Stylistic Crossover in Duke Ellington’s The Liberian Suite

In 1947, Duke Ellington composed a suite to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Republic of Liberia, whose independence was declared after thousands of freed American slaves had arrived in the African region. The Liberian Suite, which comprises six contrasting movements, was recorded on December 24 of that year, premiered at Carnegie Hall two days later, and released in October of 1949.

The first movement of the work, “I Like the Sunrise,” is a swing ballad in thirty-two bar AABA format with vocals. According to Ellington’s own words, as they appear in Patricia Willard’s liner notes, “‘I Like the Sunrise’ depicts the spirit of the people who left America to settle in Africa in 1847 from the perspective of man beaten down by the mail fist of slavery… The sunrise symbolizes hope. If you have another day, you have another chance.”

This depiction is also recreated in the outline and texture of the movement. The melody and chords of the introduction are built mostly with the octatonic scale, whose symmetrical structure involves intervals that are difficult to aurally relate to each other and thus sound dissonant and conflicting. Ellington uses these musical qualities to represent the pain and darkness of slavery. In contrast, the head of the tune is peaceful. The orchestration is consonant; the rhythmic phrasing is even; Al Hibbler’s vocals sound clean and pure; and the texture of the accompaniment is soft and relaxed. Supporting the lyrics, the calmer sonority represents the hope and optimism that arises from freedom.

Ellington has disregarded musical categories in order to compose freely and find his own artistry throughout his life. In the 1962 interview “The Art Is in the Cooking,” conducted by Stanley Dance, Ellington declared that “A listener who has first to decide whether this is proper form when a musician plays or writes something – that’s not good. It’s a matter of ‘how does it sound?’” (333).

He has also explained that the fusion of styles yields the process of art evolution, in which artists inspire one another, incorporate different forms of expression into their own musicality, and blend the idioms subconsciously, creating new vocabulary:

Yes, just about every musician has been inspired by another musician, has adopted characteristics of his style and clothed them in his own personality. Some people have done it very skillfully and deliberately. Others have done it, you might say, grabbing at a straw. It may surprise you, but I think those who have done it grabbing at a straw are the ones who have come up with the nearest thing to something new (335).

The Liberian Suite is not an exception to that notion, and it combines elements from several styles: jazz, impressionism, latin-bolero, romanticism, contemporary music, and Stravinsky’s music.

The theme of the introduction to “I Like the Sunrise” stems from the octatonic scale, comprising three descending intervals: a tone, a minor third, and a half-tone:

Image: main motif for “I Like the Sunrise” on staff notation.

It is played and developed by different horns, such as the baritone saxophone, which expands it on the third beat of measure eight, or the trumpet, which transforms it to create a tonal variation in bar three.

The octatonic scale does not come from jazz. Igor Stravinsky frequently used it for his compositions, notably in Petrouchka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). Both became widely known, especially the latter one, and Ellington, following the conception of enriching the musical spirit ignoring artificial categorizations, did not hesitate in adopting language that he judged appropriate for his purposes.

The second movement, “Dance No. 1,” has a similar structure to the first one: while the rubato introduction is dissonant and strident, the head is clear harmonically and rhythmically.

Again, Ellington uses vocabulary not related to jazz. At 0:50, in the introduction, the clarinet plays the whole-tone scale, another symmetrical scale whose intervals sound clashing. This element appears also at the very beginning of the piece in the bass line. The whole-tone scale has become popular in western music in the impressionism period, mainly developed by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

Six years before The Liberian Suite, Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s arranger since 1939, had already combined impressionistic language with jazz in his composition “Chelsea Bridge.” As Walter van de Leur explains in Something to Live for: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, “The main compositional idea of Chelsea Bridge… as well as its subdued orchestral colors, allude to some of Debussy’s orchestral works” (51).

