Duke Ellington and the Big Band Experience

Big Band music is unquestionably timeless. Timeless music encapsulates memorable elements that transcend the arrangement of pleasurable sounds. In an attempt to describe the persisting influence, I will break the genre into the most basic archetypes to illustrate the genre’s lasting relevancy. These observations will be primarily based upon the music of Duke Ellington.

1. Yearning for the Nostalgic: I think there is something intriguing about how this music is immediately linked to a sense of domestic coherency. I can’t help but imagine a loving wife and husband sharing a lazy Sunday night dance in the living room; swaying to the soft sentiments of “Tea for Two” whispering from the radio. From present perspectives, the past appears to be an idealized and imagined Utopic space. Big Band music becomes a form of escape. The grandeur of the musical form recollects a time of imagined simplicity, although in actuality, the era was riddled with war and turmoil. The music conversely seems to negate the traumatic and fragmented while sublimating hope and coherency.

2. Strength of Non-Verbal Emotion: A majority of Big Band music focuses on musical narrative over verbalized narrative. Rather than relaying a verbalized retelling of a story or engrained emotion, Big Band music centralizes narrative retelling through the evocation of implied sentiment. Each note, crescendo, decrescendo, and rest means something. Emotion is revealed through intricate nuances of interpretation. So much can be said without uttering a word. Love, despondency, joy, confusion, and anger can be solely expressed through the arrangement of musical elements. Even songs with verbal expression, the musical backing suggests more than the lyrics describe. A song like “Pretty Woman” depends heavily upon the embedded musical implications. The lyrics are simple and repetitive; however, the bass and piano duet hints to the woman’s character. The smooth jazz swagger illuminates her seductive and sultry traits adding to the allure of the song. Much like a poem, each tonality and technique implicitly expresses a deeper emotional innuendo and connection. The lack of vocalization, or in some cases the sheer simplicity of lyrical intervention, underscores the economy and genius invested in the intricate artistry.

3. Cohesion and Community: This stems from a similar vain as a yearning for the nostalgic. The orchestral structure and interactions cements a sense of a unified community. There is a sense that the individual and the community blissfully coexist in an intimate and shared space. There is a fluidity between the individual and the communal. The genre consists of solos, tuneful harmonies, duets, and calls and responses. The changing dynamics ensure a sense of coherency, fluidity, and security.

Connie Bio


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