The legendary composer and bandleader Duke Ellington was so famous for his poise and charm that it should be no surprise that he had a pithy story at the ready whenever he was asked about one of his most famous and enduring works, “Mood Indigo.” Of the song he and his orchestra recorded for the very first time on this day in 1930, Ellington was fond of saying, “Well, I wrote that in 15 minutes while I was waiting for my mother to finish cooking dinner.” As neatly as that version fit with his well-tended reputation for effortless sophistication, the true account of the song’s development reflects the gifts for collaboration and adaptation that were always critical elements of Ellington’s genius.
The genesis of “Mood Indigo” was a visit to New York City in 1930 by a New Orleans jazzman named Lorenzo Tio, Jr. Duke Ellington’s clarinetist, Barney Bigard, was a former student of Tio’s, and on Tio’s visit to New York, he shared with Bigard a number of melodies he’d written, including one called “Dreamy Blues” that had served as the theme song for his group back home, Armand Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra. “I asked him if I could borrow it,” Bigard later wrote in his autobiography. “I took it home and kept fooling around with it…and got something together that mostly was my own but partly Tio’s.” Bigard’s variation on “Dreamy Blues” would soon become the clarinet solo on “Mood Indigo,” thanks to Duke Ellington’s penchant for involving his band members in his composition process.
Indeed, the lyricist Ervin Drake would later refer to Ellington’s orchestra as a kind of “musical kibbutz”—an environment in which all ideas were welcomed and collaboration was the rule rather than the exception. Taking Bigard and Tio’s melody and composing a song of his own on top of it, Ellington created “Mood Indigo.” It wasn’t the elegance of the composition alone, however, that made the song Ellington’s first big hit. It was the completely unexpected voicing of the horns in Ellington’s original arrangement of the song. The clarinet, trumpet and trombone were generally arranged, in that order, from highest pitch to lowest in jazz music. But Ellington turned the typical structure upside down on “Mood Indigo,” using the clarinet near the bottom of its register and the muted trombone near the top of its—an arrangement that also produced interesting overtones with the electronic microphones of the day.
With lyrics added by Mitchell Parish in 1931 (but credited to Ellington’s manager Irving Mills), “Mood Indigo” became a vocal-jazz standard as well as an instrumental one, recorded memorably by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone among many others.