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Wednesday, August 03, 2022
Five Minutes That Will Make You Love Duke Ellington
"We asked jazz musicians, writers and others to tell us what moves them. Listen to their choices.
A few years ago, Zachary Woolfe, a New York Times critic and editor, posed a question: What are the five minutes or so that you would play for a friend to convince them to fall in love with classical music? How about Mozart? Or the violin? Or opera?
Over the course of more than 25 entries, dozens of writers, musicians, critics, scholars and other music lovers attempted to answer, sharing their passions with readers and one another.
Now, we’re shifting the focus to jazz — and what better place to start than with Duke Ellington? A nonpareil composer, pianist and bandleader, he arrived in New York from Washington, D.C., just as the Harlem Renaissance was getting underway; soon, the Duke Ellington Orchestra had become the soundtrack to an epoch. He grew to be a Black American icon on the national stage, and then an ambassador for the best of American culture around the world. Jazz’s status as a global music has a lot to do with Ellington: specifically, his skill as a leader, collaborator and spokesman, who rarely failed to remind his audience, “We love you madly.”
Here are 13 tracks that we think will make you love Ellington. Enjoy the listening, and be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.
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Darcy James Argue, bandleader
An underappreciated part of Ellington’s artistry is his mastery of misdirection. You think you know where the music’s going … then you blink and realize Duke’s taken you on a wild detour. This sleight-of-hand animates the A-side of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” Ellington’s 1937 inverted arch-form masterpiece. It’s a blues; what could be more straightforward? But Ellington bobs and weaves, stretching out chords and turnarounds, twists the 12-bar form back on itself like an ouroboros, and careens through a dizzying set of modulations: five keys in under three minutes! But the journey isn’t just loud to soft — it’s discombobulation to clarity. The ’56 live version from Newport is legendary for the saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’s immortal 27-chorus “wailing interval,” but it’s “Diminuendo” that sets the stage.
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Ayana Contreras, critic
Mahalia Jackson’s resonant yet winged vocals float masterfully across the expressive string and horn arrangement of “Come Sunday,” Ellington’s ode to the singular day that Black workers historically, clad in Sunday best, could shed the sweat and grit of labor: emerging as glistening butterflies, gathered to praise the Lord. According to Irving Townsend’s 1958 liner notes for “Black, Brown and Beige,” the album it’s taken from, Jackson “hums an extra chorus as if she were aware of the power of her performance and wanted to let it linger a moment more.” Of course she knew. “Come Sunday” communicates with crystal clarity Ellington’s admiration for laborers and his elegant insistence on unconditional respect.
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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic
Here’s Johnny Hodges, delivering four minutes of the most seraphic alto saxophone playing to be found on record, on this chestnut from Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Far East Suite.” That title is more or less a misnomer: Almost every piece in the suite has a Middle Eastern inspiration. And Strayhorn — Ellington’s composing and arranging partner of over 25 years — actually wrote “Isfahan” before their visit to that Iranian city in 1963. (Its original title was “Elf.”) This is one of Strayhorn’s classic cascading melodies, and the arrangement is Ellingtonian balladry at an apex, with its luxuriously dragged tempo and drumlike dabs of trombone harmony. As usual, it’s a featured band member that really makes the recording — this time, Hodges, cradling each note between his teeth, firm but not too tight, smearing and giving them all kinds of feeling without muddying or obscuring a thing. It’s a standard, but when’s the last time you heard a pianist cover this tune? That’s Hodges’s doing.
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Billy Childs, pianist
I cannot listen to the first 50 seconds of the opening credits to “Anatomy of a Murder” without seeing shapes: Cubist shapes like a Picasso painting, with fragmented shards of sound from the different sections of the band, punctuated by the pointillistic drum pattern. From the opening “wah” of the cupped trombone, through the white-hot trumpet bursts, to the saxophone mini-cadenza, this piece grips me like a vise. The main body of the tune, a gutbucket blues passacaglia over which trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and piano solo, conjures in my mind a sublime sense of foreboding which perfectly sets up the mood for the entire movie.
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Marcus J. Moore, jazz writer
Duke Ellington always had this way of pulling strong emotions from the keys of his piano. On the 1962 version of “Solitude,” featuring the bassist Charles Mingus and the drummer Max Roach, Ellington properly evokes the feeling of isolation through sullen, spacious chords reflecting dark and light textures. Where the 1934 original elicited a certain optimism, this one, from the album “Money Jungle,” sounds gloomier — headphone music made for inclement weather. By the time Mingus and Roach arise near the song’s back end, Ellington has locked into the upper register of his solo, shifting the sound from ambient to a bluesy number with light drum brushes and subtle bass. It was a grand victory lap for one of jazz music’s pioneers.
