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A JAZZ JOURNEY - 1925-1994


Ken Rattenbury
Parts 1 2/3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10/11/12/13/14/Conclusion

PART XII: (1982 - 1984)


HAVE YOU ever decided on a project, flushed with enthusiasm, eager to get going, given it a whirl, then, perhaps, paused awhile - riddled with niggling doubt - tackled it again with grittier (or so it seemed) determination and, even after that, toyed with the idea of scrapping the whole notion? If you're honest, I guess you might admit it. Life is like that - a procession of highs and not-so-highs, periods of both progress and procrastination, successes, abject failures and "nearly-made-its". I've encountered many a crisis in my modest career in jazz, wondering whether this way was better, that way the best, this style close to the truth, but that one the absolute GOSPEL.

Who, then, carved the latter commandments into his tablets of stone? None other than Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington. And so it came to pass during my two and a half years of research and study at The University of Keele, a truly close encounter with the one man who is (and I use the present tense advisedly) without question the greatest jazzman of them all - the Duke.

But to return to the already discussed wavering of resolve; I hadn't battled with Ellington's complexities for more than a couple of months before I fully realised the magnitude of the task I had set myself and - more to the point - the absolute mega-magnitude of the Duke's talents and achievements. Was I being a mite arrogant to take it on, I asked myself? Ah well, "in for a penny . . . . . " as they say. Have a jolly good try.

How to just kick off, then? I blasted off by tangling eyeball-to-eyeball with the music itself before rushing into prose postulations, surface suppositions, or academic analyses. Yes, get the facts, the facts, man - as they used to insist in that T.V. cops series a few years back.

So, after much agonising, I opted to home in on the 3-year period from 1940 - 1942 in Ellington's career during which it seemed to me that his genius had fully flowered, brilliantly blossomed into vigorous growth and vociferous maturity. (Clark Terry, a splendid correspondent, agreed with me on this choice; so did our Steve Vote, who gave me so much practical help during these early days, questing years, including copying 32 (Yes, 32!) C90 cassettes of "live" Duke on the road, to help nudge me into the right state of receptivity, and they did! Andrew Hodeir just commented - "And the best of luck!" Heartfelt wish, no doubt - but not half as constructive as the other gentlemen were.)

During those years, everything Ellington attempted seemed to end up as another masterpiece. And so I selected the following eight compositions recorded and written (obviously not necessarily in that order!) from the fecund 1940/1942 period: "KO KO" (full orchestra); "MAIN STEM" (likewise); "MR J B BLUES"; 'PITTER PANTHER PATTER" (duets between Duke and Jimmy Blanton); "CONCERTO FOR COOTIE (orchestra and Cootie Williams spotlighted to brilliant effect); two small group pieces - "JUNIOR HOP" (featuring the incomparable Johnny Hodges); "SUBTLE SLOUGH" (Rex Stewart, cornet) and HARLEM AIRSHAFT" for full orchestra and a battery of soloists. Then proceeded to transcribe the music, note for note, chord for chord, every variation in performance (there are many such in Ellington), all improvised solos, meticulous attention to metronome speeds - the lot!

It took me months, during which time I actually I wore out three cassette recorders with the constant back-and-forth tape shuttling, thousands of times; where a syncopation refused to be categorised, a phrase eluded notation, or a tangled skein of harmony voicing resisted unravelling. But in the end, I had eight full scores: thousands of bars, dozens of solos, a multiplicity of melodies and a totally profound respect and admiration for this towering genius and all those remarkable, exceptionally talented and creative sidemen of his who made his music live so delightfully and, sometimes, dangerously. I wouldn't have missed this challenge for all the gold in Fort Knox, and then some . . . . . . Because, after a lifetime of hearing this music, albeit from a distance, I felt that I had surely been privileged to live, for two and a half years, in the company of one of the finest musicians of all time, whatever the musical culture. A rare and treasured experience.

The original thesis - "DUKE ELLINGTON, JAZZ COMPOSER ", ran to 155,000 words and weighed in at just over a stone. It had burned up 5,500 hours (yes, I logged the daily count in my diary) of my fast-dwindling expectancy. But I wouldn't have had it any other way. Graduation Day at Keele came and went, but the memory of that glorious friendly contest with the great Ellington will never fade. Nor will his wonderful music . . . . A golden treasury of jazz indeed.

Some facets of the Ellington oeuvre bear scrutiny in more detail, that only seems fair. And this is precisely what I had to do when slimming down my somewhat oversize and overweight thesis into a more approachable, publishable form . . . . .

So, in at the deep end again; nothing else for it !!

Copyright Ken Rattenbury © 1994