Sun Ra and Duke Ellington: Parallels in practice for the 20th-century large ensemble

Ken Vandermark

Sun Ra: Chicago Background

Sun Ra arrived in Chicago from Birmingham, Alabama, in 1946, and worked with Fletcher Henderson and his big band at the Club DeLisa as a pianist and copyist/arranger from the summer of that year until May of 1947. The impact of Henderson’s music and this period of working with the band was clearly profound—more than three decades later he was still performing Henderson’s compositions (“Big John’s Special” on the album Sunrise In Different Dimensions [Hat Hut : 1981]). After his tenure with Henderson, Sun Ra remained in Chicago until the autumn of 1960, performing to mixed success with an evolving ensemble that began as an octet in 1954, and which came to be called the Arkestra. The ensemble traveled to Montreal to perform after the Chicago period, then continued to New York City in the summer of 1961, basing activities there until a permanent move to Philadelphia in the fall of 1968. By 1970 Sun Ra and the Arkestra were touring around
the world.

The time spent in Chicago laid the foundation for Sun Ra’s creative work as a composer, big band leader, theoretician, poet, songwriter, and director of a record label. All of those activities started in that city, as did an increasing emphasis on the idea “Space Is The Place,” indicated by compositional titles and song lyrics that included references to outer space, as well as elaborate costumes and staging that indicated a connection to “other worlds.” This complex mythology continued to develop throughout a career that spanned four decades, ultimately becoming a central part of Sun Ra’s identity. It is in many of the aspects found throughout this period of creative activity that I find strong parallels to the work of Duke Ellington.

Economic Strategies for Creative Control

By the mid-1950s, the economic heyday of the big band was long gone. Sun Ra had just begun work as a bandleader, while Ellington had already been leading a large ensemble for three decades. Both were faced with an economic challenge that few jazz orchestras participating in the big band era of 1935–1945 were able to meet. And yet, both maintained an orchestra over a period of many decades and until the end of their lives (51 years for Ellington, 39 years for Sun Ra). In order for their groups to survive, it was necessary to come up with financial strategies that could adapt to the economic shifts that confronted them throughout their lives. 

When Ellington started working as a bandleader, the practice of long-term, well-paid residencies for musicians was common (for example, the Ellington Orchestra’s legendary stint at the Cotton Club in Harlem that ran from 1927 to 1930). By the end of his career, the ensemble’s concerts were reduced to mainly one-nighters and festivals, forcing the band to travel almost constantly throughout the United States and around the world. This dramatic change in how concerts were booked was necessary to keep the orchestra alive. Their performances often included a medley of Ellington’s old “greatest hits,” a policy criticized by those who wanted to hear newer material and who felt that these medleys were a way of pandering to the audience. In reality, it was a brilliant business plan on Ellington’s part. In just a handful of minutes he was able to generate a large number of royalty payments from hit tunes composed earlier in his career. (For example, at the Carnegie Hall concert on November 13, 1948, the orchestra played a medley that included “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Mood Indigo,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Caravan,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Solitude,” and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” all in nine minutes and 39 seconds.) These ongoing payments helped sustain the band economically over decades. In addition, the medleys pleased older fans while allowing Ellington to get those pieces “out of the way” so the ensemble could spend more performance time on current, less known material. Based on the number of new pieces Ellington and his composing partner, Billy Strayhorn, wrote each year, making room for the new music was clearly a priority. 

Sun Ra did not have the benefit of income generated through hit tunes like Ellington (between 1927 and 1945, with 1939 being the only exception, Duke Ellington had multiple compositions in the U.S. Top 40 record charts every single year 1), so he needed to come up with different strategies to maintain economic viability. Key to these was the founding of his own record label in 1956 with the assistance of Alton Abraham, just two years after he started to direct his own band. It was a pioneering move for a musician to control the production of their music from start to finish—from the point of composition to the pressing of LPs. Artistic control was Sun Ra’s goal but sales of these albums at concerts also generated additional income for the band and for future recordings. Considering that Sun Ra’s discography is estimated at over 100 records, that financial achievement is significant. 

