Duke Ellington's hungry ear

A trove of quotes on the great jazz musician's composing process

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Advice on art paralysis.

Duke Ellington (1899–1974)

Last Thursday, on the 122nd anniversary of Ellington’s birth, Dust to Digital posted a wonderful video of the jazz great talking about his composing process, from an hourlong documentary recorded in 1967. Here’s a longer version of the clip, beginning with Ellington describing how he comes up with musical ideas (often right before falling asleep):

If you don’t have time to watch the video, this quote in particular leapt out at me:

As far as I’m concerned, I think the best place to work is in one [hotel] room, not a suite, in the middle of the city. And, if possible, with a vacuum cleaner working outside the door. Or go downstairs to the dining room or the bar where the piano is and they’re cleaning up in the middle of the night. That’s good, that’s real good and productive. It’s wonderful isolation, because the cleaners don’t bother you. And you get good isolation. It’s mental isolation anyway, it’s not physical isolation.

This sent me searching for more on Ellington’s composing habits—and I stumbled on a trove of terrific quotes in Harvey G. Cohen’s 2010 book Duke Ellington’s America. First, while we’re on the subject of hotel rooms, here’s the writer Stanley Dance describing Ellington’s process:

Whenever he was long enough in one hotel, a piano had been moved into his suite. At Camden, it hadn’t been possible, and he had worked alone in the hotel’s empty ballroom, all lights on, until dawn. Here in Boston, the piano was conveniently located opposite the TV and near the doors of adjoining rooms. He could step out of the shower, play a chord or a phrase, and step back in again.

What an image! (Reminds me of a detail from Daily Rituals: that Beethoven liked to think of musical ideas while standing in front of his washbasin, sloshing water around and humming or singing to himself, then dashing across the room to jot down an idea.)

Ellington’s own descriptions of his process are full of similarly vivid images and metaphors. Here are some of my favorites, via Cohen’s book:

On the privilege of being a composer with his own band

My band is my instrument even more than the piano. Tell you about me and music—I’m something like a farmer. A farmer that grows things. He plants his seed and I plant mine. He has to wait until spring to see his come up, but I can see mine right after I plant it. That night. I don’t have to wait. That’s the payoff for me.

On not forcing things

I don’t knock myself out working, you know. I’m not a slave to this. Music is my first love actually. When I do go after it, of course, I go after it real wholeheartedly, with everything that I’ve got. I may sit down and write and write and write, without any sleep for a week, you know. And if I do go to bed, get up in the middle of the night, or after a couple hours of sleep, and come back with an idea, and complete something. But then when I go away from it, there’s no telling when I’m coming back to it because I don’t like to force things. I write when I feel like writing. When I’m riding. Bus, train, automobile. [These] things help me. Long stretches.

When asked if composing drains him physically

None of it takes it out of me. It gives more than it takes. When I hear what I wrote I receive the type of physical and emotional reward that money can’t buy. For me it’s a stimulus.

On chasing a melody

It’s this thing you keep chasing. This melody. You are always looking for it. Then a bit of it comes to you, you bite a piece, and it tastes sweet. Then you go back and reach for a bit more. It’s still “this melody,” but it’s a different one now. If you’re lucky you get it again—a new one. This tree has got a lot of different fruit on it . . . A composition may make some money for me, but I don’t care about that. I just want to hear it.

On having “a hungry ear”

My life is all music; there is complete commitment. I have no other definitive interests. You could say I’m addicted to music, that I have a hungry ear that consumes sharps and flats. I’d have to be totally involved to keep the band together for 52 weeks a year.

Finally, here’s Ellington apologizing for being late for an interview

You know how it is, you go home expecting to go right to bed, but then on the way in you go past the piano, and there’s a flirtation. It flirts with you. So you sit to try out a couple chords, and when you look up it’s 7AM.

Again, all of the above quotes were collected by Harvey G. Cohen in his book Duke Ellington’s America. I’ve only had a chance to skim it, but based on what I’ve run across so far I’m really looking forward to reading the whole thing.

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I found a lot of useful writing tips in the replies to the following two tweets (click through to read them all). Highly recommended for anyone working on (or toward) a book-length work of prose.

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