The Bumble Bee's View of the Garden:
Opinions on Jazz and other topics

This Bumble Bee, somewhat like all bumble bees, flies around the Jazz garden, and while collecting the nectar he turns into musical honey, spreads the sonic pollen that will engender more melodic flowers. At least, that is what he would like to think. He does not sting unless provoked.

Since this is the centenary of Duke Ellington's birth I would like to reflect a little on some of the things that made him not only one of our very finest musicians, but an all-around great American. His career commenced at the beginning of the commercial recording industry, and before the advent of radio, of which he was one of the first stars. He and his band performed in some of the early sound movies, and supplied the scores for other movies right on into the 1960's. Although he was not the first jazz performer to play at Carnegie Hall, he was the first for whom annual concerts there became a ritual of sorts, and for these he would always create some grand and special music. He and his orchestra were received at royal courts and presidential palaces through out the world, and, of course, at our own White House.

Ellington also inspired many Jazz composers, perhaps almost all Jazz composers. At the top of this list is Billy Strayhorn, who composed some of the tunes most associated with the Ellington sound: "Take The A Train," "Satin Doll," and "Day Dream" among them. The Promethean bassist and composer Charles Mingus, who played in Duke's band at one time, referred to him as his greatest single inspiration, and let the Ellington influence shine through proudly in many of his own compositions. The radical pianist Cecil Taylor, also credits Duke as a primary influence, and this is certainly audible in his earlier work. Gil Evans, one of the most highly respected composers and arrangers in Jazz, was always quick to acknowledge Ellington's influence on his work. The band Steely Dan recorded an arrangement of Duke's "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" on their early album "Pretzel Logic, and a wonderful and loving tribute it is, too.

Not only was Ellington a composer whose influence can be felt throughout the world of Jazz, and beyond, but many in his orchestra were, or still are, influential giants. The list includes Bubber Miley, the master of the plunger mute style and, next to the mighty Louis Armstrong, one of the most influential trumpeters of his generation. Alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, perhaps the most revered alto saxophonist before Bird, played in Duke's orchestra for nearly all of his career, with the exception of a few years in the early fifties. Almost every alto player for the next two generations, has credited him as one of their influences. Harry Carney, who spent his entire adult life in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, was the first great baritone saxophonist,[italic:] period[end italic]; and is still the inspiration for all the players who have walked in his footsteps. The revolutionary bassist Jimmy Blanton, who originated the fluid horn-like soloing and facile walking style we take for granted and expect from our bass players today, played nearly all of his all-too-brief professional career with Ellington . Duke also employed the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, and later trumpeter and flugelhornist Clark Terry, the only influence Miles Davis ever acknowledged. Everyone who played with Duke sounded great, not only because of their undeniable talents, but because of his sensitivity to their individual voices in the way he arranged his music.

As one of the earliest artists to be heard on the then brand-new medium of radio, he was able to reach out to all Americans over the racial barriers that divided black and white. His attitude of rising above extreme racism, so prevalent in his time, grew out of a belief that America and Americans could live up to the ideals that so much of the world admires in us. His was a spirit so positive that he seemed to never have given a thought to the possibility of failure. Not that he was naive, but he found that if he expected the best from others, whether they played in his band, or had some other contact with him, they would rise to the occasion more often than not. His whole life is a testament to this belief. In his music he always stands tall and proud as a Black American, and in his well-centered personal security, he stands with his hand out, willing to share fellowship with all those willing to accept the gifts that he offers. Ellington, of course, is not alone in this, but he certainly helped significantly in paving the way for the great changes that took place in our society regarding race relations. While it is true that American society still has more of this road to travel, it was much more just and open at the end of Duke's career than it was when he started out.

He also had a deep awareness of the spiritual power of music. Recently I had the opportunity, and the honor, to organize a performance of music by Duke Ellington as part of a church service. The service drew its observations and teachings from the life, work and writings of Ellington. As I listened to the readings that were selected from Duke's writings (and he was also a very engaging author, as those who have read his memoir Music Is My Mistress will attest) I was struck by how much of what he articulated I and, if I understand them correctly, many other musicians believe: that music has the power to heal and transform; that the social and spiritual interaction of musician-and-musician, and musician-and-audience is as important, if not more important, than any technical or compositional achievements attained in performance; that the making of music in any setting, sacred or secular, is a profoundly spiritual activity. In composing his three Sacred Concerts, however, Ellington made a forthright declaration of these beliefs, that so many of us carry quietly and privately.

Edward Kennedy Ellington and his magnificent Orchestra, traveled constantly, when they were not committed to a long engagement somewhere. Throughout the United States and Canada, to Europe several times, to South America, Africa, the Middle East, the Soviet Union and the Pacific Rim. Even, on many occasions, to the Merrimack Valley. If you have any stories about hearing Duke and his Orchestra whether personally or from an older family member, I would love to hear them. You can contact me in care of Vyü Magazine, or through the addresses in my little ad somewhere else in this issue.

I hope that the 100th anniversary of Edward Kennedy Ellington's birth will not be the end of our reflection on the incredibly rich legacy he has left to all of us. Ellington's memoir, Music Is My Mistress, published by Doubleday, and in paperback from Da Capo press. I also recommend The World Of Duke Ellington, by Stanley Dance, published originally by Scribner's and now available in paperback from Da Capo. There are also many other books about Duke Ellington, some better than others. Ellington recorded prodigiously, and much of that body of work is still available. The worst of it is merely good, so you cannot go wrong in purchasing a Duke Ellington record.

On Saturday January 8, 2000, at The Center For The Arts In Natick (TCAN),Paul Combs will present a lecture titled Duke Ellington, Musician, Humanist, Citizen Extrodinaire, followed in the evening by a concert of music by Ellington and others he inspired. The lecture will take place at 3 pm and the concert at 8. For more information call TCAN at 508-647-0097, or visit their Web-site

Paul Combs, Vyü Magazine, vol. 2