Another idea that helped engender cash flow was to build the Arkestra’s fan base through an exciting stage show. As indicated previously, the group almost immediately incorporated elaborate costumes and songs with lyrics about otherworldly subject matter connected to Sun Ra’s developing mythology and dancing. Having seen the band perform throughout the 1980s, I can testify that Arkestra performances were designed to be an entertaining spectacle, visually and sonically. Without question, Sun Ra figured out how to engage people who might never listen to the Arkestra’s music on their stereo at home ; the pageantry and chanting songs bridged a gap that often exists between entertainment and art, and allowed audiences to navigate between the two as they chose, in a remarkable way.

Mid-20th-Century Struggle

Though different, the economic strategies utilized by both Ellington and Sun Ra were successful from both a business and creative standpoint. The early to mid-1950s was a challenging time for both bandleaders, but they remained determined to find independent means to maintain a large ensemble for their ongoing work as composers, activity that never ceased or slowed down until illness late in their lives took hold. Sun Ra was just getting started in Chicago, and though he recorded several key albums during that mid-1950s period (including Sun Song and Sound of Joy [both later released on Delmark] and Jazz in Silhouette [Saturn : 1959, later on CD through Evidence : 1991]), the history indicates that the response from Chicago’s critics and audiences was less than receptive. 

The perception of Ellington’s work as a composer and the reputation of the orchestra was at perhaps its lowest ebb during this time. Two key members—Johnny Hodges and Sonny Greer—had left the band, and his Top 40 hits had been usurped by the influx of rock & roll. Most of this changed with Ellington’s concert at the Newport Jazz Festival in July of 1956 : Hodges had returned to the group, and the gig became a legendary part of jazz history. The album created from that concert and studio sessions during the two days following it is the best selling recording of Ellington’s career.2 Aside from a new suite written specifically for the occasion, the material performed at the concert was comprised of Ellington classics, and it was Paul Gonsalves’s tenor solo on “Diminuendo In Blue” and “Crescendo In Blue,” composed in 1937, that drove the crowd into a frenzy. 

With that kind of energized late-career success—so connected to a celebrated past—it would be understandable if a bandleader made the decision to try and replicate that triumph. Ellington did just the opposite, recording the brilliant album, Such Sweet Thunder (Columbia : 1957), a month after the Newport appearance. And, in the year 1959 alone, he recorded the soundtrack for Anatomy of a Murder (Columbia), The Queen’s Suite (issued on The Ellington Suites, Pablo : 1976), and the album Blues in Orbit, which featured a number of new compositions (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab : 1960, reissued on CD by Columbia : 2004).

Experiments in Sound and Form

Ellington had begun experiments with extended works as early as the 1930s, with “Creole Rhapsody” (1931) and “Reminiscing in Tempo” (1935), that utilized both sides of a 78 rpm record, an unprecedented move for a composer associated with jazz music.3 This was a full two decades before Sun Ra’s rightfully celebrated innovative compositions that included expansive forms, harmony, and texture. Ellington continued to experiment with new sounds and forms until the 1970s. A comparison of two of my favor­ite pieces from the late 1950s—one by each of these composers—illustrates how advanced Ellington was, a composer whose career began just two years after Fletcher Henderson’s, and an artist who never ceased to revolutionize his work.

“Saturn,” from Sun Ra’s album Jazz In Silhouette (1959), is a three-minute and 36-second piece that starts with a mid-tempo piano vamp and an angular, seven-bar horn theme which is played twice. The piece then shifts to a more conventional double-time, big band jazz piece with an AABA form that features great solos by John Gilmore on tenor and either Pat Patrick or Charles Davis on baritone, before returning to the double-time theme, concluding with the opening, angular melody, played once. On Such Sweet Thunder (1957), an album celebrating the work of William Shakespeare and co-composed with Billy Strayhorn, Ellington presents a piece entitled “Sonnet to Hank Cinq.” It features strategies similar to Sun Ra’s composition but covers much more musical territory in less than half the time. The music features Britt Woodman and the rest of the trombone section, but opens with a clarinet figure before shifting to an eight-bar, mid-tempo, register-leaping theme for Woodman. It then moves to a series of two new trombone themes over double time, before bringing back the mid-tempo, eight-bar theme, followed by a trombone cadenza that pushes the instrument into the stratosphere. Though much of the thematic material in “Sonnet to Hank Cinq” is more conventionally melodic than the opening to “Saturn,” Ellington and Strayhorn finish the piece with an ensemble gesture that ends on a startling dissonance. To my ears, the organization of the evolving themes makes the structural drama of that final chord sound twice as striking as the opening and conclusion to “Saturn.” It seemingly comes from out of nowhere, whereas Sun Ra sets up the angularity of the beginning and ending theme on “Saturn” by laying down a rhythmic and harmonic foundation for it with the piano vamp.

