The River

text for the Duke Ellington Society, Southern California Chapter newsletter, by Stanley Slome

Clive Barnes of the New York Times was ecstatic in his review of the Duke Ellington-Alvin Alley ballet The River, making its world premiere June 25, 1970 at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater.

"The piece is not finished, but it is a delight," he wrote.    "It is the most considerable piece from Mr. Ellington since his `Black, Brown and Beige Suite';  it is quite lovely.  And Mr. Ailey has never previously created with such power and force for a classic troupe.  "At the moment we have only seven dances from a prologue, an epilogue and 11 sections... It is already a major work, complete in itself..."

Due note of The River's incompleteness (it was actually announced on the program as "Seven Dances From a Work in Progress Entitled `The River') was made by Hubert Saal in the July 6 Newsweek, combining a detailed review with an Ailey interview.

"But the fact that the work looked and sounded incomplete and fragmented only served to suggest how coherent the finished work would be," Saal wrote.   "The separate parts could not be shifted around or omitted.   At the same time, what there was provided its own satisfactions."

The River's incompleteness does not challenge the musical worth of Duke's score, but it may call into question Ellington's working methods in adapting his music to a full-length ballet, as we shall see.

The original idea for The River was not Duke's.   As Mercer Ellington explained in Duke Ellington in Person, friend-confidante Stanley Dance had suggested Duke compose an extended work to depict the natural course of a river.   Dance had in mind the Mississippi and wrote a description of it from source to sea.   Billy Strayhorn liked it and there was often talk about it.   

In a letter to me Dance wrote:

"I had no thought of symphonic treatment, but suggested it as an idea for an LP theme, thinking in terms of the band and a climactic affair like Ravel's Bolero."

But by 1970 Duke's mind was turning more toward spiritual values and so Dance's description was transfigured by Duke into a form of religious allegory dealing with the cycle of birth and rebirth.   At any rate Duke apparently decided that The River might become a ballet.   And it would appear that Alvin Ailey was the choreographer he wanted.

"As I remember, Ailey's first work with Duke had been a very successful version of Night Creature, Dance told me.   "It was on television with Gladys Knight and The Pips.   That was Duke's first ballet."

In his 1995 autobiography Revelations, Ailey, who died not long ago, recalled the words of Lucia Chase, director of the American Ballet Theater:

"Alvin, I've got a ballet for you to make. You and Duke Ellington.  We've got to have the two of you."

So Chase put Ailey on a plane to Vancouver to meet Duke.   After Duke's show ended at 1:30 in the morning, according to Ailey, Duke invited him up to his room.   Along the way, Duke talked about his dislike of idea of his birthday party at the White House because he didn't want people thinking of him as being 70 years old.   Duke offered him a choice of alcoholic beverages from the small liquor bottles he had.   Duke didn't touch the stuff himself but had them on hand for guests.   Ailey declined.   Then it was on to musical matters with Duke playing selections from The River on the portable piano he kept at the foot of his hotel bed and with Ailey agreeing to collaborate on a ballet of the music.   They were up all night until it was time for Duke to fly to Los Angeles.   

That's not exactly what happened, Dance told me.  "At his request for something new, Duke offered him The River or, I think, Queenie Pie, neither of which was then beyond the thinking stage," he said.

"Later," wrote Saal in Newsweek, "Ailey flew to meet Ellington in Toronto.   "He had all the water music there - the scores and the records of Debussy's La Mer, Britten's Peter Grimes, Smetana's Moldau, Handel's Water Music - everybody.  He'd call me at 5 a.m. and say: `Did I wake you, Alvin?'  I'd say, `No Duke,' and he'd say, laughing, `Come on over, I've got something for you to hear.' Did he ever."

With the American Ballet Theater commission in hand, Duke assigned Ron Collier to orchestrate The River.  Collier had previously orchestrated Duke's Celebration for the anniversary of the Jacksonville Symphony.  "The orchestration was for the kind of small symphony orchestra used at most major ballet performances," Dance told me.

On a tape supplied to me by DES-Southern California chapter President Bill Hill, Collier told the Ellington '96 Conference in Toronto of his working with Duke on The River:

"I had to orchestrate from the band charts.   For most of the pieces he would write them out because the choreographer needed pieces of music so that he could work with the dancers; and,  instead of Duke writing out a piano piece, he would write out a chart for the band, tape the chart for the band, send it on to Alvin Ailey and that's what they would use to work with."

Except in one case, as Collier tells it.

"Anyways he gave me one piece.   It was called `Lake' and it was up in his room(I had dinner at his place.)   Just a little piece of sheet music, single-line chord changes and he said, `This is a pas de deux, two dancers.'    I said, `What would you like me to do with it?'  He says, `Well,  you know what to do with it.'  You know, it's almost seven minutes long on the tape but that's all the instructions: `You know what to do with it.  So I went home and it sat on the brief case.'

