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I first heard this when I was walking through my college’s campus center. A student jazz group called the Hot Sextet (ha, ha) was playing in the lounge area, and the melody stopped me in my tracks. Ellington tunes often have this quality of intense nostalgia, even when you’re hearing them for the first time. “Mood Indigo” felt like being reminded of a long-lost memory from my childhood. I studied jazz in college with Andy Jaffe, who thinks that Ellington is the best and most important composer of the twentieth century. I’m inclined to agree.

Early jazz groups usually had a front line of clarinet, trumpet, and trombone. The clarinet has the highest range, so it logically plays the highest notes. The trombone has the lowest range, so it plays the notes on the bottom. The trumpet goes in the middle. In 1930, Duke Ellington had the bright idea to try reversing their order. For “Mood Indigo,” he had the trombone play the high part and the clarinet play the low part. That put each instrument at the extreme high and low parts of their registers respectively, which gave them an arrestingly strange sound quality. This technique is probably what provoked André Previn to say, “You know, Stan Kenton can stand in front of 1,000 fiddles and 1,000 brass and make a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, ‘Oh, yes, that’s done like this.’ But Duke merely lifts his little finger, three horns make a sound and I don’t know what it is!”

The version of the tune on Masterpieces By Ellington is absurdly long and lavishly arranged, incorporating every version Ellington had performed or recorded over the previous two decades. I could have chosen a shorter and more conventional  recording, but I wanted you to hear the growl trombone solo by Tyree Glenn—it’s safe to assume that this style of playing inspired the voices of the Muppets. You can watch how Glenn uses the plunger mute to get his inimitable sound in this TV appearance with Louis Armstrong —listen for the part where Armstrong yells “Watch your language!”

There are a million other great recordings of “Mood Indigo.” Duke’s original from 1930  is lovely. Charles Mingus was a major Ellington fan, and his version rages.  The Boswell Sisters do a nice three-part harmony on it . Wycliffe Gordon arranged it for three trombones . Ella Fitzgerald sings it simply and beautifully . Rosemary Clooney sings it beautifully too, backed by Ellington himself . Thelonious Monk plays it medium fast and unsentimental . Nina Simone takes it very fast, and puts it in a minor key . A good Ellington tune is an inexhaustible resource for musical creativity.

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About the Curator - Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab , Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza . In collaboration with Soundfly, he has developed a series of online music theory courses . He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog , and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.