Culture > Music

Music: Duke and Hoagy at 100

Music | Enjoy listening to the leadership secrets of Duke Ellington, sacred musician

Issue: "The fall(en) TV season," Sept. 18, 1999

Napoleon once said that he'd rather write the songs than write the laws, because people remember the songs. This year marks the 100th birthday of two of our century's greatest American composers: Hoagy Carmichael and Duke Ellington, both of whom used their music to build up the culture rather than to tear it down. Hoagy Carmichael has not been missed as an entertainer or performer, yet he is daily remembered. Once he needed to earn some fast money to pay off his business expenses as a lawyer and wrote "Stardust" on the pages of a law book-thereby composing arguably the greatest song of the century. To appreciate the magnitude of the song's impact one need only read the CD-ROM Music by Hoagy Carmichael from Peermusic, which lists every recording artist who has interpreted it. You don't even finish the C's and you already have reached 100. Carmichael's other compositions strike a chord with America as well. Classic songs embedded in our culture like "Georgia on My Mind," "Heart and Soul," "Skylark," "Lazy Bones," and "Lazy River," evoke a gentility and beauty that beg interpretation. That is the art of a standard: to make a song speak to different generations. How many different versions of "Like a Virgin," "Layla," or "La Vida Loca," will we rush to the stores to buy? Today's pop songs try to appeal to one generational clique or another and vanish when they vanish off the charts. Hoagy, on the other hand, wrote for everyone. In contrast, Duke Ellington (whose 100th birthday is being celebrated worldwide by various festivals and a nationwide tour of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra), is thought of primarily as a performer rather than a great composer. Yet there are 63 versions of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," 71 of "Prelude to a Kiss" and 100 of "Sophisticated Lady" currently in record stores. Composer George Gershwin stated that he'd gladly give up all of his copyrights simply to have written "Sophisticated Lady." Incredibly, over the span of his orchestra's 50 years, he wrote over 2,000 pieces of music: Broadway musicals, ballet, symphonies, film scores, tone poems, and pop songs (one that he recorded in the experimental medium of stereo as early as 1931). But his most important work, in his estimation, was his sacred music. His Sacred Concerts, which were performed in churches throughout the United States in the 1960s, were composed as a result of a growing faith during the last 20 years of his life. Ellington saw his role as a composer to write sacred music to stem the tide against the prevailing atheism of the '60s that attacked the foundations of Christian faith. In his autobiography, Music is My Mistress, he wrote, "Now and then we encounter people who say they do not believe. I hate to say that they are out-and-out liars, but I believe they think it fashionable to speak like that. They snicker in the dark as they tremble with fright." The main theme of his first Sacred Concert was derived from "In the beginning, God." For his second Sacred Concert, Ellington wrote, "Silliest thing ever read/Was that somebody said/'God is dead'/The mere mention of the first word/ Automatically eliminates/ The second and third." It takes more that simply writing great songs to keep America's greatest orchestra continually touring 360 days a year for 50 years. Why did he have such loyalty from his musicians, many of whom stayed with him for more than 25 years, and some for their entire careers? Why was his instrument considered "my orchestra"? How did he create such a unique and (to this very day) unreproduceable sound from his orchestra? Composer Andre Previn sums up the problem: "Another bandleader can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass, give the down beat, and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, 'Oh yes, that's done like this.' But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and nobody knows what it is." Why? Because Ellington learned what all too few leaders, be they in orchestras, or in businesses, or in ministries, ever learn. Most "leaders" have a program, and try to make their followers adhere to it. Duke wrote music specifically for each individual musician, to let him sound like himself and therefore play his best for "his" music. "I had a trombone player that played with a plunger mute, and he could only play seven notes effectively, so I had to write and only employ those seven notes, and then you have to combine them with someone else's limitations, and naturally you have to become inventive and create new tones." As musician Ben Allison said, "In Duke's band, the sound is specific, the group dialogue unique, the trust complete." That is what makes all visions last.

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