Duking it out
Lawrence man working to ensure Duke Ellington's compositions are made available to jazz lovers
Duke Ellington once said, “A problem is a chance for you to do your best.”
The problem concerning the prolific musical genius Ellington (1899-1974) was that he left behind more than 102,000 sheets of music. Very little of these big-band charts have been made available to the public.
But that is slowly changing.
Thanks to the efforts of Lawrence jazz aficionado Tom Alexios and the staff of the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Mo., Ellington’s unpublished material is reaching a new audience.
“He was an unbelievable collector,” Alexios says of the artist.
“When he passed away there were two 55-foot trailer boxes – not including furniture – that went to the Smithsonian. I had the good fortune of going behind the scenes of these hard objects. There was in excess of 150 scrapbooks Duke had compiled throughout his career. He had that discipline of moving forward and documenting what he was doing.”
Alexios, director of educational outreach programs for the Duke Ellington Legacy, decided to help that catalog do more than just gather dust in a museum.
“In sitting down with the family and wanting to make sure the next generation was able to appreciate his music, we started working with the Smithsonian and taking select, unpublished pieces of music and cleaning them up,” he explains.
It takes about four or five months to transcribe and post online just one of these complex, big-band arrangements. (Musician Barrie Hall Jr., who was a close associate of Ellington in the composer’s later years, handles the actual transcriptions.) About 15 charts have been completed so far.
Alexios says, “A few of those charts are already made available, but in those instances schools have to pay $75 dollars or whatever to buy those charts through distributors. Not all schools have that kind of budget, so that was the intent of this program to level the playing field and make these things available to the educators.”
Members of the International Association of Jazz Educators and/or American Jazz Museum members can download the charts for free, provided they register on the museum’s Web site (www.americanjazzmuseum.com).
Some of the new collection features more obscure Ellington tunes such as “Frustration” and “Baby, Please Stop and Think About Me.” Others are alternate arrangements of well-known Ellington standards such as “Satin Doll,” “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”
“He was always tweaking things,” Alexios says.
Ellington, who would have turned 108 on Sunday, preferred to describe his style as “American music” rather than jazz.
“Many people consider him the greatest composer of the 20th century,” says Dennis Winslett, education specialist at the American Jazz Museum.
“But the thing that was different about Ellington was he not only was composing, he was creating a whole new genre. He would originate the big band.”
Winslett says the pianist and big band leader was the first to use a whole saxophone section featuring tenor and baritone saxes – which were relatively new instruments – and integrate those into his compositions. He also was the first American musician to record a full-length 78 LP.
“In the overall sense, he was the musician who made it okay to not adhere to the form. He didn’t care that much about commercial success. He was saying what he wanted to say,” Winslett says.
Relationship to Kansas
Although Ellington was raised in Washington, D.C. – his father actually worked as a butler at the White House – he was rather familiar with Kansas.
“He played quite a bit throughout Kansas and the Midwest in general,” Alexios says.
In fact, when Alexios donned white gloves to sift through the Ellington materials housed at the Smithsonian, he recalls seeing a “key to the city” award from Dodge City sitting right next to similar honors from European nations.
Of course, Ellington was regularly drawn to K.C.’s 18th and Vine area because it was “a hotbed for jazz,” according to Winslett. As such, the American Jazz Museum has marshaled Ellington items that are currently on display.
“We have several artifacts of Ellington, including pictures. We also have some awards he won. But probably the most important thing we have is Ellington soundies. A lot of people don’t know about soundies (a jukebox that played film clips), but it’s really the precursor to music videos. We have very rare footage of Ellington and his early big bands of the 1930s,” Winslett says.
Winslett believes the project to distribute Ellington’s unpublished compositions will be a great catalyst to developing an interactive educational experience via the Web and creating more educational opportunities for youths interested in jazz.
It’s an undertaking the Duke himself might appreciate.
As Ellington once said, “My attitude is never to be satisfied. Never enough. Never.”