Today is (well it would have been were he still around; you know what I mean) Duke Ellington’s birthday.
Early twentieth century jazz was usually played by small groups — five or six people, typically with a front line of cornet, clarinet, and trombone, and a couple of rhythm players behind. It was a folk music, and could be played by people with little theoretical knowledge — you took a well-known tune, decided on a key, and just played. Plenty of scope for improvisation, varying the tune often to the point, after a chorus or two, of unrecognizability; all that was left was the original chord sequence, and even that was probably only really understood by the guitarist or pianist.
So jazz would seem to be impossible for bigger bands. It would indeed be chaotic and cacophonous (shut up at the back there) if everyone played with the freedom of a small group. There has to be some previous agreement, some degree of arrangement, in jazz played by groups of more than about seven people.
That was Ellington’s great contribution to jazz: he took an improvised, often ragged folk music and showed how it could be arranged — even orchestrated — for a big band without losing its – what? ‘Raunchiness’ seems the best word; without its degenerating (or at least changing) into the blandness of the Paul Whiteman band or the syrupy smoothness of Glenn Miller. Ellington’s music has the gutsiness, the growling and wailing, the bent thirds, of small group jazz in — er — spades.
One of the Ellington orchestra’s most popular pieces was ‘Mood Indigo’, and I was going to use its mention as a way into the strange matter of ‘Key Mood’ — whether, and if so why, a piece of music has a different feel to it according to which key you play it in. (The printed music of ‘Mood Indigo’ is in A flat major, but one often hears it played in other keys.) Would it matter if I transposed, say, Schubert’s beautiful G flat major Impromptu into the much easier key of G major? The subject of Key Mood is complicated, controversial, and (I think) fascinating, but I’ve been putting off writing about as I fear it would, like most things demanding the use of the brain, frighten readers away. Another day, perhaps.
For now, let’s close with a piece of Duke Ellington’s wit and wisdom:
‘There are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.’