JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company


Is Duke Ellington a composer and why?

Duke Ellington is I think today recognized as one of the great American composers. I think that people would put him on the same page as Aaron Copeland or Charles Ives. There are still some people I think who have problems with that because Duke Ellington was not so much working on the page. It's not like if you go to the Duke Ellington archives that you find scores of the things he created in the 1930s and 1940s, and so there are some people who in some ways just say, "Then how can you therefore call him a composer? Whatever it is he's doing, it's something different and therefore it's not composition."

To my mind that is taking a definition of composing and applying it to a situation where [it] doesn't fit and then assuming that what you're describing, that's where the problem is. I think the problem is more with the idea of what composition means, what it means to put together a piece of music, especially in the days of recording. What Duke Ellington managed to do was to take what his musicians were able to create on their own, their own musical personalities, in fact often their own melodic ideas – certainly their timbres – and was able to use those concepts to create pieces often in the studio.

There are plenty of examples where you can see that yes, he must have come in with stuff created in advance, but there are many anecdotes where he sits down at the piano and tries out something and says, "You play something like this" – says to another musician, "I want you to come in with something," and he would often use a visual cue because he was an artist originally, you know, like "the sun shining" – you know, "I want the trombone to come in sounding like that." And would actually create things in the recording studio and put together a piece that way. You actually do have some scores of these things in the Ellington archives but they were done after the fact, to kind of say, "This is what people create."

And even then you can see places in the scores, will say things like ‘tricky sam ad lib.' You know, Tricky Sam Nanton was supposed to put something in at that point or Rex Stuart was supposed to do something up here and that's all that it says because he knew what they were going to actually provide. So using the recording studio as a way of composing is a very twentieth-century way of doing things. It's like putting together movies, especially with directors who don't want to work with fixed scripts and know that their actors can do what they want to do on stage, on the spot. And you can say, yes, it's the actors who are creating it, but in many cases I think overall we tend to see the director as the person in charge, especially if it's somebody who has a really distinct sense of style, you know, in this kind of putting stuff together. And with Ellington all these pieces have a very distinctly Ellington sound to them. And that to me is a sign of a composer – someone who is working with material and making it a collaborative effort, which is very much an African American thing, to not say a single person is doing it but a whole group of people is doing it but with somebody definitely in charge. And that was what Ellington was able to do for thousands of pieces.