Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – The Music Column with William Price King – #Jazz – Duke Ellington

Welcome to the first of William Price King’s music columns for 2019. And today he is sharing the work of the iconic Duke Ellington, composer, pianist and Jazz orchestra leader for over 50 years.

Edward ‘Duke’ Ellington was born in 1899 in Washington D.C. to James and Daisy who were both pianists. At the age of seven, Edward began taking piano lessons and with his mother’s guidance began to adopt an elegant and well-mannered approach to life. Daisy dressed him with style, which resulted in his childhood friends calling him ‘Duke’, a nickname that stuck with him throughout his career. Despite Daisy’s efforts, Duke preferred baseball over the piano… and whilst at high school is first job was selling peanuts at the Washington Senators baseball games.

At age 15 and working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Café, Duke wrote his first composition “Soda Fountain Rag”… also known as “Poodle Dog Rag”.

“I would play the ‘Soda Fountain Rag’ as a one-step, two-step, waltz, tango and fox-trot”, Ellington recalled. “Listeners never knew it was the same piece. I was established as having my own repertoire.” In his autobiography, Music is my Mistress (1973), Ellington wrote that he missed more lessons than he attended, feeling at the time that playing the piano was not his talent.

Ellington started sneaking into Frank Holiday’s Poolroom at the age of fourteen. Hearing the poolroom pianists play ignited Ellington’s love for the instrument, and he began to take his piano studies seriously. Duke began listening to, watching, and imitating ragtime pianists, not only in Washington, D.C., but in Philadelphia and Atlantic City,where he vacationed with his mother during the summer months.

To improve his technique he took private lessons and he was also inspired by his first encounters with James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. Eventually he began playing in cafes and clubs around Washington and it became his focus and he turned down a scholarship in 1916 to the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York. To pay the bills Duke worked as a freelance sign-painter and began assembling groups to play for dances. In 1919 he met drummer Sonny Greer from New Jersey, who encouraged Duke to become a professional musician. His career was helped by his growing sign-writing business as he would offer his services to anyone who asked him to make a sign for a party or an event.

He formed his first group “The Duke’s Serenaders” in 1917 and from the mid- 1920s he was based in New York City where he gained a national profile through his orchestra’s appearances at the world famous “Cotton Club”.

Although widely considered to have been a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, Ellington embraced the phrase “beyond category” as a liberating principle and referred to his music as part of the more general category of American Music rather than to a musical genre such as jazz.

Some of the jazz musicians who were members of Ellington’s orchestra, such as saxophonist Johnny Hodges, are considered to be among the best players in the idiom. Ellington melded them into the best-known orchestral unit in the history of jazz. Some members stayed with the orchestra for several decades. A master at writing miniatures for the three-minute 78 rpm recording format, Ellington wrote more than one thousand compositions; his extensive body of work is the largest recorded personal jazz legacy, with many of his pieces having become standards. Ellington also recorded songs written by his bandsmen, for example Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”, and “Perdido”, which brought a Spanish tinge to big band jazz. In the early 1940s,

Ellington began a nearly thirty-year collaboration with composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn, whom he called his writing and arranging companion. With Strayhorn, he composed many extended compositions, or suites, as well as additional short pieces.

Following an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, in July 1956, Ellington and his orchestra enjoyed a major revival and embarked on world tours. Ellington recorded for most American record companies of his era, performed in several films, scored several, and composed a handful of stage musicals.

Ellington was noted for his inventive use of the orchestra, or big band, and for his eloquence and charisma. His reputation continued to rise after he died, and he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Award for music in 1999.

Here are some of only a few of the exceptional pieces written by Duke Ellington.

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” written in 1931 by Duke Ellington with lyrics by Irving Mills was characterized as a legendary, prophetic piece with a prophetic title, by historian Gunther Schiller. Critic Spike Hughes called Ellington a prophet. Nonetheless, Ellington was not a fan of reading too much into a song.

However, this song took Ellington out of the category of being simply a ‘bandleader’ and elevated him to the league of ‘composers’. According to trumpetist Bubber Miley, this song was the expression of a sentiment which prevailed among jazz musicians at that time and has since been covered by practically all of the jazz greats, including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Nina Simone, and Lionel Hampton.

“Sophisticated Lady”, composed as an instrumental mood piece by Duke Ellington in 1932, featured solos by Toby Hardwick on alto sax, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Lawrence Brown on trombone, and Ellington on piano. This recording entered the charts in May 1933 and peaked at number three. The tune was actually a composite musical sketch of three women, three of young Ellington’s grade school teachers in the U Street neighborhood of Washington D.C. Ellington said: “They taught all winter and toured Europe in the summer. To me that spelled sophistication.”

