Monday, January 27, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: Clandestine Plot Information Delivered Musically

We might not even notice the music accompanying a movie or television show, but that soundtrack has power. The music gives us information, for example, when the music turns ominous in a police drama such as "Law & Order," we know someone is about to give up the ghost. The music can establish a place or time, too. Without taking the time to consciously identify a clarinet and accordion with an 'Oompah' bass, we instinctively know that we're in some part of Germany. The other night during the Grammy Awards on TV, I was instantly transported back to the 1970s when the band Chicago began to perform. The people and places I knew then were conjured to the front of my imagination, just from hearing those familiar songs. Close your eyes and listen if you don't know what I mean (this will only work if you were, in fact, a thinking person in the 1970s).

I'm convinced that the theme music from the extraordinarily popular PBS series "Downton Abbey" has something to do with its success. First of all, it sets the scene for the viewer; we know just from the music that this is going to be a drama, and that the characters (or at least some of them) are going to be aristocratic. Then, it's so darn lush and intriguing that we're drawn in to the program even if we are not familiar with the story. I know this is true for me: I react like one of Pavlov's dogs whenever I hear it!

Have you ever heard of circular breathing? Very few musicians can pull this off, and those that do practice for years before finding success. Very simply, the musician plays by blowing out through his or her instrument, and at the same time breathes in through their nose! This is an effective way of creating tension in music because the listener expects to hear slight pauses where a musician breathes. Just like with language, music has phrases and sentences, and these are set apart by small pauses (commas and periods). I've enlisted everyone's favorite curly-haired soprano saxophonist to demonstrate this to you:

Musicians in bands and orchestras can work around having to learn this technique if more than one person is playing a given part. They will work out ahead of time which player will breathe where, and the other will continue to play. The result should be a seamless line of music without pauses which creates tension. Music is all about tension and release, after all.

Richard Wagner, King of the Leitmotif
The idea of using music to communicate information is not new. Richard Wagner was a revolutionary opera composer who assigned leimotifs or themes to characters, places, and even things, and then wove them together to support his opera story. So there's a character named Siegfried who has a theme, and he has a sword which has a name (Nothung) and a leitmotif. When Siegfried thinks about his sword, we'll probably hear Nothung's leimotif. Even if we don't consciously notice the sword's theme, our brain processes it. Wagner uses this technique of weaving together his many leitmotifs in all of his operas, but most prominently in his masterpiece four-opera Ring Cycle. The leimotifs are used to identify concepts and telegraph information to us before the characters on the stage even know what's going on. Here's the brass section of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra explaining and demonstrating the leitmotifs from Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle:

From now on, when you watch a movie (or opera) listen for these techniques and let me know what you find!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout (2013)

I finally finished the new biography of Duke Ellington (Gotham, 2013) in which I have been engrossed for weeks. This is a scholarly work, with lots of biography meat for a reader to sink their teeth into, plus notes, bibliography, discography, and photos. Lots of photos. Ellington's life is not candy-coated here; Teachout lets us know that we might not have liked this "Aristocrat of Jazz" had we met him. He was a womanizer who cheated on his wife and his mistresses, and refused to give the long-suffering Mrs. Ellington a divorce. (Reportedly, this was in order to supply an excuse for not marrying the girlfriends who came after her.) He was a procrastinator who wouldn't finish his musical compositions until the very last minute, so his musicians would have to be accurate sight-readers in the studio or on the stage--there was rarely time to practice one's part. He also liked to use melodies and riffs that he heard his band members come up with without giving them credit or later on paying them a measly $25.

But now that we have those negatives out of the way, Duke Ellington is widely regarded as the best jazz composer of the twentieth century, and some go so far as to call him his century's most innovative composer of music, period. He's the one who standardized jazz big band instrumentation after years of experimentation with the sounds of the instruments in various combinations: four (or five) trumpets, four (or five) trombones, five saxophones in three or four sizes with some doubling on clarinets, and a rhythm section consisting of drums, guitar, bass, and, of course, the Duke himself on piano. It was in Ellington's band that the tuba was replaced with the string bass for a warmer sound. His band's sound was innovative because of this instrumentation, but also because Ellington composed differently. Rather than composing melodies and harmonizing them with colorful jazz chords, he wrote, according to Teachout, in a mosaic style. He composed songs in modules that he rearranged while disregarding the traditional rules of musical composition and form.

One of my favorites, "Satin Doll" (listen to that bass! and those saxophones!)

This unorthodox style brought him success. President Nixon awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1969, and in 1999 (for his hundredth birthday) he was awarded a special Pulitzer posthumously. Ellington was a gentleman and was asked by the State Department to tour the world with his band as jazz ambassadors. Sweet gig, huh? Guess what, though: Ellington did not like the word 'jazz' and preferred to be referred to as a 'musician' or 'music composer.'

His career had its peaks and valleys. Last week in this blog, I focused on his Harlem Renaissance (1920s and early 1930s) heyday. Big bands fell out of favor eventually, and Ellington tried to compose longer, more complex works for Broadway shows, symphonies, and ballet. The Ellington band had all but faded out of the public's eye when they appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 and blew the roof off the place. Have you seen the 1959 movie "Anatomy of a Murder"? Ellington scored some of that film's music. Ellington was a man of faith, and tried his hand at sacred music, too, with some success. Here's a clip from one of those sacred music concerts...

Duke Ellington performed with his band until just a few weeks before his death from lung cancer in 1974. He was remembered as a man who took care of his family, bringing his parents, sister, and son to live at Sugar Hill (New York) with him as soon as he was able. He took care of his musicians, paaying them well and shielding them from racial discrimination when they toured in the early days. Rather than trying to find hotels willing to accommodate the Black musicians, they traveled in their own Pullman train cars!

