Duke Ellington and Synthesizers

In this age of synthesizers and autotune we sometimes loose sight of what musicians did back before all of this technology to create new sounds.  Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was one of the best sound synthesizers of his day.  Scientifically speaking, all that synthesizers do is combine waveforms to create new and interesting sounds.  Duke is credited with the innovation of using the big band to create different sounds and colors.  Duke was a painter and he understood the use of color to add drama, intrigue and emotion.  Unlike most of the big bands of the time period who would arrange music by section creating riffs and phrases for trumpets separate from the sax section, he used the sounds of trumpets and trombones (with mutes) mixed in with saxes or clarinets to create different timbres and textures. 

Duke’s early notoriety came from his compositions performed at the Cotton Club, where the setting was the plantation south and the depictions of African Americans were those of the “exotic negro.”  He created a soundtrack to fit the floor shows that depicted scantly clad women in leopard skin clothing with feathers who danced provocatively to his music.  Duke knew how to create a mood and his music painted a clear picture to the patrons of what the scene was about.  Despite the racist circumstances of the Cotton Club (Blacks were not allowed in as patrons only as staff) Duke had an air of sophistication and regalia that lived up to his royal name.  He gave dignity to African Americans who at the time were seen as primitive and exotic.

One of my favorite pieces by Duke in his early period is “Daybreak Express.”  This piece is a true testament to his writing ability where he paints an amazing picture of a train pulling out of the station and going on a magnificent journey.  It seems as if everyone on the train is having a blast and the party continues until the next stop.  You can hear the train pulling into the next station and at the very end the steam of the engine let’s out the signature hiss.  Incredibly, all of these sounds were created by instruments in the band (piano, bass, drums, saxophone, trumpet, trombone). 

In considering the breadth and the complexity of the music Duke Ellington composed we can clearly understand why some would call him the “Greatest American Composer.”

Here is the track, I hope you enjoy the ride.

*Photo by Louis Panassié

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