Ask David Berger about his lifelong obsession with the music of Duke Ellington, and he’ll tell you the same thing. “Duke is the best storyteller that jazz has ever had,” says Berger, a jazz composer, arranger and bandleader. “He’s got 1,500 stories out there” — by which Berger means songs.
Even casual listeners are familiar with Ellington standards, such as “Mood Indigo” and “Sophisticated Lady.” But these are only a fraction of a staggering output that ranges freely across genres and a six-decade career: from funky low-down blues and hot dance tunes to majestic spirituals; from film soundtracks and Broadway musicals to extended symphonic works, even a ballet. For Berger, this sprawling, all-encompassing body of work is the stamp of a uniquely and quintessentially American artist as universal and timeless as Shakespeare (who, in fact, Ellington once adapted in a 1957 jazz suite of musical vignettes called “Such Sweet Thunder”).
Berger has been immersed in the sounds of Ellington for more than 50 years. He is a prolific author and educator with several acclaimed books about arranging and composing. Encouraged by a prestigious academic publisher, he has embarked on a five-volume book project, “The Ellington Effect,” which explores the creative process of the native Washingtonian, with in-depth explications of representative songs. Berger aims to illuminate how Ellington elevated folk idioms like the blues into fine art.
Berger, 71, lives on Duke Ellington Boulevard in Manhattan. Above the piano in his apartment is a painting by Ellington. In his office hangs a poster of the Duke by a Polish artist. Simply put, his life is Ellington. “There’s a depth and breadth to this music,” Berger told me recently. “It affects us emotionally, and it’s deeply connected to our culture.”
Ellington is one of the most written-about figures in American music, but Berger sees a need for serious scholarship of the sort accorded to classical composers. “There’s not a lot of deep analyses of the pieces he wrote,” Berger says. “There are plenty of books that talk about his life, but you don’t really get an understanding of his art. I want to talk about his art.”
“What David proposes — to subject dozens of Ellington’s works to lengthy and detailed explanation — is unprecedented,” says John Edward Hasse, curator emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian and author of “Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington.” “I expect this project will set new standards and inspire students, educators and musicians for decades to come.”
Berger’s meeting with his idol remains a red-letter day in his life. It was in the early ’70s and a friend who had joined Ellington’s band invited Berger to a recording session. “Duke had a vibe and an aura and such charisma that it made the energy in the room go off the charts,” recalls Berger, whose friend introduced him as an arranger to Ellington, seated regally at his piano. “Duke says, ‘Well, I must take a lesson from you some time.’ Great, right? You gotta love it!”
Ellington was famous for using street sounds in his music: car horns, church moans, train whistles, even a myna bird that he heard singing outside a hotel on tour in the Middle East. In one of Berger’s favorites, “Harlem Air Shaft,” Ellington constructs an entire composition — a sort of mini street-symphony — from the ambiance and racket of a tenement building in Harlem. “So you hear the people fighting and you smell everybody’s cooking and you hear radios from all the apartments playing all these different styles of music, and he integrates them brilliantly into a singular piece,” Berger says.
Another song, the poignant “The Single Petal of a Rose,” evokes Ellington’s childhood in D.C., when his mother, Daisy, who always praised her only son as “blessed,” played sentimental parlor pieces on piano at their home in Northwest Washington. Berger also brings fresh, irreverent takes to war horses like “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” one of Ellington’s signature songs. Composed to accompany the dancers of ’20s-era nightclubs, it remained in Ellington’s repertoire right up until his death in 1974. Berger hears it as an ode to carnal joys: “It’s about sex. It’s got the whole buildup and the big climax and then, afterwards, you smoke a cigarette. It’s all in there.”
As a teenage trumpet player in the late ’60s, Berger revered Thad Jones, whose modern big band had gained a devoted following in a weekly gig at the Village Vanguard in New York. One night, he was hanging out with Jones between sets when two Ellington sidemen dropped by to say hello, and, when they left, Jones said, “Duke Ellington, greatest band in the world!” Flabbergasted, Berger assured Jones that his band was the best. Jones said, “My band will never be one-tenth what Duke’s band is.”
In a few years Berger was leading his own band before joining his idol’s Famous Orchestra shortly after Ellington died, when it was led by his son, Mercer. In the decades since, Berger has become a leading authority on Ellington’s music. In the late ’80s and ’90s, he was conductor of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, where he collaborated with Wynton Marsalis. He has transcribed more than 500 Ellington compositions, and he has performed throughout the United States and Europe.
The impulse to forge ahead with the ambitious — even he would admit, somewhat quixotic — five-volume series came about, at least in part, because Berger is feeling his mortality. “It needs to be done,” he says. “I’m going to be 72 this year and writing all these books is going to take a while, but I gotta do it. I don’t want to die with all this knowledge inside me and not pass it on.”
He is now in the midst of the first volume, “Flaming Youth (1924-1930),” in which he lays the groundwork of themes and threads that run through Ellington’s vast oeuvre. Other planned volumes include “The Age of Invention (1931-1939),” “Lightning in a Bottle (1940-1943),” “Extended Abstraction (1944-1956)” and “Citizen of the World (1957-1974).”
Berger hopes that his work can help bridge the generation gap in the same way Ellington’s music has broken through cultural barriers across the globe. “For young people,” he says, “this is like a foreign language, and I want to help them learn this language and appreciate it the way that I do.”
Eddie Dean is a writer in Maryland.