In addition to blues tonality, improvisation, virtuosity, freedom in melodic phrasing, propulsive rhythm, and harmonic complexity, one of the defining characteristic of jazz is the way the standard jazz ensembles — the particular mix of instruments — sound together. This sound is called timbre. The distinctive timbre of early jazz comes from the use of brass instruments like the trumpet, cornet, and trombone. The rhythm was laid down either by an upright bass or by a tuba. The Dixieland ensembles also included clarinet, drums, piano, and banjo or mandolin.
In the 1920s and 1930s, musically-literate jazz musicians began to put bands together and write out arrangements for them — a separate piece of sheet music, or “part,” for every instrumental section. These arrangements were made to mimic the sound of Dixieland improvisation, but were in fact written out. Jelly Roll Morton was a pioneer in notated jazz; in his 1926 “Dead Man’s Blues,” he sought to imitate the sound of a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral.
In this way, composers and bandleaders like Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington created the “big band” sound. Ellington, a classically-trained pianist and composer, was especially interested in the different timbres/sounds he could get from various instrumental sections. In 1927, he and his band were hired as house band at the Cotton Club — a segregated speakeasy run by the Mafia, which barred Black patrons, but which was nevertheless the most prestigious venue for Black musicians.
Ellington’s piece “Mood Indigo” — which he claimed to have written in 15 minutes while waiting for his mother to finish cooking dinner — features Ellington on piano, followed by a muted trumpet-trombone-saxophone trio and then a clarinet solo, all of which lend different sounds to the piece. Ellington flips the standard practice of instrumental arranging by having the trombone — an instrument with a very low timbre — play high in its register, and the clarinet, an instrument that can play soaring high notes, play in the lowest part of its register.
Notice also that, while the orchestra is playing written-out parts, the clarinetist (Barney Bigard) takes a semi-improvised solo against the muted but lush and complex sonic background. This would become a hallmark of the big band sound.
What do you think the overall atmosphere of the piece is? What did Ellington mean by “Mood Indigo,” and how does he use instruments to convey that?
Lyricist Irving Mills later added lyrics, and the song became a jazz standard.
Bass player Charles Mingus’s arrangement. How is it different from Ellington’s?
Ella Fitzgerald sings it as a contemplative ballad:
Nina Simone plays and sings it as a gospel-inspired up-tempo: