Edward Kennedy Ellington, born in Washington, DC, known as “Duke” due to his love of elegance, has long been recognized as the most protean creative figure in the first five decades of jazz. As Miles Davis once commented, “Everybody ought to get down on their knees one day and thank Duke.” Other players have been as brilliant, innovative, and occasionally influential in any given decade – Davis, Armstrong, Parker, Coltrane – and certainly these players were all greater improvisers than Ellington. But his total achievement consistently evolving from the 1920s to the 1970s cannot be gainsaid.
Ellington grew up in a close family, part of the capital’s black middle class. He studied art and music while at Armstrong High and took private lessons as well as watching pianists playing around town. By 1918 he was running small bands for dances and parties, the same year he married Edna Thompson. Some of the members of his first great band were already colleagues, including Sonny Greer, Arthur Whetsol, and Otto Hardwicke. After a shaky start, Ellington and his friends settled in Ney York in spring 1923, calling themselves the Washingtonians. They hustled some club work before landing a residency at the Hollywood Club. By 1926 Harry Carney, Fred Guy, Joe Nanton, and Bubber Miley were members; the following year the band recorded classics such as “East St Louis ToodleOo” and “BlackEt Tan Fantasy,” with “The Mooche” following in 1928. That same year saw the arrival of Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams and a full year of employment at the Cotton Club, whose radio link gave Ellington wider exposure. In 1930 he enjoyed his first big hit with “Mood Indigo.” By the time Ellington left the Cotton Club in 1933 and made his first triumphant European tour, he was already a star.
Ellington prospered through the 1930s, touring across America, making movie shorts and writing hits such as “Solitude” and “Sophisticated Lady” and innovative extended works such as “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” In 1939 composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn came aboard, bringing with him “Take The ‘A’ Train.” Other new recruits included bassist Jimmy Blanton and sax man Ben Webster. Some feel that the opening years of the 1940s were the peak of Duke’s creative development. Small masterpieces like “Concerto for Cootie,” “Ko-Ko,” “Bojangles,” “Sepia Panorama,” and “Harlem Airshaft” and the first of his suites, Black, Brown and Beige, a 50-minute work premiered at Carnegie Hall in early 1943, are prime example. Ellington kept up annual Carnegie Hall concerts where he would premiere a new major work until the end of the decade. Ellington’s was one of very few orchestras not to disband during the difficult 1947 –50 period. His innovatory role had also been usurped by bebop. The band was increasingly subsidized by Ellington’s songwriting royalties.
Like Miles Davis, Ellington may have been tempted to claim after his 1956 triumph at the Newport Jazz Festival, “I’ve never been away.” Such Sweet Thunder, The Newport Suite, The Queen’s Suite, and The Nutcracker demonstrate his renewed ambition. He was also part of Ella Fitzgerald’s Song Book series. The early 1960s saw big-band recordings with Louis Armstrong, Count Base, and Coleman Hawkins; John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Max Roach appeared in two small-group sessions. Ellington also collaborated with Frank Sinatra. His own work was uneven, The Far East Suite of 1967 being a standout; his New Orleans Suite of 1969-70 was the last major success. Ellington also mounted three Sacred Concerts in this period, before succumbing to cancer in 1974.
From a poor Jewish family, Goodman began clarinet studies at 11; a year or so later he appeared on stage with local bandleader Benny Meroff. He was first noticed by the wider world as a member of the Ben Pollack orchestra, making his debut recordings with them in 1926. His solo style at this stae was a combination of Jummy Noone, Ted Lewis, and Leon Rappolo. Leaving Pollack in 1929, Goodman became a successful freelancer in New York. By 1934 Goodman wanted his own band: landing a spot on a national NBC radio broadcast, he played New York’s hotels and music rooms and waited. Sent out on a tour to the Californian coast, Goodman and his band played in a “hot” smooth-swinging style which left their audiences bewildered until they reached the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Here the band got an overwhelming response from the young audience, many of whom were familiar with the band from the radio broadcast, which was late-night in New York but mid-evening in California due to the time difference. Within months Goodman was national craze and the Swing Era was officially launched.
