of the largely instrumental content of the album. When I was a kid my mother frequently took me to the San Francisco Symphony. Unless you’re into watching a guy wave a stick, the symphony doesn’t offer much in the way of visual appeal so I would close my eyes and let the music evoke feelings and imagery—it was like my brain created movie scenes in my head while the orchestra provided the soundtrack. Masterpieces affect me in the same way, so in addition to providing some of the technical details, I’ll also share any movie scenes inspired by the music.


Before we get down to business, I’d like to point out something very important regarding Duke Ellington’s approach to composition and arrangement. In Ralph Gleason’s KQED documentary Love You Madly, the jazz critic asked Ellington about his theory of “personalized arrangement”:

Personalized arrangement is about arranging with all of the better characteristics of the performer in mind and deep consideration for the limitations of each one. As you know, I mean, there’s no musician in any kind of music who doesn’t have some limitation. This is a little problem which is very interesting to have when you’re writing and it pays off when you hear the results of it. This is the thing I’ve done all my damn life, always had some little limitation to deal with, which of course enhances the joy of doing it.

And that’s what made Duke Ellington a great band leader: he did his best to amplify a musician’s strengths and work around a musician’s weaknesses, imbuing each with the confidence they needed to collaborate successfully with one another.

The use of the terms “arrangement” and “composition” may give the impression that the four tracks on Masterpieces by Ellington are fixed pieces where the musicians simply adhered to what was written on the charts. LaCour conclusively dispelled that mistaken belief:

Few studies have applied theories of interaction to large jazz ensembles. Because big band jazz requires coordination of a greater number of players, it typically has more notated music and fewer openings for improvisation. When a player solos, the arranger has often created background figures for other members of the ensemble to play. The conversation, to use a common metaphor for jazz performance, tends to be more scripted. On Masterpieces by Ellington, however, the tracks are expanded to such a degree that at times the active ensemble is pared down to a small combo. Close listening and analysis reveals that the players are interacting in real time just as one might find in smaller ensembles. (LaCour, p.13)

The cues can range from Duke lifting a finger or striking the piano keys a bit harder than usual or the introduction of a surprise chordal or rhythmic variation. Though all the compositions on Masterpieces present a basic musical structure, there are innumerable possibilities of variation within that structure. What prevents those endless possibilities from creating utter chaos is the collaborative mindset of the best jazz ensembles and a bandleader who pays close attention to the progression of the music.

“Mood Indigo” (Ellington-Bigard-Mills): The title of the original instrumental-only release that hit the shelves in 1930 was “Dreamy Blues,” and all you have to do is pick up your guitar and play the marvelously constructed chord progression of the chorus to hear and feel the blues influence: Bb-C9-Fm-B9aug-Bb(2)-C9-Gb7-F7-Bb-Bb7-Eb6-C6#9-Bb-C9-B9aug-Bb. The original caused such a sensation that Ellington had Irving Mills pen some lyrics (though Mills’ employee Mitchell Parish claimed he wrote the lyrics) to what then became “Mood Indigo.”

The term describes a feeling deeper than the blues, and when the muted trombones and bass clarinet enter with the central theme after the brief piano and bass introduction, the collective timbre, muted volume and chord pattern combine to evoke a sense of emotional fragility. In the next go-round, Duke and bassist Wendell Marshall provide light rhythmic backing to Russell Procope’s bluesy clarinet solo, initially grounded in the lower reaches of the instrument before ending with a flurry of stutter-stop notes in partial stop-time that feels like a mad attempt to break the dark mood. Duke cues the next round of the chorus with a light arpeggio and a muted brass ensemble enters the picture, providing textural contrast and a touch of Ellingtonian elegance to Procope’s continuing solo. LaCour views this segment as providing “a glimpse of how ‘far out’ the ensuing arrangement will go.” (LaCour, p.25)

The next round of choruses features Johnny Hodges soloing on alto sax with Ellington providing counterpoints and off-beat chords while Marshall holds down the rhythm. When I listen to Hodges’s nice-and-easy blues-heavy solo, I picture myself in a film noir flick dressed in a low-cut gown in a smoky bar around midnight, toying with a tall, dark, handsome man with a checkered past who would sell his soul for a chance to slip it to me. This being noir, I can’t have a happy ending, so I allow him to light my cigarette, flash him a smile then head for the exit, leaving him in a mood indigo with a desperate need for a cold shower.

