Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Edward "Duke" Ellington

Biographer Don George recalls that whenever Duke Ellington would introduce his famous tune "Satin Doll," he would preface it with a curious dedication. "This next song is dedicated to the most beautiful lady here. We will not point her out because we do not want her to feel conspicuous. We will just let her sit there and continue to feel guilty." One of the most familiar pieces in Ellington's legacy, "Satin Doll" was first recorded in 1953, well into the Duke's mature career, but just as he was beginning to gain widespread public acclaim as a national cultural asset. The tune, written in collaboration with saxophonist, arranger, and composer Billy Strayhorn to words by lyricist Johnny Mercer, is an exercise in simplicity. The verse consists of a doodling two-note stepwise figure reiterated three times at higher pitch levels above a chord progression that takes on a simple shape, but upon closer inspection, introduces some characteristically off-kilter harmonies. The subsequent melody of the bridge section is similarly straightforward, with a descending and rising diatonic scalar motion. The result can be a coy, austere elegance that draws attention to the specifics of arrangement and/or performance, such as piano textures or orchestration. In more aggressive versions, the tune's energy derives from its brash hip-shaking syncopations, dropping the upper notes of the "doodling" melody squarely on the offbeats. Despite its eventual popularity and virtual canonization, "Satin Doll" was not initially a staple of Ellington's orchestra. After hearing a performance of the tune by pianist Billy Taylor, who had recorded a version of his own and who played it regularly, Ellington decided to include the song in his ensemble's regular repertoire. With the widespread fame that Ellington and his group enjoyed during the subsequent years, "Satin Doll" became a favorite jazz standard.