Goodman was dubbed the “King of Swing”: his reign lasted almost to the end of the 1930s, long enough at least to score a triumph at Carnegie Hall in early 1938, the first jazz artist to present a complete evening’s entertainment in that august setting. Goodman’s hankering after the approval of “serious music” performers led to his performing and recording clarinet music by Mozart and commissioning Bela Bartok to write Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano. However, more substantial musical progress was made through the vehicle of Goodman’s small groups, inaugurated in 1935 and utilizing during the 1930s a racially mixed personnel (virtually unheard of at that time) of Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, and Gene Krupa. This was expanded during the early 1940s to include the guitar genius Charlie Christian, trumpeter Cootie Williams, and saxophonist Georgie Auld.
By that time Goodman had been overtaken in popularity by such bands as those of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet, and Tommy Dorsey, although in 1942 he enjoyed a million-seller with “Why Don’t You Do Right?” featuring a newcomer called Peggy Lee. After WWII Goodman started his policy of running a big band only for specific periods. By this time he was suffering acute pain from chronic back problems, and this physical handicap did much to dictate the shape of his subsequent career. In 1955 he was the subject of a Hollywood biopic, leading his own band in the making of the soundtrack; later in the decade he made US State Department-sponsored tours of Europe and the Far East: this proved to be the prelude for the much-ballyhooed Goodman visit to Russia in 1962. Goodman worked when it suited him during the 1970s and early 1980s; he combined excitingly with George Benson for a small-group workout on US TV in 1975, but otherwise paced himself carefully. Goodman’s unwillingness to incorporate later jazz developments relegated him to the jazz backwaters during his later career, but the exemplary standards he set remain a golden and instructive legacy for those who have followed.
Horace, who also played piano, led bands, and was a gifted arranger. Henderson received a good education, majoring in chemistry and mathematics at Atlanta University, but during a 1920 postgraduate sojourn in New York he worked part-time as a pianist and became known to W.C. Handy, who employed him in his band. In 1922 he took work as house pianist and recording producer at the independent Black Swan records, the following year appearing for other labels as an in-demand accompanist for a huge range of singers, including Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. Late that year he landed a job at the Club Alabam, and in January 1924 began leading his own band there. Before long he was resident with his band at the Roseland Ballroom and had a wealth of talent employed in its ranks, including Coleman Hawkins, Buster Bailey, and, most importantly, Louis Armstrong. Henderson’s was the premier big band in jazz, and not just because of the strong solo characters: he and his staff were evolving a method of arrangement which would in time become incorporated into every jazz big band, whatever style it played. Using the then prevalent two-beat rhythm of early jazz, Henderson concentrated on using each instrumental group – trumpets, trombones, reeds, piano, rhythm – in contrast and counterpoint to each other, thereby automatically providing color, contrast, and secondary interest to each melody and harmonic progression, especially as the idea of riffs (simple repetitive melodic devices) evolved fully.
Henderson’s arrangements were models of simplicity and clarity, his methods easily adaptable to the demands of swing rhythm as the more even four-beat feel of the 1930s became the norm. Yet Henderson himself was not the principal beneficiary of his own innovations: by all accounts in 1928 he suffered a major car accident, receiving head injuries which left a permanent mark: he left most day-to-day affairs after that to his wife. By the early 1930s Henderson was writing arrangements for many bands and with the rise of Benny Goodman in 1934-35 he was a prime source for Goodman’s superior swing feel.
Yet the inadequacies of Henderson’s own leadership can easily be detected when a Henderson band and a Goodman band performance of a song – for example, “King Porter Stomp” or “Honeysuckle Rose” – are compared, the fire and discipline in the Goodman band being in a different class. Henderson maintained a band with varying personnel and success and with regular breaks, up to 1939, when he briefly became Goodman’s pianist; after that his own band leading was occasional, and he was most often employed by stars such as Ethel Waters, and Goodman for playing or arranging work. A return of sorts to active leadership in 1950 was curtailed by a stroke, after which Henderson was virtually housebound until his death in December 1952.