Duke Ellington’s Ascension And Hold On Top Due To Odd Mood

And Here’s Some Proof

Songs Tell A Story of Good, Bad Luck


Listening to Ted Husing Broadcast the Army – Navy football game last Saturday my mind turned back to December 1927 when the same announcer informed the world that the Cotton Club in Harlem was presenting the music of Duke Ellington, then a comparatively unknown. The same Duke Ellington who was layer to give “Tin Pan Alley” some two hundred hit tunes. The same Ellington who was to bring forth an odd arrangement of tunes and notes that few if any bands would be able to copy successfully. The Duke was on top at last. But his road had been hard and rocky. But suppose we let Oliver (Doc) Perry, the man who taught him early fundamentals, picture the childhood days of Duke Ellington. Says Doc:

“The occasion was a dinner party in Washington D.C., the subject a huge painting resting atop a large a large upright piano in the home of the Edward Kennedy Ellingtons Sr. The speaker was Mrs. Daisy Ellington, mother of the great Duke. “I sometimes wonder if I shall live to regret that my son did not pursue a career in art. He painted that picture in less than 10 hours, and that one is nothing compared to the samples which acquired for him a scholarship to Pratt Institute where he was a major in art.” Young Ellington was not present. He was at a nearby party pinch-hitting for the pianist in one of the several bands he played with on a part time basis. But had he been present his mother’s remarks, heard many, many times before, would hardly have registered since the Duke had already decided that music and not art was to be his life’s profession.


Makes Own Decisions


“In fairness to all concerned, it must be admitted that neither Mrs. Daisy Ellington nor the father, Jay Eddie, offered any specific requests toward the molding of their son’s career. They recognized his strange temper and best of all knew he could not be driven through a childish mood that scorned all who crossed his plans.” However, most headliners owe their success to some one. Duke Ellington owes his to mood. Most anyone will tell you Duke Ellington is a genius whose success comes through individuality. All of which is true, but the Duke himself will tell you that development of what his admirers and critics term genius is traceable directly to his ability to put into song his particular mood of the moment. I have on occasions, with the Duke, granting a few admissions here and there, broke down his numerous hit numbers. And in each case the theme. Rhythm and lyrics have been the Duke’s reaction to some particular mood often brought about by the actions of others.


Secrets Revealed


To go further – into each of the songs – would not only be mirroring the life of the great musician but the actual betrayal of secrets unbosomed by our friendship. More interrogation by an eager reporter could not possibly drawn some of the admissions. Duke Ellington is and always has been a man of few words. He’ll talk compositions but preferably with folk outside his profession. He either thinks such discussions with musicians tends to influence one’s decisions or breaks a thought or an idea that is already born. That is a part of his individuality. The same goes for his selection of vocalists. Look back through the line of chirpers the Duke has presented and you’ll discover few if any of them were known prior to his picking ‘em up. His theory seems to be training ‘em as you would have them serveis much better than attempting to make over a veteran. He has used the same system in selecting the fine organization of musicians under his banner. Best saxophonist in the nation – Johnny Hodges – was developed by Ellington. The late Jimmy Blanton, king of bass fiddlers, was a mere urchin when picked up by Duke. And so on down the line one finds this practiced in the Ellington organization.


Difficult Arrangements


The Duke’s arrangements are hard to play. Years of practice is required before one can fit well into the Ellington band. But when the king himself has added the finishing touch the job is well done. Many argue that continued services a unit keeps Duke’s band at the top. This is only partially true. There are other organizations with long service as units that show no such perfection. Rather ‘tis the mold under constant pounding by the master who would have the product emerge a perfect product. It is from this mold that Duke sought to build the machine with which he might produce his life-long ambition – the Negro opera. And there is no doubt but that when the attempt was made the result was successful. Operatic concerts in New York, Boston, Chicago and other cities that stirred the world is ample proof.

When Ellington began his rapid rise up the ladder, critics labeled him king of the jungle rhythm, exponent of a fad that time would erase. That was more than 20 years ago. One of these Duke denies; the other time has proven false for today the Ellington music is as popular as when he first hit the pinnacle he still occupies. As to style – in Duke’s own words – what critics choose to define as “jungle” music is in reality “heart” tunes. He wrote “Black and Tan Fantasy” out of a heart that was broken through rebuffs when he sought an engagement at the old Palace theatre on Broadway. An engagement he was only able to land only through Irving Mills who was to later pilot him through the early days of his struggles. There has been much written about the Mills-Ellington tie-up – most of it wrong. The true story is: Irving was a song plugger and working at odd jobs when he learned of Duke’s wishes to play the Palace. “Let me act as your manager and I’ll land the engagement,” Irving said. His promise materialized and at a figure almost three times that Duke expected. Next day there was a contract and literature was printed showing Irving Mills as manager of the “unknown” who was threatening to revolutionize popular music. There is nothing particularly unusual about this, however. For as father time changes so many things so does it change songwriting. In the early days of songwriting the ragtime hel sway. Such numbers as the late Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” were ragtime classics that swept the country.


