Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey C. Cohen. Reviewed by Irma Liberty

Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey C. Cohen 576 pp. plus notes, published 2010.

I found about twenty books on Duke Ellington in the library and, not being a musician, but a music lover, chose this book due to my background in social science and interest in the creative process. Cohen, a cultural historian, takes a scholarly approach, portraying Ellington in terms of family, and cultural and historical background.

Although ‘scholarly’ in the sense of placing Ellington in his cultural milieu, this is not a dry, dull treatise, but a book fun to read, and led me to explore more of Ellington’s works, especially the longer pieces. It also revealed a lot about American culture and history of the era which is not common knowledge.

Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington (1899-1974) was born and raised in a middle class African American family in Washington, D.C. His family, like most of the African-American middle class then in D.C., believed the way to improve race relations was through individual achievement. Presenting yourself with dignity, being well-mannered and well-dressed was very important.

When Duke started out black and white music was segregated. Black musicians were expected, like those in minstrel shows, to wear blackface, clownish clothes and speak in dialect. Jazz was not a well respected music at this time and, in fact, was considered by many people, both black and white, to be associated with wicked and sinful behavior.

Ellington, however, refused to play the clown and freely mingled with other races and classes to learn from them, incorporating what he learned into his music. He formed an integrated orchestra and, due to continuing success, was able to insist that black people be allowed to attend his performances as well, something unheard of, even in some Harlem theaters. This is one of many interesting facts in the book, which tells you a lot about America in this era, while telling Duke’s story.

As an African-American growing up in this time. music and church were a natural part of his large extended family life. Although he greatly enjoyed performing, when he was off stage, he preferred solitude. He was a good pianist, but always considered his band as his instrument and fed off the interactions with the audience and band. He was driven to constantly compose new music and, while he always obliged his audience’s desire to hear his old standards, he never rested on his laurels. He kept growing, expanding his reach.

He had some help with this. While based in Harlem, he became acquainted with a music publisher and former talent manager named Irving Mills. Although Mills’ primary interest was in making money, he saw the potential in Duke Ellington’s music and positioned him to appeal to a wider audience through the new media of radio and phonograph recordings.

Using his national radio show, in the 1930’s Mills promoted Duke Ellington,and expanded his audience greatly. With this increased exposure, he and Ellington were able to gradually change the previous perception of black music as ‘primitive’. Duke Ellington, a Black American, now came to be seen as an important American composer and started to compose longer works.

One of the first of these pieces ,“Black, Brown and Beige”, a jazz symphony, premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1943 and sold out, leaving about two thousand people outside without tickets. This piece established him as a unique force in American music and led him to write more extended, sophisticated music, such as “My People” ( a musical review comprised of short pieces, Chicago 1960) and “Suite Thursday” (Monterey Jazz Festival, 1963).

Due to this increasing prominence and popularity he was engaged by the State Department as a ‘cultural ambassador’ in 1963 and traveled to the Middle East, inspiring his composition “Far East Suite”.Two more State Dept overseas tours followed, all attended by thousands in each city. He was a major factor in overcoming the stereotypical perception of America abroad as a country filled with prejudice and race riots.

While Ellington, like everyone, experienced hardships and sorrows, he didn’t dwell on them. Music was his gift and mode of expression, the way he dealt with forces in his life. Tellingly, he titled his autobiography, “Music Is My Mistress”.

We may have forgotten Duke’s great successes in Europe in the early 1930’s, the impact of his Carnegie Hall concerts, his role as a cultural ambassador for the State Department in the 1950’s, his financial generosity to civil rights groups and the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in the 1960’s. But we now have integrated bands, orchestras and audiences, a world-wide respect for American music and a continuous stream of jazz musicians who continue to break the boundaries of jazz.

Of his many extended compositions, I am particularly fond of the “Far East Suite” * which I have listened to repeatedly over the years. “The Duke Ellington Carnegie Hall Concert” (January 1943) contains “Black and Tan Fantasy” * (1927) and the three movement forty-five minute long “Black, Brown and Tan” as well as a shorter piece, “Blue Belle of Harlem”(1938) a little over six minutes long. The latter is notable for some voicings used which sounded quite dissonant by the standards of that day.

At the beginning of his career Duke’s focus was on putting to music the feelings and lives of black people but, in later years, he expanded this concept and, thereafter always referred to his music as “American Music”. Duke Ellington, an American original.

Irma Liberty

* Here are a couple of short selections that may inspire you to listen to more:

Pennycook School Loves Jazz!

A concert was presented by the Vallejo Jazz Society Quartet at Pennycook Elementary on March 21, 2014 to introduce the children to jazz. The students of Ms. Heidl’s third grade class at Pennycook Elementary rewarded our musicians with a packet of hand printed ‘thank you’ notes decorated with musical notes, instruments, and hearts. 

The musicians playing for the children were Bryan Girard on Saxophone, Dalt Williams on bass. Bob Nadler on drums and Wayne De La Cruz on keyboards. Special guest, local vocalist Frankye Kelly, appeared and introduced the kids to scat singing. Here is a photo of the concert followed by a few examples of the children’s thank you notes in  their own handwriting.

