Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue (6:02)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

A Study of Composition, Aesthetics, and Performative Practices

Wallace Jones, Cootie Williams - trumpet
Rex Stewart - coronet
Joe Nanton, Lawrence Brown - trombone
Barney Bigard - clarinet
Johnny Hodges - soprano saxophone, alto saxophone
Harry Carney - clarinet, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone
Otto Hardwicke - alto saxophone
Fred Guy - guitar
Billy Taylor - bass
Sonny Greer - drums

Recorded in New York City, September 20, 1937.
Brunswick Records 8004.

Written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

Single recorded by Duke Ellington's ensemble in 1937 exemplifying his vision of creating complex and heterogeneous music; of challenging and rewarding the repeated listener; and producing sonic compositions of extraordinary lushness and texture.

In 'Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue' (DACB), Ellington confronts our conventions about how jazz should sound; what structures it must use; and how improvisation must take place. In directing the orchestration, he seemed to address those critics who pigeonholed jazz as a product of the blues, and placed boundaries on the role of improvisation.

Limitations of Medium

Most recordings of this era were released on a "78" (revolutions per minute), a heavyweight, brittle 10” record. Ellington conceived this tune in two parts, one on each side of the record, though on compact disc these two are combined to fit into one track. Most singles of the era were limited in scope and intensity due to the time restriction of about three minutes. However, Ellington's aspiration to compose a suite required a larger freedom of space. He used both sides of the record to accomplish this goal.

Assumptions Challenged

Duke Ellington, a highly accomplished arranger and composer, lived in what might be called a sonic laboratory. He had access to some of the finest jazz musicians working in the country, and recognizing this, built compositions around their individual sounds and capabilities, of which they had many. One of his chief fascinations - and great contributions - was the exploration of timbre and texture. Within 'Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue', he parts with the mainstream in the following ways:
  1. Expansion of the 12-bar blues form.
    The composition is rooted in the blues, as is much of jazz. However, the impression given is one of precision and organization, as opposed to the more emotive expressionism of the blues. Formally, Ellington adds two measures to the standard 12, just to create an extra degree of tension that would ordinarily not be there. Again, the idea is to challenge expectations.

  2. Reversal of Normative Dynamic Progress.
    In other words, most jazz tunes become increasingly more intense and texturally complex as they grow. In 'Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue', however, Ellington places the most climactic, dissonant section within the first thirty seconds. The musical shape is concave: it begins with thrilling exuberance and mayhem, and gradually, fluently becomes softer and darker, more earthy and nocturnal. Following this diminuendo - which has been likened to descending into an great inferno - the sound becomes gradually brighter and more climactic as the texture thickens to the heights of its first few seconds.

  3. Inversion of Call and Response.
    Much of African-American music -- be it jazz, blues, gospel, hip hop -- is characterized by call-and-response. This means most generally that one group of instruments or voices makes a statement, then the other answers that statement either identically or with subtle or contrasting variation. In DACB, Ellington flips this opposition: the saxophones (Chorus 3) will answer the question before the trumpets ask it; other times (Chorus 8), the call and response statement will overlap and conflict polyrhythmically. (see Black Music, section B)

  4. Variation in Texture.
    Texture, in discussions of music, is a term used when referring to the sound aspects of a musical structure. It may apply either to the vertical aspects of a work or passage, for example the way in which individual parts or voices are put together; to attributes such as tone color and rhythm; or to characteristics of performance such as articulation and dynamic level. In the swing bands of Tommy Dorsey and Harry James, often a section of harmonized trumpets will answer a section of harmonized clarinets. Ellington aims for something greater; he diversifies his sound, for instance, by creating a section with a saxophone-trombone-clarinet against another with only trumpets. This dynamic variation has the effect of emphasizing the contrasting, heterogeneous qualities of a band, rather than the homogenous. Ellington's tendency, therefore, corresponds to the principle of implied contrast (see Black Music, section E)

  5. Manner of Improvisation.
    Ellington, in many of his compositions, used improvisation sparingly, challenging the orthodox belief that jazz only concerned itself with the individuality of the soloist. In 'Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue', the interdependence and heterogenity of his band is in full bloom. There are a number of solos -- Nanton (trumpet), Carney (baritone sax), Ellington (piano) in choruses 8, 9, and 10 respectively -- but those take place in a relatively short time frame, and with a minimum of improvisational stretch. The solos bring life and color to the band, adding to the instrumental complexity. They are not intended to be great expressions of spirituality and individual expression as in John Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders.

The key to appreciating the depth and intensity that Ellington achieves in "Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue" is in simply listening. To the ears of someone coming of age in the 1930's, the song was (and is) a radical statement of the possibility of texture and dynamics. While Ellington embraced and immersed his music in the black aesthetics that the Harlem Renaissance demanded, he wanted to create something that would earn him acceptance and prestige from the multiethnic New York intelligencia, something for the concert hall. Like a film that creates a stronger impression upon multiple viewings - such as Vertigo, His Girl Friday, Taxi Driver - DACB rewards its listeners by rupturing the listener's expectations of what music can be.


Floyd, Samuel. The Power of Black Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Smithsonian Collection Of Classic Jazz. (6 cd box set) Division of Performing Arts, Smithsonian Institute, 1995.
Tucker, Mark. The Duke Ellington Reader. New York: Oxford, 1993.
Rattenbury, Ken. Duke Ellington: Jazz Composer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

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