Jazz Institute of Chicago

An Ellington Focus Concert

An Ellington focus concert
by Jeff Waggoner

First published in the Illinois Jazz Educator, December 1997, it is reprinted here with permission of the author, who teaches the jazz ensemble at Hinsdale Central High School.

In the late winter of 1996, looking over my class lists for the next school year, I was unhappy to see that, once again, course requirements in our academically demanding school caused me to have less than ideal instrumentation in my upper-level jazz ensemble.

I was ready to rewrite parts and to search extensively for challenging quality music for three trombones, three trumpets, four saxes, and rhythm. Then at our All-State Conference, I heard both the Elmhurst College Jazz Band and the Western Illinois Jazz Studio Orchestra perform some transcriptions of Duke Ellington. Western devoted its entire performance to reproducing Ellington’s sound and specific arrangements.

I didn’t need to be hit with a brick to see that some of these pieces were achievable by my high-school group. My third trombone player started out as a trumpet player, but became an excellent orchestral bass trombone player. He could double on valve trombone easily, handling the Tizol parts. My lead alto player was very willing to be challenged with learning to play the clarinet. I already had a few transcriptions David Berger had done, and after talking to Doug Beach about sources, I thought we could do an entire focus concert with just the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

I started doing some research into Ellington. I felt it might be difficult to make this project educational for the students—most of the recordings of the seminal Ellington groups, from 1929–1941, would be considered of poor audio quality by today’s high school students. I called Greg Sergo, a Chicago drummer and friend, who had recently started to do some substitute teaching at my school, and who fronts a group, the Ellington Dynasty, that specializes in Ellington’s music. Would the Dynasty be willing and able to do a clinic for us on Ellington performance practice for the band? Not only would they do the clinic, but they would play a set at the concert after the high school groups!
Music selection required some research. Most of our music consisted of the David Berger transcriptions published by Classic Editions (a division of King Brands, New York). Because these arrangements were written for professional groups or musicians with a previous knowledge of Ellingtonia, we had to do some editing, mainly articulations and dynamics, based on our listening to the recordings. I was able to find most of the exact recorded versions Berger used (as he notated on the scores), so students could hear the solo performances as well.

It is very important for students to learn about the history of the Ellington band as they learn this music. We assigned specific names of Ellington band members to our band members, and told them a little about the "character" they were playing. To make this easier, I confined our musical selections to the earlier Ellington groups, especially the Blanton-Webster band of 1939-41.

For students brought up on “traditional” big band arrangements, Ellington’s music sounds odd at first. They were convinced they were sometimes playing wrong notes, and it took a while for them to develop the confidence to phrase together. Since these pieces were not scored as thick and safe as my students were used to, their confidence level was not high for the first few weeks.

My lead trombone and second trombone players had to learn to play significantly higher than they were used to. Achieving a Thirties saxophone section sound was a challenge, and playing with appropriate vibrato and articulation in the trumpets took a lot of work. My students had been exposed to a lot of bebop and post-bebop players, and some of that style had to be "unlearned" for a while. Gradually, they came to understand that the style of playing we were working on was not radically different, but was the prototype upon which their usual styles were based.

About a month before the concert we decided to play one contemporary piece—the Mike Tomaro arrangement of "Caravan" that was based on the Chicago pop arrangement. My band, after being steeped in Ellington for so long, learned this arrangement in no time! The skills and confidence they had developed had made them significantly better players.

The concert was well-attended and well-received. The highlight was definitely when my band got to play "Things Ain’t What They Used To Be" with the Ellington Dynasty members. We had spent about three months preparing for this performance and we all considered the time very well spent.

It’s not something we’ll often repeat, since it took a particular mix of students with their certain strengths to make it work. I also believe it would not have been nearly as effective if we had played only one or two of the transcriptions. The band members had to "live" the style for an extended period of time. And I’m sure we could have performed a concert without the clinic-and-performance of the Ellington Dynasty, but the benefits of hearing and seeing these professional musicians interact were immeasurable.

For other groups who would like to spend some time with Ellington’s music, a few suggestions: First, listening to appropriate models is important in all jazz styles, but with Duke’s music it is obviously essential. We have a good jazz radio station—DCB at the College of DuPage—in the Chicago area, but even dedicated listeners in our band had virtually no experience with the unique sound of the Ellington band.

Second, I would find this difficult to accomplish if I only met my group one night a week. We have the luxury of rehearsing during the school day five days a week, and still it took three months for us to prepare this performance.

Third, decide early on if you want your students to duplicate the original solos or to solo in the same style. I think that both would take the same amount of time, but will require different teaching approaches. (In particular, in this music the clarinet solos are extremely difficult. I suspect most of them were originally performed on Albert-system instruments.)

I can’t think of anything I’ve done with my bands over the years that had as profound an impact as our Ellington studies did. We are still reaping the rewards a year later in improved player confidence, sophistication of style, and approach to "playing the part." Ellington didn’t write parts—he wrote for specific people. And once my band members understood that, they valued their own and each other’s contributions that much more.

Would we do the same in-depth unit with another composer? Probably not. The Ellington band was so unique and so well documented, that this was possible. At the college level I’m sure a number of composers are routinely studied in this way. For us, it was a unique opportunity, one I highly recommend to you and your students!

What we played: "Take The 'A' Train," Strayhorn (Wallarab, trans. Smithsonian); "Mood Indigo," Ellington and Bigard (1930 version, Berger trans.); "Rockin’ In Rhythm," Ellington, Mills, Carney (Berger trans.); "Chelsea Bridge," Strayhorn (Berger trans.); "Cotton Tail," Ellington (Berger trans.); "Ko-Ko," Ellington (Berger trans.); "Harlem Airshaft," Ellington, (Berger trans.); "Caravan," Ellington, Mills, Tizol (arr. Mike Tomaro); "Things Ain’t What They Used To Be," Ellington, Parsons (Berger trans.).

Print Sources: James Lincoln Collier, Duke Ellington. Oxford University Press, 1987; Stanley Dance, The World of Duke Ellington. Da Capo Press; Duke Ellington, Music Is My Mistress. Da Capo Press; John Edward Hasse, Beyond Category: the Life and Genius of Duke Ellington, Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Copyright 1998 by Jeff Waggoner.
All rights reserved.
All Ellington photos are courtesy of
Lester Levy at The Jazz Photo Source
Copyright (c)1998 Lester Levy.
All Rights Reserved.

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