Duke Ellington

It reminded me of Duke Ellington, and Murray Kempton’s piece from the October 21, 1993 issue of the New York Review of Books, when I read that Johann Sebastian Bach had “a band of 18 trained musicians placed at his disposal” by whatever patron he had at the time, whoever’s court he was at while composing the Brandenburg Concertos 1-6, completed in 1721.

Likewise, Kempton writes “Ellington could not have been a composer without his band.” Although the situation at the Apollo was perhaps a little different than a royal court, here’s the relevant section from “Memories of Ellington,” by Murray Kempton:

The visitor was borne to the day forty years ago…Duke Ellington had been playing the morning show at the old Apollo Theater in the charming but scarcely august company of the Temptations, Pigmeat Markham, and a balloon dancer. He was in the Apollo Star Dressing Room, a premise almost squalid in its modesty.

“Eddie,” another visitor said, “you are the greatest composer of the twentieth century.” Ellington delicately raised an eyebrow, on unspoken behalf of Stravinsky. “And here you are,” she finished, “working the morning show at the Apollo.”

And Ellington replied, “Maely, that is a complaint that I long ago decided had no future.”

Great composer? Forget it. Beside the point. Say only a composer who was one with Bach and Mozart, because none could write without having in mind the particular horn or voice he was writing for. Bach adjusted the aria to the resources of the soprano, and the soprano gave something of herself back to Bach.

Ellington could not have been a composer without his band. One day Cootie Williams idled a phrase and Ellington heard what the horn had found even before the horn did. That phrase became “Concerto for Cootie,” one of sacred music’s grander statements in its original form and later transmuted for secular triumph as “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me.”