Night for most of us means a time to rest, reflect, and recharge batteries for the next day’s adventures. For Duke Ellington it was the opposite: a period of intense activity and work, almost always including performances with his orchestra, interchange with friends and fellow musicians, travel to the next engagement, and most important, composing music. Ellington knew the night well–its people, moods, thrills, and dangers. In his memoirs, Music is My Mistress, he painted a glamorous portrait of the evening hours: "Night life is cut out of a very luxurious, royal-blue bolt of velvet. It sparkles with jewels, and it sparkles in tingling and tinkling tones."
Ellington's romantic nocturnal vision took musical form in Night Creature, commissioned in 1955 by Don Gillis and the Symphony of the Air and given its premiere that year in Carnegie Hall. Scored for a large ensemble made up of both jazz and symphonic players, Night Creature became a piece --like Harlem and New World A-Commin'--that Ellington and his orchestra featured on "pops" concerts and symphony programs. Perhaps because of its hefty performing forces, Night Creature was not recorded by Ellington until 1963, when it was issued on the album, The Symphonic Ellington. Later the work became one of the Ellington staples in the repertory of the Alvin Ailey American dance Theater.
Ellington's goal in composing Night Creature, he wrote in 1962, was "to try to make the symphony swing." Although the piece "could have been developed into something far more complex and elaborate," he continued, instead it "tried to tell a rather simple story in fairly simple language." The defensive tone reflects Ellington’s generally uneasy relationship with the world of symphony orchestras and his ambivalence about comparisons drawn by critics between his own works and that of European art-music composers (dating to the early 1930s, when Percy Grainger pronounced Ellington one of the world’s three greatest composers, sharing honors with J.S. Bach and Frederick Delius!) Perhaps Ellington realized that Night Creature, for all its "tingling and tinkling" atmosphere and symphonic swing, showed a strained quality rarely present in works conceived solely for his own orchestra. It would remain for other composers - among them Gunther Schuller, George Russell, and John Lewis - to exploit contrasts and conflicts between the jazz and art-music traditions, rather than seeking, as Ellington seems to be doing in Night Creature, to gloss over their differences.
While hardly representative of Ellington's best work, Night Creature holds interest as one of many experiments undertaken by American composers to bring spunky, homegrown musical idioms into the sanctified space of the concert hall. Its three movements (whimsically subtitled "Blind Bug," "Stalking Monster," and "Dazzling Creature") abound in the sounds and rhythms Ellington knew best--the infectious riffs, pungent harmonies, compulsive swing, and unchecked exuberance of America relaxing after dark, back when night. Time really was the right time and tomorrow just another day.