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Duke Ellington

ANNOUNCER: Brought to you in part by ADM, feeding the world is the biggest challenge of the new century. Outside the U.S. youíll find 96 percent of the worldís population, inside youíll find the means to feed them. ADM, supermarket to the world. Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.
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MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. This week Think Tank takes a look at the remarkable life, career and music of Edward Kennedy Ellington. Duke Ellington, born in 1899.
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MR. WATTENBERG: Joining Think Tank is author, composer, broadcaster and jazz pianist Dr. Billy Taylor. Taylor recently published a new book entitled The Billy Taylor Collection, and released the second solo recording of his career, Ten Fingers One Voice. The topic before the house, Duke Ellington and the sound of America this week on Think Tank.
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MR. WATTENBERG: Thatís Ellington?
MR. TAYLOR: Yes. Thatís Come Sunday from his Black, Brown and Beige.
MR. WATTENBERG: You said, when we were talking before, that Duke Ellington is a metaphor for the history of American jazz.
MR. TAYLOR: He can be used as a metaphor because his early career sort of wrapped up much of the earliest aspects of jazz, the ragtime phase of jazz. And what he did, he came in as a ragtime piano player, and his first composition was called Soda Fountain Rag.
MR. WATTENBERG: Can you play some of that?
MR. TAYLOR: Itís before my time.
MR. TAYLOR: But the idea -- I can play something in that style, for instance a little later composition of his, it was something that used the ragtime bass called Drop Me Off in Harlem.
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MR. TAYLOR: Thatís just eight bars, the first phrase, and what you could hear -- or rather the first eight bars of the phrase, and what you could hear was this kind of bass, which is a ragtime bass. And you hear it in pieces like --
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MR. TAYLOR: The same kind of thing. So, the feeling of his early music reflected the kinds of popular music that was being played, and the jazz of the period, which sort of led people into the jazz age of the í20s.
MR. WATTENBERG: Is it true that Ellington never said that he played jazz, thatís not a word he used?
MR. TAYLOR: He hated the term, as many jazz musicians do. Weíre saddled with it. But the music was always called something by someone that had nothing to do with the music itself. So the ragtime came from other sources. The term Dixieland, swing, almost all of the categories that jazz is divided or subdivided into were named by people who didnít have nothing to do with the music. And all of the musicians hated the term because they felt that the terms were too confining. If you say ragtime, everybody says, itís not ragtime unless you do this, this, and you know. And the guy says, well, I donít do that and I play ragtime. Eubie Blake (sp) used to say that. So, the terms, weíre saddled with them.
MR. WATTENBERG: What did he call it what he played?
MR. TAYLOR: He called it Negro music, because he was trying to write music that reflected the thoughts and feeling and the expressions and emotions of the African American race.
MR. WATTENBERG: And, yet, Iíve been listening to it since we knew that you were coming on the program, Iíve been listening, it is such a wholly American 20th Century sound, beyond African American.
MR. TAYLOR: Actually, he was an international musician, because what happened, very quickly in the evolution of jazz, jazz was created by African slaves, and it came out of the spiritual, it came out of some of the early work songs, and many of the things that they invented when they got to this country. They were not allowed to bring any of the cultural supports, or use any of the cultural supports as slaves, or as people who were a part of this country. And so, thatís why African music is African American, and itís what happened when people of African descent had to refashion their cultural expressions to fit a new situation.
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MR. WATTENBERG: And they say that what Ellington did was make jazz classical. Can you play something that has that classical notion to it?
MR. TAYLOR: The thing that he wrote in his longer work were an attempt to say something on a concert level that he had already said in his popular works. So there was no real difference.
MR. WATTENBERG: In the two versions, the popular and the classical?
