Duke Ellington’s Azure | New England Public Radio

Duke Ellington's Azure | New England Public Radio

My brother David, who lives in Paris, sent this photograph during a trip he made to Sardinia after Christmas. His subject line read “Azure,” which immediately brought to mind Duke Ellington’s song of that name. We’ll hear several renditions of it in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode including the 1937 Ellington original and later recordings by Phil Woods and Herbie Mann, the Cecil Taylor Trio, and the singers Ella Fitzgerald and Gretchen Parlato.

Ellington described Azure as “a little dulcet piece which portrays a blue mood.” He recorded the song on May 14, 1937, in an orchestration by Joe Lipman, a 22-year-old Boston-born pianist who went on to arrange the lovely suite of Bix Beiderbecke tunes that Bunny Berigan recorded in 1938, as well as major dates for Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan. Azure was recorded at the session that also produced the Ellington orchestra’s recording of Caravan. (San Juan native Juan Tizol’s Latinized original was introduced a year earlier by an Ellington small group led by Barney Bigard.)

Gunther Schuller compared Caravan to Tchaikovsky’s Arab Dance from the Nutcracker Suite, and expressed regret that “no one ever asked [Duke] to compose a substantial ballet comprising, like Tchaikovsky’s ballets, a number of ‘exotic’ cameo set-pieces, like Caravan or Mood Indigo.” In fact, Ellington composed The River, a twelve-part work, for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in 1970. But Schuller was writing of Duke in the context of his monumental study, The Swing Era, and was focused on how neglected Ellington was by mainstream cultural organizations in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Schuller had scandalized his classical music-devoted parents with an “epiphanal experience” he had in 1939 when he heard a 15-minute radio broadcast by Ellington. At the time, he was a 13-year-old fully immersed in music, and hearing Duke suddenly convinced him “that in the hands of a master like Ellington jazz was as great and important as any classical music.” Schuller remained devoted to both forms of music from thereon, and throughout his career he made major efforts to bring jazz into the academy and the concert hall.

In The Swing Era, Schuller addressed Azure in even greater detail than Caravan and said it “might have been another movement in such a ballet.” He described the work as a “uniquely Ellingtonian ‘blue’ piece…in the lineage of pastel-colored pieces like Mood Indigo, but remarkably advanced in its harmonic language…The instrumentation is that of Mood Indigo, with the trumpet and trombone now in close thirds and the clarinet an octave and a fourth below in its chalameau register…Harmonic clashes appear frequently throughout the piece, reinforcing the basic harmonic ambivalence with bitonal spicings, or moving further into extensions of tonality, as the weirdly chromatic trombones, or the downright atonal background for [Harry] Carney’s [baritone saxophone] solo.”

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