LaCour’s study of the two longer choruses arranged by Strayhorn concludes “If Ellington’s third chorus initiated a departure from the original tune, Strayhorn’s arrangement here furthers that experimentation,” also noting that Strayhorn’s “deviations and coloration all depend on that original framework, and his departure occasionally throws his accompanying bass player for a loop.” The combination of more complex chording and some blank measures in the score would have thrown anyone for a loop, but oddly enough, Wendell’s temporary disconnection actually complements the woozy mood established by the horns and sax, echoing those moments in Lost Weekend when Ray Milland moves in and out of touch with reality.

Following Strayhorn’s lovely piano and compositional expansion of the theme, the next three choruses feature the vocal stylings of Yvonne Lanauze aka Eve Duke, selected by Ellington because of her woodwind-like timbre. LaCour describes her contribution as “a fairly subdued and conservative interpretation . . . with a clear respect for its established history.” The first go-rounds are fairly typical swing-singer fare a la Doris Day, but when her voice mingles with the drone from the saxophones in the final pass, the result is the clearest expression of mood indigo in the entire piece.

Although this is an entirely personal opinion likely out of sync with everyone else’s take, I wish the band would have ended the song right there, at the darkest point in the piece. Tyree Glenn’s trumpet solo follows—a muted trumpet solo with the plunger and use of the “ya ya” technique that occasionally attempts to mimic human speech. I loathe that sound just as much as I loathe the talk box employed by Jeff Beck and Frampton. LaCour notes that the plunger-muted trumpet was a historical feature of the Ellington band, so I suppose you could make the “for posterity” argument, but for me, it’s a no-go. I’m also not particularly fond of the closing move to 3/4 time as I think it compromises the sense of noir of the larger composition.

“Sophisticated Lady” (Ellington-Mills-Parish): This jazz standard was an instrumental hit at the height of the Great Depression in 1933; as with “Mood Indigo,” the Mills-Parish lyrics came later. Duke approved the lyrics despite the vast difference between his idea of a “sophisticated lady” and the Mills-Parish take. Duke was thinking of schoolteachers (“They taught all winter and toured Europe in the summer. To me that spelled sophistication.”) but Mills and Parish equated sophistication with the adult indulgences favored by upper-crust Manhattanites of the era: “Smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow, nonchalant/Diamonds shining, dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant.” As the lyrics were written by men, they had to imply disapproval of the sophisticated lady’s apparent independent streak by claiming that it’s all an act to hide a broken heart. Pffft!

As LaCour explains in greater detail, the version of “Sophisticated Lady” in Masterpieces borrows from several different arrangements built over the preceding years, with one grand exception: the fifth chorus, a dramatic shift hinted at in the brief opening piano solo and its assertive attack. The three 32-bar choruses that follow the intro focus on the strong melody. Harry Carney’s bass clarinet solo is backed by the reed section, reflecting the sweet nonchalance of the lead character; Shorty Baker’s smooth trumpet backed by lower-register saxophones gives the tune the necessary urban feel; and Yvonne Lanauze provides the details we need to flesh out the character in her take-no-chances vocal. Those choruses are followed by an 8-bar piano interlude where Strayhorn breaks the rhythm with contrasting dark chords and bright arpeggios, pausing for a moment before he launches a 32-bar restatement of the central theme. Though his runs reveal his remarkable touch on the piano, we’ve now listened to multiple restatements of the melody and I find myself getting a bit antsy.

Then OUT OF FUCKING NOWHERE we hear a blast from the horn section that drowns out the last two bars of Strayhorn’s solo and would make even the mellowest person on the planet jump out of their seat. That shock to the system leads us directly to the fifth chorus, where Strayhorn explores the infinite possibilities presented by the melody and chords of “Sophisticated Lady.”

LaCour rightly highlights the fifth chorus in his dissertation, describing the opening moments as follows: “The abrupt entrances, fortississimo attacks, and wash of sound create a jarring, disorienting moment in the arrangement. One can imagine home listeners jumping for the volume knob after the sudden outburst crashes through the serene piano texture.” (LaCour, p. 48-49) As the passage develops, LaCour notes multiple chord voicings, unusual chordal juxtapositions, key changes and only brief hints of the now-familiar melody. The band members are obviously quite energized by the fresh approach and deliver some of their most enthusiastic offerings on the album. Though I usually avoid musicals like the plague, the dominant picture that enters my mind is “the closing dance number in a hit Hollywood musical” and my limited experience watching musicals leads me to conclude that the muscular music is more suitable for Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse than Rogers and Astaire.

