Ellington Piano Player Dissertation


This dissertation examines four albums released by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra in the LP era, highlighting the intertwined roles composition and collaboration play in the realization of the sonic products. The first chapter analyzes 1951s Masterpieces by Ellington, the bands first 12-inch LP and one of the first jazz albums to explore the possibilities of the long-playing record as a medium. I balance discussion of Ellingtons compositional techniques in The Tattooed Bride, an eleven-minute concert work, with an examination of interaction as it occurs on the extended arrangements of three standards that constitute the albums remaining tracks. Chapter 2 looks at Duke Ellington, His Piano, and His Orchestra at the Bal Masque, a 1959 concept album that depicts the Ellington band in the guise of a supper-club orchestra. I look at Ellington and Billy Strayhorns arrangements of the preexisting material for insights into their creative process while also looking at the role of three other collaborators: Dick Vance, an outside arranger contracted for three arrangements on the album; Columbia records producer Irving Townsend, who splices fake applause at the beginning and end of each track to simulate a live recording; and the intended audience, who can choose whether or not to imaginatively engage with the albums simulated concert concept. In Chapter 3, I address The Ellington Suites, a 1976 posthumous release of pieces Ellington wrote to commemorate different people and places. After a detailed look at Ellingtons treatment of compositional parameters in The Queens Suite, I provide a comprehensive history and analysis of Ellingtons place-themed suites, offering a way of using place to hear these pieces as collaborations with members of his orchestra. In the final chapter, I focus on two multimedia collaborations for which Ellington provided the scores: an unfinished documentary film by Sam Shaw on Edgar Degas and a successful ballet choreographed by Alvin Ailey. The last chapter in particular reveals Ellingtons reliance on recording technology as a compositional practice, using tape as a sketchbook to work out, develop, and preserve ideas. Though composition and collaboration may seem opposed, they are reciprocal trajectories in addressing the music of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra.

Committee Members

Patrick Burke, Todd Decker, Robert Snarrenberg, Gabriel Solis,

Recommended Citation

LaCour, Darren, "The Long-Playing Ellington: Analyzing Composition and Collaboration in the Duke Ellington Orchestra" (2016). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 799.

Vijay Iyer (pronounced VIDGEay EYEyer) came to Berkeley in 1992 as a star doctoral student in physics, but his other career as a ground-breaking jazz pianist-composer-bandleader inexorably took over. To combine his two passions, he created an interdisciplinary PhD program for himself, “Technology and the Arts.”

This year Iyer will receive his PhD and continue to perform in the Bay Area and beyond. You can hear him and his ensemble at a release party for his second CD, “Architextures,” at Yoshi’s in Oakland Monday, April 27, at 8 p.m. One of his sidemen is bass player Jeff Bilmes, a Berkeley PhD student in computer science.

Only two or three PhD students a year create their own fields of study, says Iyer, and it’s not easy to get Graduate Division approval.

Iyer assembled a dissertation committee consisting of music professor David Wessel, director of Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Acoustic Technologies; music professor and former chair Olly Wilson; psychology professor Erv Hafter; UC San Diego music professor George Lewis; and Nobel laureate/physics and neurobiology professor emeritus Don Glaser. Iyer’s dissertation title is “Aspects of Rhythm Perception and Cognition in African and African-American Musics.”

“I’m using some of those concepts in my music,” says Iyer. “I’m studying the cognitive strategies that we use to understand and produce music in so-called ‘real’ time. Why don’t humans sound like computers, and vice versa? What is the difference, and why?”

“Vijay’s thesis research is an ideal match to our mission at CNMAT to promote creative interactions among music, science and technology,” says Wessel. “The centerpiece of his thesis concerns the cognitive processes involved in the perception and production of rhythmic structures – a subject almost entirely neglected by traditional music theory. He has made effective use of computer simulations to inquire about the fine temporal organization of phrasing and articulation. This cognitive science research is informed by his wide-ranging experience as a performer and composer and by his extensive study of African, Indian and jazz music.”

Iyer, whose parents emigrated from southern India to the United States in the ’60s, started violin lessons at 3, then taught himself piano. In high school in Rochester, N.Y., he was both orchestra concertmaster and rock band keyboardist.

At Yale, where he received a BS in math and physics, Iyer continued his jazz career.

After earning a Berkeley MA in physics in 1994, Iyer took time off to focus on music. He met Wessel, a former jazz musician with degrees in math and psychology. “David took me under his wing,” Iyer recalls.

A second turning point for Iyer was meeting famed alto saxophone player Steve Coleman, who took Iyer on tour to Europe and Africa.

Iyer describes himself as a “rhythmic pianist in the Duke Ellington-Thelonious Monk-Cecil Taylor tradition whose music pays homage to my culturally rich South Asian heritage.”

Besides his own groups – the Vijay Iyer Trio and Poisonous Prophets – Iyer performs with the hip-hop group Midnight Voices and several of the leaders in avant-garde jazz. He has appeared at jazz festivals throughout North America and Europe and was featured in a recent New York Times article on the new wave of Asian-American jazz musicians. “The way I focus on rhythm combines African-American and Indian techniques,” he says.

Iyer’s next step is to look for an academic post in New York, where he hopes to pursue his music career. “Indian-American musicians don’t have a high profile,” he says.

He plans to change that.

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