Not long afterward, Collier said, he got a call from Duke that the band would be recording "Lake" the next day.   He said he stayed up all night to do it with fellow arranger Joe Benjamin helping with the copying, doing it for a small orchestra.

"That was just to be a guide track for a choreographer," Collier said.   He then launched an attack on what has to be the release of Volume 5 of The Private Collection: The Suites (LMR CD 83004) containing The Degas Suite along with The River.

"I got a beef here.  Mercer (Ellington) released this," he told his Toronto audience.  "I'm sure if Duke were alive, he would never have released this, for they (The River numbers) were really very rough and their function was not to be a commercial record.  They were to be for the choreographer, not written to be band pieces or for a symphony orchestra.  I'm embarrassed when I hear this `Lake' because it was a rough job.   No semblance with what I did with a symphony orchestra.   "

I'll have a Stanley Dance defense of that CD release later on but there may be an explanation for Duke's strange departure from his working procedure accounting for his vague "instructions" to Collier on the `Lake.  'According to Stanley Dance's logs, that full-band session was May 25, 1970, at Universal Recording Studios when the band was in Chicago - only a month away from the New York world premiere of The River.  Another Dance log entry discloses that on May 11 at National NBC Duke recorded a piano solo of "Lake" as well as six other numbers for The River.  In a letter to me, Dance wrote "I remember going with Duke when he took him the piano solos.  These were intended to give him some preliminary guidance as to what was coming."

Assuming, of course, that everyone's memories of important events is accurate, could it be that Duke turned over his piano solo recording to Alvin Ailey before his session with Collier? Collier makes no mention of a Duke piano solo of "Lake" recording to play for Collier? Well, the rejoinder might be: Duke could have played the "Lake" on his portable piano in his hotel room.  He did not.   He could easily have done so, but would it have been the same solo Ailey would have been working from as a guide for the dancers?  It should be pointed out that Duke was with his band in the studios recording The River along with doing his band tours.  The pressures on everyone had to be horrendous.

In his autobiography Ailey spoke of his frustration trying to choreograph The River.   He complained that Duke was sending him often only a page at a time of the score, sometimes only with 16 bars.  "I can't work that way," he wrote.   But in June 1970--and with Duke very much alive--Ailey was more conciliatory.

Wrote Saal of Newsweek: "When the 50-minute score reached Ailey he couldn't find time to choreograph more than half.  `The Duke said to me,' says Ailey, 'If you did more choreography and less worrying about my composing the music, you'd be better off.`   He was right.'"

Stanley Dance wrote me that "I don't think Duke saw any rehearsals of The River, and the music was probably delivered late, so that Ailey possibly had too little rehearsal time."  Duke never saw the ballet.  He was at the Grand Park Music Shell with his band on June 25.  Ailey in his autobiography, said he put on The River in 1976 and by then, of course, Duke was gone.  Ron Collier said in Toronto he never saw the ballet either, but Newsweek's Hubert Saal did and his account of that night in 1970 is far more revealing about The River than Clive Barnes' in the New York Times and is worth quoting in part:

"Ellington's score is a tone poem, a suite that traces the meandering river's course and speed from birth as a spring, through rapids, over falls, spinning into whirlpools, subsiding into lakes, passing by cities, ending in the sea.    It is a musical allegory in the course of which the river from spring to sea parallels the course of life from birth to death, a cycle, according to Ellington, of 'heavenly anticipation of rebirth.'  The music is itself like a river, constantly flowing, changing speed and shape, instantly accessible melodically.  Ellington parades it all from the slow, folk-song opening 'Spring' through the jazzy swingtime `Vortex' to the spiritual and blues of `Two Cities.'"

Once Ailey got over his evident hero worship and stopped making dance the handmaiden of music, the choreography was magnificent.   If the `Spring' section obeyed too slavishly the dictates of the music, he got into his own thing in 'Vortex' - a nonstop, whirling, leaping, twisting solo danced like a tireless naiad by Eleanor D`Agostino.

"Whatever the section, for one dancer or fifteen, in `Falls' or `Lake,' the Ailey choreography, like Proteus himself, took on the physical shape and dynamics of the setting.   He turned 'Riba' (Mainstream) into a great joke, high-style burlesque, putting white dancers through Cotton Club routines, doing a jazz parody of the four little Swanlets in Swan Lake and turning the male chorus into a bunch of high-kicking Rockettes."

Blues: He saved the last for best.

In `Two Cities,' a white girl (Sallie Wilson) and a black boy (Keith Lee), each bathed in a spotlight, dance a blues adagio, expressing yearning and loneliness.  Gradually the spotlights unite them, and their pas de deux, touching in the complexity of intertwined limbs and intricate lifts, makes a wordless comment that lays waste racial distinctions."

In 1987 when Volume 5 of The Private Collection was released Stanley Dance wrote the liner notes for The River.  He seems to have anticipated the objections of Ron Collier to the release of the band charts.  He wrote:

"None of these were intended for release, but today they are the equivalent of a great artist's sketchbooks, and as such are presented here.  They were, to his mind, the blueprints on which the orchestrations for the ballet company's own orchestra would ultimately be built.   Eventually, too, the fully-fleshed work was recorded by Mercer Ellington with the band and the Warsaw Symphony in Poland, and then by the Louisville Symphony Orchestra in this country."