MR. TAYLOR: Well, the point is, they sound the same. The piece that I was playing --
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MR. TAYLOR: Now the melody when played properly is --
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MR. TAYLOR: Now, thatís a very simple melody but he harmonized it in several ways. So when he played --
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MR. TAYLOR: It took on a hymn-like kind of context. And he wanted that because in the concert for Black, Brown and Beige, he was trying to say, this is what the African Americans were in the times of slavery, this is what they were at a later period, and this is what they were now, now being in the 1940s. And so, I thought he did that brilliantly in the composition. But you could hear things like that in Drop Me Off in Harlem.
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MR. TAYLOR: You could hear it in Sophisticated Lady.
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MR. TAYLOR: And on another level, you could hear it in, It Donít Mean a Thing If It Donít Got That Swing.
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MR. TAYLOR: So, thereís no mistaking the kind of rhythm that heís talking about when he says, Donít Mean a Thing, I mean he just comes right at you with that.
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MR. WATTENBERG: Jazz is known as improvisational music often, and yet he wrote, what, 2,000-odd tunes. Did his band jam and improvise, or did they play by the book, by what he wrote?
MR. TAYLOR: The book was very strange. He wrote many things that he wanted the band to play exactly as written. He also left many places for individuals whose work he knew very well to add their own dimension to whatever the piece was. Therefore, when, say, Cootie Williams (sp), or Ben Webster, or Rex Stewart left the band, many of the pieces that that particular artist played were not played again, because he wrote them specifically for that sound, and that personality. He played something else when someone else joined and replaced the person who left. And he didnít look at it as a replacement. He said, hereís a fresh face, hereís a fresh sound, hereís something new to work with. Duke Ellington was remarkable in his sensitivity to the potential of musicians that he was interested in. And he would hear, for instance, back in the í30s, he heard a young bass player who was playing more melodically than any other bass player who had preceded him, Jimmy Blanton (sp), and Jimmy Blanton was literally playing things like Sophisticated Lady and other Ellington pieces, the melodies of those pieces on the bass violin. And so, it really changed his way of thinking about well instead of just having the bass play --
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MR. TAYLOR: -- playing walking lines, or playing --
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MR. TAYLOR: -- something that was definitely a bass line, but maybe had a little more melody, instead of doing that, he began to think of --
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MR. TAYLOR: And so he began to give the bassists an opportunity to play things that he heard that were bass melodies, but then he built on them. And I remember, it changed the way I played, because I heard him play --
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MR. TAYLOR: Thatís Duke Ellingtonís introduction to In a Mellow Tone, and he played --
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MR. TAYLOR: The bass player played --
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MR. TAYLOR: -- kind of an answer, this is call and response. He played something, there was a response from the bass player.
MR. WATTENBERG: And how does the influence your music?
MR. TAYLOR: Well, I like the sound, and so, when I began to accompany horns, to get out of the way of the young bass players who I was playing with, and teenagers in those days, who wanted to play like Jimmy Blanton, I had to get, instead of playing --
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MR. TAYLOR: -- like that, I had to get up here --
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MR. TAYLOR: -- just so that I would get out of the range and you could hear what they were doing. So, I liked what Duke was doing, I said, gee, thatís a good sound.
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MR. TAYLOR: I did other things with it.
MR. WATTENBERG: How political in the broad sense was Duke Ellington. You mentioned that his was at its root Negro American music, the political term, the emotional term you would often associate with that would be probably the adjective angry, and yet everything that you read about Ellington has another adjective, which is elegant. Was he an angry guy? How did he deal with that?
MR. TAYLOR: It would be impossible for an African American male not to be angry with the kind of prejudice that he was associated or subjected to. Duke Ellington, even an internationally famous artist, such as he, was not treated very well when he went South. So, he couldnít stay in --
MR. TAYLOR: Yes. And now, hereís a man who had played for the kings and queens of England, and Sweden, and so forth, comes home and he canít stay in a hotel in Richmond, Virginia. So he solved the problem, sure he was angry, but he solved the problem by taking a Pullman coach and using that, taking the whole band, using the Pullman coach as their hotel and as their restaurant, and so forth.