Besides using impressionistic language, Ellington echoes Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. At 1:06 and 1:26, with a dissonant, rough, and loud quality, intermittent sforzati evoke the last number of the famous ballet, “Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One),” in which the chords’ notes are clustered so tightly that the resulting effect is almost purely percussive:

“Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One).” The Rite of Spring.

Image: Measure 83 of Stravinsky’s “Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One)” on staff notation.

Finally, improvisation, the signature of jazz, also takes place, in this case performed by the tenor saxophonist during the head.

The introductions of the first two movements share the same motif as a theme: the above-mentioned descending sequence of a tone, a minor third, and a half-tone. The juncture reveals how Ellington economized resources recycling ideas to compose an extended piece. This is the method whereby long works, such as symphonies, are created. Two excerpts in which counterpoint is used are particularly related: the horn lines starting at 0:21 in “I Like the Sunrise” and the section from 1:15 to 1:51 in “Dance No. 1”:

“I Like the Sunrise” at 0:21

Image: “I Like the Sunrise” at 0:21 on staff notation.

“Dance No. 1” at 1:35

Image: “Dance No. 1” at 1:35 on staff notation.

“Dance No. 1” evolves into the head, a medium tempo jazz tune that starts with a walking bass line. The tenor saxophone plays the melody in a call and response arrangement with the brass section, and as soon as it comes in, the melody shows another theme connection, this time between the heads of both movements.

In the head of “I Like the Sunrise,” the antecedent of the A theme comprises two cells. The first one consists of the tonic note repeated twice, the major third, and the fifth. Hibbler allows certain flexibility in the rhythm, but the last two notes of the melody are always an eighth note followed by a dotted quarter note.

Similarly, the first cell of the theme in the monothematic head of “Dance No. 1” consists of the tonic note repeated four times, and its last two notes are an eighth note and a quarter note. Furthermore, at 2:15, the last two notes of the motif are the third and the fifth instead of the tonic. This adjustment turns the cell into an exact reiteration of the first movement motif. The only difference is the mode of the third, which in the second movement appears as minor. This variation is particularly comparable to Hibbler’s vocals at 3:53 in “I Like the Sunrise.”

“I Like the Sunrise” at 3:53 “Dance No. 1” at 2:15
Image: “I Like the Sunrise” at 3:53 on staff notation. Image: “Dance No. 1” at 2:15 on staff notation.

“Dance No. 1” segues into the third movement, “Dance No. 2,” speeding up the tempo, going into fast swing. This section features the clarinet and the celesta. Continuing with the recycling of ideas, the A theme of the third movement has been composed using the introduction of “I Like the Sunrise,” too: its second cell contains all the intervals in the descending sequence, with the addition of a perfect fourth between the minor third and the half tone:

Image: “Dance No. 2” motif on staff notation.

In “Dance No. 2,” the bass walks and the drum set marks the swing rhythm on the ride cymbal. But although the movement has mainly jazz characteristics, including also the improvisation of both soloists, the participation of the celesta adds a classical touch. More remarkably, during the coda, the bowed bass and the timpani roll, while supporting the strident brass, generate a texture that resembles a symphonic orchestra.

The introduction of “Dance No. 3” features two soloists: the piano, accompanied by a timpani roll, and the violin. In his solo, Duke plays notes on both extremes of the piano simultaneously. The resultant wide range is characteristic of Arnold Schönberg’s dodecaphony, although in this case Ellington doesn’t use atonality, Schönberg’s most distinctive aspect. “The Clothed Woman,” written in the same year, reveals yet more of the influence of the German composer on Ellington.

Soon, the piano solo evolves into romanticism. The excerpt starting at 0:19 is particularly similar in content and quality to measure 138 of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata “Pathétique.” In both passages, the fifth note of the key and diverse chord inversions alternated at regular intervals are played delicately.

“Dance No. 3” at 0:19 “Pathétique”
Image: “Dance No. 3” at 0:19 on staff notation. Image: Measure 183 of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” on staff notation.

