Friday, March 27, 2009

Duke Ellington and the coat of many colors

We've been discussing the color-music relationship for the last few weeks, and we are hoping that you find this topic as fascinating as we composers do.

In Jazz history, a certain Washington, DC born composer by the name of Duke Ellington is credited with being one of the great composers in history- Jazz or otherwise.

Lets look at one of the things that Duke Ellington (and later Strayhorn) was doing differently from the other Jazz composers of his day.
Prior to Ellington, if you were to look at the compositions that Jazz musicians were writing and playing, you would find that almost exclusively, when they modulated(changed keys), they would always go to a closely related key. For example if you were in the key of C, you might go to the key of F. Some key with only one accidental different than the previous one. I'm sure you might be able to find a couple of exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking this is how Jazz tunes were being written and arranged.

Now, lets look at some of Ellington's music, from the same period in history, the 1930's.
Take the song 'Do Nothin' til you hear from me'. It starts in the key of Bb and on the bridge it goes to Gb . Why did Duke do this? These keys aren't supposed to be related.

The answer might lie in the fact that Duke's first job was as an artist- painting signs to make some money. Of course, its impossible to know Ellington's inner mind; but there seems to be a very logical connection if one tends to look at key centers the way one looks at colors;

Tonalities in your rear-view mirror may be closer than they actually appear.

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