Is Duke Ellington a Composer? Why?
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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.