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Harmony Holiday, poet
Mingus and Roach accompanied Ellington on the first recording of “Fleurette Africaine,” for “Money Jungle.” Left alone with his reflection in this solo version, Duke’s sway and almost-smile conjure longing and remembrance. He plays with the ghosts of his friends and spares them blunt nostalgia. He hesitates as if approaching a sacred altar of sound, and then surrenders to his solitude, allowing himself to be haunted by their absence but not diminished by it. This version is more jagged than the original, as Ellington confronts the missing tones by blurring them with his own. For a man who spent so many years maintaining a large orchestra that could play back the tones he heard in his head, Ellington seems to find the most solace alone. It’s as if all of that time spent in public was in pursuit of this isolated spiral, either as a soloist or with the phantoms of a couple of friends in a garden he invented for them. He’s soloing here, but he’s not alone, which would be frightening if it weren’t so beautiful.
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Maurice Jackson, jazz historian
“Black, Brown and Beige” encapsulates the full orchestration of Ellington’s work. The suffering of Black people through the wailing of the trumpeter Rex Stewart. Their struggles through the saxophonist Harry Carney’s musings. Triumphs using the “tom tom” of the drums. Duke called it “a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America,” dedicated to Haitians who fought to save Savannah, Ga., from the British during the Revolutionary War. “I have gone back to the history of my race and tried to express it in rhythm,” Ellington said. “We used to have a little something in Africa, ‘something’ we have lost. One day we shall get it again.”
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David Berger, musician and scholar
Recorded March 6, 1940 — the first Ellington recording session with Ben Webster’s tenor saxophone and Jimmy Blanton’s propulsive bass completing what I would call the greatest band in jazz history. If Ellington’s oeuvre can be reduced to the marriage of the unschooled and the sophisticated, “Ko-Ko” is his finest example: a three-chord minor blues that tightly develops the motif introduced in the first measure through six dissonant, wild and imaginative choruses, serving notice on jazz composers and arrangers for decades to come. Modern jazz began here with an explosion.
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Jon Pareles, Times chief pop music critic
Ellington’s music stayed open to jazz’s younger generations. “In a Sentimental Mood,” from an album he recorded in 1962 with John Coltrane and members of his quartet, leans into the ambiguities of a composition first heard in 1935. Ellington’s opening piano figure tiptoes around the chords it implies; Coltrane’s saxophone wafts in as if the melody is nearly too exquisite to disturb. Later, Ellington’s piano solo summons and then dissolves its own hints of 1930s swing, and Coltrane just teases at his own sheets-of-sound approach before returning to the grace of the original melody. The track is a paragon of mutual respect and shared, subtle exploration.
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Miho Hazama, bandleader
The happiest music in the world! I’ve had the privilege of conducting this “Nutcracker” suite a couple of times, and it always makes me wish I had annual gigs to keep performing it every holiday season. With a huge admiration for Ellington and Strayhorn, who wrote specific notes for each band member, this score is phenomenally done. The performance on the record is hard-swinging, exhilarating and authentic, from one of the orchestra’s later golden ages.
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Fredara Hadley, ethnomusicology professor
“A Rhapsody of Negro Life,” from Ellington’s score for the 1935 film “Symphony in Black,” demonstrates his deep engagement with the moods and shades of Black life. In nine minutes he moves us musically from the plodding pulse of work songs to the swing of 1930s Harlem nightclubs. He matches the drama and the wail in “The Saddest Tale” with the beauty and the contemplation of “Hymn of Sorrow.” This music isn’t a treatise; it is a rhapsody in the best sense, in that each musical vignette is full of heart and intimate understanding of the joys and pains of Black humanity.
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Guillermo Klein, bandleader
I was immediately captivated by the storytelling of this tune — simple, yet profound and witty. The core of “Searching (Pleading for Love)” relies on the conclusion, which he states at the very beginning of the piece, as an intro, like a narrator sharing what it’s all about in a prologue. The theme follows a standard model: three times an idea and a conclusion. The bridge of the tune modulates two times, and that conclusion motif is present throughout. Right at the climax he varies it, giving a sense of pleading. His use of sound and space is just his own. Even on a trio recording like this, you can definitely hear the big band in his playing.
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Seth Colter Walls, Times music critic
I recommend including this 1936 masterpiece in party playlists. When “Exposition Swing” comes on — with Ellington’s locomotive writing pulling listeners aboard — watch as guests tilt toward your speakers. Next, Harry Carney opens his baritone sax feature with a strutting, descending figure. As he finishes the solo, the orchestra cheers him with a modernist swell built from sustained tones, complex and cool. After another minute of dexterous soloist-and-orchestra interplay, stride-piano and blues accents from Ellington trigger the piece’s climactic phase, which incorporates collective shouts of that same descending motif heard during Carney’s opening. It’s a perfect hangout in microcosm.