“The Tattooed Bride” (Ellington): This is a good piece to test out your ability to transform music into pictures, as the Duke is attempting to present a narrative through music. LaCour quotes Duke’s introduction to “The Tattooed Bride” from the CD At the Crystal Gardens, Salem, Oregon:

The Tattooed Bride is—we’d like to have you go along with us in the story—and The Tattooed Bride, immediately after the introduction, portrays the discovery of the prospective bridegroom, a very agreeable fellow so we try to establish a rather agreeable tempo there. Then as we increase the tempo, a little further into the number it becomes quite fast, and that represents the elopement, the flying away, and we find ourselves in some sort of a…well we try to show their…um…[dramatic pause, chuckles from audience] . . . optimism . . . well anyway we run into a rather contrapuntal anticipation. And then there comes a slower part, and Jimmy Hamilton comes to the microphone with his clarinet. Now this is the scene where the tattooed bride is discovered to be the tattooed bride, on the occasion of her honeymoon in Aberdeen, South Dakota. (LaCour, p. 78-79)

“So what’s the big deal?” asks the Gen Z listener who slept through history class and never bothered to take a Women’s Studies course. Well, except for a brief period in WWII when Rosie the Riveter encouraged women working in the armament factories to adorn their arms with patriotic ink, it was generally considered unladylike to sport a tattoo—and for a newly minted hubby discover a tat somewhere on his bride’s allegedly virginal bod—well, that was probable cause for an immediate annulment (unless the guy got a whopper of a boner and made wifey promise that it was their little secret).

As it turns out, Duke’s explanation of the narrative isn’t all that helpful and I suggest you ignore it and focus on the strength of the composition, a superb balance of variety and thematic consistency. Though the piece is formally divided into three discrete segments (“Kitchen Stove,” “Omaha,” and “Aberdeen), Ellington achieves unity through repetition and slight variation of the four-tone central motif, sometimes presented in “W” format (down-up-down-up-down the scale) or “M” format (up-down-up-down-up the scale). According to LaCour, Ellington linked the segments through a combination of “episodes” (contrasting and developmental passages) and “transitions.” The formality of the structure earned “The Tattooed Bride” the status of “jazz-classical composition,” indicating that the piece is one of Ellington’s attempts to merge the improvisational nature of jazz with the more defined strictures of classical music.

To my ears, “The Tattooed Bride” is more accurately described as the marriage of classical and the Big Band, most apparent in the extensive use of the brass section in “Kitchen Stove” and “Omaha.” Ergo, the images that come to mind have nothing to do with a broad’s tattoo but with sailors on leave coupling with naval groupies and ripping up the dance floor in Honolulu. As for “Aberdeen,” where the discovery of the verboten tattoo occurs, the slow opening chorus does indeed create pictures of sexual hesitation while the shift to a faster tempo in the middle of the second chorus gives the impression that they’ve ripped their clothes off and are ready to get down and dirty. At one point toward the end of the third chorus, Jimmy Hamilton blows an upward bend on his clarinet that sounds like the sweet scream of an orgasm—or it could be the moment of tattoo discovery.

Predictably, I’m going with orgasm.

“Solitude” (Ellington-Mills-DeLange): Ellington made a wise choice to have Yvonne Lanauze aka Eve Duke sit this one out, as no one will ever come close to matching the emotive power of Billie Holiday’s interpretation.

Ellington composed the music in twenty minutes, and while that may sound impossible given the chordal complexity of the piece, those chords cover a relatively tight area on a piano (and are a bitch to play on guitar). The title (also referred to as “(In My) Solitude”) was suggested by Arthur Whetsel, a trombonist who played in the Ellington band for several years. The pace and the heavy use of minor and diminished chords certainly convey the dark side of solitude that Billie so clearly expressed in her take.

