[Dixielandjazz] Ellington and Strayhorn (and the rest)

Ken Mathieson ken at kenmath.free-online.co.uk
Sun May 16 13:58:29 PDT 2010

Hi All,

The dynamics of the Ellington Camp make for fascinating study, but I doubt if outsiders will ever get the full story. It's certainly true that Duke "borrowed" thematic material from members of the band, which is one of the reasons for the long stand-off between Duke and Hodges. It must have riled Hodges to see Duke making royalties from In a Mellotone when it was effectively a line that Hodges had invented on Rose Room. On the other hand, it was those royalties which helped bankroll Duke's band and keep it working throughout the long decline of the big bands.

There are lots of similar examples, from the explicit, like Do Nothing 'Till You Hear From Me (Cootie) and Subtle Slough/Please Don't Tease Me (Rex Stewart) to the less obvious (Sophisticated Lady and Prelude to a Kiss) which were allegedly based on pre-gig warm-up exercises used by Otto Hardwick. I've always felt that Bigard was being pretty brass-necked in pursuing Duke for a share of rights to Mood Indigo when he later comes clean in his autobiography that at least half of the material came from manuscripts which his teacher, Lorenzo Tio Jr, had given him to try and get them published. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that Tio's piece, originally titled Moody Blues,was the sign-off tune of AJ Piron's band in New Orleans. It's therefore surely no coincidence that Duke's original recording was titled Moody Blues and only became Mood Indigo when it was re-recorded for another label.

The dynamics of the Duke-Strayhorn relationship are even more difficult to unravel, particularly as they both often worked on the same score. My hunch, based on a lot of transcription of recordings, is that they had largely equal overlapping talents in melodic composition, rich harmonic conception, orchestration etc. The big differences for me are that Ellington had a huge ego and stage presence, both of which are discernable in his performances, statements and writings, but neither of which appeared to be in Strayhorn's armoury. However I feel that Strayhorn had the edge when it comes to musical editing. When I listen to Duke's original Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue from just before Strayhorn's arrival, I hear an over-written, complex arrangement in which lines for sections frequently clash when they overlap. This may be intentional, to create excitement through dissonance, but there's no mistaking the contrast when I listen to pieces written after Strayhorn's arrival. These tend to be just as complex harmonically, but melodically apparently simple, with long lines, often played in unison, and occasional bursts of dissonance (think Cottontail). The contrast between before and after Strayhorn's arrival seem to me very striking, and I suspect that Strayhorn brought a new editorial skill, which pared pieces down to their essentials, just as Basie's piano did. The clincher for me is Take the A-Train: It's entirely a Strayhorn composition and the original 1941 arrangement, also entirely by Strayhorn, has never been surpassed. There were lots of subsequent re-writings over the years, probably by Duke, but all of them seem less convincing than the original, which seems to me to be utterly perfect. Later preambles, additional choruses and riffs all seem to detract from the perfection of the 2 minutes and 41 seconds of the original.


Ken Mathieson

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