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"Duke Ellington's Finest Year" - Article

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

Just saw a great article about Duke Ellington's band in 1940 by Stuart Nicholson on the Jazzwise website called "Duke Ellington's Finest Year". It's a short piece but gives some great perspective. Here's an interesting bit:

Then there was ‘Ko Ko’, which has been described as “one of the monumental events in jazz music”. It is an orchestral tour-de-force with the minimum of solo space (24 bars from ‘Tricky Sam’ Nanton and 12 bars from Ellington) that succeeds as a piece of absolute or ‘pure’ music in that its minor 12-bar blues form (repeated seven times) has no obvious ‘melody’ in the conventional sense. Its tonal ambiguity and use of dissonance, particularly in the fourth chorus, instantly separates Ellington from the conventional dance bands of the period. Here is a glimpse of the future more profound, even, than Charlie Parker’s ‘Ko Ko’ from 26 November 1945 (not the same tune). Here Ellington looks both ways, to freedom (bi-tonality and his amazing piano splashes of colour that anticipate Cecil Taylor) and form.

For reference here is the song, "Ko Ko" so you can hear just how striking it is:

I love taking a listen through some of this great old music (much of which I find that I have languishing in my music library already) with an experienced and knowledgeable listener as a guide. It often opens my ears to the music in a new way. Also, thinking of this music in context, especially from an artist as revolutionary as Duke Ellington, is especially mind-blowing.

Here are some other interesting tidbits that I find super interesting:

"Cottontail" is based on the chord structure of "I Got Rhythm"

Here is Duke's classic "Cottontail" recording referenced in the article:

Here is a super hot version of "I Got Rhythm" performed by Dickie Wells (with the great Lester Young on tenor sax)

In this interesting arrangement I think it's a little easier to hear the chord changes. Can you hum "Cottontail" over this?

Also "In a Mellotone" is based on the chords of "Rose Room" - check it out:

Here's Duke's classic "In a Mellotone" with same band from the article. Swings like crazy, in a mellow way of course.

Now for comparison, here is "Rose Room" by the Benny Goodman sextet (with the great Charlie Christian on guitar - hence the YouTube photo)

Both great, but isn't it interesting to see how Duke's band transforms these songs?

Anyways if you have a couple minutes to nerd out the article is a relatively quick read and if you treat yourself to a second to listen to some of the songs with some of the writing in mind, I think you'd be happy you spent the time - I know I was!


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Steven C. Smith
Steven C. Smith
Jan 17, 2022

After reading this and Will Friedwald's terrific recent book on Nat King Cole, I'm thinking that "I Got Rhythm" had the most re-used chord structure of any jazz standard. Am I forgetting one that has even more?

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