Tin Pan Alley lyricist Mitchell Parish (Stardust, Ruby, Moonlight Serenade ) added words to Ellington’s melody, telling a story of a wealthy, love-lost socialite. Ellington accepted Parish’s lyrics, though they did not entirely fit his original conception. “Sophisticated Lady “ was featured in the musical revue “Sophisticated Ladies” on Broadway in 1981 which celebrated the work of Duke Ellington. This song also appeared on the soundtrack of the 1989/90 documentary “Sophisticated Lady”, celebrating the life of singer Adelaide Hall, who recorded with Ellington in 1927, 1932, and 1933.

“ Prelude to a Kiss” Ellington’s success allowed him the privilege of becoming more ambitious and experimental in his compositions, thus abandoning the « Tin Pan Alley »* style hooks and dance tempos for melodic lines and harmonies mostly found in classical music. The result was « Prelude To a Kiss. » Its blending of classical and jazz sensibilities contributed to the song’s originality and splendor. This song was originally recorded as an instrumental in 1938. Weeks later, Ellington recorded it again, adding lyrics by Irving Gordon and Irving Mills.

  • Tin Pan Alley is the name given to the of New York City music publishers and songwriters who dominated the popular music of the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century – a reference to the sound of pianos, comparing them to the banging of tin pans, coming from songwriters modifying their pianos to produce a more percussive sound.

“Take the ‘A’ Train” is a 1939 composition by Billy Strayhorn which referred to the ‘A’ subway service that ran through NYC, going at that time from eastern Brooklyn, on the Fulton Street Line (opened in 1936) up into Harlem and northern Manhattan, using the Eighth Avenue Line which was opened in 1932. Strayhorn wrote this piece after Ellington offered him a job in his organization. Ellington sent him directions to get to his house by subway, directions that began with “Take the ‘A’ Train… “. Strayhorn initially wrote the lyrics to this song which was recorded by the Delta Rhythm Boys. Later, Joya Sherrill, 20 years old at the time, wrote new lyrics for the instrumental version of this piece. Thanks to her poise, vocal ability and her unique take on the song, Ellington hired her as a vocalist and adopted her lyrics which became the main stay.

“Satin Doll” was written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in 1953, with lyrics added after the song was a hit in its instrumental version, by Johnny Mercer. According to Mercer Ellington, the Duke’s son, his father wrote “ Satin Doll “ for his longtime mistress Bea ‘Evie’ Ellis. Capitol Records released this song in 1953, peaking at #27 on Billboard’s Pop chart. This piece is well known in musical circles for its unusual use of chords, and its opening with a turnaround.* Ellington used “Satin Doll” as the closing number in most of his concerts.

  • In jazz, a turnaround is usually the two measures at the end of a section of music whose function is to help you segue into the next section of music creating a strong sense of forward motion, harmonically.

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About William Price King

William Price King is an American jazz singer, crooner, and composer.

His interest in music began at an early age when he studied piano and clarinet in high school. At Morehouse College in Atlanta where he grew up, he sang in the Glee Club and studied classical music. After graduation he went off to the Yale School of Music where he earned a Masters degree. From there he journeyed to New York where he created a jazz trio ‘Au Naturel’ which performed in some of the hottest venues in Manhattan including gigs on Broadway and the famous ‘Rainbow Room.’ These gigs opened doors for performances in Montreal and a European tour.

While touring Europe he met a lovely French lady, Jeanne Maïstre, who, a year later became his wife. King left the group ‘Au Naturel’ and settled in the south of France where he started a new life on the French Riviera, opening his own music school – the “Price King Ecole Internationale de Chant.” He has had the pleasure over the years of seeing many of his students excel as singers on a professional level, and some going on to become national celebrities. He continues to coach young singers today, in his spare time.

His debut jazz album was entitled “Home,” and was a collection of contemporary compositions he composed, with lyrics written by his wife Jeanne King. His second album was a Duo (Voice and Guitar) with Eric Sempé on the guitar. This album included original songs as well as well known standards from contemporary jazz and pop artists. The “King-Sempé” duo toured France and thrilled audiences for more than three years before going their separate ways. King has formed a new duo with French/Greek guitarist Manolis, and is now exploring new ideas, in a smooth jazz/soul/folk direction.

In addition to singing and composing, King has been collaborating with author Sally Cronin over the past few years on her blog “Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life,” with the series “A Man And His Music – Jazz, Contemporary, Classical, and Legends” and now, the “William Price King Music Column.” Working with author Sally Cronin has been an exhilarating experience in many ways and has brought a new dimension to King’s creative life. King has also created a micro blog, “Improvisation,” which features and introduces mostly jazz artists from across the jazz spectrum who have made considerable contributions in the world of jazz; and also artwork from painters who have made their mark in the world of art. This micro blog can be found on Tumblr.

His vocal mentors are two of the greatest giants in jazz, Nat King Cole and Mel Tormé. King has a distinctive wide-ranging voice which displays a remarkable technical facility and emotional depth.

William Price King on Tumblr – IMPROVISATION

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Thank you for tuning in today and we hope you have enjoyed the music. We look forward to your feedback.. thanks Sally and William.