This is a substantial book, rich in detail about Ellington's life, the places he lived and played, and the times in which he lived. When I read a big book like this, I like to create a mind map to remind myself of its interesting parts. Take a look:
As you can see, I like to note any unfamiliar words, surprises about the subject, the important places in the book, and the people important to the subject. This technique helps me organize information and find connections. I can go back to this mind map months or years from now and remind myself about the cool things I learned about Duke Ellington from this book.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra in the Harlem Renaissance

I've been reading the new biography by Terry Teachout about Duke Ellington to prepare for a Harlem Renaissance course I'm teaching later this month. The Harlem Renaissance is the time of Prohibition and speakeasies, and the time when jazz was evolving out of Blues, Ragtime, and other popular music forms.

Duke Ellington is an interesting guy. I was aware of him as a suave, sophisticated bandleader, and he was this, but of course, not always. During the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and early 1930s, he was a young musician who hadn't quite found his groove, signature sound, and persona. Some of the polished tunes we know of as his were composed during that era but evolved as styles of music changed. But let me back up a bit...

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, DC, in 1899. His father was a butler, and able to send Duke and his much-younger sister to good schools. (Later, when he found success, Ellington would bring his parents and sister to live with him at Sugar Hill in Harlem). The popular music of Ellington's teen years was ragtime, and those sounds drew him to the piano. He eventually formed a group with some musician friends and they found work playing "under-conversation" music for DC society parties. The group left Washington in 1919 to look for success in New York. They didn't find it, and so returned to DC for a few more years. In 1923, they went to New York as "The Washingtonians" (a seven-piece band) and found work playing at the Hollywood Club in Midtown. This is where they developed their style. They discarded the 'sweet' music of the posh DC parties and began playing wilder jazz sounds inspired by the bands in the Harlem clubs uptown. Also at this time, Duke was emerging as the leader of the band. They began to record in November 1924. Here's a sample of the primitive recording of that time--the band played into a megaphone-looking thing rather than into microphones.

The Washingtonians with Duke Ellington as their front man became very popular, and attracted the attention of Irving Mills, a music publisher who exploited composers by claiming songwriting credits which led to royalties on whatever sold. So on the one hand, Irving Mills took more than he was really entitled to, but on the other hand, he brought even more attention to Duke and the Washingtonians. The musicians up to this time had been operating with head arrangements, where they would gather around the piano and decide who would play what in performance. Duke insisted that they memorize their parts so that they would be aware of what was going on musically. When Irving Mills entered the picture and wanted sheet music to sell, those public-friendly arrangements had to be reconstructed because they never existed on paper in an organized fashion to begin with.

During this time, a trumpeter by the name of James "Bubber" Miley played with the band. His gimmick was to use the rubber part of a toilet plunger as a mute to create a 'growly' sound. He was mimicking King Oliver, a band leader from New Orleans and Chicago. This sound changed the character of the Washingtonians, especially when the other brass players mastered the technique. Bubber Miley quit the band in 1929 and died in 1932, so he never knew that his gimmick stayed with the band and became standard in jazz even now. Here is a short film showing another trumpeter, Arthur Whetsol, and Duke working out a head arrangement. Whetsol demonstrates the growly trumpet technique.

Here's something else you probably didn't know about early Duke Ellington compositions: while he and Irving Mills officially have the songwriting credits, many of those tunes came from the musicians in the band. Duke would hear a musician warming up or noodling around with a melody, and work that tune into an idea for the band without giving the musician credit. He never studied much harmony, musical form, or orchestration, so he composed in what Teachout describes as a 'mosaic' style: putting musical parts together without much transition or traditional form. Irving Mills came in and sometimes titled the piece (he claims that he titled "Mood Indigo"), and sometimes after the fact words would be added by a third party.

In 1927, the leader of the house band at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem died. Duke and his band got the job--they were already popular and had a following.
The Cotton Club in Harlem
This is when changes started coming fast for the band. They were no longer known as The Washingtonians, but as the Duke Ellington Band, and this caused some musicians' noses to go out-of-joint. Duke started adding hand-picked ultra-talented musicians until ultimately the seven-piece group grew into what became a traditional standard big band: five trumpets, five trombones, five saxophones with some doubling on clarinet, a rhythm section consisting of drums, guitar, and string bass, and Duke down in front on his signature white piano. With the bigger band and more demand for sheet music, Duke finally had to learn how to write more traditional jazz scores with parts (know as 'charts'). He was still using melodies and 'licks' from the musicians, only now sometimes he would pay them $25 for a good melody. This is how "Concerto for Cootie" was born: trumpeter Cootie Williams came up with a tune around which Duke wrote a song. It became "Concerto for Cootie" and eventually "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" when words were added.

That's where we'll leave Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. They are very popular at the Cotton Club in Harlem and about to embark on national and then European tours. Black musicians did not have an easy time finding hotel rooms at this time. They got around this in their American tours by sleeping in their own customized Pullman cars attached to regularly-scheduled trains. Duke Ellington and white Irving Mills protected the band members from prejudice so well that they didn't know the extent of what existed unless they left the band. They were extremely popular, now as Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, continuing to polish their style into the 1930s, '40s, '50s, '60s, and even the early 1970s. They never lost their original signature tunes, but rearranged them constantly and added newer techniques.

By the way, while they were touring but still considered the house band at the Cotton Club, another band led by a guy named Cab Calloway took over at the club. But that's the subject of a future Harlem Renaissance-themed post...