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By William Edgar

The Soul of Duke

The surprisingly Christian roots of Duke Ellington's jazz.

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For viewers who can't get enough of Ken Burns's latest documentary extravaganza, Jazz, here is a book that explores an undeveloped theme in the series: religion. According to biographer Janna Tull Steed, one of the great jazz impresarios, Duke Ellington, was highly influenced by his Christian faith.

Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography
Janna Tull Steed
192 pp., $19.95

Duke Ellington's orchestral sound was completely original. He knew each of his players, their strengths and weaknesses, and wrote with each instrument in mind. Duke's compositional technique was like the painter choosing color combinations and fitting them into the whole. Conductor André; Previn once commented that when band–leader Stan Kenton waved his arm to get a large string ensemble to make a certain sound, he and every studio arranger knew exactly what he had done, but when Duke Ellington lifted a finger toward three horns to make a blended sound, no one could figure out what he was doing. The intimate, close–harmony arrangement of Mood Indigo, for example, is a painting in sound, using the most unusual combination of a trumpet, a trombone, and a clarinet in a tight voicing hitherto uncharted in either jazz or classical orchestration. Where did all this creativity and originality come from?

Nearly thirty years after his death, many aspects of the music of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899–1974) are still being brought to light. Janna Tull Steed's Ellington: A Spiritual Biography is a welcome addition to the growing body of research on the jazz master. While she recounts the major events of his life, she does so with a special emphasis. Far more than previous accounts, Steed highlights Duke Ellington's religious convictions. Her thesis is simple and argued without hagiographic overdraw. "His great passion and work sprang from an awareness of the presence of God in all of life," she maintains. The narrative of biblical Christianity, particularly in its African–American version, is the underlying explanation for the astonishing artistic achievement of this foremost American musician.

Most jazz audiences know Duke Ellington as an urbane, stylish entertainer and public personality. But he also had deep roots in the Christian faith. Brought up by godly parents in Baptist and A.M.E. Zion churches, he knew all the hymns and Bible stories by heart. He read his Bible every day and prayed regularly. Although his schedule often precluded being in church on Sunday morning, he often attended mid–week services, or just walked in to sit in the pew for inspiration. Throughout his career he took material from gospel tunes and wove them into music. The presence of a forgiving God was always real to him, as can be witnessed by a line in one of his songs: "Forgive us our necessities, and the hunger that makes them necessary."

Steed does not so much reveal surprising new episodes from Duke's life as she underscores the importance of the Christian dimension throughout. For example, the nine–minute film Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life from Paramount Studios, produced in 1935 (and which could be justly called the first music video) expresses Ellington's view of suffering. It contains four segments, "The Laborers," with workers rhythmically stowing cotton bales onto a boat; "A Triangle," featuring the as yet undiscovered Billie Holiday singing the blues; the mournful "A Hymn of Sorrow," a church service where the congregation is in grief; and finally "Harlem Rhythm," a joyful celebration, featuring the great dancer Snake Hips Tucker. The film superimposes scenes of Duke composing at the piano, the Ellington orchestra, melodramatic incidents from African–American life, singers and dancers, all to the compelling sounds of jazz.

Ellington had himself lost a child as a young father. He wanted "Hymn of Sorrow" to be a gift that suggests healing to his listeners. He further wanted audiences to know something of the plight of black people. When asked his thoughts about Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, he candidly reckoned it was not true to the life of the people. Duke wanted "Hymn of Sorrow" last, because he had "put into the dirge all the misery, sorrow, and undertones of the conditions that went with the baby's death," but the studio prevailed and ended the Symphony on an upbeat. The film's editors managed to focus away from the tiny casket beneath the pulpit so that no one would feel uncomfortable. But Steed points out that the heart of Ellington's message goes well beyond a description of the oppression of his own people. It was about the suffering, the sin and the guilt of all humankind.

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Duke Ellington would define the essence of orchestral jazz. Part of his achievement is attributable to his ability to work within circumstances that would not appear favorable to the creation of serious art music. In his years at the Cotton Club (1927–1931), where the orchestra came into its own, he developed a style variously dubbed as "jungle music," and "hot–against–cool." The club featured black musicians and waiters, but only allowed white customers, giving them an evening of exotica unlike anything else in the entertainment world. Rather than taking umbrage at the tacit connection of the darker race and primitivism, Ellington took advantage of the opportunity to create new sounds and to improvise with great freedom. He responded to the artistic challenge of balancing soloists against the whole. He also found ways to keep the feeling of spontaneity alive while controlling the overall development within a set musical structure. Among the great compositions to emerge from that period were, "The Mooche," "Black Beauty," and "East St Louis Toodle–Oo."

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