After the piano solo, Ray Nance plays one chorus of the melody on violin, and the orchestra stops and gives him space for a cadenza. In a romantic style resembling that of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in E minor, Nance shows his virtuosity playing chords, notes of the violin’s highest register, and thrills; then, the orchestra comes in. The rhythm section accompanies the baritone sax first and then the rest of the violin solo in cha-cha style, with the drummer hitting on the wooden side of the toms, creating a sound similar to the clave and percussion set. The melody is then re-introduced by the trumpet and accompanied in the same manner.

“Dance No. 4” follows next. It is a fast swing piece in which the timpani, a classical instrument set, replace the drums taking a solo and accompanying the many saxophone solis full of jazz-style vibratos and glissandos. Adding variety, the lead trombone brings the whole-tone scale back to life within a soli at 0:46.

The sixth and last movement, “Dance No. 5,” is a medium-slow tempo tune. It starts with a bass ostinato that is maintained throughout and supports the ubiquitous plunger-style brass passages. This contrasting combination is typical of the compositional style of Ellington’s earliest works. One example is “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” (1920) which involves legendary plunger-style trumpeter Bubber Miley. As Gunther Schuller describes in Early Jazz, for this piece “Ellington… has arranged a moaning, sustaining passage for the saxophones and tuba that provides both framework and contrast to Miley’s line…. Here we find a dramatic example of what has been called the ‘Ellington effect’” (327). By this means, the Duke closes the suite echoing classic Negro jazz.

Duke Ellington’s philosophy that categorization is artificial has been his means for expanding his artistry all his life. It is not to be understood that the Duke had not recognized the differences between styles of music and that his musical fusion process is a consequence of his ignorance. His rejection of categories reveals his effort in fostering his individual evolution, instead of labeling art. Ellington has been very aware that “[e]verybody who’s had anything to say in music –all the way back– has been an individualist,” as he says in Nat Hentoff’s 1965 article “This Cat Needs No Pulitzer Prize” (364).

Categories provide a certain idea of what can be expected from a given object, process, or form of expression. When an object of analysis does not fall under any category, such as a new musical style or a fusion of styles, the listener feels the anguishing discomfort that arises from unpredictability.

The same phenomenon occurs when people interact. By categorizing people into different labels—races—and belonging to one of them, human being feels more secure, living under the illusion that he can predict how his fellow man will behave—at least within certain boundaries. Also, race categorization provides the false notion that whites have more in common with themselves than with blacks. This is an innocent misconception. Although cultural differences exist, regardless of race, people behave according to their own feelings and personality.

Ironically, the rejection of musical categories does not reside in ignoring the differences in styles, but in allowing the free usage of elements of different type. Parallel, racial integration does not consist in eliminating disparity, but in celebrating diversity. What Duke is proving through music, perhaps even unintentionally, is that blacks and whites can work towards the same end, because the differences are only superficial, and even though people can still be radically different, they still share the same essence: humanity.

The fusion of different styles of music (particularly the fusion of jazz with European music styles) and Ellington’s freedom in combining musical elements represent the process of integration of human races (mainly blacks and whites). One hundred years after Liberia’s foundation, the Duke reminds all races that the striving towards a world wher man lives under the principles of mutual dignity, equality, and respect is possible.

Works Cited

  • Dance, Stanley. “The Art Is in the Cooking.” The Duke Ellington Reader. Ed. Tucker, Mark. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Ellington, Duke. The Liberian Suite. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Columbia, 2004 (1949).
  • Hentoff, Nat. “This Cat Needs No Pulitzer Prize.” The Duke Ellington Reader. Ed. Tucker, Mark. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986 (1968).
  • Stravinsky, Igor. The Rite of Spring.
  • van Beethoven, Ludwig. Piano Sonata No 8 “Pathétique” in C minor.
  • van de Leur, Walter. Something to Live for: The Music of Billy Strayhorn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002
  • Willard, Patricia. Liner Notes. Ellington Uptown. Columbia 87066, 2003.

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