Issue 228 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Ellington was born on 29 April 1899 into a black middle class family. He was encouraged to take up music by his family because it was one of the few career avenues open to blacks. At the age of 20, Ellington formed his own jazz band. He was lucky he found himself in the right place at the right time. On 16 January 1920, at the stroke of midnight, America went dry. For the next 13 years it was illegal to buy or sell alcohol.
But rather than discourage drinking and partying, prohibition had the opposite effect. Thousands of illegal drinking dens and night clubs opened up, and the music people listened to was jazz--the 'roaring 20s' had begun. The novelist F Scott Fitzgerald called the 1920s 'the most expensive orgy in history'. This explosion of hedonism was an expression of the confidence of the middle class as the US economy expanded. There was a belief that the good times were never going to end. It was also a desperate attempt to escape the horrors of the First World War. Jazz became the popular music of the 1920s and 30s. It expressed the daring and excitement of the times. It was the music of the modern, urban and industrialised age.
Ellington's big break came in 1927 when he was offered a residency at the prestigious 'whites only' Cotton Club in Harlem. The band's residency would last until 1931. His musical originality now began to show. His early compositions contained catchy lyrics and exotic musical scores.
Nearly all of Ellington's considerable earnings were ploughed into hiring the best jazz musicians of the era. Musicians like Paul Gonsalves, James Blanton and Ben Webster were to make the Ellington band the best in the world.
On 29 October 1929 the bottom fell out of US capitalism--that was the day the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression. Seven million US workers were made unemployed and the wages of those working fell by 39 percent. The Depression was also a disaster for jazz: between 1927 and 1934, record sales fell by a staggering 94 percent! The Ellington band's fame allowed it to ride out the Depression. Other musicians like Coleman Hawkins and Sydney Bechet moved to Europe where they were able to make a living playing large concert halls because, unlike in the US, jazz in much of Europe was regarded in high esteem and not as 'brothel music'.
But many black jazz musicians also moved to Europe to escape racism. Black Americans faced massive discrimination in jobs, housing and education. In the southern states a series of laws were passed known as 'Jim Crow', which denied blacks the right to vote and to equal treatment. This was backed up by violent racist organisations like the Ku Klux Klan. It was like apartheid South Africa. Ellington found his own way of avoiding the most brutal aspects of racism faced by a touring black band. He hired his own train with beds and dining room when touring, so that the band would be spared the indignity of being refused a bed in a hotel or a meal in a restaurant.
The economic depression and the rise of fascism in Europe created an upsurge in protest movements and the American Communist Party. Ellington did associate himself with the left. He played several Communist Party dances in the early 1930s and numerous benefit concerts for the Scottsboro Boys, eight young black men falsely convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death.
Pride in being black was central to Ellington's beliefs. While Louis Armstrong was singing about 'darkies', 'piccaninnies' and 'coal black mammies', Ellington was playing Black Beauty, Deep South Suite and Black and Tan Fantasy. Ellington's dream was to create a musical with an entirely black cast. In 1941 he achieved it with the show Jump for Joy. His pride in the finished product was obvious when he said, 'I've taken the Uncle Tom out of the theatre.' Ellington also went on to produce Black, Brown and Beige in 1943, a musical based on the history of blacks in America. Black, Brown and Beige is now regarded as a classic and inspired Max Roach's It's Time and Wynton Marsalis's Blood on the Fields.
Ellington used to argue that 'social protest in the theatre should be made without saying it, and that calls for real craftsmanship'. The fact was, with the exception of Billie Holiday, no other leading jazz artist in the 1930s made such open political statements in their music. But unlike Paul Robeson and many others in the artistic world, Ellington always kept his political activities in the background. Music was his life.
Although Ellington's music comes from the jazz tradition, it would be wrong to label it as just jazz music. 'I don't write jazz, I play black folk music,'--was Ellington's usual response to interviewers who asked him about his music. In fact much of his music is closer to European classical music. He was fascinated by symphonic and conservatoire music. In the mid 1930s 'hot' jazz, known as swing and played by big bands, exploded onto the scene. Its popularity was due above all to the US economy's revival from the Depression. Once again people had money to spend on popular entertainment. Record sales rose from 10 million in 1931 to 130 million by 1941. It was also fuelled by the growth in radio and the jukebox. By 1939, 85 percent of all records sold were by swing bands. Despite the fact that the innovators of swing were black, it was mainly white bands who made the real money out of the boom. It wasn't the first or the last time that a black music form had been taken over and sanitised by whites--the same happened with ragtime and rock and roll.
