MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

In Praise of the Duke

It’s the birthday of one of my musical heroes, Duke Ellington (born on this day in my former hometown in 1899).

In his review of Terry Teachout’s new biography of the master, James Gavin describes the secret of his band’s sound:

Ellington played piano, but his real instrument was the orchestra. The sound he created was a tapestry of bluesy textures, lowdown swing and solo instrumental voices that growled, cried or wailed. Ellington led the band with a majesty that made him seem truly royal.

And here’s an excerpt from my essay for the National Symphony’s upcoming New Moves orchestral-ballet festival featuring music of the Duke — in this case, the giddy and infectious “Giggling Rapids”:

“Giggling Rapids” is a brief scene from Ellington’s belated debut as a ballet composer, The River. It dates from late in his career (1970) and was commissioned by American Ballet Theatre, with choreography by Alvin Ailey — his first large-scale collaboration with Ellington. The composer — uncharacteristically, notes Terry Teachout in his new biography — immersed himself in famous classical depictions of water to fuel his inspiration (think La mer, the “Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes, Smetana’s own “river music,” the Moldau).

Like the mighty Mississippi, The River encompasses a multitude of meanings and perspectives. Ellington, in his memoir Music Is My Mistress, describes a guiding metaphor of life’s passage from birth to death and rebirth as the river courses on down to the sea. He likens the development of an individual to the river’s passage. “Giggling Rapids,” with its restless energy and catchy, joyous, ever-repeated motif, occurs more or less at the toddler stage, when this imaginary Everyman “races and runs and dances and skips and trips all over the backyard until, exhausted, he relaxes and rolls down the Lake” (the ensuing section).

Filed under: American music, jazz

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