This extended version offers two variations of note: one that modernizes the piece and the other that allows a ray of hope to shine through the gloom. The modernization is introduced in the third chorus by Paul Gonsalves, the Hero of Newport. La Cour succinctly describes how his contribution came to be:

Gonsalves was of a younger musical generation than the longer-tenured members of the Ellington band, and he often showed his propensity to employ the bebop idiom in his solos. Typically the style emerged in up-tempo numbers, but the newcomer’s chromatically inflected passagework in his solo to “Solitude” shows that he could incorporate modern elements into his ballad playing as well. Ellington sought to tap into this stylistic interaction, mimicking the preferred bebop small combo ensemble by resting most of the band during the tenor solo. (LaCour, p, 68)

As I feel much more comfortable with modern jazz, I wholly embrace the introduction of bebop values.

The picture that comes to mind when I listen to Ellington’s version is . . . well, I’m back in the smoky bar late at night with piano playing in the background. Long before Ellington enters with a four-bar piano introduction I’ve already asked Joe to set ’em up and when the orchestra opens with the first statement of the melody, I’m staring at three empty shot glasses and a half-full ashtray. Duke then steps to the fore to tinkle the ivories and I turn my head to look at the piano player but he’s not my guy because my guy just dumped me and I need another cigarette and a drink. Gonsalves enters the scene and his chromatic explorations on tenor sax call up memories of good times, bad times and all the hints of disinterest I should have noticed long ago so I could have dumped the bastard before he dumped me. When the orchestra returns I temporarily collapse in tears when Ray Nance’s trumpet comes to the fore, do a shit job of wiping off the mascara that’s dripping down my cheeks and point at my shot glass, which Joe fills with empathetic efficiency. I down the shot and try to shake the cobwebs out of my head when Hamilton’s clarinet pops in, reminding me that there is still sweetness in life.

That too-brief movement toward possible resolution is shattered by the second variation—a trombone shot from Lawrence Brown accompanied by short, full-band blasts. As I follow Brown’s assertive solo, I can feel my dander getting up as I realize that the guy who dumped me was a fucking loser anyway and there are a whole lot of fish in the sea that would be delighted to have a broad like me! My last words to Joe before I pass out are “Fuck that guy and fuck solitude—I’ll find someone who loves me.”

I wake up an hour later; the bar is empty and find that Joe was nice enough to wrap a blanket around me.


Despite the excellent musicianship, strong compositions and improved sound quality, Masterpieces didn’t cause much of a stir when it was released in 1951 it didn’t cause much of a stir:

Though considered a stunning artistic achievement today, Masterpieces by Ellington did not bring the commercial success Ellington hoped to gain. Part of the problem, at least in Ellington’s eyes, was that Columbia failed to market the band’s albums. With the long-playing record in its infancy, and especially given the commercial flop Stan Kenton’s ambitious concert albums Innovations in Modern Music and City of Glass had been for Capitol, Columbia’s trepidation made sense from a business perspective. [Producer George] Avakian had such success in the popular music division of the label that he was allowed to give Ellington free reign; he recognized at the time that Ellington’s album would not be a commercial success, nor could it produce a hit. Ellington’s decision to retool three standards into concert arrangements was a shrewd one, as it avoided the untested experimentation present on Kenton’s LPs, but the standards did not lure the record-buying public en masse. (LaCour, p. 103)

I think the greater problem was that the times they were a-changin’. Big Bands like Ellington’s were on the way out: “By the time World War II ended, the focus of popular music was shifting towards singing crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford. As the cost of hiring big bands had increased, club owners now found smaller jazz groups more cost-effective.” While Ellington’s band continued to tour (with the expenses subsidized by his songwriting royalties), he was fast becoming yesterday’s news. The band’s legendary performance at the Newport Jazz Festival started out as a complete flop until Ellington unleashed Paul Gonsalves to arouse the crowd with a sax solo for the ages—and Ellington became “in” once again.

Despite the initial disappointment on the commercial side of the ledger, Masterpieces represents the point in time when critics and fans began to realize that Duke Ellington was more than a great bandleader but also one of the greatest composers in American history. In the liner notes for Duke Ellington’s Symphony in Black by The Smithsonian Jazz Repertory Ensemble conducted by Gunter Schuller, Martin Williams wrote, “Duke Ellington lived long enough to hear himself named among our best composers. And since his death in 1974, it has become not at all uncommon to see him named, along with Charles Ives, as the greatest composer we have produced, regardless of category.”

And Duke Ellington’s music will endure a lot longer than the instantly forgettable singles of our woeful present.

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