I know of nothing in Sun Ra’s catalog from the 1950s, however, that comes close to the invention of another piece on Such Sweet Thunder entitled “Madness In Great Ones.” During the course of three minutes and 26 seconds, Ellington and Strayhorn move the orchestra through more than a half dozen, non-repeating
thematic sections that combine dissonance and an unusual use of rhythm and space, with short connecting interludes, short solo statements throughout, and an echoing trumpet finale that takes place twice, disappearing under Cat Anderson’s whispered high notes. The composition is an innovative and completely coherent tour de force of sonic texture—particularly its ending. Though more than six-decades old, if written and performed today it would still sound incredibly advanced. In fact, I haven’t heard something as haunting and mysterious in the use of a repeating motif from Sun Ra until the Arkestra’s performance in 1970 called “Friendly Galaxy Number 2,” from Nuits de la Fondation Maeght vol. 2 (CD reissue, Universe : 2003). Sun Ra also uses trumpets in a reiterated figure, with static clusters played by flutes over this, while an arco bass solo takes place. Though performed more than a decade later, I find it to be an equally remarkable use of pulse and texture, as beautiful as Ellington and Strayhorn’s from “Madness In Great Ones.”

The mid-to-late 1950s were not only an interesting and demanding time for Sun Ra and Duke Ellington—they were a period of great transition for the music associated with jazz, a transition that led to a renaissance in the art form both in the United States and in Europe. Many established figures were starting to experiment with form and improvisational methodologies in an attempt to escape the harmonic and structural conventions that had been in place for decades ; the trajectory of Jimmy Giuffre’s music, for example, from the West Coast School of the 1950s to the pioneering work with his trio in the early 1960s with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow. Other established musicians, like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, were also starting to experiment—in Davis’s case with reductions in chord complexity, while Coltrane went in the other direction, creating more density and dissonance in the harmonic permutations. Jazz was searching for something new and more liberating from an artistic and improvisational standpoint, and in some cases it was finally coming around to ideas that Sun Ra and Ellington had already been pioneering in their music. 

By the middle of the 1960s the paradigm-shift toward more freedom for the music—maybe best indicated by the impact of Ornette Coleman’s groups on the jazz scene—created a ripple effect that transformed the thinking of even mainstream artists. Albums by elder statesmen like Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, and Jackie McLean all explored new ideas during this decade. In addition, this movement created a new avant-garde through the work of the AACM in Chicago in the United States, and developments throughout Europe that were no longer based on American models : in England, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, France, and Italy. As the 1960s progressed, so did the work of Sun Ra and Duke Ellington.

Ellington continued on his singular path of musical exploration with Billy Strayhorn until Strayhorn’s death in 1967, absorbing influences gathered from their travels at home and in countries around the world, which they then integrated into their compositions. (A key example of the creative impact of these journeys abroad, often funded by the U.S. State Department, can be found on the album The Far East Suite [re-issued by RCA/Bluebird on CD : 1995]). Perhaps the most radical music Ellington made, however, was without his orchestra or Strayhorn. On September 17, 1962, Ellington went into the studio to record with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, resulting in the album Money Jungle (originally released in 1963 by United Artists Jazz, then later on Blue Note). Cecil Taylor stated as early as the mid-’60s, “I never would have thought of playing the piano without thinking it out along Ellington’s lines, and that’s the base.” 4 When I heard Money Jungle’s title track for the first time, it was clear just how direct that lineage was. Ellington’s use of the piano’s percussive capacity—along with a use of dissonant clusters played almost arhythmically against the propulsive drive of Mingus and Roach—is not far afield from the music Cecil Taylor recorded at the end of the 1950s and start of the 1960s with Dennis Charles and Buell Neidlinger. With this album, and the one he recorded with John Coltrane for Impulse ! Records in 1962, Ellington showed that he was not only aware of what was taking place at the cutting-edge of jazz at that time—he was part of it.