Song excerpts via Spotify and YouTube."
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‘I was consumed with anger’: Brian Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron’s brilliant, badly wronged partner | Music | The Guardian
‘I was consumed with anger’: Brian Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron’s brilliant, badly wronged partner
“Hands up who thinks Gil Scott-Heron was one of the 20th century’s greatest poets?” Brian Jackson asks the audience at London’s Jazz Cafe. A sea of hands rise and Jackson nods in approval before launching into Your Daddy Loves You, a song he and Scott-Heron first recorded in 1974, and one of dozens the pair would write together. Upon finishing, Jackson states: “The man who wrote those words was in his early 20s and wouldn’t become a father for several more years. Think about it: Gil could inhabit the spirit of a song. He communicated like few do.”
No one is disagreeing and, when I meet Jackson the following afternoon, his praise for Scott-Heron remains effusive. “Gil had a remarkable maturity about him,” says Jackson. “He was capable of real insights into people, so could write from their situation. There was no posturing in his writing. He was something else.”
Something else, indeed. Yet Scott-Heron would never have achieved musical greatness without Jackson at his side. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is all Gil’s work – I had nothing to do with that as it’s essentially a poem or a rap,” Jackson says. “But the rest of the songs, I wrote much of the music for them. I was always writing music and playing it to Gil, and he would be writing words, and then we would be matching things up.”
The two met at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania’s historic Black college, in 1969, each impressed by the other’s abilities – Scott-Heron, 20, already displaying remarkable prowess as a poet/novelist, while Jackson was a 16-year-old piano prodigy. You two, I suggest, must have felt like long-lost brothers.
“We were brothers,” corrects Jackson. “Gil was the brother I never had and I was the brother he never had. We had so much in common: both only children who were raised by our mothers and estranged from our fathers. Our mothers pushed us to succeed academically and we both enrolled at Lincoln because Langston Hughes went there.”
Very quickly Scott-Heron and Jackson began writing songs together. Scott-Heron then paid a visit to Bob Thiele, founder of Flying Dutchman Records, hoping his artists might consider recording their efforts. Thiele was a jazz industry magus – producer of John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus and Duke Ellington; co-writer of What a Wonderful World – who, it turned out, knew Scott-Heron’s poems. Having produced Jack Kerouac’s 1959 album Poetry for the Beat Generation, he suggested recording Gil reading with percussionists, and promised that if the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox sold OK he would record the duo. It did, and in April 1971 Thiele asked Jackson which musicians he wanted as accompanists. Jackson, partly tongue in cheek, suggested the leading jazz musicians Ron Carter (bass) and Hubert Laws (flute). He got them, along with the drummer Bernard Purdie (Aretha Franklin’s musical director).
“I was 18 and had never set foot in a recording studio before,” recalls Jackson, “and here I was directing these legends. At first, I was terrified but Ron Carter, after some gentle teasing, made me feel welcome. Everything went brilliantly.”
Pieces of a Man, their 1971 album, established Scott-Heron as a unique voice and sold a respectable 30,000 copies. Gil soon insisted Brian’s name be alongside his and, from 1974’s Winter in America up to 1980’s 1980, every album they recorded was credited – at least on the album covers – to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. Signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records, the two lived, worked, wrote and toured together.
“My best memories of that time are being at home and watching TV with Gil,” says Jackson. “We’d see how corporate America was trying to infiltrate our minds and, out of that, wrote a lot of songs.”
Over the course of nine years the duo released nine albums, their fluid blend of jazz-funk topped with Scott-Heron’s incisive observational lyrics saw them scoring club hits with The Bottle, Johannesburg and Angel Dust. Yet their albums never sold in large quantities, which necessitated constant touring. “One year we were on the road for 270 days,” says Jackson. “That’s exhausting and it’s not conducive to creativity.” Musical differences started to erode the fraternal bond, too. “I was trying to not just do the same old thing, and I think this alienated Gil. He did make it clear to me that he felt unhappy with how things were going. He saw himself as, I guess, closer to a blues poet while I was very engaged in jazz. I’m not trying to suggest Gil didn’t love jazz, but he was finding the music I was playing more difficult to get his head around.”
After the release of 1980 Jackson requested time off. “I just felt we needed to refresh ourselves,” he says. “I didn’t realise Gil would re-sign to Arista as a solo artist.”