In 1940 Ellington was introduced to a young composer, Bill Strayhorn. Strayhorn came from a strictly classical music background. He studied Beethoven and Brahms. From this chance meeting grew an unmatched artistic relationship. It was a musical love affair. Together they were responsible for some brilliant musical compositions, including Lush Life and Take the A Train. It was a partnership that was to last until Billy Strayhorn's death in 1967. Three months later Ellington's orchestra recorded one of its most beautiful albums, devoted entirely to Strayhorn's compositions, entitled And His Mother Called Him Bill.
The very last track on the album is the exquisite Strayhorn tune Lotus Blossom. It was taped at the end of the session, when the band were packing up their instruments and chattering among themselves. Slowly you hear the noise die down as Duke spontaneously begins to play a grieving piano solo. It is one of the most emotional three minutes ever caught on record.
Throughout the war years jazz music flourished. The big bands coexisted side by side with a new wave of jazz musicians. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie played a new style of jazz known as bebop, an angry jazz music played by small groups. Its growth cannot be explained without looking at the political upheavals of the time. During the 1940s, 1.25 million blacks migrated from the southern states to the northern cities of the US. They went to work in the defence industries and almost 1 million blacks were drafted into the armed forces. The contradiction between fighting a 'war for democracy' and the levels of racism produced both a burning resentment against racism and a new confidence and determination that it could be fought. The sound of the music, the clothes the bebop musicians wore and their attitude reflected the mood of many blacks at the time.
During this period Ellington was often asked was he, or did he know any Communists? His stock answer was, 'The only Communist I know is Jesus Christ'! As the witch hunts grew, it was a brave response, but in true Ellington style it was vague enough to avoid a conflict with the authorities.
Then suddenly in 1946-47 the big bands collapsed. The new smaller jazz groups were drawing in the crowds. By the late 1940s promoters were refusing to hire large bands. The big band was never to recover. The Ellington band's pulling power meant that it was one of the few survivors. But most importantly, promoters were already glimpsing the possibilities of turning black rhythm and blues into the goldmine called rock and roll.
Musically the years between 1947 and 1956 were barren for Ellington. But throughout those hard times he kept his band together. In 1956 the Ellington band was the final act of the Newport Jazz Festival. The promoter booked them with the belief that they would be playing to the 'going home crowd'. But, as legend has it, by the time the band took to the stage some of the 10,000 crowd were already leaving. Ellington opened up with a new composition called 'Newport Jazz Festival Suite'. Suddenly the crowds stopped at the exits, people got to their feet, fingers snapped on the offbeats--Ellington was reborn.
Throughout the 1960s, and for the early part of the 1970s, Ellington was at the height of his international popularity. His band toured the world. He produced film scores, music for plays and the ballet. Despite this international acclaim Ellington still found time to play with some of the innovators of jazz in the 1960s. He made a wonderful album with John Coltrane and another with Max Roach and Charlie Mingus.
Ellington never quite forgot his radical past. During the 1960s he played benefit concerts for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and donated money to the civil rights movement. In 1963, the 100th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation which ended slavery in the US, Ellington was commissioned to produce a composition to mark the celebrations--My People was the result. His famous Black, Brown and Beige suite, first released in 1943, was the backbone of the set. But the climax was two pieces--King Fit the Battle of Alabam and What Colour is Virtue? King Fit was a celebration of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King. The lyrics make Ellington's support for the struggle crystal clear.
The concert shocked the establishment. But when Ellington was asked by Martin Luther King to join the march on Washington, he refused, saying, 'I'd love to go, but I've got sore feet. I can't walk that far.' Ellington's ambiguous answer shows that his commitment to civil rights only stretched so far. Ellington remained the toast of the rich and famous. He was a relative safe pair of 'black' hands for the US ruling class. He was even made a musical ambassador for the US government and played personal concerts for Presidents John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Ellington was far from perfect, but that shouldn't detract from the fact that he was a brilliant musical innovator. His success opened up classical music venues to other black musicians' jazz, and he played a large part in getting jazz recognised as the great music that it is.
On Friday 24 May 1974 Ellington died. The best tribute to him is the music he left behind.