Speaking My Mind
By Mercer Ellington - Crescendo Magazine April 1966 p. 20 - 21
I DON'T SEE ANY WAY IN THE WORLD THAT having Duke Ellington for a father could have helped being anything but an asset. There are many aspects to that. First, Ellington the man, as far as being a father is concerned, he's always been very wonderful. You know - when people just know that there are two Ellingtons present, they take us for brothers. And this is pretty much the way I grew up with him. It was always a matter of self-expression: 'What do you think?' There were never any Yes-es or No's. I mean, it was a matter of him saying: 'Well, if you apply certain things this way, you're subject to get this result.' And this was not only musical - this was from just a purely philosophic standpoint about life itself.
Secondly, from the musical aspect - Ellington is a genius as far as writing is concerned, and all that - but he's not a teacher. Although he has given me lessons and instruction, particularly in composition and arranging, in the earlier days say, about 1932 or '33. But, since then, any time I have some question about something that's happening musically, he'll simply say: 'Refer to the score' or “How does it sound - what does it represent when you hear it?” So, in this way, I've learned quite a bit.
Then, the advantage of staying in the wings from, say, age seven has been tremendous. From that school of experience, you learn something that you can never get any place else. Because we've travelled in every aspect: concerts, dances, fairs, in and out of doors, whatever and wherever. And you get to know how to feel the reaction of the audience.
In the band right now, we never know what our next number's going to be - from the very beginning of the concert until the end. Now he will probably have a standardised opening on most concerts, but even that may change. Sometimes we open up with Black And Tan Fantasy, sometimes with Soul Call, an up-tempo number. From that point on, we don't know what it's going to be, because it's relative to how the audience makes him feel, or what feeling he feels that he can impart to the audience at that time.
There have been instances, regardless of prestige, when Johnny Hodges has been presented first, because he felt that was what was needed at the time. In most cases, though, in order to break the ice, so to speak, somewhere in the earlier part of the programme we have Paul Gonsalves. As it is now, since we're working with Ella, Paul is usually first and last to be presented.
It's this awareness of audience presence that I've learned with Ellington, that I could have gotten nowhere else. There are only a few people that I think have basically had it over the years. People like Fats Waller or Art Tatum. Once in a while you get a new person - I think Dizzy has it, because he's become not only a great musician, but also a showman.
Thirdly, as far as recognition is concerned, I consider myself somewhere around average as a musician. And I've had opportunities that I could have only gotten as Ellington's son. So if there's any disadvantages - they're pretty mild.
It's simply that some people might expect me to be a great pianist - which I'm not! I use it from the standpoint of making arrangements or writing, songs.
As far as my horn is concerned, I'm more interested in being a part of the orchestral sound. I'm not a spontaneous musician. But I like the work of creating preconceived music - which still has to be enhanced by people who have spontaneous thoughts. Otherwise, it's not jazz, because jazz is motivated by expression and feeling.
I'm certainly not over-conscious of the name I bear, because that kind of feeling comes with the uncertainty I no longer have. I might have had it, possibly, ten years ago. But I've been on individual projects - things I've had to handle myself. When you become involved enough in what you're doing, you don't have time to think about things like that.
I wrote a show for the Moulin Rouge in Las Vegas. If I had worried about whether the music was going to be on a par with what Ellington would have done under the same circumstances, I would have been very inhibited. In fact, in a sense, I kind of welcome the instances where I can be away from his influence.
But, by the same token, there's no getting away from it. Because I made several arrangements for Basie which were never played after we'd rehearsed them. Basie said he couldn't afford to have the mark of Ellington on him. When his band played these things it sounded more like Duke Ellington's orchestra than Count Basie's!
I had a tremendous argument with my professor at N.Y.U., because he said I, tended to write towards the ideas of Schoenberg. So I read up on Schoenberg,
and I found out that he and Ellington had quite a bit to do with each other!
That is, as far as their feelings were concerned. Also, Delius. The common factor is that regardless of what direction they go in, it has to be different. They don't want to be tied down. Whatever project comes up, the tendency is not to be compared with anything that was ever happening like that before.
