“Concerto for Cootie” is an ideal example of Duke Ellingtonʼs interaction with classical forms. I hear in his writing a love/hate relationship with the tradition he is referencing and to my ears it often makes for interesting explorations but not his best work. He engages the form in direct ways while also doing so on his own terms. Itʼs a testament to his artistry that he did not let the reference take over the piece, though I wonder if it was even necessary for a composer of his uniqueness to spend so much time engaging a form built for a different era.

“Concerto for Cootie” takes only simple aspects from a classical concerto. It does have an intro and an A theme. I find it debatable whether a clear B theme is present. He does bring the intro material back repeatedly, in variation. He also brings back the A material often, also in variation. One can see how this form feels like a mini concerto, but in truth it is nearer to the march forms Duke so often used or could even be seen as a Rondo.

Duke uses the ensemble to frame the melodic statements of the soloist. He often leads into the soloistʼs many moods by foreshadowing them in the preceding ensemble writing. An example can be found going into the 2nd statement of the A theme.

Sometimes he instead leads into the soloistʼs material via contrast. A fine example of this can be found at the end of the intro, where we hear the ensembleʼs tutti fullness providing a stark contrast to the following solo trumpet melody.

I find the relationship of “Concerto for Cootie” to “Do Nothinʼ till You Hear from Me” especially interesting. I like to think of them as variations within the same piece,
similar to the mirror form of Bartokʼs “Fourth String Quartet”, where “Cootie” would be the first movement and “Do Nothinʼ till You Hear from Me” would be the final.

To compare, I find “Do Nothinʼ” to be more complete. All the necessary compositional skills are present in either version, but I hear a wiser composer in the later version. The form of the original, to my ears, rushes back and forth between ensemble and soloist and in doing so loses itʼs overall momentum. And while that final shout chorus with Cootieʼs solo is my favorite part of the composition, by that point my ear feels tired. In contrast, “Do Nothinʼ” strikes me as well proportioned and succinct while also formally original. First, Duke delivers the same basic idea of “Concerto for Cootie” in the first half of “Do Nothinʼ” without a note wasted. The solo/ ensemble dialogue feels streamlined and eloquent. Then, when the vocalist enters it establishes a whole new space for the melody to be heard. Itʼs a surprise that brings new life to the piece, and a uniqueness to the form. Whereas “Concerto for Cootie” sounds like a composer dealing with a form heʼs not at peace with, “Do Nothinʼ” feels like a composer no longer concerned with previous forms.

A rough transcription, don’t quote me…

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