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Author David Schiff's 'The Ellington Century'

Credit: University of Carolina Press

Duke Ellington’s legacy is unique among 20th-century musicians. While most of the biggest jazz musicians — Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong — are known as performers, Ellington was always a composer.

Yet unlike most composers, Ellington never published his scores. So it was not clear until recently how much of his music he wrote himself and how much was written by his band members. That left his legacy in limbo until the late 20th century, when the Smithsonian made public a trove of his work.

Reed College jazz professor David Schiff sifted through the Smithsonian collection, and his new book, The Ellington Century, seeks to clarify the legacy of the musician.

Schiff explained to Think Out Loud‘s Dave Miller that when he was first getting into jazz, he sought out contemporary icons like the cool music of Miles Davis or hard bop of Art Blakey — not swing. “That was my parents’ music. So, of course, I wasn’t interested in that.”

But when he stumbled across Early Ellington, it was a revelation. “To hear the colors of the big band, and to hear the full sax section and the trumpets wailing, that was exciting,” said Schiff.

Schiff described the last track on Early Ellington, Daybreak Express (above), as an “astonishing” train piece. “You hear the train speeding up and slowing down,” he explained, “and I think that got me to Ellington.”

Later, as Schiff pored over the Smithsonian compositions, he started to learn more about Ellington as a composer. He inherited the language of African-American music and culture, while also building on (and simultaneously tearing down) the European classical tradition. The resulting works blurred the lines between simple genre classifications throughout the century. As Schiff put it, “No single oeuvre spans the full cross-categorical range of mid 20-century music better than the vast repertory of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.”

Throughout his career, Ellington would push melody, rhythm and harmony in directions they had never gone, while tackling subjects like race, history and religion with unprecedented complexity.

Schiff explained that Ellington’s lifelong project was to put the experiences of African Americans in musical form. “Right from the beginning, it was a question of depicting a man walking down the street and the particular way he was walking and capturing his character…. all the way through later in the 1950s, creating musical portraits of Othello.”

Listen to the full conversation with David Schiff on Think Out Loud. 

This article includes contributions from Think Out Loud’s Dave Blanchard.

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