DUKE ELLINGTON MUSIC SOCIETY
01/1 April-July 2001
FOUNDER: BENNY AASLAND
Voort 18b, 2328 Meerle, Belgium
Telephone: +32 3 315 75 83
The Charles Melville Interview
Melville: First of all let's let our hair down with a few musicians' questions. As with most composers, I suppose your work germinates in a variety of ways. Does a thing start from a title or a snatch of a musical phrase, or with a particular performer in the band in mind?
Duke: Well it's usually with some particular performer in mind, because most of the writing is done for and tailored to the instrumentalist who's going to have that solo responsibility if it is a solo. And then on the other hand of course, there are certain values that we know and sort of anticipate we can feel and hear them before we write them in the clusters, like combining several instruments together and by switching sections. Like you have three trombones normally you'd have Britt Woodman on top, but in different sections you'd switch it around and have Quentin Jackson on top. And then John Sanders, who's a valve trombone each one who goes on top, then the other two try to match that particular timbre. It's practically equivalent to having three sections. I think it helps us to get a much broader sound, a broader scope of sound.
Melville: With Mood Indigo in its original form you blended instruments of various families. Why do you think that more of that isn't done? In other words, people just take the sax section or the trumpet section, trombone section and they do simple block scoring, and they never think of well you do, of course but other people don't seem to think so much of blending the instruments like in Mood Indigo. They think of "harmonizing in chunks" as someone once called it.
Duke: That's a very interesting observation. Speaking of Mood Indigo, we sometimes, or all of the time, practically have to compete with ourselves. For instance, people who heard Mood Indigo on our first visit to England heard it with trumpet, trombone and the clarinet two octaves below. Now if they come back to hear it again twenty years later and we play it with the same combination, they could say "Well it doesn't sound the same as it did then". But what we've done is that now we've put in two trombones and a bass clarinet instead. In their illusion, they imagine that this thing had a much more sonorous quality, so we have to match the illusion, and it's proven fairly successful that way. In mixing the sections in this new piece that we did which was prepared for the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, for Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret, we called this number Princess Blue and throughout that, with the exception of full-band embellishments and ! that sort of thing, the sections are not sax section, trumpet section and trombone section. Jimmy Hamilton, who plays clarinet, is taken out of the sax section and Clark Terry is put in instead, and it's an interesting colour.
Melville: Some people say that you were influenced by this person and that person. Delius, Ravel and so on. Do you think there's anything in that?
Duke: I imagine that everybody is influenced by somebody, but at the time they made the observation about Delius and severa1 of the other serious and classical writers, I had never heard them and was extremely flattered I remember that, when we came to England last time I became a member of the Delius Society. I was very proud of being caught sounding like Delius, because Delius completely wrapped me up, you know. I used to just sit around and listen and absorb the lot of it, and if you absorb it and it comes back on out through the sub-conscious (I can always lean on that!) then I would like to think that I had changed it enough to ..... or rather that it didn't come out identical. The flavour yes: you can desire to have the same sound, but this doesn't mean just sitting down and making a copy. That I don't believe in.
Melville: Do you do a lot of trying over on the piano?
Duke: No, not much. Sometimes, if I feel like it. I mean sitting down at the piano and playing nothing, just rambling, it's good therapy. I mean I'm going to write for the cat who's going to play the horn, that's all. So, if a guy can play more notes in a bar, or jump greater intervals or you know. I mean when I first started out with records I had soloists like Tricky Sam and Bubber and Toby y'know, Toby who plays great melody, a great melody player. Tricky played the full compass of the trombone open, but when he used a plunger and a mute inside of the plunger, he was limited to effective notes. I would say he had about seven real effective notes and they had to be in a certain range. Well, the problem was to employ these notes so that they would be effective. We've still got the plunger thing now with Butter that we had with Tricky, which, after you get out of a certain range, isn't too effective. But with all these other people, we have a tremendous rang! e and we don't have to worry too much about that. We just write what we feel. For instance, I was amazed at the way this thing turned out anyway at the beginning, because I think that if I had never met these people my writing would have been altogether different. And I am sure that if I had never met the Lion certain influences wouldn't have been absorbed, and James P. Johnson .....
Melville: I'd like to take you up on James P. Johnson. There's an old story that in Washington when you were a ragtime pianist you once engaged in a cutting concert with James P.
Duke: Watch that ragtime now man, because you're getting back before history now! (At this point followed one of those Mephistophelean bursts of Ducal laughter, which, to the great loss of the English language, cannot be transcribed into words - S.V.).
Melville: Did you engage in a cutting contest with
Duke: Oh no, of course not. James P. came and he played at the convention hall, and like everybody else we all hung around and listened to him play. James P. made Carolina Shout on QRS rolls piano rolls, and what had happened, long before he got there, I had gotten the roll and put it on the piano and slowed the roll down and learned it note for note. So when James came down and he played it and broke us up, some of my old cronies weren't so happy and they said "Duke, get up there and cut him," see? Like a chump I got on up there and tried to cut him, you know. Nobody cut Jimmy. I still went on following him around all night long and listening to him play.