In these days of complexity, Ellington has moved towards simplicity. Whereas, you take the earlier appearances in Carnegie Hall, when he first created Black, Brown And Beige, everything was geared to high instrumental ability. And, of course, he had the musicians at the time who were very dexterous in their performance. The band was furiously engaged in activity. Now it simply supplies the most adequate background possible, and the maximum freedom is given to the musician himself.
Actually, he's always been Avant Garde. He must find some place new to go. By way of device, he's constantly changing. He's evolved into a new thing, now with the native sounds that he represents on his latest creation, La Plus Belle Africaine.
In this, he's not bound by key signatures whatsoever. You'd be pretty hard put to find out what key we're in. The whole thing, from top to bottom, is more or less spontaneous. We - the trumpets - or the rest of the orchestra, don't know at what point of the piece we're going to come in. We have to wait until he gives us a cue. There's no bar count to give us a definite entry spot. And it depends on what section he feels is appropriate there. Sometimes we play one section, sometimes we don't.
It's all a matter of him applying his stage sense. In fact, on a couple of occasions in Europe, before we had actually reached the climax of the number, the audience came in with tremendous applause. They had been satiated, and they felt that the work was at its completion at that point. So Ellington stopped it - we never finished it!
Really, the music of Ellington has been around me almost since birth. We were born in Washington, and I didn't really come to know my father until I was about nine years old, when we moved as a family into New York City.
At that time, he was appearing at the Cotton Club, and he'd come home every time the show would change, and write. He would start writing somewhere about nine-thirty in the evening before it was time to go to work, then go to work, back and start writing again
The apartment wasn't at all sound-proof, so through the night I could hear: these sounds, even though I was partially asleep. So I've gotten so that, as soon as I hear one of his compositions, I can tell just about how it's composed, because I remember seeing and hearing it being done. Consequently, when I do tend to write, I'll hear a major or minor chord like anyone else, but the sound I put down is the one I heard Ellington play.
As to why I'm playing trumpet, one particular person is responsible for that.
I used to study alto saxophone, and had a very good teacher-in fact, one of the folks who worked with Charlie Parker-Henry Linderman. And I, was doing pretty good, by the time I got through being coached by Barney Bigard, Johnny
Hodges and Harry Carney.
I think as late as 1942 I was still playing saxophone. I played trumpet from time to time in the Army band, but in the orchestra that played for dances, I was on saxophone - alto and also baritone (because it was always hard to get somebody to play it).
Finally, one day - I can't even remember the year - I happened to be practising saxophone when Cootie Williams was around. So Cootie handed me his trumpet, and said: 'Try blowing a note on this.' When he heard me, he said: 'Well, you've got natural chops for this. I'm going to take you down tomorrow, and get you a trumpet.' Ever since then I've played it.
And I like it—there's something about it. It hasn't always been a musical career with me. I was an athlete until I was twenty-one - involving track work, basket—ball, semi-professional football, whatever and wherever. I've always felt that I should have something that used strength. And, of course, brass represented this to me more than anything else.
I've worked with E ﬂat horn, and French horn for a while. One time I was in the orchestra as a trombonist - playing valve trombone. This way I feel more important, more needed. We have so many soloists now in the orchestra, it's good to have somebody who just sits there and plays parts. I do play lead and first trumpet on some things. As the days go on, with greater familiarity, I'm having opportunity to play more first - which is really what I'm after.
But, as Ellington says, as manager of the orchestra, I have the most important job I ever had in my life. And he's right. In a sense, it's difficult for me, because here I am directing certain people to do things - and they raised me. We have Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, and these are people who, in 1927, were leading me around New York by the hand, showing me zoos and buying me ice cream cones. So I really can't jump up and say: 'All right, it's time now for you to move from here to there.' And yet I must get them to do this. You have to find your way around, and do what you can. The difficulty is to be able to set myself on their level, because of the great regard in which I've held them all these years.
It's quite a job. Then you realise you're dealing with men who have a terriﬁc reputation, and ability to match under conditions which are extremely difficult. We're averaging a country a day, with two concerts per day. In most instances, it means you start at seven or eight at night, and you finish at one. So, for the first two weeks, we average four or ﬁve hours sleep a night.
So the men are obviously fatigued - and yet they still manage to have a verve when that spotlight goes on. There's all time magic when that light hits. And you have to recognise that they're doing the impossible already, before you ask them to do more.