The elegance of Duke Ellington
Bar Talk: for the Commentary page
By Teresa Leo
What do martinis and Duke Ellington have in common? Kip Waide, 32, a bartender at The Five Spot, says, "The music, like the drinks, is in vogue again. It's in the Gap commercials, in the malls. But you can't do better than the original."
The Five Spot, a cocktail lounge and supper club in Old City, is one of three clubs I visited to gather views on Ellington, whose 100th birthday anniversary is today. The others were Ortlieb's Jazz Haus in Northern Liberties and Bob & Barbara's lounge in Center City.
Ronnie James, 41, is a guitarist and singer who fronts Ronnie James and the Jez Hot Swing Club, a band that plays several of Ellington's songs. I asked him his opinion on "new" swing. He said, "It's Velveeta. It's a bunch of rock musicians trying to convert to swing."
Bandmate and saxophone player Frank Vicari, 68, who's played with Maynard Ferguson and Woodie Herman, added, "Modern swing doesn't have the same smooth rhythm that swing did back then. It almost sounds like it's forced to be exciting, where Duke Ellington and his band sounded exciting because they were exciting."
Exciting, sophisticated, prolific, inventive, dynamic - these were the most common Ellington adjectives. Clifford LaMar, 68, drummer for Nate Wiley and the Crowd Pleasers, said, "He took arrangements and the normal charts and raised them a step higher. He embellished a lot and put more color to the orchestra."
David Brodie, 30, bass player for the Jez Hot Swing Club, said, "He was a master at creating colors with sound - howling trumpets, driving and ominous rhythms, drone-like modalities - he would voice things specifically for his players to get specific sounds."
In fact, most of the musicians I interviewed referred to Ellington's ability to arrange compositions with specific players in mind. "There are basic themes to his compositions," said Dr. Bob Binder, 68, a trombone player, "but they always opened up for solos so the musicians could express themselves."
But what separated Ellington from other composers and musicians? Louis Lanza, 60, a violinist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, said, "He was the person who bridged the gap between jazz and symphonic music. He brought music from the nightclubs into the concert hall, which extended the audience."
Drummer Duck Scott, 46, son of jazz great Shirley Scott, talked about Ellington's discipline and leadership ability: "As a drummer, I have to keep the pulse and be dynamic, to reach plateaus and climaxes and falling actions, then bring it up, build the guys up, make them want to climb. It's like Hannibal, who had elephants climbing the Alps. Whatever he did to get those elephants to climb, that's what a drummer has to do. I'm like Hannibal in the band. That's what I learned from Duke."
Some commented on Ellington's personal style. Nate Wiley, 74, saxophone player and frontman for Nate Wiley and the Crowd Pleasers, said, "Most of all, I admired the way that the band dressed. At one time, they had a different outfit for every set. He himself had over 200 bow ties." Swing dance instructor Jacob Morris, 36, who danced in Swingers (at the end of the movie, on the left-hand side), said, "I play Ellington in my dance classes to show guys how to be romantic with their partners, how to fall in love, be a gentleman, be suave and sophisticated. The only musician who embodies this style is Ellington."
In the end, clubgoers and musicians alike felt Ellington was more than his style, intuitive arrangements or snappy dressing. He embodied a kind of grace and dignity that they felt transcended his craft.
"Whether it's music or painting or literature or wine," said Five Spot general manager Martin Cugini, 30, "when something rises above the specific category it's in, the way Ellington's music does, it's going to touch the human spirit."
But perhaps the description Ellington gave of his own music during a rebroadcast of a 1943 live show that Ronnie James recently heard on WPEN best captures the quality that draws listeners as well as musicians to the great composer.
James said, "Ellington opened up the broadcast by saying, 'This might not be very technical music, but it's sincere.' He said it twice, 'This is a very sincere performance.' "
Then James added, "And that's what I strive for in my music, too. Sincerity."
Now that swings.
© 1999 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.