This ended one of popular music’s great partnerships. Both Jackson and Scott-Heron would struggle without their “brother” beside them: Scott-Heron released three post-Jackson albums on Arista over the next two years – all suggest entropy – before effectively ceasing to record. Jackson played sessions then, in 1983, started working as a project manager in the City of New York’s IT department. “I didn’t stop doing music,” he says, “but I needed to pay my bills.” That year, his royalty payments had dried up. “Turns out Gil had removed my name from the publishing and, when I looked into it, dissolved our company Brouhaha Music in 1980. That was our publishing company, his and mine, but he’d dissolved it without telling me.”
He believes that he missed out on other payments, from Strata-East, the independent jazz label that put out Winter in America. “I’m sure they kept on paying us as they were a very honourable label, but Gil just held on to the money.” Jackson also accepted having his name left off many of the actual songwriting credits because he “wanted people to recognise how great a songwriter Gil was”; he did receive a co-writer credit on a selection of their recordings but often Scott-Heron took sole credit, even while admitting that songs such as Lady Day and John Coltrane owed their musical structure to Jackson (“Brian was integral,” he wrote in his posthumous memoir The Last Holiday).
Jackson reconsiders his earlier answer: “Actually, I did stop making music for four years. I was consumed with anger about what had happened and how Gil had treated me. A friend suggested I take up a martial art to deal with my anger and it proved a great help. It was my kung fu master who pointed me back towards music, telling me: ‘Brian, you are a musician – make music.’ And so I did.”
Jackson didn’t rush his comeback. Relations with Scott-Heron improved a little and they toured South Africa in 1998; he released an underwhelming solo debut, Gotta Play, in 2000 and played sessions, all while working his day job. Retiring three years ago, he is now busy: 2021 saw the release of Jazz Is Dead 8, an instrumental album where he teams up with producers Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, while This Is Brian Jackson, released in May, rescues three tracks he recorded in 1976 alongside five new compositions. The album is Jackson’s classic warm jazz-funk, with the track Mami Wata employing an Afrobeat rhythm, while Path to Macondo/Those Kind of Blues meditates on African American music’s origins, akin to what he and Scott-Heron recorded during their heyday.
“In 1976, I started working on a solo album but was forced to stop because, back then, recording was so expensive,” says Jackson. Decades later, Daniel Collás of the New York funk-poppers Phenomenal Handclap Band suggested he be Jackson’s producer. “I was intrigued at the suggestion and, as we began working together, I mentioned the 1976 demos. Daniel loved that we could combine then and now.”
Jackson looks considerably younger than his 69 years and exudes youthful enthusiasm, but I detect a deep sadness in him, particularly when I ask him if he gets paid when the likes of Kanye West sample tracks such as Home Is Where the Hatred Is.
“No,” he replies. Taking a deep breath, Jackson adds: “I did think of suing Gil, but I had to decide whether I fed my children or a lawyer’s children. I chose the former.
Silence follows and I wonder if Brian’s love for Gil has held him back: the youngster still in awe of his taller, fiercely eloquent, older “brother”. Not wishing to make him uncomfortable I don’t pursue this, so I ask as to whether Scott-Heron’s cocaine use was another factor in their relationship disintegrating.
“It wasn’t just Gil using cocaine,” replies Jackson. “Everybody was, including me. But I realised that spending $200 to get high for 15 minutes wasn’t for me. Gil, well … I got asked to play with him in 1994 and I hadn’t seen him for 14 years. I’d heard rumours but ignored them. Then he came on stage and … and it was a shock. He looked awful.”
By then Scott-Heron had become a spectre of sorts: addicted to crack cocaine, he resembled a scarecrow – impossibly gaunt, teeth missing, his once mellifluous voice reduced to a husk. Several stints in prison (owing to drug-related convictions) ensured the man who once wrote so insightfully on addiction became akin to his songs’ characters. Scott-Heron’s 2010 album I’m New Here – constructed by Richard Russell from very little – was his first release since 1994’s Spirits and brought him intense attention. A 2010 New Yorker profile found Gil chain-smoking crack and being obnoxious. Pressed about Jackson not receiving publishing royalties, he replies: “Somebody should have pushed the mute button on that motherfucker.”
When Gil Scott-Heron died in 2011 the many rappers, singers and musicians he inspired paid fulsome tribute. Now, more than a decade on, the music Jackson and Scott-Heron made is heard everywhere, and Jackson is reclaiming his role in it by performing their songs with great joy and generosity. It seems living well is the best reward.
“As a child I heard Parisian Thoroughfare [recorded by Max Roach and Clifford Brown] and it enchanted me,” says Jackson. “How music could paint a picture of a place. Since then music’s been what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m so happy to be back.”