Bringing alive the music of Duke Ellington

Transcriptions by Michael Kilpatrick

Swing Rhythms

Figure 1

Quavers (eighth notes) are swung unless otherwise indicated. Swung beats approximate to the triplet rhythm shown in Fig. 1(a), but at faster tempos the rhythm may tend towards even quavers. To indicate a staccato swing rhythm I have in most instances adopted the dotted rhythm of Fig. 1(b), which Ellington himself used in earlier years, albeit not consistently. Occasionally the triplet with a centre rest may be written instead. Staccato dots are avoided, as these can lack visibility. The shuffle rhythm of Fig. 1(c) is often played with a strong emphasis on the beat.

Rhythms to be played straight, not swung, may have text indications above or below the staff and may have an extended line, in the fashion of an 8va marking, to show their scope. To indicate runs of accented, staccato straight quavers, both text and/or ^ accents may be used as appropriate; remember that such accents are not used to suggest a staccato swing rhythm.

Phrasing and Annotation

In most melodic or rhythmic phrases every note should be articulated, but slurring may be appropriate in scalar or chromatic counterpoint, or in block harmonies (which Ellington labelled organ passages) of little rhythmic interest. Whilst rhythmic figures should be played in accented fashion, long notes should not be sustained at volume, rather played fp. The levels of attack and sustain are important to swing feel, and sustained long notes can overpower melodic lines in other instruments. An innate understanding of blues/jazz phrasing is assumed; there is then little need to over-annotate the transcriptions.

Dynamics, phrase marks and slurs (or alternatively breath commas), have been added conservatively to the Standard Editions based on the recorded performances of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The Original Editions however, are mostly unannotated, retaining only what Ellington originally wrote. The original scores and parts never indicated dynamics. Ellington only occasionally wrote phrase marks, and accents found in the original band parts were often added by the Elington's sidemen for their own benefit. Sometimes Ellington's annotations are redundant or do not reflect the recorded performances. In some cases I have altered or removed existing annotations for the sake of consistency. Figure 2

Bends (notated as in Fig. 2), rips, falls, glissandos, portmanteau and shakes are added to the Standard Editions. These were also mostly absent from Ellington's manuscripts.


Some bandleaders attempt to get their saxophone section to play with synchronised vibrato. That is counter to Ellington's concept of writing for individual musicians, not a collective of clones. Whilst unison passages should not have much vibrato, elsewhere an individual vibrato may be employed. Trumpets should use less vibrato and trombones should avoid it almost entirely. Ensemble slide vibrato is cheesy, as is an ensemble passage led by a trumpet with too heavy a vibrato.

Mutes and the Pep Section

Plunger articulations are denoted by three markings: +, o and +o, the latter used for "wah" inflections on long or isolated notes. The text loose plunger or tight plunger indicates passages with a static plunger position. Ellington did not write plunger articulations on his scores: presumably they were memorised in rehearsal. Plunger articulations are, however, added to the Original Edition brass parts.

The pep section is a trio (usually two trumpets and trombone) employing a combination of pixie mute and plunger, an important part of Ellington's tonal palette. The notation for this is plunger/mute. Generally, every note of a pep section passage is articulated with a "wah" (or better, "yah"). A plunger without the pixie will not suffice. In his trombone solos, Joe Nanton used plunger and pixie (or trumpet straight mute) to vocalise "yah-yah" instead of "wah-wah", combined with growl effects. If possible, this should be attempted.