Duke Ellington Tribute Pays Concert Homage To An American Master

Thomas Wilkins devised and conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s ‘Symphonic Ellington” weekend. (Photo courtesy of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music)

LOS ANGELES – Duke Ellington’s instrument was his big band, which he kept running for half a century for one main reason. “My reward is hearing what I’ve done,” he once said, “and unlike most composers, I can hear it immediately. That’s why I keep these expensive gentlemen with me.”

Yet Ellington also aspired to have his music played by symphony orchestras, the principal vehicle through which his music could be heard in concert halls. And here, it’s important to point out that Ellington didn’t actually arrange anything for a full symphony orchestra. He would always outsource the task to other arrangers who knew how to do it — and the results wouldn’t be the last word, with competing editions and configurations to follow. In a way, that actually respects the freedom of jazz, that there is no definitive final bar, that the music is always in the state of becoming.

Duke Ellington

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, buoyed by the success of its Harlem Renaissance concerts over a weekend in 2019, concocted a “Symphonic Ellington” weekend Jan. 20-23 as a sequel. As before, Thomas Wilkins, the long-underutilized principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra who displayed a flair for this sort of thing then — particularly in Ellington’s A Tone Parallel to Harlem — was called upon to put it together. It’s significant to note that the “Symphonic Ellington” weekend did not occur during Black History Month, which in addition to ramped-up programming of Black composers here and elsewhere since the George Floyd murder reiterates the point that the days of segregating this music in a conveniently fixed month are over.

At the Jan. 20 concert I attended, two full pieces, Night Creature and New World A-Comin’, occupied the first half, while the second half contained suites from larger compositions, Black, Brown and Beige and The River. Historical note: Ellington himself played the solo piano part and led the only previous LA Phil performance of New World at Hollywood Bowl in 1966 — and it had not been played by the orchestra since then.

There were a lot of musicians onstage for every piece — the regular LA Phil folks, plus a full saxophone contingent and a rhythm section of piano, bass, and trap drums that made the whole concert a giant concerto grosso for jazz big band and orchestra. At times, that created an unwieldy collision of styles, like when the rhythm section couldn’t lift the orchestra into the groove of the first part of a David Berger transcription of Night Creature, a three-part suite from 1956 that first surfaced on a 1963 album, Symphonic Ellington. Yet things quickly got into gear in the second part, which has a much lighter texture that creeps along like a night creature, and part three mixes Ellingtonian growls from the brass with an Afro-Cuban clavé rhythm.

Jazz pianist Gerald Clayton was soloist in Ellington’s ‘New World A-Comin’

From here on through the night, Wilkins, the rhythm section, and the LA Phil struck a good balance between the loose feeling of Ellington swing and orchestral weight. You could savor the thick colors and tap your feet.

New World A-Comin’ is a 1943 piano concerto in which Ellington idealistically paints a musical vision of a future world with — as he notes in his spoken introduction to the piece on a Decca/MCA Classics album — “no wars, no greed, no categorization, no non-believers [as if non-believers are inherently evil?], where love was unconditional, and no pronoun was good enough for God.” The most commonly encountered among many versions floating around, Maurice Peress’ transcription veers toward easy-listening orchestral music, leaving room for several solo cadenzas in a flowery post-Romantic style that the noted jazz pianist Gerald Clayton exploited to the hilt.

It was in the last half where the choices of transcriptions might have been problematic for perfect and imperfect Ellingtonians alike due to what was left out. Written hastily as the centerpiece of his band’s Carnegie Hall debut, Black, Brown and Beige was a massive expansion over anything Ellington had done prior to 1943. Nearly 50 minutes in length, the whole three-part work is a wonderful construction with a satchel full of memorable tunes that retains the feel and texture of the Ellington band idiom. And it’s all in the service of a subjective musical history of Black America. It has also been subjected to more slicing and dicing than any other Ellington long-form piece. Duke did the cutting himself several times. It was performed complete at Carnegie Hall, Boston, and Cleveland, all in 1943, but never again by his band.

The District of Columbia quarter honoring Duke Ellington

This symphonic suite, also assembled and orchestrated by Peress in consultation with the composer, uses only about two-fifths of the score. Peress made the famous prayer “Come Sunday” — which no Black, Brown and Beige suite could credibly ignore — the centerpiece as well as the coda, and the uncredited solo alto saxophonist in the ranks did his best to evoke, if not replicate, the swooning glissandos of Johnny Hodges. Other than that, Peress includes “Work Song” and “Light” from the “Black” section, leaving out many of the best parts later in the score, like the flamboyant “West Indian Dance,” “Emancipation Celebration,” “The Blues,” and Billy Strayhorn’s suave “Sugar Hill Penthouse.” I realize that some missing sections would be tough to translate into symphonic language, and “The Blues” requires a vocalist. But this suite is not a representative selection of the work’s scope and achievement.    

The River, a 1970 ballet written for Alvin Ailey and American Ballet Theatre, comes from Ellington’s amazingly productive and adventurous final years, which is especially astonishing given that he no longer had the help of Strayhorn, who had died from cancer in 1967. Tracing the route of a river that may have been based upon the mighty Mississippi, the complete River is almost as long as Black, Brown and Beige, but the four Ron Collier-arranged excerpts performed here covered only about 17 minutes. What remains is tonal, sometimes pastoral in flavor, with a few exotic instrumental touches, yet with nothing of the piece’s unusual modernist elements like the dissonances in “The Whirlpool.” Again, not really representative of the work, but it was good to hear at least a taste of rare Ellington in prime time.

And the same could be said for the entire weekend. I’m very glad they did it, even if it just scratched the surface of this incredibly prolific jazz innovator’s life’s work.