VJS-Pennycook 005

L-R : Bob Nadler, Drums, Frankye Kelly, Vocals, Dalt Williams, Bass, Bryan Girard, Sax, Wayne De La Cruz, Keyboards

Pennycook thankyou like how you all played-str

Pennycook thankyou11 dalt and frankye

Pennycook thankyou10 Moira liked everything

Pennycook thankyou6 jazz and blues

Pennycook thankyou22 drummer and play piano

I think we may have made some new fans! smiley-face-listening-to-music-with-headphones

music notes

Al and Zoot

by Kevin Ingraham


Al and Zoot
Zoot and Al
Which is Which ?
Al can swing
Zoot can’t not swing
Where Zoot got it
who can tell
Like Johnny Lee ‘bout the boogie
It’s in him
and it’s gotta come out
They’re trading licks
in and out
one behind
one out front
one backing
one blowing
working those notes
while playing
Zoot more breath
breath of life
Al more brass
both swinging without a net
no bass
no drums
no ivories
flowing out
like a warm breeze
swinging
joyful conversation
you gotta hear it
Al and Zoot
Zoot and Al

Having trouble playing the audio track below? Click Here

The above is is a little something written while listening to Al Cohn and Zoot Sims playing ” Improvisation for Unaccompanied Saxophones” a microcosm of swinging recorded first on the album ” You ‘N’ Me issued in 1960. According to the liner notes by Ira Gitler on the reissue, Zoot and Al had never recorded this before, it was just a little something they played for themselves. Leonard Feather, the A&R man on the date convinced them to include it on the album. Most people will probably get the reference in the written piece, but the Johnny Lee is in reference to a John Lee Hooker song, a great line from ‘Boogie Chillen’.

You can hear this piece all 2:22 min of it in its entirety (without my reading) on YouTube at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZ0oQNFQ6cI. If you get a chance, pick up the album or CD. There’s also a wonderful version of Angel Eyes by bassist Major Holly, who scats along with his bass, and some early Mose Allison on piano.

Jim Hall- Concierto CTI Records, 1975

Well, I’m going to kick off this column with a few words about one of the most beautiful, hypnotic pieces of jazz ever, a piece that belongs in every jazz fan’s library. (Don’t worry about the ‘beautiful’ adjective, I’m not going to talk about ‘smooth jazz’ aka elevator music, but serious jazz.)

The album is Concierto by Jim Hall. All the songs are excellent but the center piece, Concierto de Aranjuez is a must-hear; music played by great musicians and engineered and arranged to perfection. The musicians on the date are Jim Hall on Guitar (electric and acoustic), Roland Hanna on Piano, Ron Carter on Bass, Steve Gadd  on Drums, Chet Baker on Trumpet and Paul Desmond on Alto. If that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice then maybe you’re new to jazz (and this is not a bad place to start!)

The album came out in 1975 on CTI, a label of record producer Creed Taylor, who founded Impulse Records and signed John Coltrane to the label. CTI also recorded Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson, Gerry Mulligan and others. The songs on Concierto were arranged by Don Sebesky and the engineer was Rudy Van Gelder.

I first heard this cut, which tracks at just over 19 minutes, on KJAZ back when the album was first released and it knocked me out. I had to have this song. I still have the vinyl with the drawing inside of Jim Hall from the New Yorker in my collection. Concierto de Aranjuez was written by Joaquín Rodrigo for classical guitar and orchestra. Prior to Jim Hall’s version it was  recorded by Miles Davis on the Sketches of Spain album , arranged by Gil Evans.

 Listening to the Music

Jim Hall, on guitar, starts it  off by stating the theme using a rich, full warm tone, melodic,almost devoid of treble. Chet Baker’s trumpet enters quietly, with an airy tone that seems to float. At about 1:30 in the recording Paul Desmond, long time veteran of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, tiptoes in and trades lines with Chet, meshing perfectly, understated and perfect- a mini masterpiece.

   Then it’s Jim Hall stating the melody again and you begin to notice Roland Hanna, Ron Carter and some very tasteful work by drummer Steve Gadd in the background. Paul Desmond and Chet Baker rejoin, playing off each other perfectly, weaving in and out before Hall plays a few notes and Ron Carter leads us into change of tempo and mood at about 3:38.

    Roland Hanna comes in with a vamp on piano and you really have to hear how Jim Hall simply glides into the song step by step as the rhythm section propels it forward. It’s so simple sounding, but so right. It’s not just how the music is played, but how it’s arranged and engineered. Not a misstep anywhere.

   Paul Desmond takes a solo with that unmistakable sound, sweet, but not cloying, softly swinging, with superb backing by Carter, Hanna and Gadd who are always present but don’t overwhelm.

Next Chet Baker takes a turn, sounding like Desmond’s counterpart on trumpet with such a great warm tone and melodic sense.  Roland Hanna, a versatile pianist, has his say with a bit of Spanish lilt, delicate, but not precious, finally climbing the keyboard where Jim Hall awaits, an almost seamless transition.

Hall restates and plays with the theme and, at one point, you can imagine raindrops falling one by one from his guitar. Then Desmond and Baker perform their dance back and forth until the tempo slows again, with Ron Carter providing some especially tasty bass in the background amid perfect accents by Steve Gadd before Jim Hall takes us to the end.

This is an album that can be played again and again and appreciated for so many reasons that it never gets old. Just listening to the rhythm section, so subtle, but so perfect, can be a treat. Check it out. Feedback? Send an email to:

vallejojazzsociety@yahoo.com with Jazz Talk Column 1 in the subject line