David Berger, leader of the Sultans of Swing, is an esteemed arranger who might be called a Duke Ellington specialist except that he is expert in all areas of big band jazz. He created The Harlem Nutcracker, incorporating new arrangements of Tchaikovsky pieces that Ellington and Billy Strayhorn didn’t get around to in their Nutcracker suite. For the Essentially Ellington project of Jazz At Lincoln Center, Berger wrote a set of guidelines for the playing of Ellington’s music. They cover the esoteric–“Blues inflection should permeate all parts at all times, not just when these opportunities occur in the lead.”–to the practical: “the notation of plungers for the brass means a rubber toilet plunger bought in a hardware store.”
The paper has eighteen sections and a glossary. Here are sample passages.
From # 4:
In Ellington’s music, each player should express the individuality of his own line. He must find a musical balance of supporting and following the section leader and bringing out the character of the underpart. Each player should be encouraged to express his or her personality through the music.
From # 13:
This is acoustic music. Keep amplification to an absolute minimum; in the best halls, almost no amplification should be necessary. Everyone needs to develop a big sound. It is the conductor’s job to balance the band.
The bass should not be as loud as a trumpet. That is unnatural and leads to over-amplification, bad tone and limited dynamics. Stay away from monitors. They provide a false sense of balance.
God bless you, David Berger. May every engineer indoctrinated in rock and roll amplification be forced to memorize and swear to uphold # 13. However, I must point out that jazz is not always played in the best halls and that it is possible for an engineer with ears undeafened by years of exposure to rock, and with sensitivity to music, to discreetly enhance the balance and mix of a band, even to provide monitoring that helps soloists hear the rhythm section. Rarely, though, can he correct for drummers who play too loud or bassists with amplifiers as powerful as radio stations.
Although Berger’s paper is intended for musicians who play Ellington scores, it uses little technical jargon and has value for listeners who may posess no formal knowledge of music. To read all of Berger’s guidelines, go here. Keep them in mind next time you listen to a big band play Ellington, or anything else, and see if they help sharpen your hearing.
If you would like to know more about David Berger, read his biography by going here.
Thanks to AgustÃn PÃ©rez Gasco, a musicologist in Madrid, Spain, for calling Berger’s paper to my attention by way of a message to a group of jazz researchers.