Duke Ellington The Harlem Renaissance was an era full of life, excitement, and activity. The world in all aspects was in gradual recovery from the depression. The world of music was expanding, sharing its enthusiasm throughout the world. The evolution of jazz aroused the curiosity of the nation. As Blacks received their freedom, they were able to express themselves as talented individuals.
Certain blacks contributed immensely to the era of jazz, for example, Duke Ellington. Ellington entered a brand-new, exciting era as he grew up. As Ellington became an adolescent, the entertainment world was undergoing rapid, change. The change was driven by the deep, persuasive shift in the American spirit. The country was anxious to recover what it lost during the Depression. Ellingtons jazz creations were unknown and alien to the world, however, Ellington received the chance to succeed at the Cotton Club. The results of Ellingtons achievements at the Cotton Club were extensive, leading him to success and to national fame. The reasons for his outcome need to be revealed because Ellington was one of the most important figures in the era of jazz. During the Harlem Renaissance, some of the clubs were segregated and some mixed.
The Cotton Clubs patrons were mostly whites and the club employed mostly blacks. The Cotton Club was the centerpiece of New Yorks entertainment business. It was the springboard to fame for many singer, dancers, and performers and was indeed the board Ellington jumped from. The club management decided what audiences wanted to see in their clubs. As a result of the Harlem Renaissance and the growing interest in black entertainment, audiences enjoyed watching the many talented black performers.
To have such a name as the Cotton Club brings to mind images of the Old South. Ellington auditioned at the Cotton Club because he found it to be an opportunity that he would most likely never stumble upon again. In December 1927, Ellington presented one of the most famous openings in jazz history. During the time of the Harlem Renaissance, everyone had different opinions on the new style of music. Some enjoyed listening to the new style of music while others had a taste for the old, more familiar styles.
Ned Williams, who became Ellingtons publicist, commented on Ellingtons first performance at the Cotton Club, I cant say I was too much impressed with the Ellington crew on that visit. It definitely didnt have the form and polish it acquired later on. (Collier, 80) The Cotton Club was the ideal setting for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Its jungle atmosphere was perfect for the style of music Ellington was expected to play. Ellington remarks about the setting of the club: During one period at the Cotton Club, much attention was paid to acts with an African setting, and to accompany these we developed what was termed a jungle style jazz (93) The Cotton Club lost some of its freshness as performers played dazzling, yet emotionless jazz but Ellington brought his own style of music which interested the nations people. During the Cotton Club years, the Duke Ellington Orchestra began to win distinction for its thorough musicians and homogeneity.
Ellington was fighting to be admired in the popular music business and because of the Cotton Club opportunity, he was. Ellingtons first break came when Ted Husing, one of the bands fan, arranged for a national broadcast from the Cotton Club. This was critically important for development of the band and led to national recognition. The Cotton Club radio performances by Ellington contributed to the clubs popularity, for it was becoming one of the most famous night clubs in the country. These daily broadcasts gave the Cotton Club and Ellington national reputation. By 1929, the bands name was widely known.
Ellington liked all the attention and continued to play. He did not care what he played, as long as his audiences liked it. He stated, Good music is music that sounds good (Southern, 387) This was Dukes constantly reiterated statement. Ellington had no intent to play over the radio but as the chance came, he realized it would help increase the popularity of the band. Ellington was composing his music for the people.
He wrote it to persuade, influence, entertain, disturb, amuse, and excite the people, which it certainly did. After the many broadcasts, Ellington received magazine and newspaper attention. Soon after, because Ellington was so popular in the entertainment business, he moved on to Hollywood. He started touring and traveling until he retired from the entertainment business. What was it in Ellingtons music that people admired him for and that gave him a chance to develop his talents at the Cotton Club? First of all, the change of music in general and the countrys enthusiasm brought on a nationwide excitement.
During the Jazz years, people thought the party would never stop. People were excited about Ellingtons music which gave the encouragement that he needed to succeed further in the music world. Music is not everything in a musicians career for Ellingtons personality and character brought unique overtone to his tunes. Ellington was very confident. Without this he would not have been able to compose the way he did because he would have questioned his own judgment. A musician who was shy and without perception, would have gotten nowhere. The next trait that was important was his drive to succeed.
An artist who does not care about being admired or being successful is not likely to produce works that people like. Ellingtons trait of needing to dominate the people around him was important because without it he would have not been able to organize the chaos that all musicians must deal with in order to be successful. Yet at the same time Ellington had a willingness to endure disorder and without it the band would not have played with the looseness needed to play simple jazz. Ellington often broke rules in order to reach new heights. The way Ellington related to other people was also critical to his success.
He was known to be generous and sympathetic. He was loyal to other musicians, as well as his own band members. Most importantly though, Duke was devoted to his work. Without such devotion, he probably would not have had such a full career. All of these character traits were part of the reason why people liked him so much.
His personality was most definitely visible in his music and that is why the nation enjoyed listening to Ellington for decades. Ellingtons style of playing in front of an audience was unique in that he used improvisation for most of it. It was believed that this was the method Ellington preferred. Most musicians did not use this because it often led to trouble. This system depended on a lead man fully in control and who had firm ideas.
Ellington had the ability to trust his own taste, therefore he was comfortable playing for an audience. Not only was it the method he used which enabled him to succeed, but the style of how he did it. Skillipooping was the use of flashy effects to obscure lack of substance which Ellington rarely used. In order to make his band famous, Ellington had to have a identifiable and consistent style, which he did. His jungle music was obviously a key to popularity. Ellington died as one of Americas foremost composer of his era.
Although not as influential as Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker, he left a much larger body of work than any other musician in the history of jazz. Actually Ellington disliked the term jazz. He considered the term limiting but believed that there was no limit when composing music. He does not understand how such great extremes in jazz can be contained under such one heading. He quotes: I am not playing jazz.
I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people. I believe that music, popular music of the day, is the reflection of the nations feelingstheses men [Beethoven, Bach, Wagner] have not portrayed the people who are about us today, and the interpretation of these people is our future music. (Haskins, 74) Ellington did not like his music categorized and enjoyed freedom of expression when presenting his music. He believed composition, arrangement, and performance were all interdependent on one another. As he was composing, he kept this in mind.
In any case, he was a jazz musician, whether he liked being called one or not. His gift to the world was immeasurable, leaving more than two thousand compositions. Ellington left behind a legend, all which started the day he stepped into the Cotton Club. If it had not been for the Cotton Club opportunity, the results of Ellingtons achievements would not have been as immense, memorable, and impressive. He left the Cotton Club not sure of what lay ahead, but showed that success is gradual and exists only as what you make of it.