Playing The Band

While reviewing David Schiff’s The Ellington CenturyKevin Stevens defends the artistic seriousness of jazz – and Duke Ellington’s particularly remarkable contributions to the genre:

Ellington is a natural case study for the argument that jazz is as subtle, complex, and emotionally expressive as classical music. His musical vision was broad and deep, and he spent a lifetime perfecting its means of expression: his orchestra. “Ellington plays the piano,” his long-time collaborator Billy Strayhorn said, “but his real instrument is his band.” Ellington did not compose for an orchestra but with it. No composer, jazz or classical, was more adept at writing for specific individuals, using their strengths (the tone of Johnny Hodges’s alto sax, the bite and brilliance of Cootie Williams’s trumpet) as the foundation for compositions. “You can’t write music right,” Ellington once said, “unless you know how the man that’ll play it plays poker.”