Melville: Do you think it helps to lead the band from within, as it were, on the piano or do you think it's just as good to stand up in front and conduct it?
Duke: Well it depends on what you're playing, I suppose. I mean there's some things where you have change of tempo or you want everybody to do it at the same time and make sure about it. Then of course it calls for a little ..... er, pseudo-conduction.
Melville: "Drum Is A Woman" in America got rather a bad press, but I think over here we appreciated it a bit more. In America, they tended to say it's a bit pretentious, the spoken links are over-sophisticated. What would you say in answer to that?
Duke: Well I think that there are a few of the kids around who are influenced by those who are recognised as their peers. They are influenced in what they have to say you know, they'll listen to something and then call up one of their superiors: "Well I just listened to what's-his-name. What do you think?" And in that way, they'll get a collective criticism. I don't know whether I'm being fair or not. On the other hand there is also another school of thought that jazz can't be written, and then when you combine it with voices, and you make a fanfare like Madame Zajj coming out of the flying saucer, well they don't think this is jazz. They think that jazz is that little story I've used many times about the little boy who'd never go to school, who, way out in the country, ragged as a can of spaghetti, just wanders off into a field and stumbles over what appears to him to be a black stick. He picked it up and sauntered over to a tree and sat down under this weeping wi! llow tree. Of course we know, but he didn't, that this was a clarinet, and he just started to blow on it and out came jazz. A lot of these people think that's where jazz came from and that's where it ends. They have no recognition for anybody who can write anything about jazz. They don't think it can be written and they don't think there's any skill to it, and if you know one second before you play something what you're going to play then it isn't jazz and it's an impossible thing. Y'know.
Melville: Do you think that sort of attitude explains why the critics hated your hiring Lawrence Brown?
Duke: Some critics and some schools of thought say that jazz is freedom of expression and all that sort of thing, but actually they are very biased in their thinking, because they think that a personality should be confined to his principal mark of identification. They feel that Sophie Tucker should always sing "Some Of These Days" and Ted Lewis should always wear that hat. They think that Louis Armstrong should always have his handkerchief and Cab Calloway should always sing hi-de-ho, and the minute they do anything new, they're out of character. They think that nobody grows up, everybody stays a child.
Melville: You got the same kind of reaction when you hired Louis Bellson and did things like The Hawk Talks and Skin Deep and so on. People said, "What's Duke trying to do a glorified Woody Herman or something?"
Duke: I didn't hear that one!
Melville: What would your attitude be?
Duke: Well I don't think that's being nice to Woody Herman saying "glorified". At least they could have said "substitute" Woody Herman.
Melville: Do you think that period of your musical life was against the real Duke Ellington?
Duke: No. These guys are good musicians, and they happened to be in the same city I was and available that's the way everybody comes into the band, y'know. I never sent across the country for a musician in my life. It just happens that somebody happens to be in the neighbourhood at the time so I say "Hey man, what're you doing"? and they come in and they blow for two or three nights and then I say "Hey, we like this. Why don't you stay?" and that's the attitude with everybody. I mean Procope came out to play one night with us when we were playing up at Dartmouth. He just came up because Toby was out, and Toby didn't come back the second night, the third night, the fourth night and then he's still waiting for Toby to come back. This has been fourteen or fifteen years ago. And Toby showed up the other day and he's given up the horn completely. As a matter of fact, his father left him a tobacco plantation, so he's a gentleman farmer.
Melville: Your style is so difficult to imitate. Much more difficult than say the Glenn Miller sound on clarinet and saxes or anything like that. How do you reckon it is that Billy has been able to come so close to your way of thinking so that sometimes we don't know whether he's written something or you've written it?
Duke: Well, we sometimes can't make a decision ourselves until we see the original score, because sometimes we combine things and he'll make up half of something and perhaps doesn't have the time to write a last chorus and I'll write it. A lot of arranging is done over the telephone, incidentally.
Melville: You seem to have written a lot, and Billy's written a lot, about trains. Does that reflect a personal predilection for rail travel?
Duke: No. Strayhorn has written one train, that was Take The 'A' Train. I wrote the rest of the trains. I'm the one who's addicted to trains.
Melville: Do you think that jazz will continue to evolve better and better technique and bigger and longer compositions and so on, or do you think there'll be any purist move back to the origins?
Duke: The purists are getting weaker and weaker every day. Because you have all these wonderful young musicians who are coming out of the conservatories and jumping on the jazz band wagon and these people want to express themselves. They don't want anybody telling them. The minute people start telling them about it it's a political thing. We've seen this illustrated very strongly. They say "Well don't let them do this to you, you come with us" and then when you come with them they say, "Now this is the way you do it," which is the same thing. I mean you do it according to their rules rather than somebody else's, which is from the frying pan into the fire. It's all right to let the people have their freedom of criticism and all that sort of thing, but I don't think they should get to the point where they decide what any artist should do, no matter whether it's jazz or painting or whatever it is. I mean, we did a concert at Carnegie Hall with Ella and one of the crit!
ics said, "I think it would have been better if she'd sung the words instead of scat". Well I think that is beyond a critic's prerogative. I don't think he had the right to decide what Ella Fitzgerald should have decided to do. And these are the little subtleties that one has to watch.
