Wildness and Order in Duke Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local”

(Note: The recording used for this paper is that recorded by
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra on November 25, 1946.)

A big band composition I think is very good is Duke Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local” of 1946; it is both wild and organized. Listen to how it begins.

[listening example 1: 0:00-0:39]

We hear shrieks, moans, growls, squeaks, rumblings, dissonance–and more! Yet through it all, there was also that steady beat; amid chaos, form is here. In his groundbreaking paper on Duke Ellington, Edward Green said:

“Ellington’s desire to see order in a disorderly world, without making less of the surprise and rough quality of things, is in many of his compositions, including the wonderful “train” pieces – Daybreak Express and Happy Go Lucky Local.”

“Happy Go Lucky Local” does honor the noise and disorder of the world. There is no clearly identifiable theme until 3½ minutes have gone by. Yet, from the very beginning, we hear one repeated pattern after another. Early, Ellington on piano and Oscar Pettiford on bass play, an ostinato, a short repeated pattern, and we hear the train starting to move.

[Piano example:]

Duke Ellington's "Happy Go Lucky Local": piano ostinato

It’s rough, dissonant, and also regular, orderly. (Note: I thank David Berger for assistance with the transcription.)

“Jazz,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is a new junction of the… permanent and the unexpected, the continuous and the surprising.” We hear this as two trumpets play three staccato quarter-notes, answered by muted trombones playing three low legato half-notes, “wa-wa-wa.” They also put together independence and need. They’re so different, yet depend on each other.

[listening example 2: 0:12-0:25]

The open trumpets alone could sound on-top, mocking; the muted trumpets alone could sound weary, complaining, bored. But together–they enliven each other! And underneath, as you heard, the piano and bass continue their loping beat.

In his autobiography, Ellington said that “Happy Go Lucky Local”

“…told the story of a train in the South, not one of those luxurious, streamlined trains that take tourists to Miami, but a little train with an upright engine that was never fast, never on schedule, and never made stops at any place you ever heard about. After grunting, groaning, and jerking, it finally settled down to a steady medium tempo.

In the section coming up, we hear that train. First, the ensemble plays, while Ray Nance comments on solo trumpet. Then we hear, in turn, Harry Carney on baritone sax, Al Sears on tenor and Russell Procope on alto, and long, screaming notes by Cat Anderson on plunger muted trumpet, sounding perhaps like the whistle of a passing train, all accompanied by the trombones, sounding like the grunting of the train’s engine.

[listening example 3: ~1:01-~2:21]

I was thrilled in an Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry Class, taught by Ellen Reiss, as she discussed a beautiful poem by Mr. Siegel, titled “Noise Is of All, the World,” which I think is beautiful. I feel what she said is needed by all musicians.

“Increasingly, music has included things that people have seen as unincludable. What does that say about the world? If, increasingly, composers are showing that [noise] can be form, is that a sign that the world itself can be form? Is it a sign that things in this world that seem unbearable can be part of beauty? What has happened to sound,–there is nothing more hopeful!”

I do think “Happy Go Lucky Local” shows that we can look at the rough things, the difficult and even unbearable things in the world and in ourselves with form, with style. This is such a useful criticism of my preference for being smooth, acting cool and thinking I’m being charming. This attitude badly affected the way I once played jazz–it was insincerely smooth. And in my life, when something difficult demanded my attention, I would immediately feel exhausted and hopeless. I had the conceited notion that that world should keep its demands to a tolerable level.

In an Aesthetic Realism consultation, when I spoke tragically about a situation that puzzled me, I was asked, “If there’s a difficult situation,… does it have to be attended by suffering?” I answered, “[I think] my picture of happiness [is without obstruction].” Consultants: “[Right.] You feel, gee, I wish everything was just going my way and everything was nice. [But that is really against art].” And they read this from Self and World by Eli Siegel:

“One cannot think of a world made up of smooth roads, strewn with roses and bordered by exceedingly accessible marshmallows. The world, like the human body, is a compound of resistance and ease, obstruction and going forward, obstacle and companion.”

My consultants asked me: “Do you think in meeting honestly an obstruction–a difficult situation–that gives you the chance to have a good opinion of yourself?” It definitely does!

I think it’s great that Aesthetic Realism enables us to see through the opposites in a musical composition how we want to be. Here in Ellington’s music, with all the roughness and obstruction–the screeches and howls, the dissonance and thickness–there is a good tempo, and an honest smoothness. The music is persistent, but not plodding; insistent but not hurried.

Almost at the exact center of the piece, Ellington does this surprising thing: twice we hear five long, harsh, dissonant chords on the trumpets and reeds. They sound like the train horn coming through the night. And in between these sets of cacophonous chords is their exact opposite: complete silence. Here are those chords with a little music before and after.

[Listening example 4: 2:30-3:16]

Then, the full band returns, and we finally get to a theme, a clear, orderly melody–one that was to become very popular as the song “Night Train.” First the saxes have it, with the brass answering staccato. Next, while the sax section plays high, shrieking chords, Cat Anderson plays the melody and answers himself with a very high rip, like the call of the train’s conductor saying “all aboard!” This music is so different from how I was–it’s that very obstruction that makes for the happy go lucky feeling!

[Listening example 5: 3:29-4:57]

Towards the end of what we just heard, all five trumpets and three trombones play a riff in unison. It’s the loudest part of the whole piece; it’s very chromatic and dissonant with the underlying chord; it could be terrifying–yet what is more agreeable and pleasing than unison? It’s the opposites sheer!

While perhaps this piece does not have the greatness of such Ellington masterpieces as “The Mooche” or “Concerto for Cootie,” there are effects in “Happy Go Lucky Local” that have the ever so particular, unmistakable Ellington sound, the quality Mr. Siegel describes in this phrase from his poem “Hymn to Jazz and the Like”: “moan with grandeur and come out right.” Here is the coda to “Happy Go Lucky Local,” with amazing super high screeches from Cat Anderson’s trumpet, answered by a deep, rough, sustained note in the trombones. Then, the train fades into the distance and, with two sharp notes on the bass, is gone.

[Listening example 6: ~4:45 to end]

Eli Siegel begins “Hymn to Jazz and the Like” with the line: “What is sound, as standing for the world and the mind of man at any time, and in any situation?” I love him for asking that, and for enabling us, through the opposites, to see how sound–and very much the sounds of jazz–stand for the world and for our deepest hopes.