Duke Ellington’s music: how did he do it?




Duke Ellington was hardly a composer at all in the traditional sense. For centuries, both “classical” and “popular” composers had worked in solitude. They often collaborated with other people in the process, but they worked out their ideas by themselves. Ellington composition didn’t usually come about that way. He didn’t compose for instruments. He composed for people, and he needed those people around him. Composers rarely share their procedures with the public, but Ellington briefly described his in a magazine article. Sometimes he wrote out a melody, worked out the arrangement, and presented it to the band. That’s traditional composition, … Continue reading

A one-man band like no other: James Morrison




Historically the one-man band has been a form of low entertainment with one person playing multiple instruments at once. It dates back to the combination of pipe and tabor (a three-holed flute played with one hand and a drum with the other) in the 13th century. Nowadays, clever performers can make contraptions combining a dizzying array of different instruments, using their knees and armpits to play some of them. No one has ever considered such a one-man band to be art. As soon as recording studios began to record separate tracks and mix them together, ambitious performers began to record … Continue reading

Concert bands and big bands




I used to play summers with the Wheaton Municipal Band in Wheaton, Illinois. The last concert of the season is always “big band” music, which means that most of the 90 members are finished and only 17 people play that concert. It has always struck me as funny that after a season of full band concerts, the one called the big band concert involves only about a fifth as many players. The difference in names turns out to be a matter of history and tradition. During the French Revolution, Bernard Sarrette took charge of training military musicians and assembled a … Continue reading