Original Document
Original Document
Billy Strayhorn on Duke Ellington, 1955. 

In 1934, in Pittsburgh, I heard and saw the Ellington band perform for my first time. Nothing before or since has affected my life so much. In 1939, I became his protégé, enabling me to be closer and see more.

His first, last, and only formal instruction for me was embodied in one word: Observe. I did just that and came to know one of the most fascinating and original minds in American music.

Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is his band. Each member of his band is to him a distinctive tone color and set of emotions, which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing, which I like to call the "Ellington Effect."

Sometimes this mixing happens on paper and frequently right on the bandstand. I have often seen him exchange parts in the middle of a piece, because the man and the part weren't the same character.

Ellington's concern is with the individual musician, and what happens when they put their musical characters together. Watching him on the bandstand, the listener might think that his movements are stock ones used by everyone in front of a band. However, the extremely observant may well detect the flick of the finger that may draw the sound he wants from a musician.

By letting his men play naturally and relaxed, Ellington is able to probe the intimate recesses of their minds and find things that not even the musicians thought were there.

Lately, personnel changes have prompted the comment that what I call the "Ellington Effect" has been replaced by something different. This, I believe, comes about from listening with the eyes instead of the ears. The same thing has happened every time there has been a change during my stay, and, even before my time, the advent into the band of the very people who have left brought forth the same remarks.

The same comment accompanied my arrival, but has long since simmered down to a whodunit game indulged in by the band (which always puzzles me, because I think my playing and writing style is totally different from Ellington's).

The Ellington Effect has touched many people, both listeners and performers, princes and paupers, the loved and the unloved, and will, as long as there is, and after there is –Ellington.

Credit: Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Hear Me Talkin' To Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It. Rinehart & Co., 1955.
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