At the same time Sun Ra was continuing, in one sense, the work began by Duke Ellington in the 1920s by building on Ellington’s experiments with tonality, color, and texture in music written for the Arkestra. This was accomplished not only in the ensemble orchestrations, but also by investigating sounds made possible through developments in keyboard technology. Sun Ra added electric piano to his arsenal as early as the late 1950s, and in the early 1960s he was already using the clavioline, a predecessor to the analog synthesizer, while the band utilized more added percussion, “space instruments,” and sound makers. By the ’70s the Moog synthesizer and other keyboards were incorporated, and the music of the Arkestra included more expansive and abstract material, as well as the songs and pieces rooted in jazz history (as evidenced on the Nuits de la Fondation Maeght recordings from 1970 mentioned above). The intersections of all of these territories, often with freely improvised transitions, became a central performance strategy for Sun Ra’s music until the end of his career, and is employed by the Arkestra even now, under the direction of Marshall Allen.

Realities of Racism and Critical Misunderstanding

Beyond the indignities and ongoing outrage of racism both musicians faced as African Americans at home and abroad, the innovative music that Duke Ellington and Sun Ra developed frequently came under criticism. As mentioned, Sun Ra left Chicago at the end of 1960 due to the poor reception for his advanced music. And, though Sun Ra and the band took the outer space mythology connected to their work seriously, the spectacle of it could overshadow the merits of the music itself, for fans and critics who had a tendency to look more than listen.5 Perception of the group’s creative activity, however, apparently improved when the Arkestra moved to New York City in the summer of 1961. 

Like Sun Ra, Duke Ellington was also met with criticism for expressing his life philosophy through music, and though he called the second of his three Sacred Concerts, “ ‘the most important thing I have ever done,’ ” “few critics have given them serious consideration.” 6 And, though Ellington’s invention regarding harmony and instrumental color was celebrated, he was often faulted for work with extended forms.7 

Parallels in Overview

It is in all of these ways the creative activity of Sun Ra and Duke Ellington are correlated : their foundation was shaped by musical developments from the 1920s (the case of Sun Ra, by working directly with Fletcher Henderson at the start of his career ; for Ellington, through participating in those developments as they took place) ; they both wrote songs with lyrics in addition to instrumental music, which comprised some of their most popular material ; they established their own methods for maintaining the economic survival of their ensembles, which enabled them to continue to record their new compositions and to perform around the world ; each was fascinated by the expressive potential of harmony, as well as orchestral color and texture ; and both struggled against racism, negative criticism, and the misunderstanding of their work throughout their careers. 

Perhaps the most essential parallels, however, are these : they were both keyboard players whose real instrument was their ensemble ; they were composer/performers that led big bands for decades during a nearly impossible economic climate for groups of that size ; and both created some of the most enduring and important music of the 20th century, which focused on improvisation and continuous innovation, not repertory material from their past. It is in these things—Sun Ra and Duke Ellington’s radical invention, problem-solving, and resilience—that makes them a model for creative music in the 21st century.

I’d like to cite John F. Szwed’s biography, Space Is The Place : The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, New York : Pantheon Books, 1997, as a reference for general details pertaining to Sun Ra’s history used in this article.

1 Duke Ellington Discography, Wikipedia :

2 Schaap, Phil. At Newport, liner notes from Ellington At Newport 1956 (Complete), [Columbia Records : 1999]), 19.

3 Tucker, Mark, ed. The Duke Ellington Reader, New York/Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1993, 387.

4 Spellman, A. B. Four Lives in the Bebop Business, New York : Limelight Editions, third edition, 1990, 60.

5 Tucker, Mark, ed. The Duke Ellington Reader, New York/Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1993, 387.

6 Szwed, John F. Space Is The Place : The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, New York : Pantheon Books, 1997, 265.

7 Tucker, Mark, ed. The Duke Ellington Reader, New York/Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1993, 375.

Sun Ra and Duke Ellington: Parallels in practice for the 20th-century large ensemble