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Easily the most significant pure composer to come out of big-band jazz - he now commands an eminent position in mainstream textbooks on 20th-century music - Duke Ellington was an American original. He was a master of instrumental color and texture and special timbral effects, and he experimented with harmony and form. Ellington began extending the size of his compositions with Creole Rhapsody in 1931. Soon his works approached the symphonic not merely in length, but also in motivic development and manipulation.
The size of his band grew as well. The decades of the 1930s and '40s are considered by many Ellington's prime creative years, but that may be in part simply purist snobbery, as in his later years he turned more to large suites (often inspired by places he visited with his band on increasingly frequent foreign tours), big sacred works, film scores, and music for stage productions (he left an opera, Boola, incomplete at his death).
The advent of long-playing records also proved significant in Ellington's continued development of expanded forms. Night Creature (1955, 1963), which features full orchestra plus saxophones, was orchestrated by Ellington and Luther Henderson as a sort of three-movement concerto grosso, a jazz band as collective soloist within a symphony orchestra, and was recorded in 1963 on the album Symphonic Ellington. Ellington's music had its roots in dance, and although not originally conceived as a dance, Night Creature has been successfully choreographed, most notably by Alvin Ailey in 1975 for his American Dance Theater.
Ellington's own scenario for his three-part tone poem follows:
"The first movement is about a blind bug who comes out every night to find that because he is king of the night creatures, he must dance. The reason he is king, of course, is that being blind he lives in night all day, and when night really comes he sees as well as anyone else, but with the difference that he is accustomed to not seeing. So he puts out his antennae and goes into his dance, and if his antennae warn him of danger, he pauses, turns in another direction, and continues bugging the jitterbugs.
"The second movement is concerned with that imaginary monster we all fear we shall have to meet some midnight, but when we meet him I'm sure we shall find that he too does the boogie-woogie.
"Night creatures, unlike stars, do not come out at night - they come on, each thinking that before the night is out he or she will be the star. They are the restless cool whose exotic or erotic animations, no matter how cool, beg for recognition, mainly from the queen, that dazzling woman who reigns over all night creatures. She is the theme of the third movement. sitting there on her high place and singing, 'I want to be acknowledged' (in D major), or 'Who but me shall be desired?' (in A-flat), or 'Who has the taste for my choreography?' (in A minor). After having made each of her subjects feel that Her Majesty sings only for him or her, who is individually the coolest or craziest, her high-toned highness rises and snaps her fingers. As they stomp off the handclapping, everybody scrambles to be in place, wailing and winging into the most overindulged form of up-and-outness."
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.