Dance, who admits he lacks interest in the "symphonic" Ellington, told me that another reason for the release was that The River as performed by Ellington and his men would have greater attraction than Ellington by another orchestra - even if Duke intended it that way.

"A jazz orchestra version of The River by Wynton Marsalis would be far more interesting to me than any further symphonic version," he wrote.   He agreed with my viewpoint that he "would be glad to see it added to symphonic repertoires even in the existing form."

The Recordings


The River here includes all the sections of the ballet.  We hear Duke's band charts for "The Run," "The Neo-Hip-Hot Kiddies Community" and "Her Majesty the Sea," which Alvin Ailey didn't get around to choreographing.  There is some evidence that Collier orchestrated these because of Newsweek's Saal's reference to the "50-minute" score reaching Ailey and by a Collier remark in Toronto that seven movements were recorded but that there were more that were written.  

If a completer orchestration of The River exists, then Schirmer's Music Publishing Company may have it.  Stanley Dance wrote me that "Mercer did a deal with them for the long works." But all we have of the missing music is what is on Duke's band charts.   

Except for "Neo-Hip-Hot," a hard-driving swinger that cuts short at 1:45, each section sounds like a complete entity that can stand on its own.  I find it incomprehensible as to why Ron Collier views `Lake' with embarrassment.   It is sensual and has a strong Near Eastern sound.  Noteworthy is the interplay of flute and bass, and handing of the main theme from clarinet to trumpet to flute.  "Whirlpool"("Vortex") contains scintillating percussion effects. "River"("Riba"), a concept of Mercer's, is exciting mainstream jazz.   If you listen closely to the band in full hue and cry, you will hear the appreciative hand claps of Duke himself punctuating the rhythms.

The most poignant section is the spiritual-influenced "The Village of the Virgins."  "The Falls"  finds Duke in, rhythmically, his driving, steam locomotive mode.   Of the sections that didn't make to the ballet, "The Run" was the most effective with its mixture of a skipping, soft-shoe dance theme and a waltz.  

Forget Ron Collier's griping.  This is good Ellington.

The Duke Ellington Orchestra with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mercer Ellington
(Hotbox TFB 100/2) NA

A 2-LP set of a live performance in Warsaw in 1980.  The River does not get top billing on the front cover, of course, but its title is on the back cover, along with New World A-Coming.  If you wanted to have an idea of what the ballet might have sounded like if Ellington's men had joined forces with a small symphony orchestra in the pit that June evening in 1970, this is the recording to have.   High point of the eight sections is "Village of the Virgins," with its penetrating chorale treatment in the brass and a wah-wah mute trumpet solo by an unidentified player.  "Spring" has a pronounced Near Eastern sound.  Mercer conducts with vigor and flexible inflections.  "Riba," which Mercer says in the liner notes that his dad borrowed from, is a roaring, wailing, romping swinger and the Polish musicians respond well.  Sonically, the performance details are often clouded over by the circumstances of a live recording.  A digitally remastered CD re-release is in order.   

The Louisville Orchestra conducted by Akira Endo
(Louisville Orchestra LS (LP) 777 NA

A 1983 recording.  No Ellington men but the Louisvillians offer a lot of good things here, aided by far better sound than Mercer got.  "Meander" is effective with its swaggering "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue"-like theme with "shake' trumpets.   "The Village of the Virgins" has a haunting, bluesy sound.  "Giggling Rapids" is decidedly boppish and did I detect a coy quote from the old Woody Woodpecker cartoon theme? "Falls" with a full symphony orchestra in force gives a good impression of an onrushing train, complete with horn calls.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi

Recorded Sept. 29 and Oct.3, 1992.  As he did with Harlem, Järvi and the Detroiters come through for Duke 'although the suite is reduced to seven sections with the omission of "Falls."  Since the entire CD goes only 51:08, "Falls" could have been put in.  Aided by great engineering in an acoustically friendly venue in Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall, Järvi conducts dynamically with impeccable phrasing.  On "Spring" note how he builds to a climax with the cymbal crash.   Ron Collier should be proud of Järvi and his men in "Lake." More than Mercer or Endo, they convey a longing, sensuous atmosphere.  In comparison this interpretation makes the other orchestral efforts sound like the plush mood music recordings of the Fifties and Sixties.  "Vortex" with its percussion effects has tension and power.  It seems evident that Duke and Collier did a lot of listening to Stravinsky and maybe to Varese along the way with perhaps some Sauter-Finegan thrown in.  By the way, Ron Collier on the back of the CD, gets credit as orchestrator.  He did say in Toronto that he was unaware of the CD until someone brought his attention to it.  Only psychic income there.  Maybe some day we'll get to hear all of his orchestration of The River.