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: