He was that rare creature, a major artist who had an instinct for talent in others and a sense of how to make it flower. Duke Ellington, born April 29, 1899, a century ago this week, was a magnificent composer and pianist, but he deserves to be remembered in particular for the largeness of spirit that made his orchestra into one of the great cultural institutions of its time. Ellington was in every possible sense a leader, and his career can stand as a lesson in the management of talent. Anyone responsible for nurturing the work of others can learn by studying what he accomplished, and how.
As an impresario, he did for jazz what Sergei Diaghilev did for ballet. Unlike Diaghilev, he was an artist himself, but otherwise their approach to collaboration was the same. Ellington collected richly gifted players, studied them carefully, put them in settings that emphasized their unique voices, and helped them disclose their own possibilities -- first to themselves, then to each other, then to the world. Billy Strayhorn, his close collaborator for a quarter of a century as arranger and composer (of Take the A Train and much else), once remarked, "He has a wonderful way of inspiring you to do things that are in you, but maybe you don't know it." Clark Terry, who played trumpet in the later stages of Ellington history, said, "Duke taught us who we were" -- surely as handsome a six-word thank-you note as any artist ever wrote.
There was something both theatrical and literary about Ellington's music: It told stories, sometimes stirring, sometimes ironic, and it carried echoes of terror and sorrow and orgiastic joy. Often it sounded like autobiography -- memories of a busy night in Harlem or a visit to India or a love affair. He made his players into a cast of characters in a long-running drama. Over the years they developed traditions of performance that they handed on, so that long after a certain performer had left the band you could hear echoes of his playing in the younger musicians; even in the bad years, and there were several, the band never quite lost its characteristic sound.
No one ever suggested that Ellington lacked pride, but he also had enough humility to stand back in wonder before the people working around him. Nurturing them became central to his idea of himself, not something we can say of every bandleader. I'm not sure whether he used the term "sidemen," as most leaders did, but certainly he didn't treat Johnny Hodges, the poetic alto player, or Cootie Williams, the trumpet star for many years, or Harry Carney, who made a lifetime commitment to the baritone saxophone chair, as background figures.
In all this there was a powerful strain of enlightened self-interest. There are so many stories of Ellington's last-minute improvisations, his cavalier attitude to deadlines, that they obscure how brilliantly he managed his career. For about 50 years he had an orchestra of his own creation that could, on a day's notice (or an hour's), turn his notes on paper into sounds. No other composer in history has enjoyed that privilege for that long.
The band he led in the early 1940s has in recent years acquired a separate name, the Blanton-Webster Band, after Ellington's pioneer bass player, Jimmy Blanton, and Ben Webster, the first and best of his tenor saxophone soloists. In 1940-42, for several magnificent seasons in the sun, everything came together: Ellington turned out a series of masterpieces and hit records (sometimes the same pieces). He impressed critics and his fellow musicians as much as he pleased the public.
By then he had developed a kind of orchestral ecosystem, an arrangement of financial interdependence: In the not-so-good times, his hit songs (when he died he held copyright on about 1,500 pieces) kept his orchestra alive. Other bandleaders dismissed their players in slack seasons; Ellington kept his musicians on permanent salary. And even when it seemed no one in the world wanted to hear a big band, when people like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw gave up in despair or relief, Ellington soldiered on.
In 1955, when recording contracts were meagre and audiences small, he hit bottom: For six weeks he and the band met the payroll by accompanying ornamental swimmers in the Aquacade in Flushing, New York. It seemed possible the whole enterprise would die -- and then dumb luck saved it. At the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, Ellington's tenor saxophone star, Paul Gonsalves, played an apparently endless solo, 27 choruses long, that drove a huge crowd to frenzy. The recording of that night sounds pretty hysterical, not the kind of music Ellington normally encouraged. No matter: Within a week everyone knew he had an audience again. In a few years the band sounded much like its old self. It was with him up to his death in 1974, shortly after his 75th birthday.
Lately, thinking of Ellington, I've been listening to his first recording of Black and Tan Fantasy, made in New York on Oct. 26, 1927, when he was just 28 years old -- and jazz itself wasn't much older. When I first heard that record, long ago, it seemed blunt, abrasive and overstated. At the time they made it, Ellington and nine colleagues (the band later expanded to 16 or 17) were developing the growls and ya-ya sounds that soon picked up the unfortunate label "jungle music"; whereas I had grown up in love with the later, smoother Ellington. But over the years I've learned to hear the sophistication, and the remarkable prophecy, embedded in that 1927 record.
In Stockholm last fall I heard it played in a museum, as background to a show of 1930s design. Its spirit and energy, its uniquely complicated passion, suddenly poured life into that cold exhibition room. Back in Toronto I got out a Hermes CD called Duke Ellington 1927-1933 and listened once more. Bubber Miley, the trumpet player, collaborated with Ellington on the tune and borrowed the opening theme from a spiritual he often heard his mother sing, but that's only the beginning.
Miley stands at the centre of the piece, talking eloquently through his muted trumpet, glorying in its wonderful possibilities of timbre. He's an exuberant and wildly confident young star, emerging as the first of the superb Ellington individualists. In the arrangement behind him, elements drawn from spirituals and blues comment ironically on one another. At the end the band slyly bows to the European tradition with a brief quotation from Chopin.
The audacious harmonies, the casual mixture of genres, the lovingly displayed virtuoso soloist -- in a sense it's all there, packed into three minutes and 10 seconds. It's as if the ambitious young Ellingtonians sat down together that day in 1927 to predict everything that was to come, all the majesty of it, the great river of sound that would eventually turn into the most evocative music of the century.