Remixing Duke Ellington

There’s no music I love more in the world than Duke Ellington’s.

When I was a kid, the New York Transit Museum had a commercial in heavy rotation on local TV that used “Take The A Train” and I remember being riveted by it. I should point out that Billy Strayhorn wrote this tune, not Ellington, but it became the Ellington Orchestra’s theme song for decades.

When I was in sixth grade I got totally obsessed with my folks’ CD of Duke’s Memories by Abdullah Ibrahim. It included a recording of a tune called “Way Way Back” that I listened to every day after school for I don’t know how many days in a row.

I didn’t get exposed to much Ellington after that until college. When I was a sophomore I went to hear some friends playing in an informal sextet in the campus center. They played “Mood Indigo” and though I had never heard it before, it felt like it had always been part of me. A couple of years after that I came under the sway of Andy Jaffe, then Amherst’s jazz professor and a devout Ellington worshiper. He didn’t resolve the mystery of why Ellington and Strayhorn had such a powerful grip on my emotional brain, but he did certainly expose me to a lot more of their music, in a much more rigorous analytic framework. I’ve been a fan, student and interpreter of Ellingtonia ever since.

My usual reaction when I love something is to remix it. So, here we go.

The Money Jungle Remix Project

I’m working on an album-length revisioning of Money Jungle, the trio album Duke did with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. This album is a pretty crazy one, a must-hear for jazz nerds.

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Take The 2-3 Train

Combines the intro to “A Train” with samples of Slick Rick, Britney Spears and M.I.A., along with synths I played on a video game controller.


The swinging violin is by Ray Nance, who also played the famous trumpet solo on the original recording of “A Train.”

“Morning Mood” and “Lay-By” come from the amazing Three Suites album. The first suite is Ellington and Strayhorn’s arrangement of the Nutcracker, which to my ears is a substantial improvement over the original.

The second suite, as mentioned above is Peer Gynt, less known but also pretty rad.

The third suite was inspired by John Steinbeck’s book Sweet Thursday.

I’ve never read the book, but it inspired four devastating Ellington/Strayhorn tunes, some of their best late-period work, including the Ray Nance feature “Lay-By.” The band kills it on the recording, too.

I went to a panel discussion of Duke’s later music at Amherst that included Stanley Crouch. During his talk, he summed up his feelings about Duke’s drummer on the suites, Sam Woodyard, like so:

Sam Woodyard. Sam Woodyard. Sam Woodyard. Sam Woodyard. Sam Woodyard!

I don’t agree with Stanley Crouch on a lot of jazz-related issues, but I agree with him on that one.

6 thoughts on “Remixing Duke Ellington

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  2. Perhaps you have heard the remixes of Ellington and Orch’s Jingle Bells – one by Robbie Hardkiss, another by Rise Ashen. I think I got both off of in MP3 format. There’s also a piece called “Counts, Dukes, and Strays” by a guy who goes by Mocean Worker; it’s pretty good.

    Also, there’s a site I saw recently – I didn’t bookmark, alas – that describes who has used what records in what remixes, and Ellington shows up there more than once.

    I am a longtime member of the NY Ellington Society, as is David Hajdu, Billy Strayhorn’s biographer. He once suggested that perhaps a good way of introducing new generations to Ellington would be to have some good remixes done in this and that style. As a result, I’ve always had my eye out for this kind of thing. And it looks like you’ve taken a good step in that direction.

    I am curious, as a novice electronic/computer musician myself, what software you have used to do your remixing? I have been playing with a program called AudioMulch, which is the one used by a guy who goes by Girl Talk; he has made a whole career out of cobbling together bits and pieces of famous and not-so-famous pop records to create long dance mixes, live and on record. He avoids all copyright issues, he says, because he’s using such short samples. Look around and you’ll find him on YouTube, etc. It’s good stuff, though not entirely to my taste. I am NOT trying to make his kind of music, though I do plan to spend some time exploring my Ellington collection for some sounds to mangle and reuse.

    • I hadn’t heard of those remixes but I’ll definitely check them out.

      The sites I use to track down samples are the Rap Sample FAQ, and good old Wikipedia.

      I’m a huge fan of David Hajdu – Lush Life and Positively 4th Street were both pageturners.
      I think there’s a bright artistic future in jazz remixing and
      am glad you guys agree.

      The remixes here were done using Reason and Recycle, plus Audio Hijack to convert audio files from one format to another and Transcribe for cutting up samples. Recently I’ve been learning Ableton Live, which has a much more approachable interface and some nifty functionality that Reason doesn’t. Reason is good for fine microsurgery on loops, like removing slices of them and changing their sequence around, but Ableton is easier for sequencing loops together. I haven’t tried AudioMulch. I really admire Girl Talk’s approach, though I find his actual music exhausting, it’s a little like watching someone flip channels on the TV. I was on a panel with some copyright lawyers and one of them was talking about how even though Girl Talk’s stuff is probably very illegal, no one will ever prosecute him — the internet would turn him into a martyr and the record companies would take a massive PR blow.

      Bring on the Ellington remixes! I’d be super curious to hear what you come up with. I take suggestions, too.

      • I believe is the site I’d seen. Thanks for the reminder.
        Transcribe is a new one to me; who makes it? I have been looking for an audio editor. I have been using Fission, from same firm that does Audio Hijack (a favorite program of mine).
        AudioMulch can do things most programs cannot, namely twist and warp and modify sound at a v. low level; it accepts lots of plug-ins (AU and VST) and has its own library of effects, etc. In essence, you can make your own instruments, if you want to, plus loops, plus play live instruments through it in real-time. Often compared to MAX/DSP, which I don’t know first hand. Many people play AM live – you can set up graphical screens as control surfaces, or use any MIDI gear – while others make tracks and sounds that they then paste together in a DAW. I have mostly been working it live – albeit alone in my room – just to get the hang of it and not have to learn a DAW, too. I encourage you to try it; 60-day free trial is hard to resist. (No, I don’t work for them – him; it’s one guy who writes it – it’s just the only such program, save for GarageBand, that I’ve bothered to try out.)
        Have you heard Atom TM’s music? I think of him as the new, all-electronic Ellington – a brilliant miniaturist, works in many genres, great ear, great sense of humor, all ’round smart guy. He’s an in-demand remixer, too, and I’d love to hear him tackle Ellington.

        • Transcribe is made by Seventh String: It was intended to help transcribe from recordings, which it’s useful for, but it also turns out to have a nice workflow for grabbing loops. Fission looks pretty neat. Could be a good solution for those minor audio editing tasks – I use Pro Tools but it’s clunky. I use Audacity too, but it crashes on me all the time.

          Max is pretty awesome. It’s on my list of things to learn. I paid a kid from NYU to write me a Max program that lets me control MIDI with a video game controller and I’ve had a ton of fun with it. I’ll investigate Audiomulch too.

          I had never heard of Atom TM, am listening to his tracks right now. Very cool, very adventurous stuff.

  3. I just heard the Duke’s Three Black Kings at a performance over the weekend, and the 3rd movement (Martin Luther King) is simply sublime…had it playing on repeat!

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