Well, I've talked you out now, I think I'll go. Good-bye".
And in conclusion, one of those Ducal laughs that says more than any book that's ever been written on Duke Ellington.
The Dankworth - Lyttelton Interview
The full Johnny Dankworth band was on hand for Duke's television appearance on the BBC's "Monitor" programme, when he was interviewed by Johnny Dankworth and Humphrey Lyttelton. The large tones of Danny Moss and the Dankworth sax section led into Take The 'A' Train, and Johnny and Humph gave a demonstration of, as Lyttelton put it, "playing out of our heads".
The cameras switched to the Man in the White Suit, and the interview began.
Humph: Duke, we live on legends over here, and there are a great many legends as to how you've composed your tunes in the past. If it's not asking a trade secret, how do you like to compose?
Duke: How do I, like to? Oh, anyway at all. So long as it comes out sounding interesting ..... you know.
Humph: Do you compose at the piano, for instance?
Duke: Sometimes. I think on trains is one of the best places, and so many times in bed. You know, you get an idea and, no matter how tired you are, you have to reach over and maybe ..... y'know.
Johnny: Do you get an idea for a thing to do, like a Harlem Airshaft or a Chelsea Bridge or something first and then write the tune of it? Or the other way round, write the tune and then find the name afterwards?
Duke: That happens both ways. You know, sometimes a tune just comes into you and knocks you down: you can't resist it and you just have to put it down and usually it associates itself with some specific performer in the band.
Humph: That's what I was going to ask. To day you use quite a number of solos, which were featured, on your records of, say, 1928-1930 and originated by other musicians. Were those solos actually ....?
Johnny: You played a bit of Barney Bigard's solo in Mood Indigo scored for the band. Did you write that solo for him in the first place?
Duke: There was a solo I wrote for him, but I don't know whether it was the same one or not. I don't remember it. It was years and years ago, I was just a ..... Well, 1920 no, that was 1931. I was nine years old that year.
Humph: Well since we're delving back into history, Johnny and I are both bandleaders. What is the secret of keeping a band together for as long as you have done?
Duke: Well you've got to have a gimmick, Humphrey. The one I use is to give them money.
Johnny: Wouldn't a small band be easier for you? I mean why take the hard way all the time? Is it the most rewarding?
Duke: Oh I don't know. I get geared up to listening to things you know, and this available, I mean, you know. The only thing of it is I'm just sorry I can't afford the whole symphony so I can experiment with it.
Humph: A lot of your themes, like Mood Indigo and Solitude, have a sort of nostalgic feel, not only about the title, but also about the melody itself. Is this a reflection of your personality?
Duke: My personality? Oh, I don't think so. I don't think that er ..... well I mean you know we sort of palm ourselves off sometimes as exponents of some art, and I think if an artist wants to paint a picture of a murdered man, he doesn't necessarily have to be murdered you know. I don't think you have to live what you play. I don't think I ever wrote myself into anything, anyway. I'm an observer, I think. I've seen a lot of people and witnessed them in many different things, you know, both perpetrating some of these good deeds and also enjoying some of the ..... suffering.
Johnny: How is it that so many of your musicians stay with you such a long while? Thirty-one years, is it, for Harry Carney?
Duke: Harry Carney, yeah, Well, Harry Carney he can afford me.
Johnny: You mean you're just a hobby to him?
Duke: Yeah, something like that.
Johnny: Do you think it's important that people should know what you're getting at. Do you always try to think in terms of ....?
Duke: Oh, not necessarily. I mean sometimes you just do something, you know, just a tune, and on the other hand you get an idea where it gives it a sort of a thread something to hold on to.
Humph: What do you feel about critics?
Duke: Critics? Oh, critics are wonderful. I think that they should enjoy freedom of expression as much as we do.
Humph: I know you've said in the past that you think too much talk about jazz "stinks up the place".
Duke: Well no, I mean there's a difference. There's two different kinds of audience. There's one audience that listens and there's the other that analyses it. If you take a beautiful flower and enjoy it, you can just look at it and smell it and whatever there is to it, but when you start pulling the petals off and then you get down to the veins and the stem and all that sort of thing, and by the time you've gotten through that you say "Well, gee. This is a beautiful flower". It was.
Humph: Have you any message yourself that you'd like to give now to the great viewing jazz public?
Duke: Oh yes, I'm sure all the kids in the band want all of our lovely listeners and viewers to know that we do love them madly!
In Bulletin 00/4-12/1 in the left column 9 centimeters from the bottom starts a paragraph with a typing error. It should read: "At noon, we get in the bus again to go to the Estudios de TVE in Prado del Rey..........