Duke Ellington Orchestra British Tour - October 1971 004
Pages 4 and 5 of a programme for Duke Ellington's tour of Great Britain, 1971. Page 4 features a photograph of Ellington, with his career profiled on page 5.
|Catalogue Reference Number||NJA/PRO/9|
|Creator||Derek Jewell, David Redfern|
|Title or Caption|
|Event Date||February 1971|
This text has been generated by computer from the image and may contain typographical and/or grammatical errors.
ï»¿way and Orson Welles as among those who share âa fixed international reputation that can never be tarnishedâ.
Then you return to the musicians who know him, like the one who says ââDuke, he makes me feel sleepy, like rain on a roofâ, or to Ellington himself. âI donât write jazz, I write Negro folk music,â he once told me, gently chiding me for an unwise question during a television interview.
Ellington is so many things: snappy dresser, gourmet, bon viveur, health-worrier and hypochondriac, genius, humorist, sophisticate, hipster. He is like quicksilver, hard to grasp, living as he wishes behind his many masks, warm and easy, yet gently eluding his pursuers. Too much talk, he says, âstinks up the placeâ.
It is at this point that one must remark upon Ellingtonâs own age, which the record books say is now 72. That in itself is ridiculous and shows that physical age has nothing whatever to do with what you are, what you do, what you appear to be to other observers. I am 101 per cent with Duke when he says âI was born in 1965 at the Newport Festivalââa reference to the occasion on which he magnificently reasserted his place in American musicâand I also think I understand many other of his almost ironic attitudes. Thus, although he tolerates me and my kind (even, since this is the kind of man he is, loves us a little) he likes it not at all when one tries to pin him down too much in conversation. He half-rationalises aversions like these. âIâm not old enough to be historical, and Iâm too young to be biographical,â he said. "Bio-graohies are like tombstones. Who wants one?â
The Duke is, as perhaps is already becoming clear, a kind of kaleidoscopic figure. You shake the pieces and the pattern changes every time. But the main facet of Ellington can be expressed in a sentence. He is, at 72, still leading the worldâs finest jazz orchestra virtually 52 weeks a year on the non-stop grind of one-night stands and world tours, still composing at flood-peak.
In this, he is unique, in the true and total sense of that vastly overused and misused word. As Stanley Dance, the great iazz chronicler, observed: âNo other composer of note in any field has ever worked or travelled so incessantly while continuing to lead a band of acknowledged virtuosi.â
Every country in the world, damn near, has seen and heard him, and Ellington accepts this as the condition for which nature intended him. âWhat is there to retire to?â he once observed when asked about quitting the road. âMv band and I travel all over the world, see the sights and see the people. You canât beat that. The road is my home and Iâm only comfortable when Iâm on the move. New York is just where I keep my mailbox.â
Here, then, we are beginning to grapple with the basis of Ellingtonâs greatness. He has, first, and despite his dislike of musical categories, worked in what is arguably the only new art form (at the least, one of the few new art forms) our century has produced: iazz. He has been a bandleader for more than fifty years, and for over forty years has led a large jazz orchestra which has maintained a totally unique and recognisable character, and whose nucleus has more or less remained constant, either in nameâHarry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Russell Procooe, Cootie Williams and until recently, Johnny Hodqes and Lawrence Brownâor certainly in kind. Ellingtonâs musicians are usually the greatest.
For that orchestra, Ellington has written all his music, much of it in collaboration with Billy Stray-horn, who from 1939 until his death in 1967 was the Dukeâs alter ego, uncannily and telepathically in tune with his friend's musical ideas, complementing them and enriching them. Though many musicians can perform âSophisticated Ladyâ or even a major tone poem like âBlack, Brown and Beigeâ only the Ellington orchestra can play his melodic twists and harmonic conceits as they should be played, for Ellington has conceived everything in terms of the personal style of each of his men and the collective sound they make.
He is, certainly, a superb pianist, sparse, oblique, surprising. But his real instrument, as Strayhorn and many others have pointed out, is his orchestra. He loves it and its men and its sounds. It is his obsession, so much so that although he is comfortably off, he has probably lost money at times keeping the orchestra going and could have earned far more by becoming a concert-hall or movie studio composer. He is always saying things which show you he knows all this.
âIf I didnât like the way the band played I wouldnât pay so much for the pleasure of listening to it and writing for it.â Or again: âI wonât let these goddam musicians upset me. Why should I knock myself out in an argument about 15 dollars when in the same time I can probably write a 1,500-dollar song?â So he has always got the top men, paid them top money, and usually held them for years on end.
As a result, his musicians have marvelled at him, laughed at and with him, loved him. Down the years I have talked with many of them, those still in the band, and those who are now out of it. From Sonny Greer, who talked of Ellington as a father-figure to the band, to Russell Procope, who described how Duke kept his musicians on track: âjust like an iron hand in a mink gloveâ. I have never heard employees in any other human endeavour, business or artistic, speak of the boss in such terms as his men employ.
What Ellington (or Ellinqton/Strayhorn) has created for these men to play is, in quantitative terms alone, incredible. The catalogue begins with areat pop songs in the Jerome Kern or Cole Porter sense: standards like âMood Indigo,â âSophisticated Lady,â âSolitude,â âSatin Doll,â âDonât Get Around Much Anymore,â âI'm Beginning To See The Light,â and âI Got It Bad.â
Then there are the instrumental piecesââC Jam Blues,â â Black and Tan Fantasy,â âIn a Mellotone,â âCreole Love Callâ and scores more. Here it's worth mentioning that the band's theme âTake the A Train," was written soley by Stray-horn, and that certain other Ellingtonian classics were contributed by the men around him. It was his son, Mercer, who wrote âThings Ainât What They Used To Beâ, for instance.
Finally, there are the major tone poems, suites and other extended works, twenty or more of them, ranging from âReminiscinâ in Tempo" in the 1930âs, through âBlack, Brown and Beigeâ in the 1940âs, the Shakespearian vignettes called âSuch Sweet Thunder" in the 1950âs, to âThe Far East Suiteâ and âVirgin Islands Suiteâ of the 1960âs Names of places and events keep cropping up in what he writes. âThe memory of things gone is important to the jazz musician,â he once observed.
Ellington has also written scores for musical shows (Jump for Joy, My People), for movies (Anatomy of a Murder, Paris Blues) and for TV
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