Some Slight Changes


This style of music remained a part of the Negro’s album for years. On occasion there were “musical amendments” but these were short lived. For one thing, The “amendments” were more or less of the derogatory type and drew criticisms that were hard to live down. The first of these was Irving Berlin’s “Smokey-Mokes” that introduced southern dialect into the lyrics. Irving introduced this style into New York’s Tin Pan Alley and for that reason it drew most national attention. But even “Broadway” that was just beginning to blossom couldn’t force this style of music down the throats of a musically conscious public and make it stay. It was during this eriod that Sol Bloom, now congressman from New York, wrote “Coon, Coon, Coon, I Wish My Color Would Change,” a sort of burlesque on the Negro. This soon went the way of all mistakes, however, and carried with it the unpopular catch tune. “If The Man In The Moon Was A Coon What Would You Do,” written by Ernest Hogan. Hogan had apparently hoped to cash in on the popularity of “Tin Pan Alley” with his sequel to Bloom’s tune so the two were buried together.


Distasteful Lyrics


While the distace for the lyrics of these songs had a deal to do with thte change it was the arrival of jazz music that signed the doom of the ragtime – high and low. This was likewise the birth of the blues which came from the low inlands of Louisiana down around New Orleans.

Such artists as King Joe Oliver ans Red Allen Sr., were making their instruments talk and many of the songwriters began putting the strange noises to music. Result jazz started sweeping the country. In every small theatre, tent show and small night club, jazz music was the hobby lobby. Then early in the ‘20s there came to New York from Washington a young music student, heading his own band and featuring an odd style of music. His style was both original and indescribable. Some named it “Jungle Rhythm” while others just sat back and listened with no attempt to identify its classification. His compositions like “My Heart Throb” was soon the property of every whistler. And then came in order such numbers as “Black And Tan” fantasy. “Mood Indigo,” “Rockin’ In Rhythm,” “St. Louis Toodleoo” and many others. Not any of these were akin to either ragtime or jazz. They were different kinds of songs that were to start the Broadway songwriters to rack their brains in search of something to check the tide toward Ellington, the unknown.


Gets Big Break


And the came Duke’s big break – the radio. From the Cotton Club In New York he began broadcasting those odd tunes and in a short time his popularity was nationwide. The Duke was made but with no intentions of staying put or existing off the popularity of those old numbers. So along came “Sophisticated Lady,” “Solitude,” and others to add momentum to his growing popularity. However Duke’s next move at songwriting was in the beginning, the reaction to a “mood”. He was struck by something going wrong in the personnel of his band despite the abundance of talent and out of it came “Cootie” (Williams) concerto. And when after 13 years Cootie planned to leave him for Benny Goodman, the song was retitled: “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me.” And it is no secret within his band that “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” was Duke’s reaction to the marital affairs of one of his closest friends – an affair which affected the Duke very much.


Path Was Rocky


The Duke, unlike most of the band leader-composers, has not gone unmindful of the day when he must cast aside his baton and quit the piano. And as a result has set himself rather securely. In the New York directory you’ll find listed “Duke Ellington. Inc.,” the headquarters from which the Duke is booked. President of the firm is Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington is treasurer. There are a flock of managers and directors. There are booking agents but at the usual rate for bookies. Ninety per cent of the stock in Duke Ellington Inc., is owned by Ellington with the other 10 scattered among stock-holders. In addition to running his own band the corporation operates other attractions. Few know when Cab Calloway broke into big time he did so under the wings of Duke Ellington. On record Cab’s handler was Irving Mills but Duke Ellington possessed half interest in Mills’ attractions. Rumor has it that Cab’s objections to the set-up resulted in Mills’ ultimate purchase of the Calloway contract from the corporation. It was no fish fry sale., however, and this combined with royalties and band engagements have put Ellington in a bracket that means independence for life.

Duke Ellington’s path to the top has not been strewn with roses. It is a matter of record that despite his numerous early hits he was one of the last of the big time writers to crash American Society of Composers and Authors. Membership in this organization is the object of any songwriter, It means from $1,500 to $20,00 annually depending on the class of membership held. Membership requirement is five or more songs that reach the “hit parade.” Shortly after Ellington reached a partnership with Mills a publishing house was set up under the name of Mills’ Publishing company. Duke received royalties from the firm as did many others, but neither a split in the over-all profit or credit for its being. As a result Irving Mills was able to enter as a publisher on the wings of the hit tunes that Ellington had written. Then later came the split Duke was now hoping for and the king composers was able to purchase his own contract. This eliminated Mills from the Ellington corporation, one of the most powerful on Broadway. It also left Duke Ellington sole owner of his song hits – one hundred and thirty-seven to be exact. All of which have biassed the nation if not the Duke himself for the Duke hasn’t felt that all of his acclaimed numbers merited the hit parade. He considers “Mood Indigo” his most solid composition; “My Solitude” is his best seller and “Song Of My Heart” the most shallow of his numerous tunes. Yet they have all combined to satisfy a public hungry for the oomph and unusual in popular music.

Chicago Defender, 16 December 1944

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