Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

Ellington, Ragtime, and His First Composition

24 Aug 2020

Ellington, Ragtime, and His First Composition


Ellington, Ragtime, and His First Composition

Ellington revealed, at an early age, to be drawn to the pastime of baseball. However, his mother, who tended to dote on him, witnessed her son take a blow to the back of the head by a “boy [who] was demonstrating his skill at batting.” Consequently, Daisy decided piano instruction would be a safer vocation for young Edward. While Ellington admitted to missing more lessons than he took, he did glean a modicum of classical technique. This proved constructive when, in the summer of 1914, he was confined to the house for weeks due to an illness. During his temporary quarantine, he composed his first tune, “Soda Fountain Rag,” which was roused by his time spent as a soda jerk at Poodle Dog Café. He was merely fifteen years old.

“Soda Fountain Rag,” is not a conventional rag. Within an ABA form, Ellington moves away from the passé, two-beat rhythm of ragtime and employees a syncopation that is more indebted to Eastern piano playing than that of the Midwest. The following illustration is from the introduction to the 1973 published edition:


Fig. “Soda Fountain Rag.” Duke Ellington, 1973. Tempo Music.



The composition demonstrates Ellington’s heritage, as was the case with James P. Johnson, that was suffused in the music of the African American church.The use of the riff, or repeated melodic statement, that is descendent from the ring shout and the “crushed” notes to imply a blues sensibility are both present. Placed in the unconventional key of D-minor, “Soda Fountain Rag,” moves from the tonic to the mediant, and then to a sonority in measure three that is spelled as a D-diminished chord in second inversion—this is likely an error in the score and should written enharmonically as a G#°7; a vii°/bII, the chord that is used in the publication, is not harmonically functional. The proper spelling of G#°7 (vii°7/V), which progresses to the V chord in the subsequent bar, makes musical sense. The introductory riffs in measures one through four are recapitulated, with a slight variation in the final bar.

The first section, measures one through eight, of “Soda Fountain Rag,” illustrates Ellington’s proclivity for the early jazz aesthetic of the East Coast, to which he was exposed while frequenting neighborhood establishments such as Frank Holiday’s poolroom. One primary distinction is found in the left hand, which is no longer relegated to timekeeping with rigid, eighth note figures; Ellington’s approach is much more aligned, albeit simplified, with the shout style of his mentor, James P. Johnson. Harmonically, the piece centers around the most common chord progression in jazz: the ii—V— I.

In the opening of the A section, Ellington modifies the aforementioned riff and creates a new two-bar block. He repeats this over the first half of the strain. By simply oscillating between the tonic and dominate over measures one through four, the tonal center, D-minor, is made quite evident. In order to introduce a new motif in the sixth bar, Ellington approaches it melodically with an anticipatory B5; this allows him to initiate a new harmony, the E° triad. The supertonic chord moves as is projected to the dominant in the subsequent measure. Of note is Ellington’s inclusion of a rootless A7 chord in the penultimate bar. This engenders a harmonic ambiguity that would augur the voicings of post-1940s jazz. Moreover, that he chose to use a quartal placement of the implied V7, is exceedingly prophetic. For the closing bar of the A section, Ellington repeats the right-hand phrase and infinitesimally varies the bass function.


Fig. A Section. “Soda Fountain Rag,” Duke Ellington, 1973. Tempo Music.


Although he was a gifted visual artist and procured a scholarship to the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York, Ellington chose to leave high school and pursue his passion for the syncopated music that was pioneered by black, itinerant musicians of the East Coast; he knew this meant an expedition to the mecca of jazz, New York City.

In the next installment, Ellington heads to NYC!

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