MR. WATTENBERG: Pull it over on the side.
MR. TAYLOR: Pull it over on the side, and so forth. And so he didnít recognize the fact that he had to travel in the South to exist, as a band leader. He solved the problem in another way. He did the same thing with music. He wrote Black Beauty back in the í20s. He was celebrating the fact that there were things which were black which were very beautiful, and very elegant, and things that -- of which he was very proud. And he celebrated the fact that there were many aspects of the African-American psyche, the African-American physical appearance that he wanted to show off. Sophisticated Lady is about beautiful black women. Many of the things that he wrote really celebrated what he saw as something which was elegant and very beautiful.
MR. WATTENBERG: Can you play some of Sophisticated Lady?
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MR. WATTENBERG: Good stuff. Itís said that jazz, and I guess later rock, was a profound ideological tool in the Cold War, I mean, it really told the younger generations in these non-free countries that there was a dimension of human liberty that they hadnít quite got there. And I remember Willis Conover (sp) of the United States Information Agency, who was unknown here, who was a jazz disc jockey, I guess, in effect, was ultimately famous in the Soviet Union, because he played American jazz tunes.
MR. TAYLOR: He was famous everywhere behind the Iron Curtain. I know when I went to Hungary, and when I went to the Soviet Union I was amused by the fact that people came to me and spoke to me in English, and they spoke very, very slowly, because thatís the way Willis spoke on the air. And thatís the way they learned how to speak English. He was a tremendous influence. He used Duke Ellingtonís theme as his theme. So many people were aware of Duke Ellington even before he visited some of those countries.
MR. WATTENBERG: His actual opening theme --
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MR. TAYLOR: Take the A Train.
MR. WATTENBERG: How does Ellington stack up in the sort of ultimate musical score keeping, in terms of American composers, say, of the 20th Century? I mean, you hear Gershwinís name, you hear Ellington. Who is --
MR. TAYLOR: I have a biased opinion.
MR. WATTENBERG: Well, whoís in the pantheon, first?
MR. TAYLOR: My biased opinion is that he is the greatest composer of the 20th Century, because --
MR. WATTENBERG: Worldwide?
MR. TAYLOR: Worldwide, because for me he expressed the 20th Century better than any other person that I know. The music that his -- his music expressed the early part of the century, which happened before I was born. It really expressed the music that I grew up with, I mean, coming through that swing period, through bebop and so forth, his music was right on the cusp of what was going on, and leading to all of the things that were to follow. As I matured as a musician and watched other people coming along, building on the kind of musical -- building on the music that he had created, I realized how important he was to me, and to other, and to world music. And I donít think that anyone in this century has had the -- has been able to bring music to people as an expression of personal freedom, as an expression of Americana, as an impression of what is it like, from an American point of view, from other places in the world. I donít think anyone has done that as well as Ellington.
MR. WATTENBERG: As we close, could you do a medley and start -- Iíll give you two minutes to go from 1900 to 2000.
MR. TAYLOR: Oh sure, thanks a lot.
MR. WATTENBERG: Or go through Ellingtonís -- do it for a while. Just see where we come out.
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MR. WATTENBERG: Thatís wonderful. Thank you very much, Billy Taylor. And thank you. We encourage feedback from our viewers by email or snail mail. Itís very important to us. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.
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ANNOUNCER: We at Think Tank depend on your views to make our show better. Please send your questions and comments to New River Media, 1150 Seventeenth Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C. 20036, or email us at thinktank@pbs.org. To learn more about Think Tank, visit PBS Online at www.pbs.org. And please let us know where you watch Think Tank. This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content. Brought to you in part by ADM, feeding the world is the biggest challenge of the new century. Outside the U.S. youíll find 96 percent of the worldís population, inside youíll find the means to feed them. ADM, supermarket to the world. Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.
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