Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

Ellington and “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.”

8 Sep 2020

Ellington and “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.”


By late 1926, Ellington began to reveal an idiosyncratic compositional style.  This musical language, which was not aligned with the modus operandi of the black intelligentsia, was predicated upon blues elements and forms, call-and response sequences, riffs and shouts, improvisational breaks and fills, polyrhythms and syncopation, a swing sensibility, and the manipulation of the characteristic timbres found in his ensemble; his approach was what Albert Murray deemed as the “vernacular imperative to process (which is to say stylize) the raw, native materials, experiences, and the idiomatic particulars of everyday life into aesthetic (which is to say elegant) statements of universal relevance and appeal.” Through this language, Ellington “summarized the American experience, with its diverse cultural streams, its pain, pleasure, pride, dreaming, vitality, hope, and yearning for freedom.” He expressed this most eloquently in such works as, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Creole Love Call,” and “The Mooche.” The effect was a sophisticated soulfulness that evoked the tenor of resilience that was inherent in his race. Mark Tucker affirms the import of these works, “The [first] two compositions, in particular, signaled the arrival of an ensemble with its own sound and style; they also represented the first major triumph of its ambitious young leader.”

On November 29, 1926, Duke Ellington And His Kentucky Club Orchestra with the personnel of Duke Ellington (leader, piano), Bubber Miley, Louis Metcalf (trumpets), Joe Nanton (trombone), Edgar Sampson (alto sax), Otto Hardwick (bass sax), unknown (clarinet, tenor sax), Fred Guy (banjo), Mack Shaw (tuba), and Sonny Greer (drums) entered the Vocalion studio in New York City. They recorded two sides, “Birmingham Breakdown” and, of paramount consequence, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” which were released on the 78rpm disc labeled, Voc 1064. The latter composition, which Greer described as “the prettiest theme song we ever had,” was programmatic in its conception. Ellington explicates the development for the piece, “This is an old man, tired from working in the field since sunup, coming up the road in the sunset on his way home to dinner. He’s tired but strong and humming in time with his broken gait.”

“East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” is imbued with the very essence of the blues idiom, yet is not a blues composition by way of the conventional twelve-bar blues arrangement. The figure below clarifies the form:

Fig. “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” form diagram.

Murray explains how Ellington and Miley were able to convey the spirit of the blues without relying on a particular, musical structure.

The blues as such are synonymous with low spirits. Blues music is not. With all its so-called blue notes and overtones of sadness, blues music of its very nature and function is nothing if not a form of diversion. With all its preoccupation with the most disturbing aspects of life, it is something contrived specifically to be performed as entertainment. Not only is its express purpose to make people feel good, which is to say in high spirits, but in the process of doing so it is actually expected to generate a disposition that is both elegantly playful and heroic in its nonchalance.



The composition is brilliantly balanced with two contrasting sections. The eight-bar introduction establishes the tonal center of C-minor. The reeds melodically alternate between ascending thirds and descending seconds over the first four measures before descending by thirds and ascending my seconds for the fifth and sixth bars. The illusion of a weary, blues-ridden older man with a broken gait is painted expertly.

The first theme, stated by Miley, begins in measure eight as he growls a syncopated, rising line—reminiscent of a call in an antiphonal setting. He rests for two-and-a-half beats and responds to his inner dialogue:

Fig. “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” first theme.

The remaining four bars of the first theme consist of a falling, melodic figure that rhythmically displaces the conventional accents that accompany the gentleman’s stride. Miley leaps to an E (concert pitch) with an emphatic growl to begin a modified statement of the initial phrase. At measure twenty-four, the composition modulates to A major, which delivers a reprieve from its plaintive demeanor. Beginning on bar thirty, Ellington devises a descending, chromatic string of secondary dominants (C7—B7—B♭7—A7—A♭7—G7) that leads to the return of the home key. Gunther Schuller asserted that, “Ellington found instinctively and logically that chromatic melodies and chromatic voice-leading gave these slow pieces just the right touch of sadness and nostalgia.” Miley recapitulates the primary theme for a final eight measures. Louis Metcalf anticipates the B section with three emphasized quarter-notes on A4 (m.40, beats two through four).

The piece’s programmatic conception, as was devised by Miley, intimates the impression of optimism, “coming up the road in the sunset on his way home to dinner. He’s tired but strong and humming in time with his broken gait.” This is suggested by the modulation to the relative major key, E. Nanton enters on measure forty-one with a jubilantly carefree melody that bounces around the tonic and dominant harmonies. It presents a contrast, which is ingeniously fashioned to “generate a disposition that is both elegantly playful and heroic in its nonchalance.”

The remaining strains reiterate the two sections and are labeled as: A1, B1, B2, and A, respectively. Ellington maintains the key centers, but alternates bar lengths and texture. For example, A1 is a retelling of the principal melody, but the timbre is drastically transformed with the substitution of the clarinet for Miley. The B1 segment is presented by a brass soli and B2 is performed by the entire ensemble. Miley’s elegiac soulfulness returns with the closing reiteration of the A strain, thus unifying the composition.

In the next installment, we tackle Ellington’s composition, “Black and Tan Fantasy.”




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